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Christian Smith

Are You Experienced?

Revisiting “religious experience.”

What is a "religious experience"? And what might religious experiences tell us about the reality of things religious, divine, spiritual, or sacred? Many people around the world and across history report having religious experiences. Many readers of this publication have probably had religious experiences. Even some apparently not-religious encounters are sometimes described in their power and profundity as "religious experiences." But what are we even talking about here? Are religious experiences "real"? Where do they come from? How ought we to make sense of them? These are some of the interesting and important questions addressed in a recent book by Ann Taves, Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things.

Psychologists, anthropologists, and religious-studies scholars have been studying religious experiences for a long time now. What have they learned? Well, the answer to that question has changed over time. The older and now unfashionable way of thinking about religious experiences, established by scholars such as Mircea Eliade, Rudolf Otto, and Ninian Smart, presupposed some crucially defining ideas. It assumed that religious experiences are unique or "sui generis" things, a sort of irreducible "natural kind" to be found among the vast diversity of other possible sorts of human experiences. This old approach further assumed that religious experiences all concern a particular real domain of life, namely, the "religious." And it presupposed that the vast variety of different human religious experiences share a common feature or source, by arising from and belonging to the same essential aspect of reality, variously described as the "numinous," mythical, sacred, magical, or transcendent.

We can see now that this once-dominant set of assumptions is not really a generalized theoretical synthesis of humanistic and scientific empirical "findings" about religious experiences but rather a particular philosophy-of-religion ...

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