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Tony Roberts'Website

Body Mind and Spirit.

The contribution of the discipline of psychology to the study of religious experience.

The discipline of psychology – in it s relation to religious experience (“RE”)– presents a bewildering array of people, facts, theories and conjectures. Hood (1995) in his multi-author Handbook of Religioisu Experience cites some 1440 entries in his author index; in addition, his authors exposit some twelve different theoretical frameworks or stances; Cardena, Lynn and Krippner (2000) in their multi-author Varieties of Anomalous Experience cite a similar number of names in their author index.

Traps for the unwary include: the trap of merely giving an uncritical catalogue of the various psychological approaches; secondly, giving undue weight to one’s personal preference and belief system – in this instance Transpersonal Psychology.

This paper will give a brief cartograply of the various methodological apporoaches, theories and paradigms and will argue that regarding the psychology of religion and RE there is both a methodological plauralism (Wulff, 2000:430; Roth, 1987), and indeed a pluralism of paradigms

To this end, the paper is divided into a number of sections

                         i.        Who are psychologists and what is psychology?


                       ii.        How do we define ‘religious experience’ (‘RE’); what are the valid areas of study?


                      iii.        The interface between the psychology of religion and various other disciplines.


                      iv.        A cartography of various mainstream psychologies


                       v.        Methodologies and paradigms


                      vi.        Conclusion.


(i)            Who are psychologists and what is psychology?

To define the discipline of psychology is difficult. Some notable contributors to the field have been qualified psychologists, some have not been. Starbuck and James were psychologists; Freud and Jung were physicians; Stanislav Grof is a psychiatrist, as was R.D. Laing. Other non-psychologists who have made an important contribution to the psychology of religious experience include Aldous Huxley (writer) and Alister Hardy (marine biologist and zoologist). Those who are or were qualified as psychologists themselves constitute a disparate group of researchers and writers with widely differing views, including behaviourists such as Skinner and Watson at one extreme, to others (with a transpersonal approach) such as Richard Alpert (aka Ram Dass), Timothy Leary and Ken Wilber.

In assessing the value of the contribution of individual professionals therefore, perhaps the quality of the output (and its subsequent influence) is more important than the researcher’s formal qualifications; relevant here is William James’ dictum of ‘fruits not roots’.

What is psychology? Merkur (2005:164) writes of the psychology of religion as an “umbrella term” covering a number of different approaches with

“mutually exclusive schools of thought…..academic psychology, psychoanalysis, analytic psychology and transpersonal psychology …non-communicating and mutually disdainful subdisciplines”.(sic)


(ii)          How should we define ‘religious experience’?

It is little surprise that there a plenitude of authors attempting to define what is meant by ‘religious experience’ (RE).

Caroline Franks Davis (1989, 2004:29-65) uses six categories: Interpretive experiences, quasi-sensory experiences, revelatory experiences, regenerative experiences, numinous experiences and mystical experiences.

Pye (1972:95-118) on the other hand suggests a completely different set of categories (within which he includes subcategories): alienation and conversion, self-giving, experience of power and presence, mystical states and similar, possession, automatism and special powers (including automatic writing)

Hardy (1979:25-29) elucidates ten non-mutually exclusive ‘elements’ resulting from his survey, in addition to further categories relating to reported antecedents and consequences of the REs described.

At another extreme, Masters and Houston (2000) give a plethora of accounts of experiences undergone by their subjects following the ingestion of LSD, including what may be categorised as non-religious, religious and pseudo-religious experiences.

There are several reasons for giving the above examples:

      REs are protean in form

      The discovered experiences – an hence their categorisation – depend on the research methodology

      Most categorisations include two types of core mystical experience – interovertive and exterovertive (Stace, 1960)

      There is an overlap between REs and two other categories

  • Psi (para-psychological experiences)
  • Altered states of consciousness (ASCs)

In looking at the field of study for a psychologist of religion, I suggest that under the umbrella of religious experience there be included (a) religious experience in its many definitions and categories (b) psi-related experiences (a) altered states of consciousness (ASCs)


Fig 1: The overlap of REs, ASCs and psi

One can also, as a simplification, include core mystical experience as a subset of religious experience:


Fig 2: Mysticism as a subset of RE.


Altered states of consciousness

There is evidence of overlap of these categories in Fig.1. Most but not all religious experiences involve an altered state of consciousness (ASC). There are many ASCs which are not religious either in antecedents, content, or consequences; for example drunkedness, the terrifying hallucinations of delirium tremens or schizophrenic delusions. Sims (1995) writes in Symptoms in the Mind using a medical illness model. Only five of the four hundred pages in his book are given over to religious issues (delusions – ibid: 120-121), religious experiences (ibid: 143) and religious feelings (ibid: 283-284). Sims does however cite William James, noting how James showed ‘how unwise it would be to equate the surprising with the pathological’ .

Investigations have been made on the disputed ‘no-man’s-land’ between REs and ‘psychiatric’ ASCs. In their multi-author book Spiritual Emergency. When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crisis, (Grof and Grof, 1989) the writers argue the fine line between true mental illness on the one hand, and a positive albeit emotionally turbulent spiritual growth experience. Tart (1978a) writes about altered states of consciousness, their inter-relationships and cartography; Nelson (1994) analyses the phenomenology of ‘psychiatric’ altered states of consciousness from a transpersonal perspective, drawing on the theories of Washburn (1995).

Psi-related experiences (PREs)

The study of psi phenomena in the form of ‘psi-related experiences (PREs) is important to psychology for various reasons, discussed by Targ, Schiltz and Irwin (2000). PREs described include experiences of telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition and psychokinesis. The authors stress that PREs (subjective, phenomenological) are distinct from observed psi phenomena (objective) which might be observed and measured in a laboratory. Psi phenomena, as experienced, are important for a number of reasons:

Correlation of PREs with spiritual development and religious experience

There is a long history of the relationship between PREs and spiritual development, although much of the evidence is apocryphal, and has not been verified in the laboratory. Eliade (1969, 1990) writes of the “magical powers” which the yogi attains at certain stages of his/her development, these being given the name siddhis. Likewise, Walsh (1990:194-211) discusses the possibility of psychic powers amongst shamans.

Nelson (1994:311-340) writes about psi phenomena from a transpersonal perspective. Using a classification system of development involving the chakras, he describes the properties and phenomenology of a

‘shamanic’ state of consciousness in which there is alleged to be the capability of ‘telepathy, precognition, psycho-kinesis, psychic healing, out-of-body travels, and channelling…..’

The author also notes (ibid: 316) that recognition of the existence of psychic powers is common to all the major religious traditions.

Clinical importance of PREs

Many psychologists with an interest in RE are also counsellors or psychotherapists; when a client reports a PRE, it is important that the response of the therapist is appropriate to the situation. Targ, Schiltz and Irwin (2000:221) note that the clinician may need to make a differential diagnosis between a PRE and competing psychiatric diagnoses, further elaborating the issues (ibid: 229-235) .


PREs challenge the current paradigm

A third reason for treating the PREs as a close bedfellow of RE is that, like REs, their existence - if found to be veridical - presents a challenge to the materialistic-monistic scientific paradigm.

Of interest here is Sir Alister Hardy. Not only was he a pioneer in the exploration and cartography of RE: he was also a scientist of impeccable credentials. In many of his published works on spirituality and evolution he is open to the possibility of psi phenomena and is a constant advocate for the promotion of continued research into parapsychology, (Hardy, 1952); the possible relationship between biology and telepathy, (Hardy, 1965: 234-261); more detailed discussion of the importance of psychical research, (Hardy, 1966:176-197); further detailed discussion of ‘parapsychology’, (Hardy, 1975:120-139) and further discussion of the implication of some of his research findings, (Hardy:1984:207-228).

A case for ‘anomalous experience’?

Given the inter-relationship between RE, ASCs and psi, it is arguable that the discipline of psychology needs to take into account all three phenomena in their varying manifestations.  Cardena, Lynn and Krippner (2000) writing in the multi-author textbook which they also edit, make a case for the umbrella term ‘anomalous experience’ and this is further elaborated by Berenbaum, Kerns and Raghavan (2000).

Clearly, ‘anomalous experience’ is itself a potentially unsatisfactory word: what is anomalous in one culture may not be so in another, but it is a useful interim ‘catch-all’ of issues of importance to a comprehensive psychology.

The other ‘varieties of anomalous experience’ described in Cardena et al include hallucinatory experiences (Bentall, 2000:85:120), lucid dreaming (LaBerge & Gackenbach, 2000:151-182), out-of-body experiences (Alvarado, 2000:183-218), past life experiences (Mills & Lynn, 2000:283-314), near death experiences (Greyson, 2000:315-352), anomalous healing experiences (Krippner & Achterberg, 2000: 353-396) and mystical experience (Wulff, 2000:397-440). All of these are potentially relevant to RE.

In evaluating the contribution of psychology to the study of religious experience, we shall next look at the interfaces of the disciplines of psychology with other disciplines:

(iii)         How does psychology interface with other disciplines?

When considering the interface with other disciplines, two initial points arise. Firstly, space demands selection regards the most relevant disciplines, and indeed selection regarding the most relevant issues within a discipline. The psychology of RE – or rather the psychologies of RE - is perhaps a specialised subcategory: the schema below is a necessary simplification:

Fig 3: Psychology of religious experience as a sub-category.

Five disciplines have been chosen to examine briefly in relation to their interface with Psychology:


Fig:4 Psychology and five inter-related disciplines.


It is perhaps appropriate that phenomenology be considered first. Arguably, most of the psychologies of religion rely on RE as their primary datum from which to construct theories and paradigms.

Wulff (1995) gives a particularly lucid account of both the phenomenology of religion and the phenomenological psychology of religion. Allen (2005:182-207) gives a series of definitions of phenomenology and a rationale for the phenomenological approach:

“Phenomenology of religion starts with the view that religion is based on religious experience….in its descriptions, analysis and interpretation of meaning, it attempts to suspend value judgements about what is real, or un-real in the experiences of others”

Thus the phenomenological approach attempts to avoid contamination of experiential data by the cultural norms or prejudices of the researcher.

Multi-axial phenomenological mapping

Relevant to psychology is phenomenological mapping (Walsh: 1990:217 et seq) , which the author describes as ‘the careful description and analysis of raw experiences’.  Walsh uses an 8-axis phenomenological mapping to compare states of consciousness in shamanism, schizophrenia, Buddhism and Yoga. Clearly such a mapping is grist to the mill of any psychological theory regarding RE.

In psychotherapy and psychiatry, as well as in research, phenomenological mapping can be relevant. Here there can be a fine line between spiritual emergence and mental illness, and a careful phenomenological mapping by the therapist (‘thinking on her feet’) may be necessary. Agosin (1992) writes of the similarities and differences between psychosis and mysticism, most of these parameters being susceptible to phenomenological description. Similar considerations apply in the various papers in Grof & Grof (1989).

Another important use of phenomenological mapping is provided by Berenbaum et al, (2000:29) who use a 6-dimensional model, which has three Onset/Course dimensions, and three phenomenological dimensions. The descriptions can be applied to all anomalous experience, not only that which is considered religious.

If phenomenology is concerned with the quality of the data, obtained in an unbiased way, then the next task is to assess its veridicality. This is the job of philosophy, which is therefore another essential adjunct to psychology of religion.


Some (but not all) of the psychological paradigms depend, for the integrity of their foundations, on the veridicality of these experiences. This is particularly true of those paradigms (such as transpersonal psychology) which are not monistic-materialistic-reductionist. Vardy (2005:80-97) in a useful review of the subject, writes:

“Philosophy of religion in the Western tradition uses reason to engage with central areas of religious belief – it is primarily concerned with religious truth claims and less concerned with the cultural or sociological understanding of religions, which a matter for religious studies departments”


Some relevant philosophical ideas include:



The Principle of Credulity & the Principle of Testimony

Vardy (2005:87-88) cites Swinburne (1991) as believing that it is reasonable to rely on two principles when attempting to determine the probability of the existence of God from religious experience:

  • The Principle of Credulity: ‘if it seems to a person that X is present, then X probably is present’.
  • The Principle of Testimony: ‘It is reasonable to believe that the experiences of others are probably as they report them’

Clearly there are special considerations. In general terms however, the person reporting the experience is ‘innocent until proved guilty’ and onus is on the critic to disprove the assertions of (say) the mystic.

Caroline Frankis Davis, herself a philosopher, further teases out Swinburne’s Principle of credulity in her book The Evidential Force of Religious Experience (1989:96-105)

Critical Realism

Critical realism is another important concept in the armamentarium of the psychologist explaining RE. Useful accounts of critical realism are given by Davis (1989:10-14) and Hick (1999, 2004:38-49). Both authors explore the use of metaphor in talking about the transcendent, and how RE is shaped by the culture, religion and personal history of the experiencer. As Hick writes (ibid:47)

“The forms that this awareness takes are human constructions created from the material within the inherited imagery of a religious tradition and from each individual’s life story and psychological makeup…..’

According to Hick, this principle operates not only with regard to the particular metaphor used, but to the actual content of experiences such as visions. The Christian’s image of Christ and the Hindu’s vision of Krishna can both be valid interpretations of the Transcendent.



The importance of anthropology to the psychology of RE lies less in the various theoretical frameworks provided by anthropologists, more in the quality of the raw data from other cultures, their experiences and their interpretive frameworks. Important here is the distinction between ‘emic’ and ‘etic’ (Hackett, 2005:147); in the former approach, the culture (and this would include the people’s own psychology of religion) is viewed and interpreted by an ethnic group from the inside. Thus the concept of phenomenological epoche extends to the theoretical frameworks themselves. Tobert (2007), a medical anthropologist, has produced an exemplary paper in this respect. Tobert reviews the cosmologies and beliefs of a number of other cultures, particularly around such areas as death, birth, re-birth, inter-dimensional reality. In her own words:

“…I wanted to emphasise that there are a plurality of frameworks for understanding human existence and human experience.” (ibid: 14)

Anthropological studies of other cultures can un-mask the ethnocentricity and parochialism of much of Western thought with its materialist-monistic assumptions, and facilitate a trans-cultural (and inter alia, transpersonal) psychology of religion and RE.

Another useful insight into the value of anthropology is provided by Walsh (1990) in his The Spirit of Shamanism. Walsh is both an anthropologist, a psychiatrist and philosopher, and lucidly demonstrates the inter-penetration and co-dependence of disciplines.


Riesebrot, M and Konieczny, M.E. , (2005) cite the work of Marx, Durkheim and Weber as the initiators of three classical paradigms regarding the sociology of religion, in addition to discussing subsequent ideas. There is little in their review to suggest the importance of RE in relation to sociology.

There is an alternative, however, as implied by Argyle (2000) in his Psychology of Religion. The author notes (ibid: 11) that social psychology and related areas have a degree of overlap with sociology. If we include social psychology as a subset of sociology, there is much that is relevant to RE. In particular, Argyle cites useful studies regarding the extent and varieties of RE, its classification, and relationship to other social parameters. The methodologies of the various studies cited are largely nomothetic – that is, studying populations – with a variety of questionnaires. Such studies frequently use statistical techniques such as significance tests, correlation coefficients and factor analysis as adjuncts to the interpretation of results. Thus can hard data contribute to psychological theories.

Neuroscience and Neurotheology

The rapid development of real-time neuro-imaging makes neuroscience a discipline to reckoned with. Newberg, D’Aquili and Rause (2002) discuss contemporary research into brain structure and function in relation to RE. They describe, for example, research involving monitoring the brain activity of Tibetan meditators and Franscisan nuns at prayer. The authors’ particular focus includes discussing ways in which changes in activity of certain areas of the brain – particularly ‘association areas’ – can parallel (and perhaps explain) the sense of timelessness and loss of self/non-self boundaries which can occur in mystical experience.

Given the complexity of brain structure, the authors’ arguments are themselves complex, and only certain varieties of RE are discussed. Furthermore, there is no discussion of the psi phenomena reportedly often associated with REs

On the other hand, the authors claim to be non-reductionist:

“We believe that all mystical experiences, from the mildest to the most intense have their biological roots in the mind’s machinery of transcendence……….if the brain were not assembled as it is, we would not be able to experience a higher reality, even if it did exist” (ibid: 123)

The speciality ‘neuro-theology’ is expanding, as developments in practical neuro-science facilitate the obtaining of an ‘outsider’ scientific correlate with the ‘insider’ world of the person.

‘Feeder disciplines’ ?

Phenomenology, sociology/social psychology, anthropology are subjects in their own right. In relation the psychology of RE, however, they function as ‘feeder disciplines’, supplying data on which a psychology can be built. Philosophy helps build and test the logical framework.


(iv)         A cartography of various mainstream psychologies


Any review of the various psychologies of religion requires a cartography. Cousins (1992) uses a model taken from the work of Masters and Houston (1966). Here there are four proposed levels of the psyche, whose levels are labelled: the sensorium, the ontogenic, the phylogenetic and the mysterium levels:


Masters & Houston level:

Types of psychology





Behavioural, developmental

Skinner, Watson, Piaget, Bandura




Psychoanalytic, Psychodynamic

Freud, Klein, Post-Freudians




Analytical psychology

Jung & Jungians




Humanistic & Transpersonal psychologies

James, Maslow, Assagioli, Grof, Wilber, Washburn



Fig 5: Levels of the psyche related to psychological approaches (based on Cousins, 1992:131-138). Modified, and suggested representatives added.


The above can only be a simplification, and there is in particular a blurring of the boundary between levels 3 and 4. Hood’s (1995) Handbook fo Religious Experience refers to a number of psychological orientations or perspectives. Some of these will be briefly examined:

Level 1: Behavioural and developmental approaches

Tamminem and Nurmi (1995:269-311) review various developmental theories and their relationship to RE, in particular Piagetian theories and a person’s developing image of God. There are various conceptualisations, including Fowler’s eight stages of religious development over the life cycle (ibid: 298-300).The authors point out however that there is no “United Grand Theory” of religious development: rather a multiciplicity of theories

McCallister (1995:312-352) reviews the relationship between cognitive theory and religious experience, discussing the relationship between cognitions, images, emotions and underlying schemas. The author also reviews the supposed processes of religious conversion, with their sometimes abrupt schema changes. Such a process need not be reductionist, but rather can focus on the complex psychological mechanisms at play in response to a possibly veridical experience. Hill’s (1995:353-377) review article focuses on affect, and its relation to cognition in religious experience, noting William James emphasis on the importance of feeling in religion as subordinate to its intellectual component (ibid: 371), but also noting the current lack of knowledge in this area.

Malony (1995:378-396 ) writes interestingly on behavioural theory. Firstly, he expands the concept of RE by introducing the idea of a trait of religiousness, akin to ‘religiosity’; this is in contrast to the more familiar transient states. If we subsume trait under the rubric of religious experience, then this has implications for Cardena et al’s (2000) categorisation ‘anomalous’ experiences and for phenomenological mapping. Secondly, Malony discusses the S-O-R (Stimulus-Organism-Response) analysis of religious experience, in addition to the various types of learning, including operant conditioning and social learning. Thirdly, the author implies that one can engage in ‘methodological behaviourism’ without being reductionist (ibid: 392).

Level 2: Psychodynamic approaches.

It is this level which is concerned with a person’s history (from birth ); it is distinct from the Level 1 conceptualisation in that it admits the existence of unconscious processes and indeed the various other structures and processes described in classical psychoanalytic literature.

The subject is complex, and space permits a only brief sketch. Freud has written about religion in various books or papers. Of particular importance are Totem and Taboo (Freud, 1913), The Future of an Illusion (Freud, 1927, 2001) and Civilisation and its Discontents (Freud, 1929, 2001). There are a number of critical reviews of Freud’s ideas on religion, including Palmer (1997:3-81), Shafranske (1995:200-230) and Argyle (2000: 97-110).

Freud had little to say about RE as a (transient) state. He has more to say however on RE as (quasi-permanent) trait – the concept of God as embodied in cognitions and associated emotions.

There are two prominent issues. Firstly, there is the concept of God, who is seen by Freud as a projected father figure, following successful resolution of the Oedipus Complex, and internalisation of the biological father. God here is seen both as a protector (in an uncertain and hostile universe) and part of the guilt-inducing super-ego. There exists some empirical evidence for this theory, summarised by Argyle (2000:98-99, 103-104)

The second issue is the far-fetched theory discussed in Totem and Taboo. Here the concept of God derives in part from the inherited racial memory of tribal patricide, atoned for by later generations in the worshiping, killing and eating of the totem animal. There is little evidence for this theory. Rather its importance lies in the supposition that memory can be inherited. This suggests a Lamarckist viewpoint, now discredited. On the other hand, it does posit an entity akin to the collective unconscious of Jung, and some of the ideas of the transpersonal psychologists.

Various Post-Freudians have addressed religious experience from psychodynamic viewpoints. For this please see reviews by Holm (1995) on role theory and RE; Spilka and McIntosh (1995) on attribution theory and RE; Kirkpatrick (1995) on attachment theory and RE.

Level 3: Jung and Analytical Psychology

Cousins (1992: 135-137)) gives a brief account of this ‘phylogenetic’ level, that of Jung’s collective unconscious, where memories and symbols have a universality which transcends the purely personal-biographical.

Argyle (2000:104-110) gives a brief but useful critical account of Jung’s theories. Other reviewers are Halligan (1995:231-253) and Palmer (1997:85-196). Only a brief sketch of Jung’s ideas can be given here: those relating to RE.

Firstly, Jung give credibility to the veridicality of RE that Freud does disallows. Unlike Freud, Jung sees certain dreams having a numinous content, and being vehicles of RE.

Secondly, images of God are viewed not as projections of a biological parent (father) figure, but rather as manifestations of a universal God archetype. The archetypes are basically unknowable, but are experienced via symbols which vary according to the individual and her culture. “They are something like Platonic ideas, or Kant’s a priori categories” (Argyle, 2000:105).

Thirdly, the ontological status of (say) the God archetype is unclear; although the archetype is unknowable, it is unclear whether the archetype is God, or merely a way of experiencing God. The principle of critical realism might suggest that the archetype is a way-station on the axis between the noumen, (= the unknowable thing-in-itself), and the phenomenon-as- experienced.

For all their complexity and difficult-to-test hypotheses, Jungian ideas have contributed to transpersonal psychology, as well as to current analytical psychotherapy.

Level 4: Humanistic and Transpersonal psychologies

Arguably, William James was – in all but name - the first transpersonal psychologist; he has been credited with the first use of the term ‘transpersonal’ in around 1905-6 (Wikipedia, 2009). There have been a number of definitions of ‘Transpersonal Psychology’, one of which is that provided by Lajoie and Shapiro (1992:91) cited in Wikipedia (2009). This is

“Transpersonal psychology is concerned with the study of humanity’s highest potential, and the recognition, understanding and realisation of unitive, spiritual, and transcendent states of consciousness”


In fact, it is an umbrella term for a number of different psychologies. Space does not permit more than a sprinkling of references to current and past players in this developing field. These include Abraham Maslow, Carl Jung, Assagioli (1975), Grof (1988, 2000, 2006a, 2006b), Grof & Grof (1989), Leary (1998), Nelson (1994), Tart (1975a, 1975b), Walsh (1990), Washburn (1995) and Wilber (1996).

There have been academic developments: the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology was founded in 1969, the Association for Transpersonal Psychology in 1972. In the U.K. there is now a Transpersonal Psychology section of the British Psychological Society; in 1999 Royal College of Psychiatrists founded its Spirituality and Psychiatry special interest group, which in its manifesto writes of the relevance of “birth, death and neardeath, mystical and trance states and varieties of religious experience” (Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2009). Furthermore, the Royal College provides a detailed leaflet on ‘Spirituality and Mental Health’ for use by the general public.

The complex relationship (and need to differentiate) between religious experience and mental illness is a major issue in Transpersonal Psychology. Of interest is the recently developed (UK) Spiritual Crisis Network (2009), offering professional and lay support to those undergoing turbulent spiritual experiences.


(v)          Methodologies & Paradigms

There are a number of methodologies contributing to a psychology of religion & RE, each contributing data in its own way. Examples of some of these are:

v  Personal experiences as recorded: James (1902), Underhill (1911)

v  Public responses to questions: Hardy (1979)

v  The psychoanalytic method – free association and dreams (Freud)

v  Analytical Psychology – dreams (Jung)

v  Other therapeutic approaches e.g. Transpersonal (Nelson, 1994)

v  Anthropological explorations (Tobert, 2007; Walsh, 1990)

v  Surveys using questionnaires (Argyle, 2000 )

v  Phenomenological, ideographic accounts of drug-induced ASCs - Masters & Houston (2000), Huxley (1954).

v  The use of transcultural source materials – Pye (1972)

v  Controlled experiments using drugs – Pahnke (1966) cited in Argyle (2000:64-66)

Unsurprisingly, there is a multiplicity of theories and paradigms. Kuhn (1962), considering the physical sciences, suggested that the current paradigm determined the research methodology. Furthermore, he suggests (ibid: 5) “Normal science…often suppresses fundamental novelties because they are necessarily subversive of its basic commitments” . … “ ‘normal’ science involves attempts to demonstrate agreement with the paradigm” (ibid: 27). Furthermore, he implies that a multiplicity of paradigms exist during the infancy of a science. “The road to a firm research consensus is extraordinarily arduous” (ibid:15)

The psychology of religion & religious experience shows no sign of convergence of its various paradigms into a generally-agreed paradigm, as exists for example in chemistry or evolutionary biology. One can only conjecture reasons. Before the Enlightenment, in Western civilisation, the Church defined the explanation of REs and was responsible for the estimate of their veridicality. With the rise in science, and the diminution of church authority, there do not yet exist such philosophies and verification procedures which are as applicable to religious experience as to the physical sciences. Other conjectured influences include:


  • The diverse faith backgrounds of the researchers


  • The diverse ethnicity of the researchers


  • Their diverse scientific backgrounds


  • Researchers’ own personal religious or otherwise anomalous experiences, which have influenced their viewpoints. Some such experiences have occurred spontaneously. Many however have been deliberately cultivated via meditation, entheogenic drugs, sensory stimulation and other methods. For examples, see Bucke (1961), Huxley (1954), Jung (1961), Lilly (1973), Leary (1980), Otto (1928) and Masters & Houston (2000).


  • Researchers’ other unconscious motivations


  • The nature of the questions asked by psychologists. In the words of Leary (1998:49) :
    • “But you must be careful how you put the question because the level at which you ask is the level at which you will be answered”



(vi)         Conclusion

Tentative conclusions from this brief review suggest that:

      Any psychology of religion needs to address the issue of both ASCs and psi phenomena (the latter as revealed in PREs and objective data.)


      Such a bundle of phenomena might usefully be described as ‘anomalous experiences’, thus avoiding premature closure regarding relevance or veridicality.


      No discipline is an island entire of itself; there is interpenetration between disciplines, and Psychology is dependent on other disciplines for its data and structure: hopefully justifying the space given here to these neighbouring and complementary approaches.


      Any psychology needs to consider RE presenting as trait as well as state. Trait experiences en masse might however not be culturally anomalous.


      The psychology of RE is important in psychiatry, as well as academically, for at least two reasons:


  • It is important diagnostically to scrutinise the interface between treatable mental illness and veridical RE. In this context, Grof & Grof (1989) coined the terms ‘spiritual emergence’ and ‘spiritual emergency’


  • Ideographic subjective clinical accounts of experiences can contribute to the data with which to develop theories.


      There is a plurality of methodologies and paradigms, ranging from behavioural to transpersonal. Wulff (2000:430) is particularly lucid on this point. The author points out that to see mysticism as healthy and veridical “fundamentally challenges the assumptions, theories and procedures of modern empirical psychology”. The author goes on to write:

  • “In the place of today’s sheer plurality of interpretative frameworks and research methods, we may look forward to a genuinely pluralistic mode of enquiry – what Roth (1987) called methodological pluralism according to which no point of view is privileged over any other, but each is entertained as a potential source of insight.”

This pluralism might reflect the ontological status of the Transcendent itself. In the words of the scientist J B S Haldane:

“The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose”.




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Diagrams missing.

Previously submitted as an essay to the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Wales, Lampeter.

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