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Religious and Spiritual Experience - Jack Hunter

Religious and spiritual experiences are just one of several different ways that people might
come to hold religious beliefs. Some people are born into religious life, their parents, family
and wider community teach them about religion from an early age and they live their lives
through the teachings of that religion. Other people convert to a religion because they
marry someone of a different faith, or because they are dissatised with the teachings of
the religion they grew up in. And still others come to believe through direct, personal,
religious or spiritual experiences, which change their whole worldview.
But what exactly are religious and spiritual experiences?
Put very simply, religious and spiritual experiences are types of experience that suggest
the existence of a higher power, or of spiritual realities. Religious experiences are not
limited to a single religious tradition, and could potentially happen to anyone.
Can you think of any kinds of experience that might be thought of as religious or spiritual?
Miracles (unusual events thought to be caused by the power of God, or gods), visions
(such as visions of the Virgin Mary in Catholicism), vivid dreams, audio and visual
hallucinations, prayer, synchronicities, and so on...
Religious and spiritual experiences can be spontaneous, or they may be deliberately
induced. Some people might be going about their normal every day lives, when all of a
sudden something will happen that makes them change their understanding of reality,
perhaps a highly unusual coincidence, or a particularly vivid dream. Many people have
reported that while out for a walk in the countryside, for example, they have suddenly felt
an intimate connection with the natural world, and others have heard voices in their heads
that have saved them from dangerous situations, which they have interpreted as the voice
of God/s or other supernatural beings. For others, religious experiences are deliberately
induced through intensive rituals, or through deep meditation and prayer.
Many religious traditions have groups who actively seek to develop religious and spiritual
experiences in order to bring them closer to their God/s. These are called mystical
traditions, and include, for example, the Sus in Islam, and Kabbalah in Judaism.
Experience is also a major feature of many traditional forms of shamanism and small-
scale religions.
Religious and spiritual experiences may take a variety of different forms. The German
scholar of religion Rudolph Otto used the term !numinous" to describe religious
experiences, and noted that such experiences can be both fascinating and terrifying at the
same time. Some people experience a feeling of great love associated with their religious
experiences, while others feel a sense of awe, and even fear.
These kinds of experience can only be called religious or spiritual if they are interpreted
that way by the person who has the experience. The American psychologist William
James suggested that an experience could be classed as genuinely religious if the person
is morally and spiritually transformed by the experience, he called this the !fruit" of the
It is very difcult to study religious and spiritual experiences directly because they are
subjective, which means that only the person having the experience can really tell us
what is happening. It is possible to study people"s descriptions of their experiences,
though, and then look for patterns within and between these descriptions. From this kind
of research it has been possible to nd surprising similarities between descriptions of
religious experiences, despite differences in cultural interpretation. These similarities are
often referred to as the !common core."
More recent research has tried to nd out what is happening in the brains of people having
specic kinds of induced religious and spiritual experiences, using a variety of high-tech
brain scanning equipment. This research has shown that religious experiences are often
associated with quite unusual activity in the brain.
Of course there will always be questions about the reality of religious experiences because
they are usually entirely subjective. There are other explanations for religious and spiritual
experiences that do not lead to a religious interpretation. For example could religious and
spiritual experiences be explained by unusual brain activity, or is unusual brain activity
just what happens when people have a religious experience? Are religious and spiritual
experiences just the product of imagination, or could they be misinterpreted normal
What do you think?