book cover for Religious Experience Reconsidered

In Review

New Bridges across Old Divides

By Scott Appleby​

In today’s rapidly and ever more thoroughly globalizing and religiously plural setting, the comparative study of religions, which are now irreversibly worldwide, has become what the study of the systematic theological, historical, sociological, psychological, institutional, and political dimensions of a particular religious tradition or community was 30 years ago, namely, the fundamental discipline of religion studies. Is it even possible to study any one religion today as if in isolation from others? The most interesting work in the field today takes for granted the transnational, transethnic, translocal dynamism of virtually all religions, even indigenous groups now virtually liberated from geographical stasis.

As Diana Eck has taught us, we must not only compare across religions, but must study the impact of proximity and incessant intermingling among religions and with secular traditions. And yet, explicit and accessible methodologies for the comparative study of religions as competing, overlapping, evolving epistemic traditions in this fluid context have been relatively underdeveloped.

Religion should be studied within the fullest possible multi- and interdisciplinary context, better to replicate the actual total phenomenon of religion as a set of experiences, practices, teachings, and ways of being in the world. “Fullest” here means especially the sciences—physiology, neurobiology, and psychology in particular. The sciences must be joined not in order to dissect or reduce religious experiences and practices into something else, but precisely to situate what is termed religious behavior, experience, belief, practices within the full array of human “experiences” as unfolded and illuminated by the sciences, so that the question becomes: How is what we call religious experience distinctive, if at all, from other kinds of “natural” experiences studied by the sciences? What is its particular valence amid the forms of knowledge, human motivation, and agency?

Anne Taves’s provocative book—Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religions and Other Special Things—charts a path for this kind of approach and suggests some of its benefits. While her category is experience, I would agree with her that experience, as it is to be freshly rendered, is the central “building block” for a new opening out to both the political and the cultural expressions of religion, the study of which can also be grounded in anthropologies shaped in part by the latest findings of the neurosciences.

The idea of “religious experience,” of course, is deeply embedded in the study of religion and religions as it (religion) and they (religions) have come to be understood in the modern West. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many modernizers in the West and elsewhere advanced the idea that a certain kind of experience, whether characterized as religious, mystical, or spiritual, constituted the essence of “religion” and the common core of the world’s “religions.” As we know, this approach has been heavily criticized over the last 35 years, on two major grounds. First, it set religious experience up as the epitome of something unique or sui generis, which must be studied using the special methods of the humanities. Second, it constituted religion and religions as a special aspect of human life and culture set apart from other aspects. Critics claimed that this approach isolated the study of religion from other disciplines, masked a tacitly theological agenda of a liberal ecumenical sort, and embodied covert Western presuppositions about religion and religions. The critics are basically right about this, Taves notes, and she suggests:

Rather than abandon the study of experience, we should disaggregate the concept of “religious experience” and study the wide range of experiences to which religious significance has been attributed. If we want to understand how anything at all, including experience, becomes religious, we need to turn our attention to the processes whereby people sometimes ascribe the special characteristics to things that we (as scholars) associate with terms such as “religious,” “magical,” “mystical,” “spiritual,” et cetera. Disaggregating “religious experience” in this way will allow us to focus on the interaction between psychobiological, social, and cultural- linguistic processes in relation to carefully specified types of experiences sometimes considered religious and to build methodological bridges across the divide between the humanities and the sciences.

Taves argues that reframing the concept of “religious experience” initially as “experiences deemed religious” and then more broadly as a subset of things people consider special would allow us to sort out who is deeming things or characterizing them as special and on what grounds, both at the level of scholarship and that of general human behavior.”If instead we situate the processes whereby people characterize things as religious, mystical, magical, and so forth within larger processes of meaning making and valuation (singularization),” she writes, “we are better able to analyze the contestations over the meaning and value of particular things and the way that those things are incorporated into and perpetuated by larger socio-cultural formations, such as religious traditions and spiritual disciplines.”

Taves’s approach is inherently comparative, so much so that she simply takes it for granted, and sheds insufficient light on how a comparative method or methods can and should be developed for studying this ascriptive process across cultures. We need, that is, to know exactly how to position experience not as something that sets the study of religion apart from all other forms of knowledge, but rather, as something that locates it in relation to them.

By locating how we come to know our own and others’ experience through processes that are simultaneously embodied and interactive, we can make a concept familiar to scholars of religion usable across disciplines and further a process of conceptual integration that is presupposed in the natural sciences but less well advanced elsewhere. In drawing from different disciplines to examine processes of ascription and attribution at and between various levels (intrapersonal, interpersonal, intragroup, and intergroup), we can escape the simple binaries in which the reductionism debate has been framed in religious studies and explore the distinctive features of different levels of analysis in more sophisticated ways.

Indeed, only with the comparative, multidisciplinary study that bridges the humanities-sciences divide can we begin adequately to address what to my mind are the interesting questions posed by Charles Taylor, Talal Asad, Saba Mahmood, José Casanova, and others regarding the interpenetrating dynamism of the secular and the religious. Befitting the subject matter, there is an implicit normative dimension to these reexaminations of the secularization theory, as there was for Harvey Cox in his own return to the secular city years ago. It can be stated simply: If the human community is to address global poverty, the delivery of health care to the developing world, environmental sustainability, the denial of full human rights to women, the specter of religiously legitimated or inspired violence, state oppression, repression and terror, and other deadly challenges facing us all in this century, the so-called secular and the so-called religious will have to work together. What I believe to be the shape today of the unavoidably normative or moral dimension of studying religion relates to issues of community, and scholars and practitioners alike need to regularly interact and share in genuine community.

Harvard is associated, in my mind at least, with an initial conceptualizing of “lived religions,” with what it might mean to study religion as embedded in practice, as rooted in the daily struggles of peoples, as the place where texts and traditions, theologies and metaphysics are transformed into praxis, or real-life behavior, in the encounter with the contingencies and exigencies of history unfolding in the moment. I must say, gently, that at times in the last 30 or 40 years, religious studies in general, including the variety professed at Harvard Divinity School, has sometimes cut loose the disdainfully perceived sandbags anchoring it to the lived experience of religious folk, and allowed the balloon to go drifting off into the stratosphere of abstraction and over-theorizing unchecked by encounter with a single Bible-believing dirt farmer, to borrow ethicist Stanley Hauerwas’s vivid metaphor—a weightlessness of erudition that can border on navel-gazing solipsism.

Taves’s approach, which is congenial to the comparative, multidisciplinary study of lived religions within a plural globalizing setting, puts us back in touch, but in a new way, with the supposedly ordinary features of religion as it is actually lived. The “experiences described as religious” approach may seem to have less to do with my normative concerns: with how religions contribute to the common good, the exacting requirements of justice, the search and struggle for peace. But it can be adapted to that purpose readily, I believe, in that it identifies a common ground in a view of experiences—and especially unusual experiences—as a constituent part of what it means to be both human and religious.

“The twentieth-century focus on ‘religious experience’ rather than experiences deemed religious deflected attention from the various components that taken together constitute a ‘religion,’ ” Taves concludes in her introduction. “Refocusing our attention on the component parts and disparate ways in which they can be assembled provides a method for assessing the role of unusual experiences in the emergence and development of religions. Although conceived to solve the problems surrounding ‘religious experience,’ the method provides a more promising way forward for the study of religion generally.”

I would add that the opening up of experiences deemed later to be religious to the full range of experiences deemed to be human provides a methodological base for an invigorating religious-secular/humanities-science collaboration around the study of lived religion that would never stray far from asking the normative question of how we are to live and survive and thrive together in the twenty-first century.


Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things, by Ann Taves. Princeton University Press, 240 pages, $26.95.

Scott Appleby is John M. Regan Jr. Director of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame and is the author of The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence and Reconciliation. These words are adapted from remarks given as part of the Center for the Study of World Religions’ 50th anniversary symposium held at HDS on April 15–16, 2010.

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