Religious Experience

Jump to: navigation, search
Drawings based on dreams experienced as having a transcendent or spiritual content


Around 60% of European and American people have at least one ‘religious experience’ during their lives – frequently an experience of union or oneness with nature, the universe, the whole of human-kind, or God, accompanied by a sense of universal love and the meaningfulness and value of all things.
These experiences – ‘REs’ for short – resemble mystical experiences, but are usually spontaneous in nature and do not necessarily occur in the context of religious or mystical practice or belief. REs often have a life-transforming effect on those who have them, leading to enhanced self-esteem; a feeling of being loved; a reduced dependence on material goods, achievements, or the opinions of others for self- value; and increased tolerance and concern for others – a dramatic shift in personal values.



In The Human Difference: I suggested that the ritual creation of formal systems of kinship and exchange is the likeliest origin for human morality and large-scale co-operation. But formal systems do not explain compassion or why we find altruistic behaviour emotionally satisfying. Why is it that a religious teaching such as ‘goodwill to all humankind’ has considerable cross-cultural appeal? Children as young as ten to twelve months are visibly distressed by pain in others, and at 18 months begin to offer comfort, however ineptly. By 24 months – roughly coinciding with the onset of role-play, self-value, and self-conscious embar-rassment at another’s look – they are able to comfort others with insightful empathy. It would seem that an implicit level of self- and other-awareness is enough to gener-ate sympathetic feelings, but awareness of self and others in terms of social value is necessary for fully effective compassionate behaviour. Because we learn to identify with others through role-play, self-value becomes dependent on valuing others. This may explain why our social but selfish ancestors were predisposed to the kind of large-scale cooperation made possible by human culture. Religious experiences commonly involve the ultimate ‘high’ in self-value – the feeling of being infinitely or unconditionally loved. REs are sometimes described as ‘numinous’ – as having a heavenly quality – and this too is an experience of enhan-ced or infinite value. In the stories I heard as a boy, the kind of treasure coveted by pirates or won by Ali Baba had this numinous quality – something which hard cash never had. Treasure is precious – it has beauty as well as mere economic value. Cognitive scientists have done research on facial and sexual attractiveness, but cannot explain our aesthetic response to a sunset, the song of a skylark, or the magical luer of pirate treasure.



William James, who published his pioneering Varieties of Religious Experience over a hundred years ago, noted that REs are noetic as well as numinous. That is, they are simultaneously an emotional and knowledge-like experience – the feeling of having contact with all knowledge or of grasping the entire meaning of life and every-thing in a timeless moment. They are revelations of Truth with a capital ‘T’. Deikman describes this as ‘an extended Eureka experience’. I imagine most people are fami-liar with the Eureka feeling – that boost in self-value that occurs when we solve a particularly difficult intellectual puzzle. Major intellectual discoveries unite areas of knowledge that were previously disparate into a single conceptual scheme. Many religious and mystical experiences convey the impression of being like a conceptual big-bang singularity – infinite know-ledge in zero space – the ultimate cognitive and emotional pay-off. REs carry a sense of ‘self-vindicating truth’ and may lead to a life-long convic-tion that scientific materialism is inadequate, and that there is a larger spiritual reality which science can never penetrate or diminish. REs transform beliefs as well as values.



There cannot be an ecstatic experience of reunion without a prior experience of separation. Perhaps no animal without human levels of self-consciousness and associated powers of dissociation could have a religious experience. Myths of the primordial ‘fall’ and the separation of humankind from God, or from the mythic time of oneness with animals, often make an apparent link to the dawn of self-consciousness – eating the fruit of knowledge, the theft of fire, or the ending of the Dreamtime. Before Maui separated earth and sky, the people are described as ‘sleeping’. Indeed, if you are a theist, and also accept social mirror theory, then you must at least consider the possibility that God too would be doomed to eternal sleep but for the initial sundering of consciousness – that presumably began with the Big Bang but realised itself with the emergence of self-conscious enculturated individuals. The very first rituals – those that kick-started economico-moral culture with its extended systems of kinship and exchange – must necessarily have done so by creating collective deceptions. But, for all the wrong reasons, they appear to have stumbled across the profoundest of truths – the value and satisfaction of altruism, communitas (Victor Turner – see Whitehead 2004b), religious experience, and the ultimate unity of all things.



Whitehead, C. (2003) ‘Social mirrors and the brain: including a functional imaging study of role-play and verse’: PhD Thesis, University College London: CONCLUSIONS. Download PDF_TOP

Whitehead, C. (2004a) ‘Religious experience in animistic societies’. Invited presen-tation for the June Residential Programme: MA Religious Experience, MA The World’s Religions, MA Death & Immortality; University of Wales, Lampeter; 31 May-4 June. Download PDF_TOP

Whitehead, C. (2004b) ‘Religious experience and the theory of anti-structure’. Invited presentation for the June Residential Programme: MA Religious Experience, MA The World’s Religions, MA Death & Immortality; University of Wales, Lampeter; 31 May–4 June. Download PDF_TOP


Copyright © 2005 Charles Whitehead. All rights reserved.