The new science of religious experiences

It’s odd how many academic disciplines grew out of the study of trance or ecstatic states. Now I know what you’re thinking. ‘Bloody hell, Jules is off on ecstasy again’. But hear me out, I promise I won’t be long.

Psychology, neurology, sociology and anthropology all began, in the late 19th century, with the study of ecstatic, charismatic, or trance states. They all found naturalistic interpretations for such states. And they were usually pejorative explanations. The academic distinguished himself from the ecstatic individual or crowd by remaining outside the trance, dispassionately analysing it, classifying it. The academic is masculine, European, conscious, rational, self-controlled. The ecstatic individual or group is feminine, unconscious, irrational, uncontrolled, weak-willed, hysterical, childish, primitive, degenerate.

I’d go as far as to say modern academia is founded on the rejection of the supernatural, including the rejection of revelation-through-trance. It’s the foundational principle of so many of its departments - not just the social sciences, but also economics, history, even literary criticism. Academia is a machine for disenchantment.

Max Weber said as much, in his lecture, Science as a Vocation. He insisted that academics have no business using the lecture as a pulpit. They should leave their religious convictions outside, remain objective, disinterested, rational. Yet he also says that academics have a vocation for disenchantment. They are foot-soldiers in the grand march of rationalisation. So there is a double standard. What Weber really means when he says academics should be objective and disinterested is they should be secular, materialist, naturalist and rationalist.

The present argument between the sciences and the humanities is, really, a side show. Can you think of any academic who dares question the materialist hypothesis and speak of their spiritual beliefs? It’s completely off the agenda.

William James as explorer of multiple consciousness-worlds

All of this makes me treasure William James as a rare and almost lost breed of academic. First of all, he was interdisciplinary in a way that is practically impossible today. He was president of both the American Psychology Association and the American Philosophy Association. He was fascinated by religious experience. He was interested by personal experience, including his own. He was curious about drug experiences, and prepared to experiment on himself with nitrous oxide. He was intrigued by experiments in ESP. And he was ready to speculate, in academic lectures, that God (or some benevolent cosmic power) exists and that our minds are not confined to our brains. And, crucially, he remained skeptical, critical, dubious of his own assertions. He never turned into Deepak Chopra.



His interest in multiple levels of consciousness partly came from the arts, and it fed back into the arts as well. He helped popularise the idea of the unconscious and the ‘stream of consciousness’, which fed into modernist explorations of consciousness by writers like Yeats, Joyce, Lawrence,  Woolf, Huxley, and his brother, Henry James. Oh to be alive then! Rather than now, when what passes for a public intellectual is a belligerent bar-room bore like Sam Harris.

In the early decades of the 20th century, after James’ death, academia rapidly became more institutionalized, more departmentalized, more boring. The departments separated off, the walls hardened, the journals and departmental heads policed their respective patches, making sure no one said anything too daring. Philosophy became more boring, losing touch with experimental psychology. Psychology became more boring, losing touch with higher questions of meaning and value. Academia lost interest in trance, the unconscious, dreams, ecstasy, ESP or any of the fun stuff. It was too difficult to measure, and it reminded the academic disciplines of their embarrassing origins in theology. They wanted to establish themselves as serious naturalist disciplines like biology, so anyone who challenged the materialist hypothesis, like William James or Carl Jung, was quietly dropped from the records.

The new science of unusual experience

Well, very slowly, there are signs that a Jamesian spirit is returning to academia, and the cross-disciplinary study of ‘unusual’ or ‘altered’ states of consciousness is making a come-back. How and why?

First of all, the rise of neuroscience in the last 20 years is enabling scientists to examine different types of consciousness, including meditative and hypnotic states, and to speak about them without having to use wooly and somewhat discredited terms like ‘the subliminal self’ or ‘the unconscious’.

Secondly, the rise of Positive Psychology has increased interest in peak experiences, and in the study of positive subjective states like happiness, ‘flow’, absorption. It’s also led to an increased interest in ancient spiritual practices like meditation and prayer, and the brain changes they lead to.

Thirdly, consciousness studies has grown up as a strong interdisciplinary field in the last two decades, and has increased interest in altered states of consciousness, whether that be lucid dreaming, hypnotic states, or hallucinations.

Fourth, psychedelic research is finally taking place in academia again, after a thirty year hiatus. The research is being pioneered by two teams, at Imperial and at John Hopkins. Their research is opening the door to explorations of altered states of consciousness. Check out this video by Imperial's Robin Carhart-Harris for an indication of where psychedelic research is taking us.

Fifth, psychologists and psychiatrists are beginning to explore the widespread prevalence of ‘unusual’ or ‘out-of-the-ordinary’ experiences like hallucinations, hearing voices, trance states and near-death-experiences. And they’re beginning to realise such experiences aren’t necessarily negative, distress-causing or pathological - that they can be meaningful and life-enhancing. I'd mention in particular Dr Emanuelle Peters' team at KCL, the Hearing Voices project at Durham University, and the work of Dr Peter Fenwick on near-death experiences.

Sixth, many humanities disciplines, including philosophy and history, have taken an ‘emotional turn’ in the last twenty years, and are interested in exploring the history and nature of emotions like awe, wonder and ecstasy. This includes an interest in the emotional and quasi-religious power of the arts, particularly music. There is a renewed interest in what James called ‘religious experience’, but which some scholars now prefer to call ‘special experience’ to show that they can happen in non-religious contexts and to non-theistic people. I'd mention in particular Ann Taves' 2000 book,Fits, Trances and Visions, which is a fantastic exploration of the history of the study of religious experience, and her 2010 book, Religious Experience Reconsidered, which lays out how inter-disciplinary work could go forward.

The missing piece of the jigsaw is research into extra-sensory perception, which remains pretty fringe, as far as I know, although a few brave souls, like Rupert Sheldrake, continue to research it outside academia.

What these six fields have in common is that they are all exploring the value of unconscious or altered conscious states, of involuntary experiences like trances and ecstasies.  The researchers in the field are by no means committed to belief in some metaphysical 'beyond', or God, but they do tend to think that altered or unusual states are not always simply pathological - they can sometimes be positive and life-enhancing.

If the study of altered or ecstatic states is not going to be simply ‘thrills and pills’, then it needs to show the long-term health benefits of such experiences, as James tried to do in Varieties of Religious Experience. And it needs to try and fit such experiences, somehow, with the rest of what we know about human nature.

James pointed the way to this, showing that ecstatic states could be moments when individuals felt liberated from ingrained habits (such as addiction), and converted to a new way of life, a new set of felt attitudes. In other words, such experiences could be fit into a Cognitive Behavioural framework - sometimes individuals have to slowly and painstakingly deconstruct their cognitive schema and create better habits of thinking, feeling and acting. But sometimes they are given a push, as it were, by ‘something beyond’ - by an altered state experience like a vision, epiphany or conversion experience.

Bill W, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, is a good example - he was liberated from his alcoholic habits by a religious vision while on the hallucinogenic belladonna. But he stayed free of alcoholism through the more systematic habit-changing work of AA. Something similar happened to me: I was freed from PTSD by a sort of near-death experience. But I stayed freed by going to a CBT self-help group. The unconscious/involuntary and the conscious/voluntary can work in tandem.

There are some interesting questions for this new science of unusual experiences. Very briefly:

1) How do we define such experiences? People have spoken of them as ‘religious, spiritual, unusual, special, out-of-the-ordinary, dissociative, schizotypal, or psychosis-like’, all of which have their baggage.

2) To what do we attribute such experiences? Researchers in the field tend to be split between naturalists and supernaturalists - they need to find a common language and a way to respect their different attributions.

3) Is there a temperament that is more inclined to such experiences? I personally have always been a bit mystic, in the sense of always having the sense of invisible beings (God, powers, whatever) - so are some people simply more ‘God-minded’ than others, more prone to ecstatic experiences?

4) As we explore spiritual experiences through hallucinogenics, we have to ask: what does it mean if one can artificially induce a God-experience through chemicals? Does that devalue the experience or highlight its chemical basis?

5)  Are such experiences essential and pre-cultural, or are they culturally constructed? This is a hoary old debate in religious studies, but there are signs that academics are accepting that ‘special experiences’ could be both hard-wired and culturally constructed. An example is sleep paralysis or near-death experiences, both of which occur cross-culturally, but the experience and interpretation of which seems to differ somewhat in different cultures.

6) From a public health perspective, how can a society find outlets for ecstatic experiences without unleashing the dark side of ecstasy (ie religious violence, fanaticism, insanity). How can we control the uncontrolled?

Academics and non-academics working on this field need to summon up the spirit of William James to take it forward, by cultivating the Jamesian virtues of open-mindedness, interdisciplinarity, humility, sympathetic scepticism, empathy and respect for people's experience, and above all, a willingness to be thought foolish.