Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Thingsby Ann Taves
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… See more details below
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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 Reconsidered lays 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 Reconsidered demonstrates 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.
James V. Spickard
Stephen S. Bush
Jennifer Scheper Hughes
G. A. Duncan
Winner of the 2010 Distinguished Book Award, Society for the Scientific Study of Religion
One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2010
"Taves' masterful work shows us the way between the extremes of particularism and the errors of decontextualized essentialist analyses of experiences deemed religious."--Patrick McNamara, Institute for the Biocultural Study of Religion
"The theory that Taves proposes will rank among the very best because of its clarity and coherence of argument, its concise terms and substantive concepts, and its potential for stimulating research and writing in the field of religious studies. . . . This book is clearly written, intellectually stimulating, and theoretically exciting."--Choice
"[F]ascinating. . . . [A] superb achievement that connects the study of religion to other disciplines. . . . The book . . . will serve as a benchmark in the field of religious studies for many years to come."--Luke Penkett, Ministry Today
"Anyone remotely interested in the topic of religious experience will find this a worthwhile book. . . . [S]mart, fair, and well-informed theoretical reflections, like Taves', when theologically read, can at least help to sort out some of the issues involved and, if nothing else, provide cautionary reminders of the immense potential for human-driven idolatry, even sometimes in the name of worship of the true God."--Christian Smith, Books & Culture
"[T]his is a must-read volume for anyone serious about analyzing religious experience. Without being in any sense the final word, it definitely furthers the field."--James V. Spickard, Sociology of Religion
"[Taves's] book is valuable both as a survey of the state of the field for each of these topics and for offering a constructive proposal in each arena. Especially valuable is Taves's engagement with the literature on cognitive science, psychology, and neuroscience, as these fields are gaining influence in the academy as a whole and are increasingly becoming relevant to humanistic disciplines."--Stephen S. Bush, Journal of Religion
"By providing an inventive and relatively accessible set of . . . building blocks, [Taves] allows those of us who study religion and religious practices to do so within manageable, malleable and happily imaginative frameworks--something so important to many mired in the same old trough. Replete with charts and illustrations that clarify these building blocks even more, Taves' work is a particular boon to any interested in examining the 'specialness' of liturgical experiences with fresh eyes."--Edward Foley, Worship
"Taves speaks and thinks across a broad chasm: she labors skillfully, logically, and methodically to hammer out a set of analytical tools and theoretical vocabularies that will allow scholars of religion to converse with the sciences, in particular with cognitive scientists and neuroscientists."--Jennifer Scheper Hughes, Anglican and Episcopal History
"Taves' study is important in the discourse of the phenomenon of religion, but also in the conversation between faith and science. It clearly illustrates how difficult a task it is to study religion without losing the value of that which is believed and understood as being the sacred."--G. A. Duncan, Studia Historiae Ecclesiasticae
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Religious Experience ReconsideredA BUILDING-BLOCK APPROACH TO THE STUDY OF RELIGION AND OTHER SPECIAL THINGS
By Ann Taves
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2009 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.
DEEMING THINGS RELIGIOUS
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 explained in terms of other, more ordinary feelings. The only way to help others understand it, he said, was to discuss how it was like and unlike other things until they began to experience it for themselves (Otto 1923/1958, 7).
In The Varieties of Religious Experience, the American psychologist William James made the opposite claim. He argued, by way of contrast, that as far as he could tell there were no distinct religious emotions, such as Otto's feeling of the numinous. Moreover, he speculated that there might not be any specifically religious objects or essentially religious acts. He viewed religious emotions as composites that could be broken down into an ordinary feeling and an associated religious concept (James 1902/1985, 33). The French sociologist Emile Durkheim elaborated this idea more fully in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, wherein he defined a religion as "a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is, things set apart and forbidden" (Durkheim 1912/1995, 44). Here, as William Paden observes, the sacred is that which is set apart and forbidden. As such it is purely relational and has no essential content of its own. "The sacred is simply what is deemed sacred by any group" (Paden 1994, 202-3 [emphasis in original]).
Before proceeding, it is important to note that in the space of two paragraphs we have had occasion to refer to numinous objects (Otto); religious experiences, objects, and acts (James); and sacred things (Durkheim). Moreover, Durkheim distinguished between "sacred things" and "a religion," which he understood as "a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things." In what follows, I will use "things" to refer to any thing, whether an experience, object, act, or agent.
This chapter treats "religious experience" as a kind of "religious thing." I will consider the merits of two basic approaches to "religious experience," one in which the religiousness of the experience is understood to be inherent (sui generis) in the experience itself and the other in which it is viewed as ascribed to it. I will opt for the latter approach while acknowledging two major difficulties that must be overcome: first, the difficulty that scholars face in specifying what we mean by "religious" and, second, the difficulty posed by subjects' claims that some experiences seem inherently religious, spiritual, or sacred. Deferring this second difficulty to later chapters, I argue that the use of "religious" or any other first-order term, such as "numinous," "sacred," "mystical," "spiritual," or "magical" as a means of specifying an object of study is both limiting and confusing and suggest instead that investigation of the broader, more generic category of "special things" and "things set apart" may be more helpful for the purposes of research. Building on Durkheim, I distinguish between things that people view as special or that they set apart, on the one hand, and the systems of beliefs and practices that some people associate with some special things, on the other. The former involves a simple ascription (of specialness) and the latter a composite ascription (of efficacy to practices associated with special things) characteristic of what we think of as religions or spiritualities.
The Sui Generis and Ascriptive Models of "Religious Experience"
The two approaches to the study of "religious experience," which I will refer to as the sui generis model and the ascription model, are summarized in table 1.1. They differ over whether there are uniquely religious (or mystical or spiritual) experiences, emotions, acts, or objects. The sui generis model assumes implicitly or explicitly that there are. The ascriptive model claims on the contrary that religious or mystical or spiritual or sacred "things" are created when religious significance is assigned to them. In the ascriptive model, subjects have experiences that they or others deem religious. One of the ways that ambiguity is maintained with respect to the two models is by referring to "religious experience," as if it were a distinctive thing, rather than using the more awkward, but clearly ascriptive, formulation, "experiences deemed religious."
There are significant methodological implications of the seemingly minor shift from "religious experience" to "experiences deemed religious" for both the explanation and comparison of religious phenomena. Most of the scholarly discussion has focused on whether religious phenomena can or should be explained in nonreligious terms, with those who advocate a sui generis approach arguing that they should not. Indeed, for most scholars, the claim that religion is sui generis is simply another way of saying that religion cannot or should not be explained in anything other than religious terms. During the latter part of the twentieth-century, the idea that religion is sui generis was advanced as a "disciplinary axiom" (Pals 1986, 35; 1987, 269). Stated positively, it asserted that religious things must be explained in religious terms; negatively, it prohibited "reducing" religion to something else by explaining it in nonreligious terms.
In their focus on the issue of reductionism, scholars in the sui generis camp largely overlooked the way in which their model affected how scholars of religion set up and utilized comparisons. Even though individual scholars within this camp-such as Otto-advocated comparison, the logic of the sui generis position has more commonly led to assertions of the incomparable nature of uniquely religious things (Smith 1990, 36-53). Religion scholars under the sway of this position tend to limit themselves to comparing different religious things. By contrast, the ascriptive model frees us to compare things that have features in common, whether they are deemed religious or not. Doing so allows us to focus on how and why people deem some things, including some experiences, as religious and others as not.
The ascription model sketched here is inspired by research within the field of social psychology on attribution theory, which explains how people explain events. In everyday speech, the terms "ascription" and "attribution" are typically used interchangeably to refer to both causal explanations and the assignment of a quality or characteristic to something. In the context of attribution theory, however, social psychologists use "attribution" to refer to causal attributions: that is, to the commonsense explanations that people offer for why things happen as they do (Försterling 2001, 3-4). If we follow their lead and limit the use of "attribution" to causal explanations, we can use "ascription" to refer to the assignment of a quality or characteristic to something and use this distinction to further clarify the differences between the sui generis and deeming models.
The central question that divides the two models is whether religious things, existing as such, have special inherent properties that can cause things to happen or, alternatively, whether people characterize things as religious and thus endow them with the (real or perceived) special properties that are then presumed to be able to effect things. In the sui generis model, it is assumed that religious things exist and have inherently special properties. In the ascription model, it is assumed on the contrary that people ascribe religious characteristics to things to which they then attribute religious causality. The ascriptive-or deeming-model, thus, makes a fundamental claim about ascription (the assignment of qualities or characteristics) prior to attributing causality.
Arguments against the Ascription Model
Scholars have attempted to challenge the ascriptive model by invoking experiences that subjects feel are inherently religious and that have recurred in similar forms across time and cultures The two most common claims made in this regard are that the common features of unusual experiences point to the transcendent and that certain experiences are inherently mystical or religious.
Common features point to the transcendent. Many philosophers of religion with an interest in religious experience recognize a variety of different types of religious experience, but two types-mystical and numinous-are frequently singled out for attention. Although there are also various definitions of these two terms, "mystical" is often used to refer to experiences of unity with or without a sense of multiplicity and "numinous" to experiences of a felt presence whether loving or fearsome. These differences notwithstanding, some philosophers argue that such experiences constitute a "common core" of religious experience and point out, not coincidentally, that these experiences are the ones that are most difficult to explain in naturalistic terms (Davis 1989, 176-77, 190-91, 233). Hood (2006) claims that psychological measurement based studies provide evidence for a common core of mystical experience, though he does not use these data to argue for or against the transcendent.
Certain experiences are inherently mystical or religious. So-called numinous and mystical experiences are the two types of experiences that people are most likely to consider inherently religious (Hood 2005, 356-60). The most serious criticism directed specifically toward traditional attribution theory is that it tends to override the views of religious subjects who understand their experiences in this way (Barnard 1992; 1997, 97-110). Attribution theorists must be able to account for experiences that individuals feel are inherently religious or mystical and that seem to bear little relationship to the subjects' preexisting beliefs or context (Davis 1989, 232-35). To account for this sort of subjective feeling, an ascriptive model must be able to show how implicit religious ascriptions can be built into experiences through preconscious mental processes in such a way that subjects feel they recognize or discover-rather than ascribe characteristics to-the experiences they consider religious or mystical.
Problems with the Sui Generis Model
The basic problem with the sui generis model is that it obscures something that scholars of religion should be studying: that is, the process whereby people constitute things as religious or not. Earlier practitioners of the sui generis model, the classical phenomenologists of religion, obscured this process by essentializing the bond between the "thing" and the religious ascription. Today, many scholars of religion do so by limiting their research to phenomena they deem religious, rather than investigating when people directly involved with the "thing" in question deem it religious or not.
Experimental researchers perpetuate this problem when they use a common-core model of religious experience to interpret their data. In a series of studies in which they measured changes in brain activity during meditation using single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT), Newberg (Newberg et al. 2001a) found that their scan images showed unusual activity in the area of the brain-the posterior superior parietal lobe-that may be responsible for orienting the individual in physical space and, thus, for maintaining the distinction between self/not self. In a popular presentation of their research, Newberg (Newberg et al. 2001b) writes, "As our study continued, and the data flowed in, Gene [D'Aquili] and I suspected that we'd uncovered solid evidence that the mystical experiences of our subjects-the altered states of mind they described as the absorption of the self into something larger-were associated ... with a series of observable neurological events." This led them to wonder if they had "found the common biological root of all religious experiences" (2001b, 4-5, 9).
Whether or not they have found such a biological root depends entirely on how they define "religious experience." Newberg and D'Aquili have chosen a definition that emphasizes the dissolution of the sense of self and other. If their experimental results hold up, and if they define religious or mystical experience in this way, the answer could well be yes. Had they posed their research question in the ascriptive mode-had they asked, "have we found the common biological root of all experiences deemed religious?"-the situation would appear quite different. For anyone with even a rudimentary awareness of the wide range of experiences that humans have deemed religious or even the range that philosophers of religion, such as Davis (1989), have deemed mystical and numinous, the answer to this latter question would have to be no. Had they been working ascriptively, they could not simply have applied a definition, but would have had to distinguish more carefully between the way their subjects described their experience-including whether they described the experiences as religious or mystical-and the way they, as researchers, described the experiences.
Their popularized discussion is problematic not only because they use a common-core model of religious experience but also because their generalizations are based only on data from religious subjects (Tibetan Buddhist and Roman Catholic meditators). All they can report (and all they do report in their scientific articles) is an association between the altered states of mind that their subjects described as the absorption of the self into something larger and unusual activity in the posterior superior parietal lobe of the brain. Future studies should compare meditators in various religious contexts with those who have had similar experiences in nonreligious contexts. Paying careful attention to how experiences are described and who, if anyone, describes them as religious, would allow us to compare experiences in which the self feels it is absorbed into something larger in terms of (1) underlying neurological events, and (2) the conditions under which religious significance is attached to such events.
The ascriptive model thus allows us to say both less and more than the sui generis model. It allows us to say less in the sense that it forces us to eschew claims about religious experience, mystical experience, or spiritual experience in general and to identify specific aspects of experience that are sometimes deemed religious and sometimes not. What we gain in return is a way to get at the range of experiences sometimes deemed religious and to understand some of the variety of neural events and psychological processes that inform them.
Deeming Things Religious
To make the switch from a sui generis to an attributive formulation useful, we need to specify the type of experience to be studied, who does the "deeming," and what is meant by "religious." Before addressing the first question-that of experience-we need to address the other two, which are interrelated. Even if our primary interest is in how people on the ground deem things religious-that is, in what counts as religious for them-we still need to specify what we mean by "religious," if we are not going to limit our study to people who use that specific term or some easily recognizable cognate. If we want to compare ascriptions across cultures and time periods, how do we specify the kind of ascriptions that interest us? This question opens up problems that scholars of religion have discussed at great length without reaching any clear resolution. To get at this, we need to start by clarifying the difficulties that scholars have identified.
Excerpted from Religious Experience Reconsidered by Ann Taves Copyright © 2009 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Ann Taves is professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and past president of the American Academy of Religion. Her books include "Fits, Trances, and Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James" (Princeton).
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