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Why do we think spiritual experiences are spiritual? June 26, 2009

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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Why do people associate their personal experiences as spiritual experience to be interpreted through their religious community? This may seem like an odd question, but I think it is worthy of consideration.  It seems that when people associate their personal experiences–especially when they consider them spiritual experiences–with religious traditions they are in fact doing the exact same thing that people did to create religious doctrines in the first place; establishing human opinions as the will of gods.

What are we talking about here? I’m talking about that little voice we here that tells us when something is wrong.  I’m also talking about that sudden and apparently out-of-nowhere idea that motivates us.  I’m talking about those moments in prayer, meditation, or possibly while reading something that inspires us (the concept is in the word ‘inspire’) toward understanding.  In other words, I’m talking about things that happen to many people every day and are called by many people “spiritual experiences.”

In some cases the experience will demonstrate an idea that may not sit well with the established doctrine of religious communities, even the religious community that said person is a part of.  This will often lead to some cognitive dissonance, undesired questions, and possibly conflict.  If the situation continues, it might lead to a person looking for a different community that fits better with their own understanding and experience.

But wait, there is something there to consider.  If a person can simply look for a congregation that fits their spiritual experiences, doesn’t that imply that somehow their previous congregation was inconsistent with their views?

So, if the experience they had was truly spiritual, as in a revelation from some god, or even if they just think that it seems true (we do tend to think that our ideas are true, which is why we tend to keep them), that must imply that their previous religious institution was in error?

We all have experiences, some similar and some dissimilar, that help make up our worldview.  And we find ways to associate these experiences with the greater view of the universe; we will try and plug them into the larger picture of our beliefs.  And as this process continues and people find others that agree with their view, communities form with similar worldviews, most who think that their views are somehow the result of communication with divine powers in the universe.

Most Christians will call this the Holy Spirit.  Most congregations will tend to think that the interpretation they have of how things like communion, baptism, divorce, the role of faith v. works, etc are superior to other sects.  And why? Because the congregation they choose will, in most cases, agree with their experiences.

I should not ignore the fact that being a member of a certain group will tend to color how one will interpret experiences as well.  A certain view, whether it be doctrinal or cultural, will tend to give a bias in how we interpret experiences.  Thus, there is an interplay going on here between bias informing interpretation and conflicts of interpretation dividing up communities, the details of which are too complex to deal with sufficiently here.

What about conflicts? When someone, whether they are homosexual or not, has some experience that compels them to see being homosexual as being as natural to a person as heterosexuality to another person, what do they do when their religious institution says otherwise?  If they join a new church that is gay/lesbian friendly, do they conclude that their previous church was wrong?  And if so, what about the previous experiences that they had in association with that institution? Were those other experiences invalid because they do not conflict with that doctrine or was that doctrine somehow accidentally right about that one thing while wrong about others?

How reliable are these subjective experiences that make up the various doctrines of various religions and their sects?  Why do we continue to associate our creative powers, experiences, and insights with religion? Why do we think that they are, in fact, spiritual experiences? What are our bases for making this claim?

It is clear that the larger cultural context a person is placed within will color their experiences.  It is clear that people create associations with certain kinds of experiences–emotions, inspiration, etc–within their religious community early in life.  These associations stick, and as adults most people will continue to associate certain sets of feelings with their church, temple, etc.  Thus, the reason why many people think our the every day experiences they have are spiritual seems to be because they were placed in situations that induce these feelings while young while hearing about religious ideas and stories.

But what about non-religious people? How do they deal with these experiences.  First of all, non-religious and non-spiritual people have these experiences too.  Some, especially those who grew up religious, will still have these emotional associations even though they do not believe in the religious ideas anymore.  Others, like myself, simply look at them as a natural part of life, and attach no divine or metaphysical significance to these experiences.  As far as I am concerned, I am lacking in nothing as a result of this. as my own personal experiences are deeply meaningful to me.

I challenge others out there to ask themselves, if they associate their personal experience with something spiritual or religious, if this is the only way to look at it?



1. carrie - August 3, 2009

I am so glad to have found this blog post. Several months ago, I had an experience which I have described to others as spiritual. Even though I was raised in a non-denominational protestant church, I did not perceive my experience to be particularly religious. Ideas were communicated to me: we are all the one, there is no hell and that it was very important for me (everyone?) to remember the sound and vibration I was experiencing.

The vibration was very real and the sound was the most beautiful I had ever heard. It was a single, crystal clear note. When I was able to focus on that note and to totally relax every muscle in my body, I experienced a feeling of weightlessness and pure joy.

I had never meditated or done yoga or anything like that, but that day, I felt that I should sit and stretch a certain way which I was to learn later was very similar to yoga. As I stretched and relaxed, I had the distinct impression of unwinding, as if my spine was a coiled rope which was being unwound. During this process, I followed the sound. I stretched in the direction that I could hear the sound best.

After that day, I felt extremely well (physically, psychologically, etc.) for about a week. I haven’t been able to replicate this experience, though I would like to.

Since then, my internet research has revealed that there are several religions which believe in a primordial sound and some believe that we were sung into existence. It appears that the more ancient the religion, the closer the explanation is to what I experienced.

What I believe, after having this experience, is that there is definitely something there and that something has been explained differently by different religions. And of course, people are most likely to interpret any experience within the framework of their own belief systems.

We are beginning to see the convergence of physics and metaphysics and I think I had a peek into that…

2. ShaunPhilly - August 3, 2009

Thanks you for your comments.

What I’m curious about is why you think that there is necessarily anything metaphysical going on at all?

Is it possible that there is something about our physiology, say a way our mind reacts to sitting in certain ways and focusing that allow us to have similar physiological experiences due to the fact that our brains are similarly structured and function similarly as well?

Is it possible that the reason why various religious traditions explain this is not because people are experiencing similar metaphysical things, but because we are experiencing similar physical things with our similar bodies?

I am familiar with the relationship between sound, language, and creation mythology. I think part of that may be the relationship between language and our creativity; we create with thought and language–related to sound–and thus we associate sounds and language with creation.

And perhaps the more complex our language and cultures become, the more complex the myths become and more basic things like sound become mixed into a larger symphony of human experiences that are associated with myth.

Your experience I do not see reason to doubt it happened. But I have to question your interpretation of it, because it assumes aspects of reality that I don’t see reason to accept as real. Personal experience of others cannot be evidence for me (at least not good evidence), but it can only be good evidence for you if other explanations have been ruled out. Do you feel confident that you can rule out other explanations?

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