Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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While "religious experience" is commonly named as a central aspect of religion and as a core dimension of religiosity, it has been studied far less frequently than such other aspects as beliefs and practices. This is due at least in part to the fact that the precise referent of "religious experience" is elusive. In addition to being variously defined, it often simply goes undefined, and varieties of it appear under a host of other labels including mystical, ecstatic, numinous, born-again, anomalous, paranormal, out-of-body, flow, transcendental, and conversion experiences.

As there seems not to be any use of the phrase religious experience as a technical term prior to William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience (VRE: 1902:xiii, n. 6), this discussion necessarily begins with his usage. Although James never defines religious experience as succinctly as he defines religion , he does suggest that any experience that combines religious (sacred, Godlike) objects with appropriate emotions (joyfulness, seriousness) constitutes a variety of religious experience (VRE: 31).

While James sought the "essence of religious experience . . . in those religious experiences which are most one-sided, exaggerated, and intense" (VRE: 44), it is not clear that he intended to limit the study of religious experience only to extraordinary experiences. Unfortunately, James's own work, while not equating mysticism and religious experience, does seem to conflate them in arguing that "personal religious experience has its root and centre in mystical states of consciousness." (VRE: 301) Thus James's notion that there are a variety of religious experiences often has been narrowed to one type: mysticism . While mysticism is certainly one variety of religious experience, and while other varieties of religious experience have some of the same characteristics as mysticism, the two are not identical. Mysticism is but one species of the genus religious experience.

Even when scholars have not exclusively studied mysticism under the rubric of religious experience, they have still tended to focus (with James) on the more dramatic, intense types, to the exclusion of more ordinary or mundane experiences. Although James and other early psychologists of religion (e.g., Starbuck, Lueba) pioneered the social scientific study of religious experience near the turn of the twentieth century, it was not until the 1960s that rigorous methods of social scientific inquiry were commonly applied to religious experience. This contemporary period is of interest here.

Empirical Studies of Religious Experience

Recalling Ludwig Wittgenstein's dictum that the meaning of a word is in its usage, it will be helpful to review how religious experience has been used in contemporary research. While this strategy avoids the question of what religious experience actually is , it is a practical way to approach so varied a collection of phenomena. In examining how social scientists have treated religious experience when they have chosen to study it, various aspects of religious experience emerge that, taken together, constitute a partial, although still incomplete, definition of the phenomenon.

The most common operationalization of religious experience is in terms of the sense, feeling, or perception of being in the presence of the sacred, holy, or supernatural . Stark (1965), in one of the earliest rigorously empirical studies of religious experience, used the following question to get at the phenomenon: "Have you ever as an adult had the feeling that you were somehow in the presence of God?" He found a high positive response rate, 71.6%, although it should be noted that his sample consisted of church members. A more diverse sample was surveyed by Robert Wuthnow and the Berkeley New Religious Consciousness project directed by Charles Glock and Robert Bellah in the early 1970s. Wuthnow (1978) used the question, "Have you ever felt you were in close contact with something holy or sacred?" to measure religious experience among a San Francisco Bay Area sample, 50% of whom answered affirmatively.

This line of inquiry has not been limited to the United States. A group of researchers organized as the Religious Experience Research Unit (RERU) in Oxford, England, also have contributed to the scholarship in this area (Hay and Morisy 1978). In a national survey of Britons in 1976, these researchers asked: "Have you ever been aware of or influenced by a presence or a power, whether you call it God or not, which is different from your everyday self?" and 36.4% of respondents indicated they had, with half of these aving had such experiences "several times" or more frequently.

Often related to being in the presence of the supernatural are out-of-body experiences. Andrew Greeley (1975) developed a question to measure this aspect of religious experience, which was subsequently asked of a representative sample of Americans in 1974. Of that sample, 35% responded affirmatively to the question: "Have you ever felt as though you were close to a powerful, spiritual force which seemed to lift you out of yourself?" Greeley calls this ecstasy , recalling the term's origin in the Greek ekstasis , "to be placed outside." This same question subsequently has been included several times in NORC's annual General Social Survey. It also has been used by researchers at the RERU, who found 30.4% of their British sample also reported such ecstatic religious experiences.

These out-of-body experiences have been explained by some as "altered states of consciousness." Most often, these altered states are not simply seen as different but are considered higher forms of consciousness, often called self-transcending consciousness. In the first study based on a nationally representative sample, Bourque (1969:154) defined religious experience as "an expansion of consciousness, or the entrance into the new level of consciousness." This understanding is reminiscent of Abraham Maslow's generic category of dramatic experiences, "peak experiences," which are a form of "hyperconsciousness" that he called "Being-cognition." Using data gathered by the Gallup Organization in 1966, Bourque found that 31.8% of the sample responded affirmatively to the question: "Would you say that you ever had a 'religious or mystical experience'—that is, a moment of sudden religious insight or awakening?"

Focusing also on the cognitive dimension, Greeley (1974) has argued, with the Gnostics, that religious experience is a "way of knowing"—a direct apprehension of ultimate reality. In the literature on mysticism, this is referred to as its "noetic" quality: The experience is seen to be a valid source of knowledge. The importance of experience has long been recognized in Western philosophy, notably among the British empiricists who saw experience as the only reliable source of knowledge. Religious experience, at least in the West, has therefore been invoked frequently as evidence for the existence of God or other supernatural entities (Davis 1989).

Facilitators and Consequences of Religious Experience

Considerable effort has been put into determining the individual and environmental conditions that facilitate religious experience as well as the psychological and behavioral consequences of religious experiencing. While dozens of antecedents and consequences have been identified (Greeley 1975, Hardy 1979, Laski 1961), there are some consistently named factors in the literature.

Psychological facilitators: The most common antecedents seem to operate in the same way as facilitators of religious experience. Meditation and other forms of prayer, sensory deprivation, psychedelic drugs, and music all disrupt everyday patterns of perception, loosen the grip of the normal mental construction of reality, and thereby facilitate a heightened awareness of alternative models of reality, modes of perception, and states of consciousness.

Looking at the issue more broadly, Batson and his colleagues (1993:106) argue that "religious experience involves cognitive restructuring in an attempt to deal with one or more existential questions." Thus, in addition to the perceptual processes above, they find a key antecedent to be an existential crisis. They find precedent for this conceptualization of religious experience in William James, who found "an uneasiness and its solution" to characterize all religious experiences. Empirical support for this idea can be found in Hardy's (1979) large collection of cases in which the most frequently cited antecedents of religious experience are depression, despair, and death.

Social facilitators: Despite the suggestion of many psychologists that religious experience is a profoundly individual accomplishment, and that involvement in religious organization stifles rather than supports such experiences (see James 1902, Maslow 1964), accounts of religious experience reveal one of the most frequently cited antecedents to be "participation in religious worship" (Hardy 1979). This anecdotal finding has been corroborated by statistical analyses of national survey data (Yamane and Polzer 1994).

A few attempts have been made to explain this consistent relationship from a sociological perspective, the best of which is that of Neitz and Spickard (1990:22), who argue that religious groups structure activities in ways conducive to what Csikszentmihalyi (1975) calls "flow experiences," especially in ritual practices that "manipulate sensory stimuli to focus their participants' concentration," which facilitates religious experiences. Building upon this insight, Yamane and Polzer (1994:11) have argued that "religious traditions provide symbolic resources for the construction of alternative realities and promote actions directed at breaking through to those realities," and therefore involvement in religious traditions—especially in prayer and religious services—is conductive to religious experience.

Consequences: There is much to suggest that the primary consequence of religious experience is satisfaction with one's life. Maslow found "peak experiences" common among his "self-actualized" individuals and Csikszentmihalyi finds "flow experiences" to be related to individual happiness. In a national survey sample, Greeley (1975) found "ecstasy" to be strongly and positively correlated with Bradburn's happiness scale, and Hardy (1979) found "a sense of purpose or new meaning to life" to be far and away the most frequently named consequence of religious experience in the self-reports he collected. If we recall James's assertion that religious experience is characterized most generally by prior discontent and its resolution, it should not surprise us that religious experience is consistently found to be positively related to individual well-being.

Other positive consequences of religious experience include being less authoritarian and racist, less materialistic and status conscious, and showing more social concern and more self-assurance (Greeley 1975, Wuthnow 1978). In fact, it is in large part because of such consequences that scholars continue to acknowledge the importance of the experiential dimension of religion, even if not many study it.

The Road Less Traveled

According to Michael Oakeshott (1933:xxi), " 'Experience', of all the words in the philosophic vocabulary, . . . [is] the most difficult to manage; and it must be the ambition of every writer reckless enough to use the word to escape the ambiguities it contains." The same can be said of social scientists who attempt to study the experiential dimension of religion. As we have seen, most have avoided the ambiguities by focusing on the most extraordinary of experiences, as did William James—this despite the fact that a persistent criticism of The Varieties is precisely that its focus on extreme cases neglected more mundane aspects of religious experience. Common experiences such as quiet devotion or ordinary piety fall outside the purview of James and those influenced by him. Even Batson and his colleagues, who claim an interest not only in "dramatic" experiences but also in "religion as experienced by the individual ," follow James's suggestion "to focus on the most dramatic and intense experiences."

Thus, while James and others claim that the focus on dramatic experiences is strictly for practical purposes, according to John E. Smith, "It seems clear . . . that James believed the epic and heroic experiences to be not only especially instructive but more authentic " (VRE: xviii). Davis (1989:30), for one, is explicit about her belief that certain experiences are more genuine than others, arguing that

not all experiences in a religious context are "religious experiences"—an itch during communion is unlikely to be, for instance! Similarly, the perception of religious texts and works of art and the participation in religious rituals, though experiences with religious content, do not in themselves constitute "religious experiences."

While the one-sided focus on "those religious experiences that are most one-sided" dominates the area, there is an alternative, if less traveled, road that scholars might take in approaching religious experience. It is a path cut by the most sustained and ambitious attempt to study religious experience empirically yet undertaken. Founded in 1969 by the zoologist Sir Alister Hardy, the aforementioned Religious Experience Research Unit has gathered thousands of self-reports of religious experiences, largely by publishing requests for self-reports in newspapers. In contrast to the Jamesian tradition, Hardy (1979:18 f.) and his colleagues have been interested in religious experience as "a continuing feeling of transcendental reality or of a divine presence," not simply dramatic experiences but also "seemingly more ordinary but deeply felt experiences."

For Hardy, all of an individual's lived experience is a candidate for study under the broad umbrella of religious experience. Religious experience in this view refers to all of the individual's subjective involvement with the sacred: the sense of peace and awe, mysticism and conversion, the presence of God, absorbing ritual experience, and on and on. Thus it is Hardy, not James and his descendants, who has truly begun cataloging the varieties of religious experience.

David Yamane


C. D. Batson et al., Religion and the Individual (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993)

L. B. Bourque, "Social Correlates of Transcendental Experiences," Sociological Analysis 30(1969):151-163

M. Csikszentmihalyi, Beyond Boredom and Anxiety (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1975)

C. F. Davis, The Evidential Force of Religious Experience (Oxford: Clarendon, 1989)

A. Greeley, Ecstasy (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1974)

A. Greeley, The Sociology of the Paranormal (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1975)

A. Hardy, The Spiritual Nature of Man (Oxford: Clarendon, 1979)

D. Hay and A. Morisy, "Reports of Ecstatic, Paranormal, or Religious Experience in Great Britain and the United States," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 17(1978):255-268

W. James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985 [1902])

M. Laski, Ecstasy (London: Cresset, 1961)

A. Maslow, Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences (New York: Penguin, 1964)

M. J. Neitz and J. V. Spickard, "Steps Toward a Sociology of Religious Experience," Sociological Analysis 51(1990):15-33

M. Oakeshott, Experience and Its Modes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1933)

R. Stark, "Social Contexts and Religious Experience," Review of Religious Research 6(1965): 17-28

R. Wuthnow, "Peak Experiences," Journal of Humanistic Psychology 18(1978):59-75

D. Yamane and M. Polzer, "Ways of Seeing Ecstasy in Modern Society," Sociology of Religion 55(1994):1-25.


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