What is a "Religious Experience?"

man reaching for God

At a recent conference, I had just wrapped up a presentation on religious diversity in the United States when a participant from the crowd came excitedly forward.

While he appreciated my presentation on how Christians might navigate the shift from privilege to plurality, he warned that I missed an important point.

“Satan is at work in this world,” he said, “What the world sees as diversity, I’ve experienced as demonic influence. Hell is real– I’ve seen it – and you’d do well to remember that fact.”

With that, he thanked me again, and walked away.

As far as he was concerned, the mic had been dropped. Having shared his experience, the conversation was effectively over.

In the days that followed, I reflected on my own experience with this man and what his comments might mean for our understanding of religion in the world.

This encounter, though in some ways singular, was not unique. As I speak on America’s shifting religious landscape and work with Christians who are struggling with what it means to live in a world of diversity and difference, I’ve noted how important experience is when it comes to understanding, and navigating, things “religious.”

And yet, our experiences may not be what we at first assume.

The varieties of religious experience?

“Experience” has long been a key term in the field of religious studies.

Classics in the academic study of religion, like Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy or William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, made much of “experience” – a disposition or feeling that is said to shape one’s religious life and understanding of the divine.

Over time, experience came to form a core part of how scholars organized their thoughts on religion. Religious experience, so the story went, formed the essence of this thing we called “religion.” Although experiences might differ across contexts and cultures, they were – when compared – essentially the same.

Sincerity and suspicion.

Raised in a religious tradition that did not trust experience, I already brought a certain hermeneutic of suspicion to my research in religious studies.

Thus, during my graduate studies in theology and culture, as I interviewed Latinx Muslims about their conversion experiences, I focused less on the truth-claims embedded within them and more on the social processes that helped create them.

I appreciated the sincerity behind what my friends and interlocutors shared and sympathized with their stories of struggle and wonder, doubt and deconstruction, which led to their change in religious identification. But I also considered how their stories were framed by their desire to assert the primacy of their newfound religious identifications and authorize their conversion from one faith to another.

In distinguishing 23 different “pathways” to conversion among Latinx Muslims in the U.S., I also started to notice the surprising uniformity of what they shared.

There was variety, but there was also striking similarity.

Whether referencing the legacy of al-Andalus and the similarities between “Hispanic” and “Islamic” cultures or the seeming simplicity of Islamic doctrine in comparison to Christian (and predominately Catholic) dogma, Latinx Muslims shared their conversion experiences in such a way that served to confirm their religious switching to family, friends, and fellow community members who questioned their choices or challenged their authenticity as Latinx Muslims.

As Latinx Muslims convert to Islam, they often face ostracism from multiple constituencies they claim membership in. They are, as I’ve written elsewhere, “quadruple minorities” – Latinx in the Muslim community, Muslim in the Latinx community, as well as both Latinx and Muslim in the context of American empire.

Therefore, their conversion testimonies are more than narratives of experience, but a means of authenticating their identification as both Latinx and Muslim.

As they find themselves interrogated and sidelined by family, friends, fellow Muslims, and society at large, the telling of their conversion experience becomes an authorizing technique to justify their identification as Latinx, Muslim, and both at the same time.

Can you study an experience?

Based on my research, I concluded that experiences – especially so-called “religious experiences” – are both difficult to dispute and impossible to quantify or treat as pure “artifacts” for critical study.

By definition, experiences are beyond the material world and thus, beyond the scope of scientific investigation. As I often tell my students, you cannot pin religious experiences to the board like a frog for dissection.

“Scholars cannot have access to unmediated mystical experiences, only to the texts or claims” of the people who claim to have them, as Russel McCutcheon and Aaron Hughes write.

And yet, reports of religious experience do real work in the world.

Claims of experience and testimonies are not only defined and shaped by social context. They are also employed as a means of authority or authorization in areas of social conflict and disagreement.

Whether it is the navigation of diversity and difference by evangelical Christians, or the difficulties faced by Latinx Muslims as they convert from one faith to another, religious experience can be a means of winning an argument and settling a dispute.

How, after all, can someone who has not had that experience argue against it?

In short, you can’t.

What might be better is not to try and study, refute, or otherwise access religious experiences, but to engage them for what they are – authorizing discourses meant to underline, or undergird, an individual’s or community’s claims to authority when there are differences of opinion or other forms of social dispute.

8/4/2022 4:31:33 PM
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  • Ken Chitwood
    About Ken Chitwood
    Ken Chitwood is a religion nerd, writer and scholar of global Islam and American religion based in Germany. His work has appeared in Newsweek, Salon, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, Religion News Service, Christianity Today, and numerous other publications. He is the author of The Muslims of Latin America and the Caribbean. Follow Ken on Twitter @kchitwood.
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