An Introduction to Religious Experience

The term “religious experience,” or sometimes “mystical experience,” is used to describe a transcendent event that transforms the person who has the experience, often in a way that leads to a strong sense of connection and/or oneness with the universe and/or God.

The capacity for undergoing a religious experience is not limited by one’s spiritual tradition, and one does not necessarily have to belong to a formal religion for it to occur. 

What is a religious experience?

While the subjective details of a religious experience vary from person to person, one common thread is a sense of having had a direct encounter with or an observation of the Divine

These experiences can come in many forms, with any number of catalysts: chanting, prayer, meditation, Holotropic Breathwork, or a psychedelic journey in search of self-discovery. They can also arise seemingly out of nowhere, as unexpected as they are undeniable. The net effect is the same: The person who has the religious experience is changed in some fundamental way.

William James and The Varieties of Religious Experience

The American scholar William James (1842–1910) wrote extensively on the nature of mystical and religious experiences. James—also considered the father of American psychology—had a keen interest in what these experiences have in common, regardless of the faith tradition in which they occur. His 1902 book The Varieties of Religious Experience is comprised of a series of 20 lectures delivered in Edinburgh early in the twentieth century. In it, he listed four qualities of mystical experiences found across religions. According to James, such experiences are:

  1. Ineffable: Try as the experiencer might, the essence of the religious experience defies any full, precise, and accurate description through the medium of language.
  2. Transient: The mystical or religious experience usually passes after a matter of hours or even minutes, but the experiencer retains a deep, inner richness related to the event that endures and often grows with the passage of time.
  3. Noetic: The religious experience imparts some sort of knowledge or meaning that alters or significantly affects the experiencer’s life going forward. 
  4. Passive: A religious experience tends to arrive outside the direct control of those who have the experience. One can meditate regularly, attend church, go on a pilgrimage, or pursue any number of spiritual practices, but when a religious experience occurs, it rarely if ever seems to arise from these practices in a cause-and-effect way. A person who has such an experience, James wrote, “ . . .  often seems to himself a passive spectator or undergoer of an astounding process performed upon him from above. There is too much evidence of this for any doubt of it to be possible.

Why is the religious experience ineffable?

Karen Armstrong, the former Catholic nun who became an author and scholar of comparative religions, once put the human quest to understand God this way: “It’s like a goldfish trying to understand a computer.” 

If the religious experience is indeed an encounter with the Divine, then almost by definition, words would be inadequate to convey the fullness of what transpires. Nonetheless, mystics and seers from all traditions throughout the ages have used words, often through poetry, in their attempts to capture at least some portion of the essence of their experiences. 

The great Persian poet and Sufi mystic Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī (1207–1273) left a body of work that deals with the human quest to know God and the resultant transformations that occur through experiencing a brush with the Divine. The opening stanza from his poem “The Fragile Vial” (found in the Coleman Barks translation of The Essential Rumi) offers us this insight on the inadequacy of words to express the depth of a religious experience: 

I need a mouth as wide as the sky
to say the nature of a True Person, language
as large as longing.

What are the effects of a religious experience?

How a religious experience affects someone depends on the individual. One person may be so transformed that they give up their former life and do something completely different, such as joining a religious order, while someone else may simply feel more wholeness as they carry on with no significant adjustments to the life they had been leading other than, perhaps, a newfound inner peace that pervades their consciousness

Ram Dass, the American spiritual teacher and student of the Indian guru Neem Karoli Baba (Maharaj ji), wrote about the changes that occurred in the 1960s as more people—influenced by psychedelics, Eastern religions, and various other factors—opened up to the idea that true religion went well beyond the confines of a place of worship and, when lived experientially, brought us closer to the Divine in our everyday lives:

Most of us recognized a part of our being that we had never known before. We experienced a part of our being that was not separated from the universe. 

Regardless of how one lives life after a religious experience, the impact remains and exerts some level of influence over one’s values, faith and identity, and interactions with others despite the transient nature of the original event.

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