Religious Experience

This essay was published in the Blanton Peale Online Encyclopedia of Psychology of Religion, 2009.

Robert Walker Gunn, A.B., M.Div., S.T.M., D.Min., Ph.D.

Lecturer, Union Theological Seminary, New York

Psychotherapist in Private Practice



Insofar as one defines religious experience as an experience of the transcendent or the supernatural (or some equivalent term), religious experience has been around in some form since humans developed symbols and language. We may look at the full range of religious experience in either of at least four ways: 1) how the experiences of the transcendent are viewed from within the religion itself;  2) how the experiences may be evaluated and understood from a discipline outside any particular religion; 3) the unique approach to religious experience in a religion based on mind; and 4) the use of various drugs to induce transcendental states of mind.

1. Religious Experience as Viewed from within the Particular Religion

Each religion usually begins with a profound experience of the transcendent on the part of the founder. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as well as Moses, all had profound experiences of God that were the basis for Judaism. Jesus had direct experiences of God and his followers had direct experiences of him for the founding of Christianity. Many Christians emphasize the importance of having a personal experience of Christ, called “being born again.” Islam was founded on the experience of Allah by Mohammed.  Buddhism began with the enlightenment experience of Shakyamuni Buddha, and continued, particularly in Zen, to emphasize the importance of one’s own direct experience of enlightenment, which would be verified by one’s teacher. The value of direct personal experience in religion is in its transformational possibilities: those who have them often claim to have a clearer purpose for living, a shift away from egocentrism in the direction of altruism and identification with the existential plight of all living things; and a sense of time that transcends human chronology. Within each religion there are often criteria by which particular religious experiences are evaluated as to their authenticity.

Within each of the world religions, where the direct experience of the transcendent is not emphasized, emphasis usually falls on correct doctrine, belief or ritual and practice for approval of one’s status within the religion. Thus, Judaism has its requirement of circumcision, the Mosaic Laws, the Torah and Talmud; Christianity has its gospels and New Testament canon, its belief in Christ as formulated by one of the ancient creeds (Nicene, Apostles’, etc.) and allegiance to the Church; Islam has its daily prayers and weekly gatherings, and reliance on the Koran; Buddhism has its precepts for monks and laity and the teachings of the Buddha as written in the Dhammapada, and the many sutras that followed.

2. Religious Experience Viewed from Disciplines Outside Religion

As an object or field of study capable of being investigated and understood by someone outside any particular religion, however, the very concept of religious experience is a relatively new idea in the history of civilizations. It requires the conceptual possibility of a secular consciousness, i.e., a consciousness that reflects on itself and on all human phenomena without presuming a priori any particular religious truth. It requires someone to look at religious experience from outside the religion.

In this sense, religious experience is impossible to consider without at least the theoretical possibility of atheism or at least secularization, which is to say, it is impossible without the capacity to stand back from all religions and observe religious activity as an outsider. Such a stance aims to observe, evaluate, categorize and understand religious experience on phenomenological grounds alone, without any reference to the truth claims of any particular religion.

As such, religious experience as a field of study never appeared in the world before the nineteenth century CE, that era in which God was declared dead by Nietzsche, religion was declared an opiate of the masses by Marx, God was seen as a projection of the immature human psyche by Freud, and the entire origin of species was theorized by Darwin without any assumptions of theistic causation.

One might say that the roots of an entirely secular, non-theistic weltanschauung were laid by the Protestant Reformation’s break from the Roman Catholic Church (1517-1648), for without the concept of a legitimate consciousness separate from ecclesiastical control, all observations and truth claims were captive to the Church, as attested by the church’s condemnation of Galileo (1564-1642) and Spinoza (1632-1677), among others. Although the grounds for separating from the Roman Catholic Church were intra-religious, based on the interpretation of the Biblical text itself, the revolutionary and ground-breaking departure was the concept of the individual conscience and the personal direct access to God as superseding ecclesiastical authority. The conception of the possible validity of an individual’s conscience being greater than the consensus ecclesiae was the first step toward the development of a secular consciousness, a consciousness not constricted by and defined by the church’s authority.  In this sense, the Protestant Reformation was a necessary precursor to the Age of Enlightenment, which provided the humanistic philosophical and political framework from which the natural and social sciences of the nineteenth century sprang. Only after Freud, Marx, Nietzsche and Darwin could the idea of a study of religious experience per se be considered.

William James may easily be called the father of secular studies of religious experience. His book, The Varieties of Religious Experience,[i] published in 1902, remains the classic work in the field. In it he outlined the four characteristics of religious experience as being 1) transient, 2) ineffable, 3) noetic, and 4) passive. The experience is transient in that it occurs in a limited frame of time, after which the person returns to ordinary life. The experience is ineffable in that it is hard for the person to put it into words. It is noetic insofar as the person usually feels that she/he has learned something of deep and lasting value, on the basis of which her/his life is altered significantly for the better. The experience is passive in the sense that it was not created by conscious control, but “just happened”. Even if one engaged in deliberate activities to increase the possibility of the experience, the actual experience was not under the person’s will power or control.

It was in this book that James distinguished between the “once born” and the “twice born”: the once born are people who go through life without having any powerful religious experience that significantly changes them; the twice born are those who do have such a powerful religious experience that they see it as the basis for an entirely new (and improved, from their point of view) way of living.

It was also in this book that James distinguished between the religion of “healthy-minded” people and that of those of a very disagreeable temperament. In James’ view, healthy minded people choose a form of religion that is basically positive in its outlook on people and the world, whereas less healthy-minded people choose a religion fraught with the dynamics of judgment, anger and wrath. This distinction was invaluable for future studies on the particular characteristics of healthy/unhealthy people and, by extension, healthy/unhealthy religion.

The value of James’ book far exceeded the numerous brilliant insights he offered: it laid the groundwork for the entire field of psychology of religion, and psychology and religion. Moreover, it suggested how religion might be a proper field of study for other sciences. Thus, since James, the many dimensions of religious experience continue to be mapped by the fields of philosophy of religion, phenomenology of religion, sociology of religion, comparative studies in religion, history of religions, neurotheology, transpersonal psychology, and genetics.

Meanwhile, as society has become increasingly secularized and mainstream religion has suffered loss of favor, many people identify themselves as being “spiritual” without being “religious,” indicating an interest in experiences of the transcendent but a decidedly negative valuation of both institutionalized religion and monotheism. Such people tend to gravitate toward Eastern, non-theistic religions, or to personally constructed amalgams of religious and spiritual truths and practice.  The result is the expansion of the meaning of “religious experience” to include “spiritual experience,” in order to include those who intentionally don’t want to be identified with institutional or theistic religion.

     3. Religious Experience as Viewed From Within a Religion Based on Mind

            More than 2,000 years before Freud, a religion arose in India that was based on the intentional exploration of the nature of mind itself. Standing midway between religions that evaluate religious experience on the basis of his or her own internal standards and scientific disciplines that evaluate religious experience from an outside observer standpoint, Buddhism is entirely based on realizing the nature of mind and what is its ground or source through intensive meditation. Fully aware of the mind’s tendency to distort, project, deny, and to engage in whatever activities may confirm a sense of a permanent self, Buddhism trains adherents in awareness of the mind’s dynamics in order to break through the delusion of a fixed, separate and immutable self to ultimate reality, the emptiness of all things.  Such a breakthrough is what is called enlightenment in Buddhism. From that experience one realizes in a total (whole body and mind), non-conceptual way the basic tenets of Buddhism: the interdependence of all things, the impermanence of all things, wisdom and compassion.

4.  Religious Experience Initiated by the Use of Drugs

            The last category of religious experience to be considered is unique in that it is based on the ingestion of some form of chemical, whether found in nature, such as peyote, or manufactured, such as LSD, psilocybin, cocaine, or nitrous oxide, among others. Taking one of these drugs induces an experience with many of the characteristics identified by William James as marks of traditional mysticism: a transient and ineffable feeling of ecstasy, of loss of boundaries, an oceanic feeling of oneness with all; the noetic conviction that one has experienced some profound existential truth about the nature of ultimate reality. On the other hand, since it is prompted by the ingestion of drugs, such experiences do not have the fourth trait of passivity James listed. The significance of the passivity in traditional religious experience is in understanding it as an experience of grace, beyond one’s control. This element may be missing for those who use a drug to trigger the experience. For some people, nevertheless, drug-induced experiences of transcendence do become transformative in their day-to-day life. Such a life change is usually made possible by the person’s continual reflection on the experience and construction of a method for integrating the experience into their common life. On the other hand, as those religions that have made use of drugs in their rituals (most notably, Native Northern and Southern American tribes), certain precautions (such as the presence of a trust other person or community, or the context of a ritual) need to be taken so that the drug functions in a constructive way.

[i] William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004.


Byrom, Thomas, The Dhammapada. Boston: Shambhala, 1993.

Campbell, Joseph, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. New York: Pgw, 2008.

Eliade, Mircea, The Sacred and the Profane: the Nature of Religion. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1968.

Geertz, Clifford, The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, 1977.

James, George Alfred, Interpreting Religion: The Phenomenological Approaches of Pierre Daniel Chatepie de la Saussaye, W. Brede Krestensen and Gerardus van der Leeuw. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1995.

James, William, The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004.

Otto, Rudolf, The Idea of the Holy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1958.

Rahula, Walpola, What the Buddha Taught: Revised and Expanded Edition with Texts from the Suttas and the Dhammapada. New York: Grove/Atlantic, Inc. 1994.

Smith, Huston, Cleansing the Doors of Perception: the Religious Significance of Entheogenic Planats and Chemicals. Sentient Pubs. 2003.

Smith, Huston, The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991.

The Life of Meaning: Reflections on Faith, Doubt and Repairing the World. Bob Abernethy and William Bole, eds. See especially Chapter 4, “I’m Spiritual, not Religious”. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2007.

Wach, Joachim and Kitagawa, Joseph, Comparative Study of Religions. New York: Columbia University Press, 1961.

Wach, Joachim, Sociology of Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.

See also Buddhism

                James, William

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