The Relationship Between Religious Experience and Religious Belief: Essentialism, Scholarly Naivety, or Logical Positivism?
In recent decades, the study of ‘religious’ or ‘mystical’ experiences has been criticised by postmodern scholars who argue that because all experience is dependent upon language and culture, it is unintelligible to speak at all of some cross-culturally comparable event called ‘religious experience’. Because experience cannot precede culture, such scholars assert that it is ‘naive’ or otherwise methodologically or theoretically unsound to claim that the origins of religious beliefs can lie in ‘religious’ experience. Furthermore, the argument goes, in claiming that there is such a thing as cross-culturally comparable ‘religious’ experience, we leave the realm of the (ostensibly) objective Study of Religions, and cross the boundary into a kind of universalist theology. The issue thus intersects with various other theoretical problems at the core of the Study of Religions, including comparison per se, and views that the term ‘religion’ itself is a theologising construct. In defence of the study of ‘religious’ experience, this paper attempts to demonstrate the weaknesses in these arguments, firstly by showing that they are based upon a number of mutually-reliant but unproven axioms (themselves culturally-situated within a particular anti-scientific academic paradigm); and by giving cross-cultural examples which show a clear connection between ‘religious’ experience and religious beliefs (with particular reference to near-death experiences).
Dr. Gregory Shushan is Perrott-Warrick Researcher at the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion, University of Oxford, researching comparative afterlife beliefs in small-scale societies worldwide in the contexts of shamanic and near-death experiences. His book, Conceptions of the Afterlife in Early Civilizations: Universalism, Constructivism, and Near-Death Experience (Continuum Advances in Religious Studies, 2009) was nominated for the 2010 Grawemeyer Award.