Looking at: Religious Experiences

Well a new semester means new classes, and new classes means there is new information to be learned, and with this new information I (hopefully) plan to write more than I did last semester. I am taking three awesome courses this semester which are; Critical Thinking, Philosophy of Religion, and Intro to Sociology. I have taken a liking  towards my Sociology teacher as she is downright straight up  about her world views, beliefs, and sociology in general, so kudos to her! None the less, all my classes are thus far interesting, and I am definitely looking forward to writing papers for them.

I figure that if I  dedicate some…, well more…, ok fine… any time at all  to writing posts on class material it will help for a better understanding of the material!

**That’s obvious man get on with it…** Ok, moving on…

As the title of this post says… that will be exactly what I want to do here, to write about things we are discussing in class right now, ok I am side tracking!! Getting on with it…

Well it would first be best to fully understand what we mean when we say that someone has had a religious experience, as opposed to just a ‘regular’ experience. In class we looked over two analysis of religious experiences, one of which was written by William James (1842-1910) and the other written by Wayne Proudfoot (1939). I will go into a bit more detail about the individual positions that they take, but first I would prefer to take a personal approach to our first inquiry as to what makes a religious experience, well religious.

To begin let us examine the question; What is an experience?

An experience is something that you experience. -That is clear- that statement leaves us with no further information than what we already had. But to be more precise about what we can experience we should just think about the events that happen to us daily. For example, one could say that you experienced the cold weather outside. Or, you could say that you experienced a can of 7-up sitting on your desk. Albeit, we regularly do not walk up to someone and ask them if they experienced the can sitting on their desk, rather we would say that we see the can sitting on the desk. Likewise for the temperature example we feel the cold weather on our skin, even though it is an experience to us. People commonly talk about experiencing a concert, or similar events. When someone says that they have experienced something like that, or anything at all, that means that they have, seen it, felt it, smelled it, tasted it, or heard it.

We can see now that an experience is something that affects one or more of our five senses.

But what about experiencing something purely in your mind, which is without sensual experience.

Well this is part of the issue that will come up on religious experiences, not that I am trying to advocate that people who have religious experiences are experiencing them in only their mind. I am trying to say that religious experiences have an ineffable quality to them, and they are usually experienced by an individual subject instead of a group of people. This makes religious experiences extremely difficult to understand, and thus mediate.

We will look more into that later. What is important now is to try and understand what makes something religious, leave aside experiences for now and let us focus on the religious characteristic.

Firstly, religion itself is a human construct, that there is no doubt. If someone wishes to say otherwise please post a comment. A religion is a set of beliefs, practices, and ethical values in which the members of the given religion believe and follow. This might not be the fullest of all definitions on what a religion is but it will serve my purpose well, for now. I have no doubt though that it can be elaborated, so do not bother picking at it.

Religions tend to believe in concepts that are supernatural, such as; god, heaven, hell, nirvana, Krishna… The list can go on but I will stop it there as to not take up any more time than required! Note that supernatural doe not necessarily mean that it is ‘ridiculous’ or absurd, rather that it is merely above or beyond anything natural. Something natural being the natural world around us, which in the most general sense is the physical world we live in. Never the less, when someone categorizes something as having a religious property it would follow that they are referring to some sort of divine, or supernatural aspect.

To draw an example let us look at what a church is. The church itself, empty of all regligious characteristics is simply a building and nothing more. It is only through a human defined understanding of what a church is built for, that it becomes religious. Human beings understand that a church is built for human beings to gather inside and worship the god that they worship. Empty of human beings, that building does nothing more than be a building. This is the religious characteristic that is applied to anything that is called religious. So it is clear than that human beings are the ones that give ‘things’ their religious aspects. So if we think about this for a moment then we can see that religion is definitely a human construct.

Religious meaning is something that is built subjectively, by which I mean, each individual human being, granted that they are religious, gives a particular meaning to their religion. Religion in itself means nothing until it is mediated through a human being. This being said we can see then that each human being will have a different definition, or explanation as to what their religion, or faith means. This is important to our understand of religious experiences because these experiences occur to individual and particular people. There are very few religious experiences in which a group of people can explain the same occurrences. For example it is difficult to imagine a group of ten to twenty people in our modern times to claim that they all experienced Krishna standing in front of them in a room. It so happens that more often than not that any type of religious experience like the one listed above happens to people individually.

Now onto the point! What is a religious experience?

To quickly recap what we have seen thus far;

An experience is something that happens to you, and usually is experiencedd through the five senses; touch, smell, sight, sound, taste.

As for religion we have seen that to characterize something as religious one must; firstly believe in a religion and secondly you must adopt a religious meaning, or telos to your life.

It should be easy enough to see then what we mean by ‘religious experience’. Simply put, religious experiences are events that occur to human beings and have a divine or supernatural meaning assigned to them.

Ok so what is the point? Well I am trying to get a deeper understanding of the concept, and also I want to take a look at some of precarious details that follow, which we will look at in just a bit. What I want to make quite clear to everyone is that these experiences are real! I do not mean real in the sense that this cup of tea in front of me is real. Rather I want to point out that no matter your religious beliefs, whether you are a skeptic, or an atheist. The experiences that people claim to have ought not be denied simply because we the outsider to the event have not experienced it. We should instead be open to the concept of their beliefs, and in doing so take a analytical approach to the idea, rather than a judgmental one. That being said, what follow might be seen by some to be judgmental. I assure you it is not.

There are a few details pertaining to the religious experiences that I wish to look at;

1) The authoritative value that they hold to the subject in question,

2) the source from which the meaning of the experience comes from, and

3) what are the ‘common sense’ facts that outsiders to these experiences think they understand about these experiences.

To address what I mean by ‘authoritative value’ we should understand what we mean by authoritative. When something is authoritative you can say that it holds authority over the subject. An example of this can be a manager compared to his or her employee. The manager holds an authoritative position, while the employee does not. The employee although can hold an authoritative position over the work that he does. If he or she is the only one who is able to control the nuclear reactors cooling systems, then he or she has the authority of that position. As for religious experiences, for an experience to hold authority over someone it would mean that it has a higher purpose, or meaning that is above the subject. The concept of religion has already led us to see that they hold a divine, or supernatural aspect to them, and this is why they hold authority over the subjects.

The subject in question experiences the event, and through their religious understanding and concepts, they assign supernatural meaning to the event. Although the subject is the one that assigns the religious meaning, the experience holds authority of the individual because the subject is a religious believer. The reason for this should be clear, religious followers, especially those who claim to have had religious experiences, build their lives around religious beliefs and allow their religious beliefs to guide them morally, ethically, and socially. This is where the authority comes from for religious experiences, from the subject themselves.

The meaning of the experience originates from the subject as well. To exemplify this situation consider the next two situations;

Imagine you are born into a secret society in which you are indoctrinated into the concepts and dogmas that they follow. Albeit absurd but imagine they worship stones (rocks). They have different divine or religious meanings assigned to specific types of stone, and every Tuesday everyone walks ten miles to a cave where they have a shrine of all of their precious stones, and during these visits everyone spends a few hours praying to the stones, and reading from the Book of Stones.

Now imagine one day you decide to leave the societies sanctuary, and throughout your journey you happen to encounter a stone wall, and it so happens that the stone that it is made out of is one of the stones your creed worshiped. And in seeing the stone wall you being to connect your religious beliefs with the wall, and perhaps you stop and pray.

Imagine now for our second situation that you are a Christian. Same sort of things apply to you, as they did with the stone worshipers. Although you might not have been in a sanctuary your whole life, but you would still understand the concepts and symbols of the Christian religion.Never the less, imagine you walk down the same road as the stone follower and so happen to see a cross hanging on the wall, so you stop and pray.

In both situations the meaning of the religious experience arise from your religious background. The cross with Christ on it signifies something very particular to the individual experiencing it. The stone follower would not understand what the cross signifies, while he would understand the meaning behind the rock he is praying to.

Now briefly I want to say a few things about the common sense facts that people have about religious experiences.

First some people might say that people who have religious experiences are delusional. This is naive for people to think this. Someone who has an experience is having the experience, albeit everyone has the right to hold disbelief in anything supernatural. But to label someone crazy or delusional because they (the disbeliever) does not understand the experience is ignorance.

All together we can see then that the truth behind religious experiences lie within the subjects mind. Their understanding of the world is based around their religious beliefs, so their experiences, if they so happen to be religious, will be so because they understand the world through religious concepts.

–Please Comment, criticize, or discuss!


~ by Peter on January 26, 2010.

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