Saturday, March 12, 2011

Pathways to Religious Experience

The title of this text is the title of Chapter 5 in Moojan Momen's book The Phenomenon of Religion. A Thematic Approach (Oneworld Publications, 1999). In that chapter he goes over the

[...] various pathways that attempt to recreate the central experience of religion in a systematic way in society. These then are the principal forms in which religiosity expresses itself in society. Since the religious experience gives one the feeling of salvation or liberation, these pathways to religious experience may be called pathways to salvation or liberation. (P.117.)

Copied here is a picture from the book (p. 118) that nicely illustrates the author's point:

At the center of the picture is the religious experience, surrounded by all the pathways that lead to it. Of course there are actually several different religious experiences, as has been discussed in my previous posting, and will become apparent later in this one as well. The fact that they are all considered, nonetheless, to be what all religions have in common, could be due to the author's religious (Baha'i) views. Even if that might be misleading in some way, I do find it (for now) a useful way to look at religions.

Below I have copied a table from the book (p. 121) analyzing the common features of each pathway. I hope the writing isn't too small - the picture is as big as I was able to upload here.

The rest of this text will be a digest of the book's information on these pathways.


Ritualism is usually based on theistic assumptions of the otherness of a God or god to whom praise and glorification are due. [...]

The typical religious attitude on this path is that of piety, love and devotion. There is both love and often some degree of awe or fear of the Deity or figure that is the object of the ritual or worship. [...] The typical religious experience of this path is of the regenerative type, confirming and commissioning.
(Pp. 119 - 120.)


This path to salvation is characterized by the belief that the will of a deity has been revealed in the form of a Holy Law. This law determines most of one's actions in daily life. [...]

Legalism is [...] the result of two main impulses in religion. The first is a concern to maintain ritual purity in society. This ensures that the rituals of the religion can be performed in the manner decreed and so be pleasing to the Deity. The second, which is in a sense a correlate of the first, is to maintain the ethics and morals of the society, and thus to maintain the order and correct functioning of society. [...]

In this path of salvation, the religious professional is not, as with ritualism, one who has a mysterious power to transform the ritual act into a path for salvation; rather he [...] is the man of learning who knows the Holy Law. [...]

The religious attitude on this path is one of discipline and self-control. The believer must control his or her life so as to stay within the limits of the Law. [...]

Legalism is usually linked to some extent with ritualism. The Holy Law prescribes rituals that must be performed according to the Law. Religious experience on the legalistic pathways usually arises, therefore, out of the ritual that is performed -- often in the saying of a prayer. [...] [T]he sense of the sacred is evoked not just by the correct performance of the ritual but also by the fellowship of the believers gathered for the occasion. The religious experience on this pathway tends to be of the regenerative type, confirming or commissioning.
(Pp. 120, 122 - 123.)


In this group the emphasis is on the grace and beneficence of the Deity. Salvation is then usually a matter of faith that this grace will be extended to all who seek it with love and devotion. These groups will tend to emphasize a personal relationship with the Deity. [...]

The task of the religious professional in these groups is to make the personal relationship between the Deity and the believer seem real. [...]

The religious attitude of this group usually involves a 'puritanical' approach to the world. It is expected that one's life be lived according to a strict moral code. [...] Another aspect of the religious attitude of these groups is triumphalism, the belief that their religion will triumph in the end over all others. These are also features of fundamentalism, with which evangelism is closely linked. [...] The main religious experience of this pathway to salvation is often of the charismatic type that is brought on by the preaching of the evangelist. Sings of this include ecstatic trance, speaking in tongues, and the otehr phenomena described above. There may also be regenerative religious experiences of the conversion type.
(Pp. 123, 125.)

Social Reformism

Social reformism goes out into the world and seeks to transform it into an ideal society. This pathway has historically been mainly that of the theistic religions. [...]

The religious attitude in this pathway is an outward-looking one that expresses itself in service and shows love and charity towards all, in particular the poor and disadvantaged. The source of religious experience on this pathway is the feeling of unity and fellowship with others who are imbued with similar ideals. Some may have a commissioning type of regenerative religious experience on this pathway.
(Pp. 126, 129.)


Some of those who see the world as the source of evil and corruption have considered that the best means of achieving salvation is to isolate oneself as far as possible from the world. This is often linked to disciplining the body severely, to reduce its dependence on the physical world. [...]

The religious attitude of those who follow this pathway is one of detachment from the world. They put themselves outside the social world in which other human beings participate; they become outside observers. The main source of religious experience in this pathway is the reading of the scriptures, prayer, fasting, and the other austerities that the ascetic undertakes. The ascetic may have any of the types of religious experience, but typically the mystical or charismatic.
(Pp. 129 - 130.)


The monastic community provides the opportunity to concentrate on the religious life for those who see no way of doing this in the outside world. [...]

The religious attitude in monasticism is towards an inward-turning detachment from the world. The source of religious experience is reading from the scripture, prayer, fasting and sometimes some austerities. There may, in some monastic communities, be a religious experience from the sense of community and fellowship. The main types of religious experience on this pathway are the mystical or the confirming type of regenerative experience.
(Pp. 131 - 132.)


The principal idea of the gnostic movements is that the central religious experience is linked to a special knowledge to which only a select few have access. The knowledge usually takes the form of an inner (esoteric) understanding of either the scriptures or the rituals of the religion. [...]

One of the features of this tendency in the West is its eclectic nature. Consequently, many gnostic groups in the West have little connection with Christianity, for example New Thought, the Rosicrucians and Scientology. The approach that has become known as the Perennial Philosophy can also be classed as gnostic.

The principal religious attitude on this pathway involves a search for truth. This search is principally intellectual, a struggle to understand; some would say that it is also élitist. Part of the religious attitude must also be that of obedience to one's spiritual master, particularly in the early stages of the path. [...] The main source of religious experience is the scriptures; it occurs when there is an intellectual enlightenment regarding the true meaning of the scripture. The gnostic pathway is closely linked to mysticism. Many gnostic pathways use the experiential dimension of mysticism, including meditation or chanting, which helps to achieve altered states of consciousness.
(Pp. 132, 134 - 135.)


The term 'mysticism' is used to describe a wide variety of religious phenomena. For lack of a more suitable word, I shall use it to refer to those groups that consider that the central religious experience can best be recreated through achieving altered states of consciousness. Such states can be reached in two different ways. The first is the path of increased psychological arousal achieved, for example, by rhythmical chanting or dancing. This culminates in mystical ecstacy [...]. The second is the path of decreased mental activity leading to a deep state of meditation [...]. Both paths lead finally to a trance state. [...]

This type of religious experience, which can be found in both Eastern and Western religions, is usually closely linked to gnosticism. [...]

The trance-like state achieved by Western mystics is often described as filled with vivid visions and auditions. [...] The trance-like state of the Eastern mystic, however, is usually formless, visionless experience. [...] Western religion is predominantly devotional in nature, and so the product of the trance-like state is a vision of either the object of devotion or something closely associated with it. Eastern religion is predominantly oriented towards achieving an abstract notion - insight. The trance-like state therefore tends to be empty and formless. The main method of achieving altered states of consciousness is also different in the two forms of mysticism. It is achieved by increasing levels of mental arousal through chanting and similar activity in the Western religions, and decreasing levels through meditation in the Eastern religion. This may also have a bearing on the content of the trance.

The religious attitude on this pathway is one that tends to be turned inwards, trying to obtain a direct personal experience of the sacred. Once it is felt that this has been attained, then there is usually a feeling of love and compassion, not just towards other individual human beings, but more expansively, towards the whole cosmos. The main source of religious experience on this pathway is in the achievement of altered states of consciousness by such methods as chanting and meditation. The religious experience on this pathway is of the mystical type.
(Pp. 135 - 137.)

Classification of Religious Groups

The above are the different pathways to religious experience as classified and described by Moojan Momen. There is some overlap between these pathways, and a religious group may exhibit the use of more than one of them. Momen also classifies religious groups according to their utilisation of the pathways as follows.

Some religious groups only exhibit one of these methods of social expression (or possibly two interlinked methods). Therefore their appeal will be to only a narrow range of psychological types from among the general population. We may name these groups 'sects' or 'cults'. [...] In general, the word 'sect' applies to those groups that are more tightly organized and where beliefs are more narrowly defined (that is, they are epistemologically authoritarian); the word 'cult' to the more loosely organized groups where there is not such a strict insistence on adherence to particular beliefs.

On the other hand, any religion that would claim to be a 'world religion' should included all the different forms of religious expression and thus, potentially, be able to appeal to all types of people. [...]

An approach incorporating more than one, but not all, social expressions can be found in intermediate groupings that we might call 'churches' or 'denominations'. [...]

As well as catering for all types of social religoius expression, a world religion must also appeal to all types of individuals at the conceptual level, by its ability to encompass both the theistic and monistic viewpoints. A sect will usually only appeal either to the theistic or to the monistic viewpoint.
(Pp. 138 - 139.)

I was going to make several comments along the way, but this is too long as it is. No doubt I will return to those individual points I wanted to comment on in later posts.

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