What is it that makes something a ‘Religious

What is it that makes something a ‘Religious experience’ ?

Our inquiry implies that there is a certain quality or set of qualities which distinguishes ‘religious experience’ from ‘experience’per Se.In this essay, we will foremost analyze what is meant by ‘experience’ and we will observe the developments and niceties in specifying this construct. We will so look at the assorted apprehensions of ‘religious experience’ and we will detect the importance of separating between an emic ( insider ) and etic ( observer ) conceptualization of the term, observing the trouble in specifying the term. Finally, we will analyze what constitutes a ‘religion’ and discourse the farther complications with specifying this construct. We will reason, albeit with some hesitancy, that an experience is rendered ‘religious’ when it involves a feeling of awe being apprehended through a symbolic discourse accepted as ‘religious’ by a community of pattern. .

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There is some difference over how ‘experience’ should be defined. Martin ( 1987, 323 ) argues that the standard definition of ‘experience’ relates to ‘the existent life through an event’ taking to ‘personal or direct impressions’ of it. Therefore, ‘experience’ flexible joints on subjective consciousness and can associate to ‘attitudes’ or ‘intentions’ every bit good as groking world through the senses. However, in Classical idea this empirical dimension was less important than ‘reason’ , which was perceived to give signifier to see ( 323 ) . Likewise, Mithen ( 1996, Ch. 4 ) argues that all experiences of world are finally coloured by the anterior experiences through which they are apprehended and accordingly ‘pure experience’ is an semblance.

Equally, there is much argument over how ‘religious experience’ should be understood. First, Smart ( 1978 ) points out that we must separate between definitions that describe the subjective nature of the experience and those that attempt to grok what spiritual experience is from an foreigner, academic position. For Swinburne ( 1979, Ch. 1 ) , ‘religious experience’ involves a subjective experience ( otherwise unaccountable ) which proves that there is a God. Swinburne argues that there have been legion such experiences throughout history rendering them cumulative empirical grounds of God’s being. Indeed he argues that the Resurrection of Christ is likewise through empirical observation proved and can be regarded as a ‘religious experience.’ In a sense, so, Swinburne is saying what a spiritual experience is from the position of the ‘religious person’ who undergoes it.

James ( 1952, 31 ) broadens the question slightly. Religious experience involves ‘standing in relation to whatever ( a individual ) may see the Godhead, ’ which might embrace facets of Swinburne’s position. The Godhead is besides defined loosely as ‘such a cardinal world as the single feels compelled to react to it solemnly’ ( 38 ) . Therefore, there is a sense of ‘reverence’ or the ‘sacred’ in response to something that seems to be what Robinson ( 1963 ) calls the ‘depth’ at the bosom of life. Religious experience is the interface of the single consciousness with something transcendent ( whether imagined or existent ) and is frequently described as ‘ineffable’ though Smart ( 1978 ) stresses the ability to depict through metaphor means that this ineffableness is debateable. Equally, for Otto ( 1950, 1 ) , ‘religious experience’ involves ‘the numinous.’ It is the ‘mysterium, tremendum et fascinans:that which is ‘mystery, amazing, deeply absorbing and utterly blissful.’ For both Otto and James, this ‘awe’ at the transcendent is at the bosom of every faith.

Possibly the trouble with both of these definitions is that they simply describe what spiritual experience is from the position of those who experience it. They do non try to explicate what spiritual experience is within a scientific discourse which is certainly one dimension of specifying it as Smart points out. These definitions do non look into its implicit in causes though James does besides show a taxonomy of spiritual types – such as the ‘sick soul’ – every bit good as looking at different sorts of spiritual experience such as ‘mysticism’ – whereby spiritual experience is reached through practiced technique – and ‘conversion’ which tends to be a sudden and dramatic ‘meeting’ with God by a individual who is superficially a non-believer. James besides implies that ‘conversion’ – a signifier of spiritual experience – tends to happen at times of psychological hurt and likewise Smart distinguishes between ‘mystic experience’ and the ‘numinous.’ However, both Otto and James seem to neglect to take into history the now common position amongst psychologists ( e.g. Mithen 1996 ) that an experience is to a great extent influenced by a person’s universe position. Consequently, we might reason that a individual experiences themysterium, tremendum et fascinansthrough the symbols of the world-view with which they have been inculcated. That world-view, we might propose, is finally grounded in a community of pattern and it is hence this dimension that renders an indefinable experience ‘religious’ , though I appreciate that even this is question-begging.

How should we specify ‘religion’ ? If we follow functionalists such as Geertz ( 1966, 1 ) so faith is any symbolic system of understanding world which leads to tempers and motives. Asad ( 1993 ) develops Geertz to underscore that it is the spiritual community which finally decides whether or non certain ‘moods’ are ‘religious’ . Conversely, Bruce ( 2002, 2 ) defines faith ‘as it is normally understood’ as a system of belief based around Gods or liquors. Either manner, the individual’s experience is ‘religious’ because some signifier of community – whether one of lingual pattern or an acknowledged spiritual administration recognises the experience as being ‘religious’ because it has occurred through the relevant symbolic discourse.

Precisely what makes an experience ‘religious’ is obviously a combative point. For bookmans such as Swinburne an experience is ‘religious’ if it involves God turn outing His being through an experience that can non otherwise be explained. For James and Otto, spiritual experience involves a meeting with a Godhead – an indefinable and cryptic experience that inspires fear and awe which relates to Swinburne’s position to some extent. However, for Smart we must separate between the subjective and analytical dimensions of the experience. Following this, we might propose that an ‘awesome’ experience is ever apprehended through a system of idea and it is hence ‘religious’ if its symbolic discourse conforms to the community’s apprehension of ‘religion’ as a class or to a spiritual community’s ain symbolic discourse. This raises inquiries over how to specify faith and if it is possible for atheist to hold spiritual experience which it would be intriguing to prosecute elsewhere.


Asad, Talal, ( 1993 ) ,Genealogies of Religion,Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Bruce, Steve, ( 2002 ) ,God id Dead,London: Routledge.

Geertz, Clifford, ( 1966 ) , ‘Religion as a Cultural System’ in Banton, Michael, ( ed. ) ,Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion,Bristol: Tavistock.

James, William, ( 1952 ) ,The Assortments of Religious Experience,London: Longmann, Green and Co.

Martin, James Alfred, ( 1987 ) , ‘Religious Experience’ in Eliade, Mircea, ( ed. ) ,Encyclopedia of Religion,New York: MacMillan.

Mithen, Steven, ( 1996 ) ,The Pre-History of the Mind,London: Thames and Hudson.

Otto, Rudolf, ( 1950 ) ,The Idea of the Holy,London: Oxford University Press.

Robinson, John, ( 1963 ) ,Honest to God,London: SCM Press.

Smart, Ninian, ( 1978 ) , ‘Understanding Religious Experience’ in Katz, Steven, ( ed. ) ,Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis,New York: Oxford University Press.

Swinburne, Richard, ( 1979 ) ,The Existence of God,Oxford: Clarendon.

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