Friday, March 11, 2011

Features of a Religious Experience

This text mostly consists of quotes from Moojan Momen's book The Phenomenon of Religion. A Thematic Approach, published by Oneworld Publications, 1999.

According to the book's author, there are three features that "apply to phenomenon of religious experience":

  1. UNIVERSALITY. Numerous surveys have consistently shown that even in the highly secularized societies of North America and Europe, a large proportion of the population have had what they describe as religious experiences. The proportion approaches one hundred per cent in traditional societies.
  2. DIVERSITY. Religious experience is unique for each individual. Religions may attempt to impose a uniformity of doctrine or of action upon their followers, but each person's religious experiences, when taken as a whole, will be different to those of another person.
  3. IMPORTANCE. Religious experience is almost invariably very important to the individual to whom it occurs, in a way that other experiences usually are not. A religious experience can result in change in the way that individuals think about themselves, a complete alteration of lifestyle, or a reorganization of the individual's conceptual world. (P. 88.)

I wonder if the secularized society in North America, alluded to in point 1, is Canada?

For someone (like me) who has never had a religious experience, it is difficult to imagine what is being talked about by those who claim to have had it. It is noteworthy that the experience is extremely common in "traditional societies", and less so in modern "Western" societies. It would be interesting to know why it is not so common here anymore. Has it become unnecessary for many of us secular Westerners? What then has taken its place?

Momen lists general features of the experience of the holy, another concept very important to religions, and closely connected to religious experiences:

  1. It is a very intense, energizing experience. It feels important and demands respect and attention.
  2. It is a liberating experience, in that it seems to free on from the demands of the physical world (but, in some, it may induce a sense of dependence on an 'other reality').
  3. It brings peace, joy, exultation, even exhiliration, although this can, on occasions, be mingled with awe and even dread. Some may even report the feeling of being possessed by a spiritual power.
  4. It seems to give on e a feeling of having achieved insight or knowledge, although it is often difficult to specify the content of this knowledge (it is ineffable, incapable of being adequately expressed in words). It is often described as 'confirming', in the sense of giving one the assurance that one's faith is true.
  5. Time may appear to stop and space may seem to become distorted. It may seem that the experience occurs 'outside' time and space.
  6. Many would say that for an experience to be truly religious, it should involve the whole person, lead to some element of personal transformation and result in some outward manifestation of the change in terms of action. Some may report a feeling of having been summoned to a mission through this experience. (Pp. 88 - 89.)

It is important to remember that there are many kinds of religious experiences even to the same individual. Momen speaks of this spectrum:

I have attempted to formulate these descriptions so as to include all levels of religious experience. Many of these descriptions have been attributed to mysticism and states of deep meditation, but I would maintain that it is more useful to see the mystical and meditative experience as being at one extreme of continuum of religious experience and activity. At the other end of this spectrum are the mundane tasks of the religious life, such as arranging the flowers in the church or sweeping out the Hindu temple. As one goes from one extreme to the other, the intensity and frequency of the experience may change, but all the above features may occur at any point in the continuum.

The Experience of the holy is the core of religion and its initiating and driving force. (P. 92.)

Momen analyses types of religious experience.

I. The first is The Regenerative Experience. It is subdivided thusly:

  1. CONVERSION EXPERIENCE. For many people, the experience takes the form of a conversion, leading them to align themselves to a religious movement to which they have not previously been aligned, because they experience the truth of that movement.
  2. CONFIRMING EXPERIENCE. For others, the experience regenerates their faith within a religious movement to which they already belong; the 'born'again' experience in Christianity and religious revivalism in Islam are two common examples.
  3. COMMISSIONING EXPERIENCE. This experience may be in the form of a 'call', a divine commission to carry out some action or take up a new way of life.

II. The second type of religious experience Momen explains is The Charismatic Experience.

This experience makes those involved feel that a gift has been bestowed upon them. This gift may include a feeling of being in a 'wider life than that of this world's selfish interests', a sense of being in continuity with the powers of the universe, and a sense of elation and joy as the sense of self and attachment to this world is abandoned. There is inner equilibrium and calm. It has been described as the experience of saintliness.

Typical this 'gift' gives its recipient the ability to heal, drive out evil spirits, speak in tongues, and perform other miracles and wonders. The receipt of this 'gift' is often marked by trance or ecstacy. (P. 94.)

III. The third type is The Mystical Experience.

This experience is characterized by James as being ineffable (impossible to describe in words), noetic (giving insight and knowledge that feels authoritative), transient (it cannot be sustained for long) and passive (although certain steps may be taken to induce the experience, it then takes over and possesses the person). (Pp. 95 - 96.)

IIII. Finally, Momen also mentions The Paranormal Experience (p. 97) as frequently associated with religious experiences in (at least some) Eastern Religions. He doesn't mention stigmatism, and other alleged paranormal phenomena connected to Christianity, but it's obvious that these things are important to some in the West as well.

Momen states that "very often the precursor to an intense religious experience [...] is a religious crisis. [...] A religious crisis is usually a period of existential doubt; a questioning of one's cognitive structures; a loss of confidence in one's interpretation of the world." (P. 98.) According to him, "there are three possible outcomes to such a crisis":

  1. A RESOLUTION WITHIN CURRENT COGNITIVE STRUCTURES. The person in crisis may eventually be able to resolve the crisis within his or her existing cognitive structures. This may be done by delving more deeply into the scriptures of one's religion and finding an answer there. Alternatively, discussion with one's fellow-believers may result in a solution being found. This may then be reported as a confirming religious experience.
  2. A CREATIVE RESPONSE, CHANGE TO A NEW COGNITIVE STRUCTURE. The inner struggle may reach the point at which the existing cognitive structures dissolve. Since our cognitive structures define reality for us, some report it as a dissolution of reality. At this point, thre religious person often reports a sense of surendering the self (giving up one's existing cognitive structures, which define one's self). Following this surrender, a new vision may emerge, a new way of looking at the questions, a new self, a new cognitie structure, the basis for a new reality. This may be reported as a confirming or conversion experience, but will usually be more intense than the first outcome.
  3. A PATHOLOGICAL RESPONSE, COGNITIVE DISSONANCE. Some react to the threatened breakup of their reality by retreating into denial of the problems that caused the crisis. In effect, they build up a fantasy world in which they create a reality that accords with their cognitive structures. This type of process is usually unstable and eventually breaks down, as such a response negatively affects the way that such people function in society. The process can usually only be stabilized by individuals either retreating from society or finding social support for this pathological response. (Pp. 98 - 99.)

Later, Momen writes about how people in the West tend to think of religious experience as a private affair, while for the rest of the world it usually occurs communally, and how the sense if unity and fellowship amongs the community can itself be a religious experience (pp. 109 - 110).

Momen then moves on to the social influence of religious experience. He notes the obvious fact that "religious experiences tend to conform closely to cultural and religious expectations".

Thus it would appear that religious experiences, no matter how intense and all-consuming, are subject to contraint by the cultural and religious normas of the person to whom they occur. Another way of looking at this is to say that there can be no such thing as a pure experience. An experience always happens to a person, and that person already has an interpretative framework through which he or she views the world. [...]

The most basic interpretative framework is language. We do not have an experience and then find words to describe it. Our language prefigures our experience of the world.

[...] We may think that we are free to choose whatever religious style of life we like, but in fact we are very unlikely to choose some and very likely to choose others, because of our background. (Pp. 114 - 115.)

This should be enough of an introduction to religious experiences in the abstract. What I am left wondering is could there be, or is there even in actuality, a non-religious equivalent for the religious experience? Also, is religious experience among the necessary criteria of something qualifying as a religion? If no follower of a movement claims to have had such an experience, do we have to call the movement something other than religion, even if it fulfills other criteria of religion?

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