Religious Experience


What is Religious Experience?

In many religions, believers not only claim to experience God or some Ultimate reality but feel that experiences give significant meaning and directions to their lives. RE not just confined to those who belong to one of the main religions: according to RE reserch centre 1/3 Britains claim to have had RE of some kind. However, not easy to define RE; there are many diff types and meaning of 'experience' is unclear.

One way to understand RE is to say that they're different from ordinary Es, in that what is Ed is taken by the person to be supernatural being or presence (God either in himslef or as manifest in some action), a being related to god (Virgin mary & Prophets like Moses) or some indescribable Ultimate Reality.

So, basic definiton: A person understanding him/herself to directly encounter or be aware of God or some ultimate reality e.g. Nirvana

However, situation made complicated by difference of approach in way philosephers and believers tend to understand RE.

P- refer to it as isolated and distinct pieces of phenomena e.g. visions, voices etc. Concentrate on 'out of ordinary' happenings. 

B- matter of experiencing/interpreting the world from a God-centred perspective. E processed and given meaning; a 'depth' is being 'read' into experience---> are indirect RE. Doesn't mean believers think that for e.g. visionary type exp are not religious; rather considered religious only within the context of a dedicated religiously-centred life and should not be isolated and examined on their own.

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Topic 2- E in nature

English poet William Wordsworthwrote poetry near the ruin of Tintern Abbey 'And I have felt a presence that disturbs me with joy of elevated thoughts, a sense of sublime, of something far more deeply interfused whose dwelling is the light of setting suns.' -----> Lines reveal powerful RE that poet underwent expressed in poetic form.


  • Sense of powerful presence. Presence implies some kind of personality.
  • Presence found in the world.
  • Presence produces elevated thoughts like good, enhancing thoughts and mental states.
  • Disturbing bc power and goodness that exposes unholiness of those who Ed it.
  • Awe-inspiring
  • Presence linked to physcial bodies but not limited to it

Wordsworth's case = presence other to himself, not merged nor identified with it. Pantheist (God and world identical), later converted to roman catholicism.

Hindu faith = traditionally great importance placed on forests, so holy men retreat to forests to meditate, felt forest enviroment was conductive to meditation.

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cont. E in solitude

Not totally different from e in nature, but occur in desert places. For example:

  • The story of Elijah feeling from Jebezel is a classic tale of man in crisis. He goes to Horeb, the mintain of God, where he awaits presence of god. Fire, wind and earthquake come but God not present within, when gentle breeze comes Eliah realizes God is within this one.  -----> tale expresses a biblical belief that presence of God can be encountered in the solitude and silence of the desert. This certainly derives from RE of various biblical chara, known + uknown, who underwent this kind of E.
  • Seeking solitude common phenomenon in Rlife. Mohammed was one of many hanifim who chose to reflect in the solitude of the desert to come nearer god. Mohammed was distinct that, unlike others who kept RE quite, he went out to spread the message of ethical monotheism to his pagan comatriotsand thus launched Islam. 

Silence and solitude makes desert Rplace that it is. In the desert, enviro distractions are few. Noise drops to a min + little variety to distract the eye. Thus, Rthoughts and E may not be 'strong' but more 'audible'.

  • Different kind of desserts------> traditional sand dessert, stone desserts, cold desserts. Essentially desert is an area where vegetation is in short supply & means human life are sparse. High mountains are also desert, where ice and stone predominate. The ultimate desert is space, few humans have voyaged.

For this reason christians tradition of seeking desert developed. Jesus went into wilderness for a period- 40 days according to gospels. Desert fathers retreated into desert to escape persecution of Roman world. Thomas Mrton, catholic monk and Rwriter, argued desert fathers beleived desert: useless place to men & offered no temptations. Therefore, place for a person who wnats nothing to stand between them and god. Gentle call of god not drowned by the nosie of distraction.

However, desert must not be idolized. Loneliness breed problems like mental prolems when alone in wilderness, and hallunications of an often-grotesque kind are well known. Such as:

  • Saint Guthlac- anglo-saxon who lived as hermit on Island and suffered night time hallunictaions of deils taunting him from nearby marsh.
  • Saint Antony E being whipped by devils and went for several hours. Effects: Lived alone in tomb suffering from mental ill effects of isolation.
  • Eaten bread infected with ergot, a hallucinogenic fungus whose ingestion caused by v.unpleasant hallucinations.
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cont. Times of crisis+Holy people

Times of Crisis : Some people claim RE come to them in times when their lives are under pressure. The deaths of loved ones and broken relationships might well fall into this category. At these times humans are often humans are often quite thoughtful & would be susceptible to RE.

Holy People : Possible some Charismatic, holy or spiritual individuals could be source, holy or spiritual individuals could be the source of RE for others. Many people who develop strong devotion to Guru or saintly figure is an indication there may be some kind of RE going on, although alot of gurus found to be fraudulent. 

  • Two disciples walking to Emmaus, village near Jerusalem, when they meet risen Jesus who walks and talks to them. Initially depressed, but soon cheered up as Jesus explained scriptures to them, showing that the christ must've suffered to enter his glory.

The vital point is that the disciples recognized Jesus by the spiritual impact he had on them. His words touched his heart in a way no other peson could/did. Resulted in them receiving the charismata of Joy and enlighment. Recognising Jesus indicates this was a characteristic impact that he had on those who accepted him.

E contains other RE, the sense that Christains can meet christ at the Eucharist and a crisis E. Two discples, were at crisis in their lives, as Jesus had died on the cross. The catholic tradition places geat emphasis on the Eucharist as means of intimate contact with God and for many catholics taking it as a deep RE. 

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Topic 3

RE involves some kind of medium through which is transmitted. By 'medium' we mean that the RE seems to be transmitted through another reality. 

  • Thus nature was, for Wordsworth, the medium, through which he sensed spirit that impels things.
  • The desert seems to have been the medium through which the various solitaries came to enounter the presence of the divine.
  • Some pplmay sense the divine through the medium of a place of worship. For e.g, certain individuals have RE in shri, mosque or temple.
  • May undego RE through the medium of music or art.

Pictures and icons

The orthodox church places great emphasis on Ricons, holy picture of Jesus or the saints ------> as it is believes that pics are 'windows' through which the sacred shines through. Members of that church often pray before icons (believe they gain a vision through them) not as it is, but as it is mediated through the visual form that the human senses can grasp. 

  • Undergo RE in place of worship, perhaphs in conjuction with Rmusic or ritual. We might think cultural enviroment in which they've immersed themselves are in some way conducive to E. Surroundings put them into frame of mind.
  • Can be said for reading of Scripture//Rideas obvs being entertained.
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Cont. Mediated and unmediated RE

Similarly, situations which arose feelings of awe.Emotion not confined to RE but associated w/ it. e.g. thinking about nature of universe, feel 'mustbesomethingbehindit,morethanmaterial'. RE of some kind aroused by awe.


Celts- certain places points where the veil between this world and other is especially thin. Edges between diff zones like land and sea, marsh and forest, posessed this quality. Halloween--> Celtic Samhain, junction of old year and new one, boundary between two worlds thin.

Whole concept have little use in Christian thinking, but in practice all R regard certain places sacred and conducive to Rlife. E.g Shrines connected to sacred event or holy person.

  • Lourdes, many pilgrims to Roman Catholic// celebrates strange E undergone by Bernadette Soubirou
  • Hindus regard certain cities as sacred, e.g. Varanasi, through which runs Ganges, the sacred river.
  • Muslims//Mecca holysite gateway to paradise.

Examples suggestmany feel certain places conducive to RE. 

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Topic 4 Numinous E and Rudolf Otto

Monotheistic religions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism all agree that God is Holy. 

Rudolf Otto: The idea of the holy (Explored human sense of the numinous, which is, he belived, common to all RE.) :  Described Holy as combo of two things: 

  • Supreme Moral goodness 
  • 'Numinous'. Referes to Gods deeper, inconceivable, supra-rational nature.

Otto wanted to do justice to the E of Gods holiness; he wanted to expose God as being more than just a morally good supreme reality. According to Otto can describe Gods nature only be referring to emotions and thoughts it arouses in us. Get sense of feeling, in the sensus numinous- the human ability to sense the numinous.

Feeling states made up of two aspects: 

1. 'creature-conciousness' : human despicable in the face of God

2. 'mysterium tremendum' comprimised of 

  • awefulness, terror, awe, absolute unapproachability, "wrath" of God
  • overpoweringness,sense of one's own nothingness in contrast to its power
  • creature-feeling, sense of objective presence, dependence
  • energy, urgency, will, vitality

Numinous E exhibit 1 feature, or combination of them.

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Topic 5 - Can we trust E?

Clear world religions not have evolved if central founders hadn't enjoyed powerful&profound RE.

  • Islam never come into existence if Muhammad pbuh hadn't E direct presence of God revealing message of Quran
  • Christians believe Jesus continual sense that God was present to him strengthened and inspired his mission.

Re-->Authorative. Form ground/basis of each main R. On special individual (Jesus Mohammad Moses pbuh them all) God in profound and unque manner + E related to their first believers and followers. Also came to enjoy powerful E of God. E convinced folowers that:

  • God exists in way decribed by Founder
  • Founder correct in any teachings they presented

RE enjoyed today + as authorative and inspiring as they were to first members of faith:

  • RE can be life changing; profound change in behaviour + beliefs.
  • Offer conviction that beliefs they've held are true and grounded in absolute reality.
  • Provide Solace, comfort and hope during times of hardship, temptation + crisis.
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However from perspectives of official R of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, important to remember particular RE of individual belivers not considered to be vital. ---> human beings can be mistaken about E and meaning. 

Philosphers warn how difficult it is to cross the bridge from acclaimed E - to - truth/reality of what is claimed to have been E. 

E.g. those that claim they've been abducted by aliens doesn't lead to the concusion that aliens actually exist outside their imagination.

Problem of verifying RE, esp acute if we examine those RE that are regarded as isolated pieces of phenomena (e.g. a direct external E such as a vision). 

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cont. challenges to RE

  • Acc of E come from people who were alone at time of incidence. 
  • Frequent failures of RE to show as external E when theres others present. E.g. saint bernadette testfied Mary spoke to her, witnesses saw her talking to unseen some1.
  • Something else other than God might've caused E. Drugs/alcohol produce similar effects to RE
  • Philosphers attack RE by questioning health of individuals who report. RE ---> mental health ill so individuals unreliable and properly evaluate what has happened to them.
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cont. Authenticating RE

Method 1: 3 fold-test (Saint Avila)

Three-fold test devised by Saint Teresa of Avilla.  St. Teresa claimed that a religious experince should be considered authentic provided it

  • Conformed to Church teaching; E is evaluated by relating it to holy scripture Church teaching)
  • If it increases charity and humility; i.e., the experince results in goodness and altruism.
  • If it is met with the approval of a spiritual director; i.e., the experince is approved of someone who is trusted and who poessesses a good knowledge of the scriptural teachings.

Method 2: Richard Swinburne

Rely on reports of religious experience because of two central pincripals.

  • The principle of credulity: This is if someone believes they have experineced something, we should believe them unless we have a strong reason not to.
  • The principle of credulity: This argues that if we assume all experiences to be false then we could never know anything // Reasonable to rely the reports of those who claim to have it.


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cont. Authenticating RE

Method 3: John Bowker

Scholar of religion; reminds us, as human beings we have nothing else except E to build understanding of the world, the universe and God.---> so if we can offer support for E and if we can reasonably rule out other causal factors, then he belives we're entitled to trust our E. e.g., ''...then we have good reason for trusting what is being claimed, even if thsoe claims are always expressed in approximate and corrigible words.

Method 4: Peter Vardy

Like Bowker, Peter Vardy argues real test of whether RE is genuine is to be found in the extent to which an individuals life is transformed. Suggests any trasformation should inspire others b its transparent geunuieness. e.g. '...turning point in his/her life. This certainly happened to Saint Paul'. ---> E should impact on life rather than just claiming that they've had RE. 


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cont. David Hume

Defines miracle as 'A transgression of a law of nature brought about by particular violation of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agents. --> classic understanding of miracle, referred to as the 'violation' concept of miracle since it involves a violation of the laws of nature.

Hume: Balance improbs of miracles occuring w/ evidence they've occured. If we do this, always result is more likely natural laws have held good rather than miracle occured.

e.g. Violation of the law of nature would be man walking on water. Standard of witnesses to miracle not high, Human nature loves fantastic (can lie or mistaken), reports of miracles comes from ignorant and barbarous people, miracle stories of diff R contradict each otheR

  • Surrounded by atmosphere of hysteria, witnesses appear gullible or unduly.
  • Stories eaggerated upon being re-told
  • value of scientific training: instil an innate+healthy scepticism thats not fooled by some1 claim
  • N Only deals w/reports of miracles. 
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Topic 6 Revelation E

Carolina Franks Davis: many experiences can be counted as revalationary experiences. She includes sudden convictions, inspiration, enlightment, flashes of insight and 'mystical vision'.  

Each of these are, in themselves, 'revelation experiences; so can be placed in the same categ. Frank Davis also commented on the fact that the 'context' of revelation experiences can vary. Re seem to descend upon people suddenly, unaccompanied by any other features which would make religious experience religious// can form element of more complex RE,- i.e., during a mystical E person is given a new teaching. 

5 distinctive features of revelation experiences according to Frank Davis:

  • sudden and short- however, the after effects of the experience may last a lifetime.
  • knowledge is aqcuired immediatly rather than through reasoning/perception.
  • The third feature is that new knowledge is poured upon the person by an external agency.
  • revelations carry themselves with utter conviction.
  • knowledge gained/degree of ineffability, cannot be expressed in spoken word due to the impact

Whats known through revelation experiences into 4 different areas:

  • E that could be specific+easily described prophecy, such as the message to the prophet.
  • So fundamental that the person has difficulty expressing it.
  • Individuals spend time trying to spell out what they understood in that brief moment.
  • Lastly, individual may not find words to express their experience, bc it is beyond words.
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What is known through this E?

Nearly always revelation E gives those who have an expansion of knowledge something that was not known before. However this kind + degree of the knowledge that is revealed differs from E to E; for example, the knowledge gained might be a straightforward and easily describable.

Frank Davis seperates whats known through revelation E into the 4 following areas: 

  • Whats known through revelation E might for e.g., be specific and easily described prophecy, or religious insight.
  • It may be fundamental that person has difficulty expressing 
  • Sense hat they understood everything & devote rest of life spelling out specifically what they E in brief moment.

In most cases however, subject makes specfic knowledge claims. 

Are RevelationE trustworthy?

Paradoxically, R which inspire are also type of E spiritual authorities incined to mistrust.Treated as unreliable sources of knowledge. Long tradition Roman catholic churches of subj revelation to tests. Inncecence confirmed by factors:

  • consistency with churches teachings
  • integrity, health, education and spirituality.
  • Private R through visions + voices not accorded a high degree of trust.

Study prhet Muhammad from book

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Topic 7- Conversion

Conversion means to change in form, character or function; to cause a person to change beliefs. e.g., St Paul, who was a Jewish man heading to casue chaos in the chritsianity communtiy when he was confronted by a burning bush and converted.

Those who have studied conversions in religious experience generally aggree there are 3 conditions that should be met if an 'experince' is to be classified as 'conversions'. These are

  • context - this is a past context of disaffection, depression, introspection, anxiety, doubt.
  • encounter - this is a willingness to give a religious interpretation to an experience.
  • commitment - a resulting change, visible to others.

Some conversion experiences tend to follow a pattern although some can be dramatic and intense and others slower to develop.

William James American scholar of the nineteenth century. In work 'The Varietie of Religious Experience' examined closely many case of conversion.

According to James, conversion means that religious ideas, beliefs, practices become the animating focus of an individuals life. 

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types of conversion

  • Tradition transition- example of this is an individual converting from the Jewish faith to the Islamic religion.
  • Institutional transition- involves the change of an individual or group from one community to another within a major tradition. e.g., example of this is a member of the Baptist Church decides to transfer to the Anglican Church.#
  • Affiliation- movement of an individual or a group from no commitment or minimal commitment to intense involvement with a community of faith. e.g., of this would be an individual with no individual background or religious background or religious involement whatsoever, decides to convert to Judaism.

(Last bit you write)

Conversion experience: Saint Paul's E of converting to Christianity. After everything he E, the resurrection appearance granted to Paul was as real as the appearances witnessed by Peter, James, & many others on the first Easter and the days immediately following. No single event, apart from the Christ-event itself, has proved so determinant for the course of Christian history as conversion and commissioning of Paul.

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Rambo and Farhadian

The psychologists Rambo and Farhadian identified seven 'stages' of conversion - context, crisis, quest, encounter, interaction commitment, consequences. 

1. Context: This is the starting point, made up of everything that has brought the person to where they are now: their upbringing, educational background, work, social network, previous R training and E, mental health + social skills. Their core values.

2. Crisis: Nothing but challenge. Something happens to destabilize their religious identity.

3. Quest: Person in crisis searches for helpful alternative app, within/beyond original faith

tradition. Many ways to gather information: reading, broadcast media, visits to houses of worship, talking with friends of different religions.

4. Encounter: The seeker meets somebody. If perceive this person as truly spiritual -- honest, kind, wise and grounded -- may choose to explore the same path. The friend whose spirituality attracted the seeker may answer their questions, loan them reading material, take them along to services, or even introduce them to a clergy member who can provide more information.

5. Interaction: Seeker finds a R community that seems to suit them better. Spend time ppts observer; attending public rituals, learning the customs, getting to know the people. Faith communities offer structured intro classes for adults who're considering conversion.

6. Commitment: The seeker formally/ ritually, joins new faith community. In doing so,take on all ritual + moral obligations of membership. In some local areas, Pagans now developing long-needed rituals to mark & celebrate moment when a person joins our laity.

7. Outcomes: The person participates fully in new faith community, while continuing to learn more about its ways. Their hopes may be fulfilled/disappointed. Some people cycle through this model several times before they find R that truly meets their needs.

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Topic 8- Visions MISSED

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Topic 9- Mystical E

Mystical experience= refers to a human beings direct experience or conciousness of ultimate reality. Mystical E tend to be E felt or E beyond the realms of ordinary consciousness. --> referred to as states of altered consciousness. States may involve ineffable awareness of time, space, and physical reality. 

William James believed that RE needed to be decribed as phenomenon so it could be accepted in modern 'secientific world'.  He identified four characteristics of mystical experiences.

  • Ineffability: mystical states states of feeling than intellect, subtle shaded with fine nuances /difficult to convey. So mystical literature is filled with paradoxes and symbolism. E.g., Saint John of the Cross who wrote profoundly beautiful poetry as an expression of his M E
  • Noetic quality: mystical E/ states of knowledge, insight, awareness, revelation, and illumination beyond the grasp of the intellect. There is awareness of unity with the Absolute, of immorality of the soul, of great truths. Time and space are transcended.
  • Transiency: mystical E are fleeting in linear time. last a few seconds, some  up to ten minutes. It is rare to sustain a mystical state for more than a half-hour. Eastern adepts able to sustain prolonged periods of samadhi, a mystical state of one-pointed concentration.
  • Passivity: suggests when the individual feels swept up and held by a superior power. Such phenomena are regarded in Eastern thought as states of pseudo-enlightenment, partway up to the real thing, but not quite there.
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