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The spiritual experiences survey

One evening in the winter of 1969, the author Philip Pullman had a transcendent experience on the Charing Cross Road. He tells me:

Somewhere in the Middle East, some Palestinian activists had hijacked a plane and it was sitting on a runway surrounded by police, soldiers, fire engines, and so forth. I saw a photo of it on the front page of the Evening Standard, and then I walked past a busker who was surrounded by a circle of listeners, and I saw a sort of parallel. From then on for the rest of the journey [from Charing Cross to Barnes] I kept seeing things doubled: a thing and then another thing that was very like it. I was in a state of intense intellectual excitement throughout the whole journey. I thought it was a true picture of what the universe was like: a place not of isolated units of indifference, empty of meaning, but a place where everything was connected by similarities and correspondences and echoes. I was very interested at the time in such things as Frances Yates’s books about Hermeticism and Giordano Bruno. I think I was living in an imaginative world of Renaissance magic. In a way, what happened was not surprising, exactly: more the sort of thing that was only to be expected. What I think now is that my consciousness was temporarily altered (certainly not by drugs, but maybe by poetry) so that I was able to see things that are normally beyond the range of visible light, or routine everyday perception.

A scene from The Golden Compass, based on Pullman’s book

Pullman has rarely discussed the experience, although it left him with a conviction that the universe is ‘alive, conscious and full of purpose’. He tells me: ‘Everything I’ve written, even the lightest and simplest things, has been an attempt to bear witness to the truth of that statement.’

You could describe that moment as an ecstatic experience – Pullman felt suddenly shifted beyond his ordinary sense of self and reality, and connected to a cosmos alive with meaning and purpose. In his case, it was a spontaneous and unexpected experience, although he was evidently somewhat primed for it by his reading of Renaissance magic. I’m fascinated by such ecstatic experiences. How common are they in modern western culture? Have they become less common as our culture has become less religious and more rationalist? What triggers such experiences today? And how do we make sense of them, if not in a traditional Christian framework?

Spiritual experiences are becoming more common in UK and US, apparently

Research suggests such experiences are, surprisingly, becoming more common in western societies. The Religious Experience Research Centre set up in 1969 by Sir Alister Hardy asked British people: ‘Have you ever experienced a presence or power, whether you call it God or not, which is different from your everyday self?’. In 1978, 36% said yes, in 1987, that had risen to 48%. In 2000, over 75% of respondents to a UK survey conducted by David Hay said they were ‘aware of a spiritual dimension to their experience’. In the US, spiritual experiences are also apparently becoming more frequent – in 1962, when Gallup asked Americans if they’d ‘ever had a religious or mystical experience’, 22% said yes. That figure had risen to 33% by 1994, and 49% in 2009. The Pew Research Centre found last month that a ‘growing share of Americans regularly feel a deep sense of spiritual peace and a sense of wonder’, despite – or perhaps because of – the decline of religious affiliation in the US.

What’s going on? Several possible things. Hay suggested that a ‘deep cultural taboo’ existed against talking about spiritual experiences, because of the negative view of them held by mainstream psychology and psychiatry until recently. That taboo has lessened since the 1960s – psychiatry and psychology are becoming more open to ‘anomalous experience’ and aware they’re not usually pathological (quite the contrary). Culturally, we are becoming more OK about talking about them – one colleague dubs this ‘the Oprah effect’.  Both Christianity and spirituality have, since the 1960s, become much more experiential (see the work of Linda Woodhead on spirituality and Tanya Luhrmann on experiential Christianity). We are increasingly suspicious of external authorities – the church, the Bible – and more interested in our own spiritual experiences.

That goes for atheists too. While old-school atheists like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett or Carl Sagan tended to be suspicious of spiritual experiences and to dismiss them as chemical side-effects, tricks or delusions of the brain, a growing number of atheists and humanists like Sam Harris, Barbara Ehrenreich or Philip Pullman are happy to talk about such experiences and insist on their importance for human flourishing. Indeed, Sanderson Jones, head of the Sunday Assembly (a network of humanist churches), describes his life-philosophy as ‘mystic humanism’.

Results of the survey

I thought it would be fun to do a little amateur survey of my own, using SurveyMonkey. As with my dream survey, there was a great response, with 309 people filling in my questionnaire. As with the dream survey, this is obviously a rather selective sample, i.e those who either read my blog, are connected to me on Twitter and Facebook, or are members of London Philosophy Club. Mainly British middle class people, in other words. But the survey attracted a good cross-section in terms of philosophical and religious view points – 25% Christian, 14% agnostic, 24% atheist / humanist, 30% spiritual but not religious. So what did the survey reveal? You can dig into the results for yourself here, but here’s a summary.

Firstly, I asked if people had ‘ever had an experience where you went beyond your ordinary sense of self and felt connected to something bigger than you’. 84% of you had, with 46% of you having such experiences less than 10 times, and a lucky 37% having them quite often. Only 16% said they’d never had such experiences – that rose to 22% for agnostics, 31% for humanists, and 43% for atheists. Those calling themselves ‘spiritual but not religious’ were the most likely to report such experiences, closely followed by Christians. So spiritual experiences seem very common – although there is obviously a self-selecting bias here, as those who aren’t interested in such experiences are less likely to bother with the survey.

I then asked if such experiences happened to you alone or with others, or both. William James and other researchers of ecstasy have thought such experiences usually or always happen to us alone. That’s not the case – only 37% of you say you’ve only had such an experience alone, with 63% saying they’ve had them with others. Ecstatic experiences are often collective.

Burning Man
A love-connection at Burning Man

What are such experiences like? People described all kinds of experiences, but the most common word they used was ‘connection’ and similar words like ‘unity’, ‘at one’, ‘merging’, ‘dissolving’- such words appeared in 37% of people’s descriptions. This tallies with what Dr Cheryl Hunt, editor of the Journal for the Study of Spirituality, told me yesterday at a conference: ‘Connection is the word people use most often to describe such experiences’.

Connection to what? Lots of things. People reported feeling connected to God, to Jesus, the Holy Spirit, angels, to the spirit of deceased loved ones, to the cosmos, to the energy of all things, to nature, to all beings, to humanity, to a loved one, to a group of people, to an animal…or to all of these things. Some examples:

Feeling this deep connection to the earth and to life and to God

feeling of warmth and connectedness with the earth and with other people

I’d taken acid in my 20s. I felt connected to the universe, as though I could understand all of the atoms in the far stretches of the galaxy

Feeling of being surrounded by joyful singing Angels

an overwhelming sense of ‘oneness’

I was in Bangkok surrounded by strange sounds and smells. Bells were ringing. It was quite hot, I was in a rickshaw. Momentarily I felt as though my own spirit had left my body and I became part of everything.

i was on the sofa [on ketamine] with a cat on my lap and stroked him endlessly until we became part of the same then both bodies seemed to rush in a tunnel of lights until we were in an open white space where we were suspended and part of everything.

a euphoric sense of loving everyone around me

Feeling at one with the universe, blissful

Standing on the tip of a mountain, watching the snow fall and suddenly feeling a strange sense of expansion and contraction where I became aware of an underlying ‘sameness’ between me, the snow and the mountain

on public transport, surrounded by people I have no connection with, I suddenly get an overwhelming feeling of love for them all

an immense empathy for anyone I met (including animals)

Watching the starry sky, and totally relaxing and feeling this amazingly huge universe is actually home…

When I spend time in deep conversation with one of my children it feels like we move to a higher level of consciousness. Often we will lose track of time and I feel connected to an unknown greater power.

Being very impressed by the sheer fucking scale of the universe and how I was super connected to all of it while at a jazz gig when I was 18 stoned and excited to popping point by the music

Being with a group where people take turns to speak and share authentically and are listened and responded to from the heart….there’s a feeling of surrender to the group

It was in a park. A windy day, and I cut through these magical woods on route and passed a natural pond which was absolutely alive. The wind was in such a direction that it was inspiring all kinds of amazing patterns in the pond. I was mesmerized looking at this and felt in a trance. I felt part of the pond, the wind, the patterns, my thoughts and feelings, the trees, wildlife, and was laughing out in joy.

Sometimes, we get a sense of a cosmic pattern through some strange coincidence, as when Volkonsky finds himself next to his nemesis Kuragin on a field-hospital bed in War and Peace, and ‘ecstatic pity and love for that man overflowed his happy heart’.

Bolkonsly and Kuragin in the BBC's adaptation of War and Peace - a moment of 'ecstatic pity'
Bolkonsly and Kuragin in the BBC’s adaptation of War and Peace

Check out this amazing story from the survey:

A month ago in a market in Myanmar I spotted across the vegetable sellers someone who I had tried to avoid meeting in London a city we both live in. This ex girlfriend who had been my ‘best friend’ since childhood betrayed our friendship by having an affair with my husband. She broke up my family and her own and although my husband was also culpable, the misery and guilt killed him prematurely, he had a massive heart attack and died at 55. So I have hated her, and forgiveness was not possible. I spotted her crouching to take a photograph and hid myself, whilst I looked at her. When I went back to my hotel that evening after having a wonderful evening watching the sun setting over the stupas, she was in the foyer with two friends I totally panicked and hid myself again. I watched them take her luggage to a room four doors down from mine. This event shook me coming as it did after a trip across se Asia where I had spent much time contemplating Buddhist teachings and in discussion with monks had thought about forgiveness and anger and attachment. I think this episode was in some way part of a transformative process forcing me to face my demons and let go of my hatred. The next day at breakfast I went down fully prepared to meet her and felt no fear or need to express anything, I felt nothing. She wasn’t there and I didn’t see her again.

You could call these experiences moments of love-connection. People feel expanded beyond their individual ego, ecstatically connected to someone, something, all things, in a way that is joyful, blissful, and loving. Ecstasy seems closely connected to empathy – both are a movement beyond the ego, a love-connection.

I asked what triggered such experiences. The most common triggers were nature, the arts (particularly doing or participating in creative practices), and contemplation / meditation. Drugs, romantic love / sex, and proximity to death (yours or someone else’s) were also common triggers. People also gave a lot of their own personal triggers, from cocoa ceremonies to dreams to conversations to dancing the tango.

It’s effing hard to talk about the ineffable

Connecting to God / Cosmos / energy / Logos / higher consciousness...er....what was the question again? Did I already say that? Hello? Echo!
What’s the question again?

How do people make sense of such experiences? It’s complicated! Only two thirds of you answered this question (it required people to think and write rather than just tick a box) and as a rough categorisation, 24% thought it was God or the Logos (though I didn’t ask what exactly people meant by God), 15% thought it was higher consciousness, 11% thought it was a mystery, 10% thought it was the energy of all things, 9% thought it was neural chemistry, and 3% thought all of the above. But these are very rough categorisations – quite often, people used multiple explanations – God, the energy of all things, nature, all life. People who defined themselves as atheists would still speak of ‘a raised state of consciousness…also perhaps some kind of brief connection to nature / logos’, or ‘a complete ecstatic feeling of oneness with the universe and that everything and I were interconnected’ or ‘a very real connection with the Cosmos’ or ‘Logos / chemical reaction’ or ‘all my atoms responding and resonating with a natural frequency’.

How we interpret such experiences may define whether we call ourselves a humanist, or a Christian, or pantheist, or materialist, and so on. But it is quite a fuzzy area – hard to know, hard to conceptualize, hard to explain. Sometimes people’s interpretations have changed over time. If they are ‘peak experiences’, we meet on the peak, but then streams run down and become separate rivers, valleys, landscapes. But up on the peak, the experiences are often quite similar. And it’s apparent, from the survey, that you don’t like labels, you don’t like being boxed into categories like ‘Christian’ or ‘atheist’. Over a quarter of you refused all such labels, including ‘spiritual but not religious’, and wrote your own ‘other’ down, including: Pyrrhonic sceptic, ‘bit of everything with strong Buddhist and shamanic strains’, ‘bit of Buddhist and Christian but not’, Stoic with Christian roots’, ‘pagan atheist’, ‘goddess feminist’, and my favourite: ‘Christian-Buddhist, Neo-Platonic, Universal agnostic even though I’m a traditional Anglo-Catholic Priest’. Surveys are useful but blunt, their categories don’t always capture the fluxiness of spiritual moments and the cultural identities we incorporate them into.

The fruit

OK, so we’re having more and more groovy spiritual experiences, and we’re not entirely sure what they mean. So what? What are the fruits? I asked how these experiences changed you. Of those who responded (226 of you) the most common way it changed you was to make you feel more connected, to feel ‘the world is my home’, ‘I am a grain of sand in the desert’; to feel more connection and empathy to other beings, a greater sense of compassion and love for them, and also to feel more loved yourself. The second most common way it changed you was to make you more open to a ‘wider sense of life’, it ‘made me open to other ways of looking at things’, it ‘opened the door to wider meanings’, it ‘made me less skeptical, less quick to judge, more compassionate’. It made some of you sense that we are not ‘just’ our brains, bodies or egos. Several of you reported feeling calmer, more ‘centred’, more ‘true to myself’, ‘more me’. It made some of you ‘seek more’, deepen your search, and in some cases led to major behaviour change (‘it pushes me to be a better person…to stay away from alcohol, womanizing and lying’) and major emotional change (‘they allow me to relinquish my desperate control over my negative feelings, either physical pain or mental depression or spiritual guilt. It’s like my well has run dry, but the very last bit of digging uncovered the spring that fills and refills the well of my soul.’) For several of you, such experiences strengthened your commitment to a particular practice – going to church, meditating, praying or, in one case, starting your own spiritual movement (the Sunday Assembly).

For me, the survey gives a fascinating snapshot of a culture that may be abandoning traditional religious affiliation but is still deeply interested in spiritual experiences and religious practices. Although 72% of you agree that ‘there is a taboo against talking about such experiences in western culture’, 80% say they’re happy to talk about them to friends and family, and only 2% say they’d be worried people might think they were crazy – the stigma attached to such experiences is much less than it was 50 years ago.

There is a risk, of course, of spirituality and Christianity becoming too obsessed with experiences – we can fetishize them, become thrill seekers, even addicted to them. Philip Pullman says: ‘Seeking this sort of thing doesn’t work. Seeking it is far too self-centred. It’s like ‘the pursuit of happiness’, which I’ve always thought an absolutely fatuous idea. Things like my experience (and other similar ones) are by-products, not goals. To make them the aim of your life is an act of monumental and self-deceiving egotism. YOU ARE NOT THAT IMPORTANT, but your work might be.’

Alas, most of us haven’t written His Dark Materials. And surely it’s not all about what we produce, is it? I think these moments of deep connection do something important for us and to us. They point beyond the isolated ego, make us feel ‘at home in the world’, and connect us in empathy and love to other beings – so they’re not just good for us, but also for others. And they are not an alternative to commitment, community and practice – they grow out of commitment, community and practice.

But are they just a feeling, or do such experiences give us insights into an actual physical connection between our minds / souls, other beings and the cosmos? Philip Pullman certainly thinks so – he’s one of a growing number of advocates for ‘pan-psychism’, which is the theory that consciousness is a fundamental feature of matter. At the least, we can say that, given how little we understand the nature of consciousness and matter, it’s possible such moments point to something real about the extended mind and its connection to others and to the cosmos. Meanwhile, the real challenge is to take such unusual experiences, and integrate them into ordinary life. To make the extraordinary ordinary and the ordinary extraordinary. In the words of Jack Kornfield, ‘after the ecstasy, the laundry’.

The Myth of Religious Violence

We all know the story. Europe in the 17th century was torn apart by the Wars of Religion. Then, after several decades of extreme violence, people decided to put religious differences to one side, and to come together in the rational, secular, liberal, tolerant state. We then exported this model of rational civilisation to the rest of the world, which is slowly accepting it, despite being backward, irrational and prone to religious violence (that means you, Muslims).

This is the foundational myth of the modern secular state. And like all myths, it is not entirely true. Its falsehood – or limited truth – can blind us to our own irrational violence.

Ecstasy plays a key role in this myth. Ecstatic experiences were central to the Christian conception of human nature and human society. Ecstasy was the ladder which connected humans to the divine. But in the 17th and 18th century process of secularization, ecstasy was rebranded as ‘enthusiasm’, and deemed a mental illness and a threat to public order. Enthusiasm was the ‘anti-self of the Enlightenment’, the enemy of reason. Ecstasy has to be locked up or banished if the rational liberal secular order can exist.

The pathologisation of ecstasy began in the 16th-century Reformation. Martin Luther mocked the monastic practice of trying to reach ecstasy through contemplation – monks and nuns were lazy fools getting rich off the gullible masses. You can’t get to heaven through your own contemplative efforts, only grace can save you. It is dangerous to rely on personal revelation or visionary experience, you should only rely on Scripture. Luther lambasted Anabaptist peasants for using personal revelation as a justification for violent revolution, calling them ‘enthusiasts’.

Cranmer and Cromwell (pictured either side of Henry VIII) waged a war on ecstasy in the interest of state power

His critique of the Church was used by kings in their attempts to seize power and money for their fledgling states. Henry VIII, for example, embraced the Reformist cause to increase his own power in England. His advisors, Thomas Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell, used a Lutheran critique of monasticism to close down almost all the monasteries and nunneries in England and seize their assets. This is what secularisation originally meant – the transfer of assets and power from the church to the state.

Cranmer and Cromwell waged a war on ecstasy. When a Catholic nun called Elizabeth Barton prophesized against Henry and Anne Boleyn, she was hanged for treason. Thomas Cromwell declared: ‘If credence should be given to every such lewd person as would affirm himself to have revelations from God, what readier way were there to subvert all common wealth and good order in the world?’ Cranmer took the traditional invocation of the Holy Spirit out of the Book of Common Prayer. The Holy Spirit was deemed a threat to public order. Religion was reduced to a series of propositions, set by the state, which people must publicly affirm…or else.

In the 17th century, both Catholic and Protestant thinkers warned against ‘enthusiasm’ or any claim to personal revelation. It was a threat to reason and public order. One sees the political usefulness of this critique particularly in Thomas Hobbes’ remarkable polemic, Leviathan, published in 1651. Like a 17th-century Richard Dawkins, Hobbes rails against people who let their imagination carry them away, so that they start imagining fairy tales of God or angels or fairies speaking to them and telling them what to do. Such enthusiasts may then persuade the ignorant mob, who then disturb the public order and threaten the state.

This polemic against religious ecstasy is grounded in Hobbes’ materialism. We are material automatons. There is no such thing as a ghost in the machine or a Holy Spirit ‘out there’, no way any spirit could enter our bodies. Imagination is merely ‘decaying sense’, not some sort of ladder to the divine as medieval contemplatives believed. Medieval scholastics thought human nature was double – matter and soul. But this is nonsense. We are just matter.

Hobbes’ materialism is tied to his politics. In medieval Christendom, humans’ double nature (body and soul) was reflected in the double authority of the Church and the State, the kingdom of Heaven and the kingdom of Earth. But Hobbes insists we mustn’t set up a ‘ghostly authority against the civil’. This is to set up a ‘kingdom of fairies’. There can be only one power, one authority, one kingdom – the state. The state is the true kingdom of heaven, and we owe it total allegiance. As for religion, that can be reduced to the basic proposition that Jesus is Christ. Who doesn’t accept that?

Hobbes is unusually outspoken in his denunciation of religious enthusiasm, but one finds a similar idea in Enlightenment thinkers like Locke, Hume and Shaftesbury. Religious enthusiasm is a threat to public order. Religion should be confined to the private sphere, while the public sphere remains secular, rational and polite. Ecstasy is not all bad, as long as it stays a private individual experience. This is what the Romantic Sublime is essentially – a private, individual experience. But enthusiasm is very dangerous when it’s collective, and when it spills over into the public sphere. We don’t want to go back to the 17th century, to those terrible Wars of Religion. We owe our primary allegiance to the secular, rational state.

This story is still very active today. It defines how we think of Islamic terrorism. Some reference to the Wars of Religion often appears in defences of western secularism and attacks on Islamic irrationalism. The story goes something like this: ‘We went through a period of religious violence in the 17th century until we invented the rational secular state, and everything calmed down and got better. Religion leads to violence, it causes more wars than anything else. If only you Muslims could evolve out of your religious irrationalism and embrace western rationalism. We will defend secularism from your irrational attacks, and support secular regimes in the Middle East. We will bomb you into rationalism.’

There are several problems with this ‘myth of religious violence’, as the historian William T. Cavanaugh calls it. Firstly, as Cavanaugh explores, it’s not an accurate account of the Thirty Years War, which was only dubbed the ‘Wars of Religion’ in the Enlightenment. Those wars often pitted Catholics against Catholics and Protestant against Protestants, in an ever-shifting series of battles which have more to do with the breakdown of the Hapsburg empire and the emergence of autonomous states than religious enthusiasm. As Peter Wilson concluded in his recent history, the emergence of the secular state wasn’t the antidote to the Thirty Years War – it was the cause of it.

Secondly, ecstasy and enthusiasm didn’t go away in the rational secular state. It took new forms, such as the capitalist ecstasy of the South Sea Bubble. Its most obvious new form was nationalism – the ecstatic worship of the state and state power. You can see this ‘migration of the Holy’ to the secular state in the French Revolution, in the cult of Napoleon, in the totalitarian worship of Hitler and Stalin, and – in a less extreme but no less powerful way – in American civil religion and the cult of the Star-Spangled Banner. Secularism didn’t really privatise religion, it created a new religion of the state.

Nationalist enthusiasm can be just as brutal, irrational and aggressive as medieval ecstatic movements. Nationalism caused far more wars and loss of life in the 19th and 20th centuries than monotheism. We think of secularism as tolerant and peaceful, but it often means state absolutism of a very brutal kind. That’s certainly what it meant in the Middle East, with the Hobbesian regimes of Ataturk, Mubarak, Saddam Hussein, the Shah of Iran, or Hafez al-Assad. Today, Western societies are in danger of reacting to Islamic terrorism by embracing a particularly nasty nationalism, as peddled by Putin, Trump and Le Pen. Who, faced with such Leviathans, would not yearn for God?

Secularism is often tied to an aggressive materialism which many people – including me – find suffocating, soulless and unreal. If you want to win the battle of ideas with Islamic extremism, you cannot simply preach secularism, nationalism and materialism. That will not do the job. People will always yearn for a transcendence beyond the human, particularly the young, the poor and the oppressed. We need to create and protect spaces for transcendence in secular liberal cultures, so that young people don’t feel they have to go to violent extremes to find it.