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Religious Experience Reconsidered

Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things

Ann Taves
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 232
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  • Book Info
    Religious Experience Reconsidered
    Book Description:

    The essence of religion was once widely thought to be a unique form of experience that could not be explained in neurological, psychological, or sociological terms. In recent decades scholars have questioned the privileging of the idea of religious experience in the study of religion, an approach that effectively isolated the study of religion from the social and natural sciences.Religious Experience Reconsideredlays out a framework for research into religious phenomena that reclaims experience as a central concept while bridging the divide between religious studies and the sciences.

    Ann Taves shifts the focus from "religious experience," conceived as a fixed and stable thing, to an examination of the processes by which people attribute meaning to their experiences. She proposes a new approach that unites the study of religion with fields as diverse as neuroscience, anthropology, sociology, and psychology to better understand how these processes are incorporated into the broader cultural formations we think of as religious or spiritual. Taves addresses a series of key questions: how can we set up studies without obscuring contestations over meaning and value? What is the relationship between experience and consciousness? How can research into consciousness help us access and interpret the experiences of others? Why do people individually or collectively explain their experiences in religious terms? How can we set up studies that allow us to compare experiences across times and cultures?

    Religious Experience Reconsidereddemonstrates how methods from the sciences can be combined with those from the humanities to advance a naturalistic understanding of the experiences that people deem religious.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3097-8
    Subjects: Religion, Anthropology, Biological Sciences, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations and Tables
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Preface
    (pp. xiii-2)
  6. INTRODUCTION The Problem of “Religious Experience”
    (pp. 3-15)

    The idea of “religious experience” is deeply embedded in the study of religion and religions as it (religion) and they (religions) have come to be understood in the modern West. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many modernizers in the West and elsewhere advanced the idea that a certain kind of experience, whether characterized as religious, mystical, or spiritual, constituted the essence of “religion” and the common core of the world’s “religions.” This understanding of religion and the religions dominated the academic study of religion during the last century. Key twentieth century thinkers, such as Rudolf Otto, Gerardus van der...

    (pp. 16-55)

    Key figures associated with the emergence of the scholarly study of religion disagreed sharply over how sacred or holy or religious things ought to be characterized and, by extension, how they could be understood. Rudolf Otto, a German theologian and historian of religions, argued that the holy should be characterized in terms of a distinctive nonrational element, which he called “the numinous.” This distinctive numinous object gave rise to an associated feeling or mental state that Otto claimed was “perfectly sui generis and irreducible to any other.” As such, it could not be precisely defined and certainly could not be...

    (pp. 56-87)

    The debate over religious experience in the past few decades has been framed in terms of the relationship between experience and representation. With the discursive turn in the humanities, many humanists turned a suspicious gaze on the concept of experience, questioning whether it was possible to speak of experience at all apart from the way it is represented in and shaped by discourse. Within religious studies, Steven Katz (1978, 1983) and Wayne Proudfoot (1985) were two of the most forceful advocates of this constructivist view, which emphasized the role of language, tradition, and culture in constituting experience. Their work, along...

    (pp. 88-119)

    Although the debate over religious experience was framed in terms of experience and representation, the underlying issue that made the debate so contentious had to do with causal explanations. If language, tradition, and culture constitute experience, then experiences could be explained in socio-cultural terms; if some of the more unusual experiences are cross-culturally stable, then more unusual psychological processes and brain states presumably play a causal role as well. Scholars in the humanities generally valued linguistic and cultural explanations because they emphasized cultural differences that psychological and neurological explanations tended to obscure. In arguing for the cross-cultural stability of certain...

    (pp. 120-160)

    In our analysis in the previous chapter of the way in which Bradley and Barnard attributed their experiences to the Holy Spirit and a transcendent power we distinguished between descriptive analysis, which analyzed how Bradley and Barnard explained their experience in their own terms, and metaexplanatory analysis, which analyzed the narratives from a naturalistic perspective. The latter generated alternative naturalistic explanations—flagged as hypotheses—that can be formulated as research questions. So, for example, if we take the hypothesis that Barnard’s attempt to visualize the absence of self-awareness triggered an alteration in his sense of self in relation to his...

    (pp. 161-166)

    I had two insights in the course of writing this book that fundamentally altered my sense of how we ought to study religion. The first arose as I began to pay attention to the way scholars use terms related to religion. While we routinely refer to the study of religion and definitions of religion, I noticed that in switching to an ascriptive formulation, I was forced to use the adjective “religious” rather than the noun “religion.” Moreover, in drawing on Durkheim’s definition of “the sacred” as things set apart and prohibited, I realized that he used his definition of “the...

  12. APPENDIX A: General Attribution Theory of Religion (Spilka, Shaver, and Kirkpatrick 1985)
    (pp. 169-171)
  13. APPENDIX B: Personal Accounts of Stephen Bradley and William Barnard (James 1902/1985, 157–60; Barnard 1997, 126–29)
    (pp. 172-175)
  14. APPENDIX C: Preliminary Thoughts on the Elaboration of Composite Formations
    (pp. 176-180)
  15. Glossary
    (pp. 181-182)
  16. Works Cited
    (pp. 183-202)
  17. Name Index
    (pp. 203-206)
  18. Subject Index
    (pp. 207-212)