Understanding Religious Experience

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Peter Connolly
  • Sheffield, England: 
    Equinox Publishing Limited
    , February
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Peter Connolly begins Understanding Religious Experience with an audacious, but ambiguous, claim. “Religious experiences,” he writes, “provide the foundations for most of the major religious systems” (1). This claim is audacious because it runs counter to the main currents of recent scholarship in religious studies. Over the last third of a century or more, the concept of religious experience has been subjected to powerful genealogical and philosophical critiques. Whereas other scholars who wish to retain the concept have felt obligated to offer qualified defenses of it (e.g., Stephen Bush, Visions of Religion: Experience, Meaning, and Power, Oxford University Press, 2014), Connolly remains strangely silent about the challenges to the concept’s theoretical or philosophical employment. Connolly’s claim is ambiguous because he does not clarify whether it is an explanatory claim or an epistemological claim, whether religious experiences explain religious systems or purport to justify them.

When, on the one hand, he cites “Moses’ encounter with Yahweh in a burning bush, Saul’s encounter with the risen Jesus . . . , Kṛṣṇa’s revelation to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gītā, Muhammad’s revelations from the angel Gabriel (Jibreel) and the Buddha’s insights on the night of his enlightenment” to illustrate how religious belief and behavior “ultimately derive from someone’s religious experience,” Connolly—evidently taking the historicity of these ideological narratives for granted—appears to claim that religious experiences provide explanatory “foundations” (1).

On the other hand, his analysis of “the problems presented by [religious] plurality” militates for an epistemological interpretation of his claim about religion’s “foundations” (7). Because, Connolly argues, the “credibility” (16) of religious teachings about the “trans-empirical realm” (1) “rests on religious experiences,” and the content of those experiences inspires mutually incompatible teachings, “the ultimate aim of scholars who study religious experiences is or should be to explain how they relate to each other and to assign an epistemological status to them” (16).

Connolly frames his inquiry as an exercise in cartography. By assessing the typologies and theories of Daniel Goldman, Claudio Naranjo, Andrew Rawlinson, Ken Wilber, and Roland Fischer, and then bringing his own “reductionistic” explanation of religious experience to bear, Connolly aims to map “different [religious] experiences and the methods of producing them in relation to one another” (53).

The map metaphor rewards scrutiny. In standard cases, the criteria (whether, e.g., topographical, political, or practical) that establish the existence and contours of the territory represented by a geographical map—the source domain of the metaphor—are relatively settled and uncontroversial. Consider the New York City subway map. No one disputes the existence and location of the tracks and stations it depicts. No one objects to the fact that it does not depict the subway lines and stations that are no longer in use. The map metaphor suggests that similarly uncontested criteria establish the territory (so conceived) in the metaphor’s target domain.

With respect to a metaphorical map of religious experience, however, the criteria that establish the territory of religious experience are precisely what the critics of the concept of religious experience contest. The critics either reject the very notion that the concept of religious experience bounds an independently existing territory, or they object to the way the concept gerrymanders the territory. In this context, one can read Connolly’s effort to map “different [religious] experiences and the methods of producing them in relation to one another” as a bid to furnish criteria that decisively establish the territory marked out by the concept.

After critiquing the work of Goldman, Naranjo, Rawlinson, Wilber, and Fischer, Connolly offers his own theory, in which he explains “spiritual practices as techniques of trance induction and spiritual/religious experiences as varieties of trance experience“ (61). Rejecting the view of many psychologists who believe that ordinary processes of imitation and suggestion account for the effects of trance, Connolly adopts a view in which trance consists in a distinctive altered state of consciousness. Connolly avers that although a susceptibility to this distinctive state of consciousness “is common to all humans” (107), trance “is, nevertheless, quite profoundly shaped by culture” (106). He reports, moreover, that the method by which a trance is induced will often “have a significant effect on the kind of experience a person has once they enter a trance state” (111).

Trance experience consequently becomes for Connolly a highly expansive category that subsumes ecstasy, shamanism, glossolalia, possession, snake handling, satori, spiritual marriage, and samādhi (105). The dubious psychological credentials of Connolly’s conception of trance, the range of disparate varieties it allegedly encompasses, and the concept’s long history in colonial and postcolonial anthropology together arouse the suspicion that Connolly naturalizes a concept he should have investigated genealogically. A genealogist of trance might well arrive at many of the same conclusions as the critics of the concept of religious experience.

Whatever the merit of Connolly’s theory of trance, he nevertheless ultimately draws the sensible conclusion that, far from imparting “insights into the fundamental nature of existence,” religious experiences “are better understood as experiential manifestations of doctrine” (39) that “fabricate a quality of verisimilitude” (8).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew C. Bagger is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
August 12, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Peter Connolly was, for many years, senior lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Chichester, where he taught courses on Ethics, Indian Religion and Psychology of Religion. He has also worked as an associate lecturer in both Psychology and Religious Studies with the Open University and has delivered many courses on the history and philosophy of yoga for a number of yoga training institutions.


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