I have a confession to make. I have never had a religious experience (I once had a hypnopompic hallucination, which was quite scary at the time. Fortunately, I had already read about these hallucinations so when I experienced it I simply thought “b#@ger me – so that's a hypnopompic hallucination!”
So, where do I stand in relation to such experiences? The rest of this article is an attempt to answer that question. I stole the title from a wry and witty comment in De Numine #46 that ‘religion’ could be defined as ‘the politics of religious experience’. There are several aspects of the 'politics of religious experience' that have interested me over the years: definitions of religion, Perennialism and the 'common core' hypothesis, empirical and experiential approaches, science and scientism, and 'spiritual one-up-manship'.
The quip was in response to the question posed in a previous issue of
De Numine asking readers to propose their own definitions of religion. My response is not to try to define it at all. ‘History’, it is often said, ‘is written by the winners’. Similarly, perhaps, ‘religion’ is defined by the discipline. Okay, my cliché isn't as snappy so I doubt that it will catch on. However, ‘religion’ is often defined, intentionally or not, in an a priori way that serves the agenda of its definer. For example, Ninian Smart (1996) avoided defining religion by reference solely to supernatural agents because he didn’t want to exclude Theravada Buddhism, Marxism, or Humanism from his scope. Instead he referred to ‘worldviews’ and put forward a ‘functional delineation of
religions in lieu of a strict definition’. This took the form of several dimensions: ritual, doctrinal, mythic, ethical, social, experiential, and artistic. Similarly, Pascal Boyer (1994, P34) admits that his own characterisation of religion depends on the assumptions and models that constitute his own view
point. Whereas, Richard Dawkins (2006) characterises religion as extremist
and delusional from the outset, in order to make it easier to criticise and dismiss it. In his national survey Alister Hardy didn't define religion as such but instead asked,
‘Have you ever been aware of or influenced by a presence or power, whether you call it God or not, which is different from your everyday self?’
I suspect he phrased it this way in order not to exclude people who, whilst having this type of experience, did not consider themselves to be religious.
Recently the Alister Hardy Society (AHS) was renamed the Alister Hardy Society for the Study of Spiritual Experience (AHSSSE). One of the reasons for this was that it was felt the term ‘spiritual’ was more inclusive and related better to current conceptions of these kinds of experiences. It also
makes the interests of the Society immediately apparent to anyone not already familiar with it. Dr. Greg Barker, former Co-Director of the RERC, was planning a pilot study to determine what language a new generation of experiencers use to refer to such experiences. This would help inform a future national survey of religious(?) experience.
Definitions and terminology have a very real impact on the Society. Some time ago, at a Committee meeting of the AHSSSE, we were discussing the option of a Society networking website, similar to Facebook, that would enable AHSSSE members to interact socially over the Internet. A demo site was set up with a variety of content. However, the RERC requested that an item relating to séance style mediumship be removed as it may threaten the success of a funding bid to the Templeton Foundation. Personally, I agreed that the bid should not be jeopardised and that the content should be removed, at least until after the bid. This highlights the kind of political issues around religious experience that I am talking about. Is mediumship a valid area of academic study for the RERC? Hardy himself, in one of his letters to a correspondent stated that he was only interested in ‘psychic’ experiences as long as they were definitely related to religion in some way. Of course, on the one hand the RERC must maintain a rigorous, academic, professional approach to its subject matter; both to maintain academic respectability and to attract funding. However, on the other hand is this approach liable to jeopardise certain avenues of research by pronouncing them off-limits a priori?
There is, of course, a danger in having too many or too broad a definition of religion. The more definitions we have the more difficult it will become to compare the results of different studies. How can we be sure they are
comparing the same thing? When I undertook the research for my MA dissertation using the RERC archive, biographies, contemporary accounts, and Internet forums, I deliberately avoided defining religion or spirituality. This was partly to discover what respondents themselves understood by these terms, and partly because I wanted a more inclusive approach; that is, accounts of experiences that were not only traditionally religious but
also less traditional ones too.
In summary, I believe it is important to be aware of the implications and limitations of such definitions, and to avoid becoming dogmatic about them. Such preconceived categories may obscure aspects of the phenomena that would otherwise be illuminating. We should therefore listen carefully to how experiencers define themselves and their own experiences.
Part two to follow...
Originally published in two parts in De Numine, No. 54 & 55, pp5-8.