Psychology and Religious Experience

If religious morality is ultimately based on an alleged insight into a Spiritual Reality that defines or embodies supreme value, then it is based on a sort of experience that is closely linked to religious experience. But, as the last chapter showed, it is hotly disputed whether religious experiences can give any information about objective reality.

If it turns out that there really are no reasons for religious experiences, then we may look for an explanation in terms of causes. For instance, if I see pink elephants where there are none, the best explanation is that I am drunk and that alcohol is causing my brain to malfunction to produce hallucinations. Religious or moral beliefs could simply be caused by brain malfunctions, especially if they lead me to believe in things that do not exist.

Pink elephants clearly do not exist objectively, as they fail to have the causal effects that ordinary elephants have—they do not trample on cars, eat trees, or stand on people. Nor can they be seen by anyone else. We know they are hallucinations because they lack many of the properties of real elephants. I myself realize that, even when I see them in my drunken states. And, of course, when I am drunk, I am verifiably drunk—in a state known to be liable to cause people to see imaginary elephants.

The sort of moral and religious experiences that seem to be of a supremely valuable objective reality are not like that. They do not lack many properties of real objective values, for there are no such publicly observable properties. They are not felt by those who experience them to be imaginary, and they are not caused by unusual mental states that are known to cause false beliefs. Some of them may arise from unusual mental states, but such states may put us in touch with spiritual realities. It is almost impossible to tell whether or not they do when the realities in question are not publicly observable. But people who claim to have such experiences are rarely identifiably mad or unable to cope with ordinary life or otherwise irrational—the usual tests of mental instability.

One of the best-known treatments of experiences of spiritual reality is given by the psychologist William James, who studied unusual mental states in the belief that they might cast a sharper light on the nature of religious experience. In his classic book The Varieties of Religious Experience, originally published in 1902, James lists and classifies various types of religious experience. In suggesting general conclusions from his studies, he isolates a sense of communion with "higher powers" that is both satisfying in itself and leads to moral and personal improvement. As a psychologist, he writes that "the 'more' with which in religious experience we feel ourselves connected is on its higher side the subconscious continuation of our conscious life" (1968, 487). His personal opinion is that there may be many higher selves with which we establish relationship through the subconscious, but he admits that many different theological interpretations may be made of the basic experience of communion with higher spiritual powers. Being a pragmatist, he thinks that the mental and moral health that religious experience produces validates, or even constitutes, its truth. The effects "prove" the reality of the religious objects but do not entail any one specific religious interpretation of them.

Religious experiences have been the object of psychological studies since Edwin Diller Starbuck and James Henry Leuba initiated empirical investigations around the beginning of the twentieth century. In The Psychology of Religion (1899), Starbuck studied conversion experiences in Protestants. He found that about a third of the males he questioned and half the females had such experiences, that they were associated with puberty, and that, overall, they made for mental stability and commitment to social service, after a period of "storm and stress." He attempted to come up with neurophysiological explanations for conversion experiences and concluded that they eased the transition to maturity, and so had a positive psychological function.

James Henry Leuba (1925) adopted a much more naturalistic approach. He too studied conversion experiences and analyzed the writings of historical "mystics" like Catherine of Genoa. He apparently saw mystical experience as leading to the physical and spiritual realization of humanity, but he regarded it as a purely natural phenomenon, due to excited activity of the brain, rather than contact with any Objective Reality.

This conflict of transcendent and naturalistic interpretations has continued ever since, with naturalism being expressed in the work of Abraham Maslow and transcendentalism being evident in the writings of T. R. Miles, Michael Argyle, and David Hay. Maslow (1964) distinguishes between experiences of "self-actualization" and organized religion, which he criticizes as being a major enemy of religious experiences, imprisoning them in legalistic and bureaucratic institutions. There are "peak experiences" that were present at the origin of religions, but those experiences were entirely naturalistic, higher states of human feeling and awareness, though they increase a sense of personal wholeness and purposefulness.

Though such states are natural, they involve what Maslow calls B-knowledge or illumination knowledge. Such knowledge views the world without regard for human profit, in a nonegoistic way, and is focused on ideals in art, mathematics, science, morality, or religion. It can issue in a "plateau experience," which is a general satisfaction in all experience, taking into account peak experiences, but worked into an integrated view of life.

Maslow is an interesting example of someone who separates "transcendental experience" from religion and seems to embrace a nonreductive humanism. He does not find it necessary to appeal to any supernatural element in religious experience. But the fact remains that most people who have religious experiences do think they apprehend some sort of transcendent reality, and some account needs to be given of that belief.

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