What is a religious experience?

Friday 01 December 2023

Nick Nielsen
12 min readDec 3, 2023

I have many times observed that most civilizations have had religions as their central projects. I have also said that, in light of this, civilization has a religion-shaped hole in it, and anything else that is not religion that fits that hole, or is made to fit that hole (the familiar religious substitutes of nationalism, communism, and socialism) will of necessity possess many of the same properties of religion — or will be made to possess these properties as a consequence of filling the role of religion. Looking at it from the other side, we could say that religion has a civilization-shaped hole in it, but that doesn’t work quite as well, not least because we generally suppose that religion predated civilization. However, it would be fair to say that civilization and institutionalized religion co-evolved, just as civilization and war co-evolved. The three cannot be neatly separated in the messiness of history. But to say that most civilizations have had a religion as a central project is a nicely sententious way to express the essential character of pre-modern civilization; like most explanations in a nutshell, however, it is an oversimplification, and, as always, the devil is in the details.

Daniel Dubuisson has argued in his The Western Construction of Religion: Myths, Knowledge, and Ideology that “religion” is an historically recent concept that is distinctively Western, so that applying the concept of religion to non-Western traditions is an imposition that does not necessarily accurately reflect what is going on in non-Western societies. A review of Dubuisson says that when his book appeared in English, “much of his argument had ceased to be controversial and had been absorbed into a subset of Studies in Religion scholarship.” While Dubuisson’s work was rapidly accepted and integrated into religious studies, his alternative has not been accepted: Dubuisson suggested that “cosmographical formation” be used in place of “religion.” Needless to say, this didn’t catch on.

I think I understand Dubuisson’s objection, and I can concede parts of his thesis, but it needs to be placed in a larger context. The concept of religion as we know it today appeared in the early modern period. Brent Nongbri’s 2013 book, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept, argues for the historical recentness of the religion concept, and, like Dubuisson, claims that it is a distinctively Western idea. This should sound familiar, because the concept of civilization also appeared in the early modern period, a bit later than religion, but still at about the same time. And we should not be surprised that these concepts appear in the intellectual tradition of Western civilization. The early modern period was the time of the scientific revolution, and since the scientific revolution originated within Western civilization, all of the abstract concepts of science originated in Western thought first, and were first expressed in Western languages.

The imperfect fit of the concept of “religion” to those traditions it seeks to describe is not limited to religious studies. The same can be said of the concept of civilization. We may not have had a science of religion or a science of civilization appear in the early modern period, but the process of concept formation was well underway, touching everything in human experience even when those experiences have not yet been reduced to a scientific exposition. The entire conceptual framework of industrialized civilization is derived from its origins in earlier Western civilization, and wherever the practices and institutions of industrialized civilization have been transplanted, much of the conceptual framework became part of that scientific legacy. No doubt this is a source of aggravation and irritation to some individuals within non-Western societies who find themselves using Western concepts and a Western vocabulary to describe what is going on in their society, but there is not much that can be done about this. Western civilization was the “first mover” in industrialization, and the first mover in any given sphere sets the tone for all that follows. It can also be observed that Dubuisson’s alternative to religion, cosmographical formations, is another expression of the Western conceptual framework, and could not be expressed in the traditional concepts of other societies.

Science appeared within Western civilization, which therefore was the framework within which the concepts of science were formed.

If industrialized civilization is the basis of all human civilization from now on out, then the initial Western origins of industrialization will be carried forward into all future human civilizations. This legacy will be subject to revision and modification, and it may be eventually transformed into something unrecognizable for what it once was, but its Western origins will remain. If, on the other hand, industrialized civilization fails and does not recover, but some other tradition arises in its place, some other form of civilization that is not industrialized civilization as we know it today, then that alternative tradition will leave its mark on the future in the same way, and if this alternative tradition of civilization is derived from a non-Western conceptual framework, then this non-Western conceptual framework would then be carried forward into all future forms of civilization, again, subject to revision and modification. However, industrialized civilization has made such an impact on the planet that, even if it fails, the historical existence proof that it provided will always haunt us, as the Roman Empire haunts Western history today.

My point here is that this isn’t about being the Western equivalent of the Ugly American (i.e., a generalization of the Ugly American), it is about historical processes that are larger than Western civilization. We can say that the concept of civilization is “Eurocentric” (as Cusack says in his review of Dubuisson, quoted above), but this is an artifact of our place in history, when Western civilization has an outsized influence. If we go far enough into the past, or far enough into the future, the conditions that produced artifacts like our concept of religion will not obtain. It may well be that, in the far future, Earth is essentially the planet of Western civilization, but it equally may well be that Earth is essentially the planet of Chinese civilization.

William James: “There are moments of sentimental and mystical experience — we shall hereafter hear much of them — that carry an enormous sense of inner authority and illumination with them when they come. But they come seldom, and they do not come to every one; and the rest of life makes either no connection with them, or tends to contradict them more than it confirms them.”

But I brought up religion in the abstract not to debate Dubuisson’s criticism of it, but to make use of the concept, however imperfect and inaccurate it is. And it is both of these things. Not only for non-Western societies, but for Western society itself the concept of religion is often an awkward fit to cover all the possible permutations of religious belief and observance. William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience is testimony to the fecundity and diversity of religious experience, which exhibits a multifariousness that threatens to escape the confines of the concept of religion. I have mentioned previously (I don’t recall where) that I tried to read James’ book when I was younger but made no headway at all, but when I read parts of its recently I found it utterly fascinating. I have not yet studied the book in its entirety, but hope to do so soon. I have been thinking about James’ book again of late because I have been coming at the problem of the varieties of religious experience from a somewhat different angle, which I will try to describe, but I’m not sure that I am yet at a point at which I can formulate what I want to say in a satisfactory way. In fact, I’m sure that I’m not yet at that point, so this will be yet another attempt to grasp an elusive concept on the margins of my thought.

Recently reading T. S. Eliot’s The Idea of a Christian Society (mentioned in newsletter 263) crystallized for me a problem I had been trying to make explicit, so the problem is clear for me, but its formulation is not yet clear. In this book, among the many interesting arguments it makes, Eliot has described what I would call a purely conventionally religious society. He is concerned to demonstrate the place of Christianity in Western society, and to demonstrate the virtues of Christianity as he conceives of it, but Eliot says nothing of religious experience. His Christian society is a society in which people take seriously the church as a source of moral truth, but in this short work there is nothing at all about religious experiences, not even the experience of the transmission of a moral truth, which could be considered a function of education (and Eliot has much to say about education in this and other works of cultural criticism), but it would be stretching it to call education a form of religious experience — not impossible, to be sure, but also not very plausible.

T. S. Eliot: “…what I have said about the negative character of our political philosophy should suggest a parallel criticism of our education, not as it is found in practice here or there, but in the assumptions about the nature and purpose of education which tend to affect practice throughout the country.”

So when I was reading Eliot and I noticed the absence of any reference to religious experience, my first reaction was to assume that authentic religious experience is a mystical experience, making the assumption that mystical experiences lie at the origins of most institutional religions. But this, I realized, is a much too narrow way to think about religious experience. So I asked myself, while reading Eliot, “What is a religious experience?” and, as soon as I asked the question, I realized that I was on James’ territory. It was James’ purpose precisely to point out the varieties of religious experience, which are legion. Religious experiences even within a society dominated by a single religious tradition may take many forms, from the stultifyingly conventional to the ecstatically mystical, and all points in between.

In my recent talk on “Heroic Virtues in Space Exploration: Supererogation in Outer Space” I touched on the religious experience of St. Thomas Aquinas, well known to all philosophy students. Late in his life, after writing all his major works. Aquinas had a religious experience while celebrating the Mass. Prevailed upon to begin writing again, which he had abandoned, Aquinas said that all he had written was as straw compared to what he had seen. The Mass is a religious observance, or a ritual, if you like, that might be performed with or without an experience of the kind that Aquinas had. Probably, having a profound experience during a ritual is the exception, rather than the rule. It is possible that performing a ritual will result in a religious experience, but it is in no way guaranteed.

The Vision of St. Thomas Aquinas, by Sassetta (Stefano di Giovanni) (c.1400–1450)

Some religious rituals are more effective than others in generating religious experience, especially when the ritual employs psychotropic substances or feats of endurance that lead to exhaustion and therefore altered states of consciousness. I suspect, now that I have been thinking about it, that a commonplace ritual might inspire a range of distinct religious experiences, so that what your neighbor experiences might not be what you experience. However, the more developed the religious tradition, the more opportunity there has been to channel and mold the experience, if any distinctive experience occurs. In traditional religions, the shaman is the figure who is experienced in the ways of the spirit world and can lead the initiate through the rigors of a vision or a quest, but, in so leading, he imposes his own experience upon the initiate, and his experience in turn was shaped by generations of predecessors.

Jewish mysticism is one of the best examples of how a tradition of mysticism is contained within an institutional framework. An individual is expected to have invested a considerable portion of their lives into the study or the Torah and the Talmud before ever being exposed to Kabbalah mysticism, which virtually guarantees that the experiences generated by Kabbalistic practices will be interpreted within a prior theological framework. Here theology has the first mover advantage, and no matter how bizarre one’s mystical experiences can be, if the only concepts and vocabulary you possess is a theological framework, then that is how you will explain your experience. The same can be seen in many medieval Christian mystics. Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love is a good example of mystical experience that follows a more-or-less orthodox theology, but one could just as well cite the writings of St. Teresa of Avila or the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyala.

St. Igantius of Loyala: “The Foundation, and especially the first proposition which it lays down concerning the end of man, may indeed be addressed to any man, Christian or non-Christian, Catholic or heretic; for it declares truths which should appeal to man simply as man, on grounds of reason and natural religion, quite apart from revelation and faith.”

So far, however, I have been formulating all this in terms of various forms of mysticism, but I have realized that I need to get beyond this, or I need to interpret “mysticism” as widely as “religion” is interpreted. Religious experience need not be mysticism, and especially not some narrowly conceived ecstatic experience. But, however we conceive of religious experience, Eliot’s book on a Christian society says nothing at all about Christian experience. Now, we can define completely conventional and formal expressions of faith — attending a religious service, participating in a ritual, exchanging gifts on Christmas, and so on — that are experiences, but one might participate in any or all of these expressions of faith without feeling anything, without being moved, without experiencing an altered state of consciousness, without encountering the ineffable, without glimpsing anything beyond the ordinary — if one wanted to present such experiences with a flourish, one could say that these are eminently immanent experiences, as they involve no component of transcendence. On my mother’s final day of life, we had a long conversation about Protestant denominations (in particular, those that had been transplanted from Scandinavia into the New World), which was for me an intellectual exercise, and an eminently immanent experience, but it might not be such for another.

By the same token, one might participate in what is for another an eminently immanent experience, and come away with the feeling that something profound and remarkable has happened, i.e., that it was a transformative experience that leaves one changed, and one’s perception of oneself, of the world, and of one’s relationship to the world, have all changed as a result. My impression is that this latter kind of experience, however it is experienced and however it is interpreted, was utterly lacking in Eliot’s conception of a Christian society, and that is why I call Eliot’s book an exercise in a purely conventional society. Perhaps Eliot would be shocked to hear that anyone would interpret him in this way; I haven’t read enough of his works to know where he stands on the issue of religious experience. But this kind of society strikes me as being embalmed alive; it is a zombie society in which people participate in rituals and mouth the moral truths superintended by the church, but no one feels anything. The machinery is simply kept in motion to preserve social order. All the while, new kinds of experience are appearing elsewhere, at times completely disconnected from anything religious or even “spiritual.”

Joseph Campbell: “[With science] we have a still greater, more alive, revelation than anything our old religions ever gave to us.”

I am taken back time and again to Joseph Campbell’s explicitly expressed claim in his 1961 lecture “The Impact of Science on Myth” that with science “…we have a still greater, more alive, revelation than anything our old religions ever gave to us.” Elsewhere Campbell alluded to what I have attempted to describe above, that is to say, a spiritually dead society that continues out of mere inertia, and a new kind spiritual striving that appears in other aspects of life that lie outside the traditional boundaries of the spiritual. A mythology must be living, or, like a dead language, it is studied only as an historical curiosity. That Western society has come as close as it has to superintending a dead myth explains much of our difficulties today. I am not making the claim that we do in fact live in a spiritually dead society in which institutionalized religions are what Nietzsche called the sepulchers of God, and that outside these sepulchers the authentic aspiration of science is shining as a light unto the nations. That is a little too pat, but it is not entirely wrong. Nevertheless, it is still wrong in important ways.

Since Campbell made his argument about the contemporary scientific vision outstripping traditional religious visions, scientific institutions have been captured by a radical ideology that has rapidly transformed the institutions of science, already far younger than the institutions of religion, into a hollow shell. Many eminent scientists have proved utterly craven in pandering to the mob. However, traditional religious institutions are no less vulnerable, and many if not most are following institutionalized science down the same primrose path. And there’s more, of course. Even if science had not been compromised, and even if it does offer the kind of revelation that Campbell said it did, science alone cannot be a substitute for religion (and “science” here involves all the same problems as “religion” — it is an abstraction that does not perfectly fit all the uses to which it is put). Science properly pursued does not fit into the religion-shaped hole in civilization. Insofar as it is forced to fit into that hole, it ceases to be science and becomes a surrogate religion.