Religious experience

A religious experience (sometimes known as a spiritual experience, sacred experience, or mystical experience) is a subjective experience which is interpreted within a religious framework.[1] The concept originated in the 19th century, as a defense against the growing rationalism of Western society.[2] William James popularised the concept.[2]

Many religious and mystical traditions see religious experiences (particularly that knowledge which comes with them) as revelations caused by divine agency rather than ordinary natural processes. They are considered real encounters with God or gods, or real contact with higher-order realities of which humans are not ordinarily aware.[3]

Skeptics may hold that religious experience is an evolved feature of the human brain amenable to normal scientific study.[note 1] The commonalities and differences between religious experiences across different cultures have enabled scholars to categorize them for academic study.[4]


William James

Psychologist and philosopher William James described four characteristics of mystical experience in The Varieties of Religious Experience. According to James, such an experience is:

  • Transient – the experience is temporary; the individual soon returns to a "normal" frame of mind. Feels outside normal perception of space and time.
  • Ineffable – the experience cannot be adequately put into words.
  • Noetic – the individual feels that he or she has learned something valuable from the experience. Feels to have gained knowledge that is normally hidden from human understanding.
  • Passive – the experience happens to the individual, largely without conscious control. Although there are activities, such as meditation (see below), that can make religious experience more likely, it is not something that can be turned on and off at will.

Norman Habel

Norman Habel defines religious experiences as the structured way in which a believer enters into a relationship with, or gains an awareness of, the sacred within the context of a particular religious tradition (Habel, O'Donoghue and Maddox: 1993). Religious experiences are by their very nature preternatural; that is, out of the ordinary or beyond the natural order of things. They may be difficult to distinguish observationally from psychopathological states such as psychoses or other forms of altered awareness (Charlesworth: 1988). Not all preternatural experiences are considered to be religious experiences. Following Habel's definition, psychopathological states or drug-induced states of awareness are not considered to be religious experiences because they are mostly not performed within the context of a particular religious tradition.

Moore and Habel identify two classes of religious experiences: the immediate and the mediated religious experience (Moore and Habel: 1982).

  • Mediated – In the mediated experience, the believer experiences the sacred through mediators such as rituals, special persons, religious groups, totemic objects or the natural world (Habel et al.: 1993).
  • Immediate – The immediate experience comes to the believer without any intervening agency or mediator. The deity or divine is experienced directly.

Richard Swinburne

In his book Faith and Reason, the philosopher Richard Swinburne formulated five categories into which all religious experiences fall:

  • Public – a believer 'sees God's hand at work', whereas other explanations are possible e.g. looking at a beautiful sunset
  • Public – an unusual event that breaches natural law e.g. walking on water
  • Private – describable using normal language e.g. Jacob's vision of a ladder
  • Private – indescribable using normal language, usually a mystical experience e.g. "white did not cease to be white, nor black cease to be black, but black became white and white became black."
  • Private – a non-specific, general feeling of God working in one's life.

Swinburne also suggested two principles for the assessment of religious experiences:

  • Principle of Credulity – with the absence of any reason to disbelieve it, one should accept what appears to be true e.g. if one sees someone walking on water, one should believe that it is occurring.
  • Principle of Testimony – with the absence of any reason to disbelieve them, one should accept that eyewitnesses or believers are telling the truth when they testify about religious experiences.

Rudolf Otto

The German thinker Rudolf Otto (1869–1937) argues that there is one common factor to all religious experience, independent of the cultural background. In his book The Idea of the Holy (1923) he identifies this factor as the numinous. The "numinous" experience has two aspects:

  • mysterium tremendum, which is the tendency to invoke fear and trembling;
  • mysterium fascinans, the tendency to attract, fascinate and compel.

The numinous experience also has a personal quality to it, in that the person feels to be in communion with a holy other. Otto sees the numinous as the only possible religious experience. He states: "There is no religion in which it [the numinous] does not live as the real innermost core and without it no religion would be worthy of the name" (Otto: 1972). Otto does not take any other kind of religious experience such as ecstasy and enthusiasm seriously and is of the opinion that they belong to the 'vestibule of religion'.

Related terms

  • Ecstasy – In ecstasy the believer is understood to have a soul or spirit which can leave the body. In ecstasy the focus is on the soul leaving the body and to experience transcendental realities. This type of religious experience is characteristic for the shaman.
  • Enthusiasm – In enthusiasm – or possession – God is understood to be outside, other than or beyond the believer. A sacred power, being or will enters the body or mind of an individual and possesses it. A person capable of being possessed is sometimes called a medium. The deity, spirit or power uses such a person to communicate to the immanent world. Lewis argues that ecstasy and possession are basically one and the same experience, ecstasy being merely one form which possession may take. The outward manifestation of the phenomenon is the same in that shamans appear to be possessed by spirits, act as their mediums, and even though they claim to have mastery over them, can lose that mastery (Lewis: 1986).
  • Mystical experience – Mystical experiences are in many ways the opposite of numinous experiences. In the mystical experience, all 'otherness' disappear and the believer becomes one with the transcendent. The believer discovers that he or she is not distinct from the cosmos, the deity or the other reality, but one with it. Zaehner has identified two distinctively different mystical experiences: natural and religious mystical experiences (Charlesworth: 1988). Natural mystical experiences are, for example, experiences of the 'deeper self' or experiences of oneness with nature. Zaehner argues that the experiences typical of 'natural mysticism' are quite different from the experiences typical of religious mysticism (Charlesworth: 1988). Natural mystical experiences are not considered to be religious experiences because they are not linked to a particular tradition, but natural mystical experiences are spiritual experiences that can have a profound effect on the individual.
  • Spiritual awakening – A spiritual awakening usually involves a realization or opening to a sacred dimension of reality and may or may not be a religious experience. Often a spiritual awakening has lasting effects upon one's life. The term "spiritual awakening" may be used to refer to any of a wide range of experiences including being born again, near-death experiences, and mystical experiences such as liberation and enlightenment.



The notion of "religious experience" can be traced back to William James, who used the term "religious experience" in his book, The Varieties of Religious Experience.[5] It is considered to be the classic work in the field, and references to James' ideas are common at professional conferences. James distinguished between institutional religion and personal religion. Institutional religion refers to the religious group or organization, and plays an important part in a society's culture. Personal religion, in which the individual has mystical experience, can be experienced regardless of the culture.

The origins of the use of this term can be dated further back.[2] In the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, several historical figures put forth very influential views that religion and its beliefs can be grounded in experience itself. While Kant held that moral experience justified religious beliefs, John Wesley in addition to stressing individual moral exertion thought that the religious experiences in the Methodist movement (paralleling the Romantic Movement) were foundational to religious commitment as a way of life.[6]

Wayne Proudfoot traces the roots of the notion of "religious experience" to the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), who argued that religion is based on a feeling of the infinite. The notion of "religious experience" was used by Schleiermacher and Albert Ritschl to defend religion against the growing scientific and secular critique, and defend the view that human (moral and religious) experience justifies religious beliefs.[2]

The notion of "religious experience" was adopted by many scholars of religion, of which William James was the most influential.[7][note 2]

A broad range of western and eastern movements have incorporated and influenced the emergence of the modern notion of "mystical experience", such as the Perennial philosophy, Transcendentalism, Universalism, the Theosophical Society, New Thought, Neo-Vedanta and Buddhist modernism.[11][12]

Perennial philosophy

According to the Perennial philosophy, the mystical experiences in all religions are essentially the same. It supposes that many, if not all of the world's great religions, have arisen around the teachings of mystics, including Buddha, Jesus, Lao Tze, and Krishna. It also sees most religious traditions describing fundamental mystical experience, at least esoterically. A major proponent in the 20th century was Aldous Huxley, who "was heavily influenced in his description by Vivekananda's neo-Vedanta and the idiosyncratic version of Zen exported to the west by D.T. Suzuki. Both of these thinkers expounded their versions of the perennialist thesis",[13] which they originally received from western thinkers and theologians.[14]

Transcendentalism and Unitarian Universalism

Transcendentalism was an early 19th-century liberal Protestant movement, which was rooted in English and German Romanticism, the Biblical criticism of Herder and Schleiermacher, and the skepticism of Hume.[web 1] The Transcendentalists emphasised an intuitive, experiential approach of religion.[web 2] Following Schleiermacher,[15] an individual's intuition of truth was taken as the criterion for truth.[web 2] In the late 18th and early 19th century, the first translations of Hindu texts appeared, which were also read by the Transcendentalists, and influenced their thinking.[web 2] They also endorsed universalist and Unitarianist ideas, leading to Unitarian Universalism, the idea that there must be truth in other religions as well, since a loving God would redeem all living beings, not just Christians.[web 2][web 3]

New Thought

New Thought promotes the ideas that Infinite Intelligence, or God, is everywhere, spirit is the totality of real things, true human selfhood is divine, divine thought is a force for good, sickness originates in the mind, and "right thinking" has a healing effect.[web 4][web 5] New Thought was propelled along by a number of spiritual thinkers and philosophers and emerged through a variety of religious denominations and churches, particularly the Unity Church, Religious Science, and Church of Divine Science.[16] The Home of Truth, which belongs to the New Thought movement has, from its inception as the Pacific Coast Metaphysical Bureau in the 1880s, disseminated the teachings of the Hindu teacher Swami Vivekananda.[web 6]

Theosophical Society

The Theosophical Society was formed in 1875 by Helena Blavatsky, Henry Steel Olcott, William Quan Judge and others to advance the spiritual principles and search for Truth known as Theosophy.[17][note 3] The Theosophical Society has been highly influential in promoting interest, both in west and east, in a great variety of religious teachings:

"No single organization or movement has contributed so many components to the New Age Movement as the Theosophical Society [...] It has been the major force in the dissemination of occult literature in the West in the twentieth century.[17]

The Theosophical Society searched for 'secret teachings' in Asian religions. It has been influential on modernist streams in several Asian religions, notably Hindu reform movements, the revival of Theravada Buddhism, and D.T. Suzuki, who popularized the idea of enlightenment as insight into a timeless, transcendent reality.[web 7][web 8][11] Another example can be seen in Paul Brunton's A Search in Secret India, which introduced Ramana Maharshi to a western audience.

Orientalism and the "pizza effect"

The interplay between western and eastern notions of religion is an important factor in the development of modern mysticism. In the 19th century, when Asian countries were colonialised by western states, a process of cultural mimesis began.[14][18][2] In this process, Western ideas about religion, especially the notion of "religious experience" were introduced to Asian countries by missionaries, scholars and the Theosophical Society, and amalgamated in a new understanding of the Indian and Buddhist traditions. This amalgam was exported back to the West as 'authentic Asian traditions', and acquired a great popularity in the west. Due to this western popularity, it also gained authority back in India, Sri Lanka and Japan.[14][18][2]

The best-known representatives of this amalgamated tradition are Annie Besant (Theosophical Society), Swami Vivekenanda and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (Neo-Vedanta), Anagarika Dharmapala, a 19th-century Sri Lankan Buddhist activist who founded the Maha Bodhi Society, and D.T. Suzuki, a Japanese scholar and Zen-Buddhist. A synonymous term for this broad understanding is nondualism. This mutual influence is also known as the pizza effect.


The notion of "experience" has been criticised.[19][20][21]

"Religious empiricism" is seen as highly problematic and was – during the period in-between world wars – famously rejected by Karl Barth.[22] In the 20th century, religious as well as moral experience as justification for religious beliefs still holds sway. Some influential modern scholars holding this liberal theological view are Charles Raven and the Oxford physicist/theologian Charles Coulson.[23]

Robert Sharf points out that "experience" is a typical Western term, which has found its way into Asian religiosity via western influences.[19][note 4] The notion of "experience" introduces a false notion of duality between "experiencer" and "experienced", whereas the essence of kensho is the realisation of the "non-duality" of observer and observed.[25][26] "Pure experience" does not exist; all experience is mediated by intellectual and cognitive activity.[27][28] The specific teachings and practices of a specific tradition may even determine what "experience" someone has, which means that this "experience" is not the proof of the teaching, but a result of the teaching.[1] A pure consciousness without concepts, reached by "cleansing the doors of perception",[note 5] would be an overwhelming chaos of sensory input without coherence.[30]

Causes of religious experiences

Religious practices: traditions offer a wide variety of religious practices to induce religious experiences:

Drugs: religious experiences may also be caused by the use of entheogens, such as:

Neurophysiological origins: Religious experiences may have neurophysiological origins. These are studied in the field of neurotheology, and the cognitive science of religion, and include near-death experience[43] and the "Koren helmet"[44] Causes may be:

Religious practices



Neoplatonism is the modern term for a school of religious and mystical philosophy that took shape in the 3rd century AD, founded by Plotinus and based on the teachings of Plato and earlier Platonists.

Neoplatonism teaches that along the same road by which it descended the soul must retrace its steps back to the supreme Good. It must first of all return to itself. This is accomplished by the practice of virtue, which aims at likeness to God, and leads up to God. By means of ascetic observances the human becomes once more a spiritual and enduring being, free from all sin. But there is still a higher attainment; it is not enough to be sinless, one must become "God", (henosis). This is reached through contemplation of the primeval Being, the One – in other words, through an ecstatic approach to it.

It is only in a state of perfect passivity and repose that the soul can recognize and touch the primeval Being. Hence the soul must first pass through a spiritual curriculum. Beginning with the contemplation of corporeal things in their multiplicity and harmony, it then retires upon itself and withdraws into the depths of its own being, rising thence to the nous, the world of ideas. But even there it does not find the Highest, the One; it still hears a voice saying, "not we have made ourselves." The last stage is reached when, in the highest tension and concentration, beholding in silence and utter forgetfulness of all things, it is able as it were to lose itself. Then it may see God, the foundation of life, the source of being, the origin of all good, the root of the soul. In that moment it enjoys the highest indescribable bliss; it is as it were swallowed up of divinity, bathed in the light of eternity. Porphyry tells us that on four occasions during the six years of their intercourse Plotinus attained to this ecstatic union with God.

Alcoholics Anonymous Twelfth Step

The twelfth step of the Alcoholics Anonymous program states that "Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs".[48] The terms “spiritual experience” and “spiritual awaken-ing” are used many times in "The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous"[49] which argues that a spiritual experience is needed to bring about recovery from alcoholism.[50]


Wesley stained glass 9216
Three early Methodist leaders, Charles Wesley, John Wesley, and Francis Asbury, portrayed in stained glass at the Memorial Chapel, Lake Junaluska, North Carolina

Christian doctrine generally maintains that God dwells in all Christians and that they can experience God directly through belief in Jesus,[51] Christian mysticism aspires to apprehend spiritual truths inaccessible through intellectual means, typically by emulation of Christ. William Inge divides this scala perfectionis into three stages: the "purgative" or ascetic stage, the "illuminative" or contemplative stage, and the third, "unitive" stage, in which God may be beheld "face to face."[52]

The third stage, usually called contemplation in the Western tradition, refers to the experience of oneself as united with God in some way. The experience of union varies, but it is first and foremost always associated with a reuniting with Divine love. The underlying theme here is that God, the perfect goodness,[53] is known or experienced at least as much by the heart as by the intellect since, in the words of 1 John 4:16: "God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God and God in him." Some approaches to classical mysticism would consider the first two phases as preparatory to the third, explicitly mystical experience; but others state that these three phases overlap and intertwine.

Based on Christ's injunction in the Gospel of Matthew to "go into your closet to pray",[54] hesychasm in tradition has been the process of retiring inward by ceasing to register the senses, in order to achieve an experiential knowledge of God (see theoria).

The highest goal of the hesychast is the experiential knowledge of God. In the 14th Century, the possibility of this experiential knowledge of God was challenged by a Calabrian monk, Barlaam, who, although he was formally a member of the Orthodox Church, had been trained in Western Scholastic theology. Barlaam asserted that our knowledge of God can only be propositional. The practice of the hesychasts was defended by St. Gregory Palamas.


While all Muslims believe that they are on the pathway to God and will become close to God in Paradise – after death and after the "Final Judgment" – Sufis believe that it is possible to become close to God and to experience this closeness while one is alive.[55] Sufis believe in a tripartite way to God as explained by a tradition attributed to the Prophet,"The Shariah are my words (aqwal), the tariqa are my actions (amal), and the haqiqa is my interior states (ahwal)". Shariah, tariqa and haqiqa are mutually interdependent.

The tariqa, the ‘path’ on which the mystics walk, has been defined as ‘the path which comes out of the Shariah, for the main road is called shar, the path, tariq.’ No mystical experience can be realized if the binding injunctions of the Shariah are not followed faithfully first. The path, tariqa, however, is narrower and more difficult to walk. It leads the adept, called salik (wayfarer), in his suluk (wandering), through different stations (maqam) until he reaches his goal, the perfect tauhid, the existential confession that God is One.[56]



Museum für Indische Kunst Dahlem Berlin Mai 2006 013
The Buddha demonstrating control over fire and water. Gandhara, 3rd century CE

In Theravada Buddhism practice is described in the threefold training of discipline (śīla), meditative concentration (samādhi), and transcendent wisdom (prajñā). Zen-Buddhism emphaises the sole practice of meditation, while Vajrayana Buddhism utilizes a wide variety of practices. While the main aim of meditation and prajna is to let go of attachments, it may also result in a comprehension of the Buddha-nature and the inherent lucidness of the mind.

Different varieties of religious experience are described in detail in the Śūraṅgama Sūtra. In its section on the fifty skandha-maras, each of the five skandhas has ten skandha-maras associated with it, and each skandha-mara is described in detail as a deviation from correct samādhi. These skandha-maras are also known as the "fifty skandha demons" in some English-language publications.[57]

It is also believed that supernormal abilities are developed from meditation, which are termed "higher knowledge" (abhijñā), or "spiritual power" (ṛddhi). One early description found in the Samyutta Nikaya, which mentions abilities such as:[58]

... he goes unhindered through a wall, through a rampart, through a mountain as though through space; he dives in and out of the earth as though it were water; he walks on water without sinking as though it were earth; seated cross-legged, he travels in space like a bird; with his hands he touches and strokes the moon and sun so powerful and mighty; he exercises mastery with the body as far as the brahmā world.


Building on European philosophers, Radhakrishnan reduced religion "to the core experience of reality in its fundamental unity". [59] According to Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, "Hinduism is not just a faith. It is the union of reason and intuition that cannot be defined, but is only to be experienced."[60] This emphasis on experience as validation of a religious worldview is a modern development, which started in the 19th century, and was introduced to Indian thought by western Unitarian missionaries.[12] It has been popularized in Neo-Vedanta, which has dominated the popular understanding of Hinduism since the 19th century.[61][note 6] It emphasizes mysticism.[61][62][63][64] Swami Vivekanada presented the teachings of Neo-Vedanta as radical nondualism, unity between all religions and all persons.[65][66]

Meher Baba

According to the syncretistic Indian spiritual teacher Meher Baba, "Spiritual experience involves more than can be grasped by mere intellect. This is often emphasised by calling it a mystical experience. Mysticism is often regarded as something anti-intellectual, obscure and confused, or impractical and unconnected with experience. In fact, true mysticism is none of these. There is nothing irrational in true mysticism when it is, as it should be, a vision of Reality. It is a form of perception which is absolutely unclouded, and so practical that it can be lived every moment of life and expressed in every-day duties. Its connection with experience is so deep that, in one sense, it is the final understanding of all experience."[67]

Psychedelic drugs

Dr. R.R. Griffiths and colleagues at Johns Hopkins University had done a double blind study evaluating the psychological effects of psilocybin comparing with methylphenidate(Ritalin). 36 hallucinogen-naive adults were recruited. 22 of the 36 reported mystical experience. The effect persisted even at 2 and 14 months follow-up.[68][69] The group continued to do studies in evaluating the effect with different dosing[70] and the resulting mystical effect on personality.[71]



A 2012 paper suggested that psychiatric conditions associated with psychotic spectrum symptoms may be possible explanations for revelatory driven experiences and activities such as those of Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Saint Paul.[72]


Neuroscience of religion

Neuroscience of religion, also known as neurotheology, biotheology or spiritual neuroscience,[73] is the study of correlations of neural phenomena with subjective experiences of spirituality and hypotheses to explain these phenomena. Proponents of neurotheology claim that there is a neurological and evolutionary basis for subjective experiences traditionally categorized as spiritual or religious.[74]

The neuroscience of religion takes neural correlates as the basis of cognitive functions and religious experiences. These religious experience are thereby emergent properties of neural correlates. This approach does not necessitate exclusion of the Self, but interprets the Self as influenced or otherwise acted upon by underlying neural mechanisms. Proponents argue that religious experience can be evoked through stimulus of specific brain regions and/or can be observed through measuring increase in activity of specific brain regions.[75][note 7]

An alternate approach is influenced by personalism, and exists contra-parallel to the reductionist approach. It focuses on the Self as the object of interest,[note 8] the same object of interest as in religion. According to Patrick McNamara, a proponent of personalism, the Self is a neural entity that controls rather than consists of the cognitive functions being processed in brain regions.[79][80][note 9]

Neurological evolutionary basis

A biological basis for religious experience may exist.[81][80] References to the supernatural or mythical beings first appeared approximately 40,000 years ago.[82][83] A popular theory posits that dopaminergic brain systems are the evolutionary basis for human intellect[84][83] and more specifically abstract reasoning.[83] The capacity for religious thought arises from the capability to employ abstract reasoning. There is no evidence to support the theory that abstract reasoning, generally or with regard to religious thought, evolved independent of the dopaminergic axis.[83]

Religious behavior has been linked to "extrapersonal brain systems that predominate the ventromedial cortex and rely heavily on dopaminergic transmission."[85] A biphasic effect exists with regard to activation of the dopaminergic axis and/or ventromedial cortex. While mild activation can evoke a perceived understanding of the supernatural, extreme activation can lead to delusions characteristic of psychosis.[83] Stress can cause the depletion of 5-hydroxytryptamine, also referred to as serotonin.[86] The ventromedial 5-HT axis is involved in peripersonal activities such as emotional arousal, social skills, and visual feedback.[83] When 5-HT is decreased or depleted, one may become subject to "incorrect attributions of self-initiated or internally generated activity (e.g. hallucinations)."[87]

Studies of the brain

Early studies in the 1950s and 1960s attempted to use EEGs to study brain wave patterns correlated with spiritual states. During the 1980s Dr. Michael Persinger stimulated the temporal lobes of human subjects[88] with a weak magnetic field. His subjects claimed to have a sensation of "an ethereal presence in the room."[89] Some current studies use neuroimaging to localize brain regions active, or differentially active, during religious experiences.[90][91][92] These neuroimaging studies have implicated a number of brain regions, including the limbic system, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, superior parietal lobe, and caudate nucleus.[93][94][95] Based on the complex nature of religious experience, it is likely that they are mediated by an interaction of neural mechanisms that all add a small piece to the overall experience.[94]

According to the neurotheologist Andrew B. Newberg, neurological processes which are driven by the repetitive, rhythmic stimulation which is typical of human ritual, and which contribute to the delivery of transcendental feelings of connection to a universal unity. They posit, however, that physical stimulation alone is not sufficient to generate transcendental unitive experiences. For this to occur they say there must be a blending of the rhythmic stimulation with ideas. Once this occurs "...ritual turns a meaningful idea into a visceral experience."[96] Moreover, they say that humans are compelled to act out myths by the biological operations of the brain due to what they call the "inbuilt tendency of the brain to turn thoughts into actions."

Temporal lobe epilepsy

Temporal lobe epilepsy has become a popular field of study due to its correlation to religious experience.[97][98][99][100] Religious experiences and hyperreligiosity are often used to characterize those with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy.[101][102] Visionary religious experiences, and momentary lapses of consciousness, may point toward a diagnosis of Geschwind syndrome. More generally, the symptoms are consistent with features of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, not an uncommon feature in religious icons and mystics.[103] It seems that this phenomenon is not exclusive to TLE, but can manifest in the presence of other epileptic variates[104][105][83] as well as mania, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and schizophrenia, conditions characterized by ventromedial dopaminergic dysfunction.[83]

Integrating religious experience

Several psychologists have proposed models in which religious experiences are part of a process of transformation of the self.

Carl Jung's work on himself and his patients convinced him that life has a spiritual purpose beyond material goals. One's main task, he believed, is to discover and fulfil deep innate potential, much as the acorn contains the potential to become the oak, or the caterpillar to become the butterfly. Based on his study of Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Gnosticism, Taoism, and other traditions, Jung perceived that this journey of transformation is at the mystical heart of all religions. It is a journey to meet the self and at the same time to meet the Divine. Unlike Sigmund Freud, Jung thought spiritual experience was essential to well-being.[106]

The notion of the numinous was an important concept in the writings of Carl Jung. Jung regarded numinous experiences as fundamental to an understanding of the individuation process because of their association with experiences of synchronicity in which the presence of archetypes is felt.[107][108]

McNamara proposes that religious experiences may help in "decentering" the self, and transform it into an integral self which is closer to an ideal self.[109]

Transpersonal psychology is a school of psychology that studies the transpersonal, self-transcendent or spiritual aspects of the human experience. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology describes transpersonal psychology as "the study of humanity’s highest potential, and with the recognition, understanding, and realization of unitive, spiritual, and transcendent states of consciousness" (Lajoie and Shapiro, 1992:91). Issues considered in transpersonal psychology include spiritual self-development, peak experiences, mystical experiences, systemic trance and other metaphysical experiences of living.

See also


  1. ^ Such study may be said to have begun with the American psychologist and philosopher William James in his 1901/02 Gifford Lectures later published as The Varieties of Religious Experience.
  2. ^ James also gives descriptions of conversion experiences. The Christian model of dramatic conversions, based on the role-model of Paul's conversion, may also have served as a model for Western interpretations and expectations regarding "enlightenment", similar to Protestant influences on Theravada Buddhism, as described by Carrithers: "It rests upon the notion of the primacy of religious experiences, preferably spectacular ones, as the origin and legitimation of religious action. But this presupposition has a natural home, not in Buddhism, but in Christian and especially Protestant Christian movements which prescribe a radical conversion."[8] See Sekida for an example of this influence of William James and Christian conversion stories, mentioning Luther[9] and St. Paul.[10] See also McMahan for the influence of Christian thought on Buddhism.[11]
  3. ^
    1. To form a nucleus of the universal brotherhood of humanity without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or colour.
    2. To encourage the study of comparative religion, philosophy, and science.
    3. To investigate the unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in man.
  4. ^ Robert Sharf: "[T]he role of experience in the history of Buddhism has been greatly exaggerated in contemporary scholarship. Both historical and ethnographic evidence suggests that the privileging of experience may well be traced to certain twentieth-century reform movements, notably those that urge a return to zazen or vipassana meditation, and these reforms were profoundly influenced by religious developments in the west [...] While some adepts may indeed experience "altered states" in the course of their training, critical analysis shows that such states do not constitute the reference point for the elaborate Buddhist discourse pertaining to the "path".[24]
  5. ^ William Blake: "If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thru' narrow chinks of his cavern."[29]
  6. ^ Also called neo-Hinduism[61]
  7. ^ This is contrary to the view of William James and F.D.E. Schleirmacher who viewed religious experience as a "preconceptual, immediate affective event."[76][77]
  8. ^ According to the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "[personalism] emphasizes the significance, uniqueness and inviolability of the person, as well as the person's essentially relational or communitarian dimension."[78]
  9. ^ It is important to note that this school of thought evolved out of the thinking of St. Thomas Aquinas due to his focus on the individual uniqueness of the person and his subsequent discourse on the supposed nature of the Trinity and Jesus' divine/human existence. However, personalism and irreligiosity are not mutually exclusive as atheist personalism also functions within the greater school of thought.


  1. ^ a b Samy 1998, p. 80.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Sharf 2000.
  3. ^ The Argument from Religious Experience
  4. ^ Batson, C. D., Schoenrade, P., & Ventis, W. L. (1993). Religion and the individual: A social psychological perspective. Oxford University Press.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
  5. ^ Hori 1999, p. 47.
  6. ^ Issues in Science and Religion, Ian Barbour, Prentice-Hall, 1966, page 68, 79
  7. ^ Sharf 2000, p. 271.
  8. ^ Carrithers 1983, p. 18.
  9. ^ Sekida 1985, p. 196-197.
  10. ^ Sekida 1985, p. 251.
  11. ^ a b c McMahan 2008.
  12. ^ a b King 2001.
  13. ^ King 2002, p. 163.
  14. ^ a b c King 2002.
  15. ^ Sharf 1995.
  16. ^ Lewis & Melton 1992, p. 16–18.
  17. ^ a b Melton, Gordon J. (Sr. ed.) (1990). "Theosophical Society". New Age Encyclopedia. Farmington Hills, Michigan: Gale Research. pp. 458–461. ISBN 0-8103-7159-6
  18. ^ a b McMahan 2010.
  19. ^ a b Sharf 1995a.
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Further reading

External links

Alister Hardy

Sir Alister Clavering Hardy (10 February 1896 – 22 May 1985) was an English marine biologist, an expert on marine ecosystems spanning organisms from zooplankton to whales.

Hardy served as zoologist on the RRS Discovery's voyage to explore the Antarctic between 1925 and 1927. On the voyage he invented the Continuous Plankton Recorder; it enabled any ship to collect plankton samples during an ordinary voyage.

After retiring from his academic work, Hardy founded the Religious Experience Research Centre in 1969.

Argument from religious experience

The argument from religious experience is an argument for the existence of God. It holds that the best explanation for religious experiences is that they constitute genuine experience or perception of a divine reality. Various reasons have been offered for and against accepting this contention.

Contemporary defenders of the argument are Alister Hardy and Dinesh D'Souza.

Buddhism and science

Buddhism and science have increasingly been discussed as compatible, and Buddhism has entered into the science and religion dialogue. The case is made that the philosophic and psychological teachings within Buddhism share commonalities with modern scientific and philosophic thought. For example, Buddhism encourages the impartial investigation of Nature (an activity referred to as Dhamma-Vicaya in the Pali Canon) — the principal object of study being oneself. Some popular conceptions of Buddhism connect it to discourse regarding evolution, quantum theory, and cosmology, though most scientists see a separation between the religious and metaphysical statements of Buddhism and the methodology of science. In 1993 a model deduced from Jean Piaget's theory of cognitive development was published arguing that Buddhism is a fourth mode of thought beyond magic, science and religion.Buddhism has been described by some as rational and non-dogmatic, and there is evidence that this has been the case from the earliest period of its history, though some have suggested this aspect is given greater emphasis in modern times and is in part a reinterpretation. Not all forms of Buddhism eschew dogmatism, remain neutral on the subject of the supernatural, or are open to scientific discoveries. Buddhism is a varied tradition and aspects include fundamentalism, devotional traditions, and supplication to local spirits. Nevertheless, certain commonalities have been cited between scientific investigation and Buddhist thought. Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, in a speech at the meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, listed a "suspicion of absolutes" and a reliance on causality and empiricism as common philosophical principles shared between Buddhism and science.

Cosmic Consciousness

Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind is a 1901 book by the psychiatrist Richard Maurice Bucke, in which the author explores the concept of cosmic consciousness, which he defines as "a higher form of consciousness than that possessed by the ordinary man".

Enlightenment (spiritual)

Enlightenment is the "full comprehension of a situation". The term is commonly used to denote the Age of Enlightenment, but is also used in Western cultures in a religious context. It translates several Buddhist terms and concepts, most notably bodhi, kensho and satori. Related terms from Asian religions are moksha (liberation) in Hinduism, Kevala Jnana in Jainism, and ushta in Zoroastrianism.

In Christianity, the word "enlightenment" is rarely used, except to refer to the Age of Enlightenment and its influence on Christianity. Roughly equivalent terms in Christianity may be illumination, kenosis, metanoia, revelation, salvation and conversion.

Perennialists and Universalists view enlightenment and mysticism as equivalent terms for religious or spiritual insight.

International Swaminarayan Satsang Organisation

Acharya Shree Tejendraprasadji Maharaj (who was then Acharya of the Swaminarayan Sampraday (Ahmedabad Gadi)) founded International Swaminarayan Satsang Organization (I.S.S.O.) (Devanagari: अंतरराष्ट्रीय स्वामींनारायण सत्संग संस्थान) in the United States on the occasion of Vijaya Dashami in the year 1978.The prime objective of I.S.S.O. is "To advance the Sanatana Dharma, in accordance with the principles and teachings of the Swaminarayan Sampraday, founded and ordained by Sahajanand Swami", enabling Lord Swaminarayan's devotees from both the NarNarayan Dev Gadi (Ahmedabad) & LaxmiNarayan Dev Gadi (Vadtal) to practice their religious duties in harmony.This achieved, the efforts of all the followers of the Swaminarayan Sampraday can be polarised, allowing for joint activities to be undertaken. In turn, this will enable the followers to meet the challenges they are faced with today in giving their youth a religious experience that they can understand and practice themselves.

Meg Muñoz

Meg Muñoz is an ally and advocate for sex workers. She is a former sex worker who founded Abeni, a nonprofit organization which seeks to support those who work in the sex/adult entertainment industry.


Mysticism is the practice of religious ecstasies (religious experiences during alternate states of consciousness), together with whatever ideologies, ethics, rites, myths, legends, and magic may be related to them. It may also refer to the attainment of insight in ultimate or hidden truths, and to human transformation supported by various practices and experiences.The term "mysticism" has Ancient Greek origins with various historically determined meanings. Derived from the Greek word μύω, meaning "to close" or "to conceal", mysticism referred to the biblical, liturgical, spiritual, and contemplative dimensions of early and medieval Christianity. During the early modern period, the definition of mysticism grew to include a broad range of beliefs and ideologies related to "extraordinary experiences and states of mind".In modern times, "mysticism" has acquired a limited definition, with broad applications, as meaning the aim at the "union with the Absolute, the Infinite, or God". This limited definition has been applied to a wide range of religious traditions and practices, valuing "mystical experience" as a key element of mysticism.

Broadly defined, mysticism can be found in all religious traditions, from indigenous religions and folk religions like shamanism, to organised religions like the Abrahamic faiths and Indian religions, and modern spirituality, New Age and New Religious Movements.

Since the 1960s scholars have debated the merits of perennial and constructionist approaches in the scientific research of "mystical experiences". The perennial position is now "largely dismissed by scholars", most scholars using a contextualist approach, which takes the cultural and historical context into consideration.

Neuroscience of religion

The neuroscience of religion, also known as neurotheology and as spiritual neuroscience, attempts to explain religious experience and behaviour in neuroscientific terms. It is the study of correlations of neural phenomena with subjective experiences of spirituality and hypotheses to explain these phenomena. This contrasts with the psychology of religion which studies mental, rather than neural, states.

Proponents of the neuroscience of religion say there is a neurological and evolutionary basis for subjective experiences traditionally categorized as spiritual or religious. The field has formed the basis of several popular science books, but has received criticism from psychologists.


Numinous () is a concept derived from the Latin numen meaning "arousing spiritual or religious emotion; mysterious or awe-inspiring". The term was popularized by the German theologian Rudolf Otto in his influential 1917 German book Das Heilige, which appeared in English as The Idea of the Holy in 1923.

Olli Wisdom

Olli Wisdom (born Oliver John Wisdom) is a British Goa and psy trance musician, and clothing producer, currently residing in London. Since the 1990s he has recorded under the name Space Tribe.Wisdom is also significant for his role in the early 1980s as the singer in the theatrical glam and gothic rock group Specimen, and running The Batcave, London’s famous weekly goth club-night at the Gargoyle Club. Before forming Specimen and opening the Batcave, Wisdom was the frontman for the punk band, The Unwanted. Their most popular song was a cover version of Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'". After the Unwanted, Wisdom joined Metroz for a few months.Wisdom has been a pioneer of psychedelic trance for many years. After Specimen split up, in 1986 Olli went travelling in Asia and in 1988 came to Koh Phangan in Thailand where he first encountered the electro-driven wild psychedelic parties on the beach. He stayed there for two years, DJing, and set up a small studio and making tracks for the parties, before moving to Goa, India.

Over the next four years, Wisdom spent his time mostly in Goa, but starting to travel around DJing parties in other places (San Francisco, Switzerland, UK, Japan). In 1993, with his brother Miki, and Richmond started Space Tribe clothing in Bali. In 1995, the first Space Tribe tracks were hatched in the studio with Simon Posford (Hallucinogen/Shpongle).

Wisdom moved to the rainforest in Byron Bay in Australia and set up the Rainforest Space Base studio. Space Tribe released its first album, Sonic Mandala, on Spirit Zone in 1996. In 2004 Space Tribe Music was set up as a record label providing an outlet for Space Tribe releases and compilation albums. Space Tribe has also made many tracks in collaboration with other artists such as Sirius Isness, X-Dream, GMS, Menog, CPU, Psywalker and especially Electric Universe, working under the name ESP.

Wisdom travels all over the world, playing live at parties in a variety of locations including Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Israel, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Russia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Thailand, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Psychedelic experience

A psychedelic experience (or 'trip') is a temporary altered state of consciousness induced by the consumption of psychedelic drugs (such as mescaline, LSD, psilocybin, and DMT). For example, the term acid trip refers to psychedelic experiences brought on by the use of LSD.

The term "psychedelic" derives from Greek words essentially meaning "mind revealing". Psychedelic experiences are interpreted in exploratory, learning, recreational, religious/mystical and therapeutic contexts.

Psychology of religion

Strictly speaking, psychology of religion consists of the application of psychological methods and interpretive frameworks to the diverse contents of religious traditions as well as to both religious and irreligious individuals. The extraordinary range of methods and frameworks can be helpfully summed up regarding the classic distinction between the natural-scientific and human-scientific approaches: the first cluster proceeds by means of objective, quantitative, and preferably experimental procedures for testing hypotheses regarding the causal connections among the objects of one's study. In contrast, the human-scientific approach accesses the human world of experience using qualitative, phenomenological, and interpretive methods, with the goal of discerning meaningful rather than causal connections among the phenomena one seeks to understand.

Psychologists of religion pursue three major projects: (1) systematic description, especially of religious contents, attitudes, experiences, and expressions; (2) explanation of the origins of religion, both in the history of the human race and in individual lives, taking into account a diversity of influences; and (3) mapping out the consequences of religious attitudes and conduct, both for the individual and for society at large. The psychology of religion first arose as a self-conscious discipline in the late 19th century, but all three of these tasks have a history going back many centuries before that.

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan listen (5 September 1888 – 17 April 1975) was an Indian philosopher and statesman who served as the first Vice President of India (1952–1962) and the second President of India (1962–1967).One of India's most distinguished twentieth-century scholars of comparative religion and philosophy, after completing his education at Madras Christian College in 1911, he became Assistant Professor and later Professor of Philosophy at Madras Presidency College then subsequently Professor of Philosophy at the University of Mysore (1918-1921); the King George V Chair of Mental and Moral Science at the University of Calcutta (1921–1932) and Spalding Professor of Eastern Religion and Ethics at University of Oxford (1936–1952) by which he became the first Indian to hold a professorial chair at the University of Oxford. He was Upton Lecturer at Manchester College, Oxford in 1926, 1929, and 1930. In 1930 he was appointed Haskell lecturer in Comparative Religion at the University of Chicago.His philosophy was grounded in Advaita Vedanta, reinterpreting this tradition for a contemporary understanding. He defended Hinduism against "uninformed Western criticism", contributing to the formation of contemporary Hindu identity. He has been influential in shaping the understanding of Hinduism, in both India and the west, and earned a reputation as a bridge-builder between India and the West.Radhakrishnan was awarded several high awards during his life, including a knighthood in 1931, the Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian award in India, in 1954, and honorary membership of the British Royal Order of Merit in 1963. He was also one of the founders of Helpage India, a non profit organisation for elderly underprivileged in India. Radhakrishnan believed that "teachers should be the best minds in the country". Since 1962, his birthday has been celebrated in India as Teachers' Day on 5 September.

Scholarly approaches to mysticism

Scholarly approaches to mysticism include typologies of mysticism and the explanation of mystical states. Since the 19th century, mystical experience has evolved as a distinctive concept. It is closely related to "mysticism" but lays sole emphasis on the experiential aspect, be it spontaneous or induced by human behavior, whereas mysticism encompasses a broad range of practices aiming at a transformation of the person, not just inducing mystical experiences.

There is a longstanding discussion on the nature of so-called "introvertive mysticism." Perennialists regard this kind of mysticism to be universal. A popular variant of perennialism sees various mystical traditions as pointing to one universal transcendental reality, for which those experiences offer the proof. The perennial position is "largely dismissed by scholars" but "has lost none of its popularity". Instead, a constructionist approach became dominant during the 1970s, which states that mystical experiences are mediated by pre-existing frames of reference, while the attribution approach focuses on the (religious) meaning that is attributed to specific events.

Some neurological research has attempted to identify which areas in the brain are involved in so-called "mystical experience" and the temporal lobe is often claimed to play a significant role, likely attributable to claims made in Vilayanur Ramachandran's 1998 book, Phantoms in the Brain, However, these claims have not stood up to scrutiny.In mystical and contemplative traditions, mystical experiences are not a goal in themselves, but part of a larger path of self-transformation.


The meaning of spirituality has developed and expanded over time, and various connotations can be found alongside each other.Traditionally, spirituality referred to a religious process of re-formation which "aims to recover the original shape of man", oriented at "the image of God" as exemplified by the founders and sacred texts of the religions of the world. The term was used within early Christianity to refer to a life oriented toward the Holy Spirit and broadened during late medieval times to include mental aspects of life.

In modern times, the term both spread to other religious traditions and broadened to refer to a wider range of experience, including a range of esoteric traditions and religious traditions. Modern usages tend to refer to a subjective experience of a sacred dimension and the "deepest values and meanings by which people live", often in a context separate from organized religious institutions, such as a belief in a supernatural (beyond the known and observable) realm, personal growth, a quest for an ultimate or sacred meaning, religious experience, or an encounter with one's own "inner dimension".

The Varieties of Religious Experience

The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature is a book by Harvard University psychologist and philosopher William James. It comprises his edited Gifford Lectures on natural theology, which were delivered at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland in 1901 and 1902. The lectures concerned the nature of religion and the neglect of science in the academic study of religion.

Soon after its publication, Varieties entered the Western canon of psychology and philosophy and has remained in print for over a century.

James later developed his philosophy of pragmatism. There are many overlapping ideas in Varieties and his 1907 book, Pragmatism.


In ancient Roman religion, a votum, plural vota, is a vow or promise made to a deity. The word comes from the past participle of the Latin verb voveo, vovere, "vow, promise". As the result of this verbal action, a votum is also that which fulfills a vow, that is, the thing promised, such as offerings, a statue, or even a temple building. The votum is thus an aspect of the contractual nature of Roman religion, a bargaining expressed by do ut des, "I give that you might give."

William James

William James (January 11, 1842 – August 27, 1910) was an American philosopher and psychologist, and the first educator to offer a psychology course in the United States. James was a leading thinker of the late nineteenth century, one of the most influential U.S. philosophers, and has been labelled the "Father of American psychology".Along with Charles Sanders Peirce, James established the philosophical school known as pragmatism, and is also cited as one of the founders of functional psychology. A Review of General Psychology analysis, published in 2002, ranked James as the 14th most eminent psychologist of the 20th century. A survey published in American Psychologist in 1991 ranked James's reputation in second place, after Wilhelm Wundt, who is widely regarded as the founder of experimental psychology. James also developed the philosophical perspective known as radical empiricism. James' work has influenced intellectuals such as Émile Durkheim, W. E. B. Du Bois, Edmund Husserl, Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Hilary Putnam, and Richard Rorty, and has even influenced former US President Jimmy Carter.

Born into a wealthy family, James was the son of the Swedenborgian theologian Henry James Sr. and the brother of both the prominent novelist Henry James and the diarist Alice James. James trained as a physician and taught anatomy at Harvard, but never practiced medicine. Instead he pursued his interests in psychology and then philosophy. James wrote widely on many topics, including epistemology, education, metaphysics, psychology, religion, and mysticism. Among his most influential books are The Principles of Psychology, a groundbreaking text in the field of psychology; Essays in Radical Empiricism, an important text in philosophy; and The Varieties of Religious Experience, an investigation of different forms of religious experience, including theories on mind-cure.

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