Quantifying Religious Experience ProjectIBCSR's Quantifying Religious Experience Project (QRXP) develops methods for measuring the distinctive cognitive and emotional features of religious experiences. The purpose of this project is to furnish a basis for the comparison of religious and spiritual experiences across demographic groups (such as men and women) and across cultures. Such comparisons can be extremely important for an adequate interpretation of religious and spiritual experiences. QRXP is funded by the John Templeton Coundation, Boston University, and IBCSR. A rich de-identified dataset of narratives, phenomenological profiles, and expert ratings is available to researchers who wish to pursue their own analyses.

Key personnel: Wesley J. Wildman (PI), Ron Pekala, Nik Zanetti, Ian Cooley.

Quantifiying Religious Experience Project: Introduction

Religious ecstasyWhat happens when a Catholic nun experiences God through contemplative prayer? What happens when a Hindu feels the presence of Shiva? What about the religious experiences of Sufis, Jews, Buddhists, and Daoists? The list could go on and on, but a vital question is: how similar or different are these religious experiences? The Institute's Quantifying Religious Experience Project (QRXP) aims to provide an answer using the latest techniques in cognitive psychology and quantitative research.

Ready to participate? The EPCI is now available online!!!

We are quite happy to announce that the Enhanced Phenomenology of Consciousness Inventory (EPCI) is now fully operational and available online!!!

After many months of fine-tuning and careful calibration, the wait is finally over. With your help in completing this survey, together we can cultivate a deeper and more precise appreciation for genuine, lived religion as it is experienced on the ground by actual individuals across many different cultural contexts and demographic groups.

But that's not the only reason to participate! You will receive immediate feedback in the form of detailed information about the nature of your experience, as well as easy-to-understand graphs and charts that allow you to see how your own results compare with those of others who have also taken these surveys. So, if you've had an intense religious or spiritual experience in the past, please consider sharing that experience with us by completing the EPCI.

To do so, simply go HERE and look for the survey called "Religious and Spiritual Experiences" (don't worry, all responses remain anonymous and any participation on your part is kept strictly confidential). And tell your friends -- if you know of others who may have had an experience of this type, we would greatly appreciate your help in spreading the word. 

Mystical unity: A Chinese example

Buddhist_nunTo believers, spiritual experiences often feels very real. In fact, religious thinkers of many different traditions have claimed that spiritual experiences are, in fact, more real than everyday life. But one of the most important hypotheses in contemporary religious studies is social constructivism, which is the idea that all religious concepts and beliefs are actually creations of human cultures. Social constructivists argue that religious and mystical experiences don’t reflect any higher reality, but in fact are merely products of history, culture, and society. But new research from China suggests that mystical experiences may go deeper than culture.

Mystical experiences may share common elements

mystical_experienceYou’ve probably heard or read somewhere that all religions are different ways of approaching the same truth. This sentiment, while heartwarming, is a controversial one. Of course, conservative adherents to different faith traditions tend to dismiss claims that other religions might offer any glimpses of truth. But the debate is probably fiercest in the academy: one of the biggest arguments among scholars who study religion is whether or not religions actually have anything in common with one another. Now, a new study by researchers in Tennessee and China suggests that they do, at least when it comes to mystical experiences.

Scientists who believe may have more unusual experiences

weird_scientistYou might expect professionals working in the hard sciences to be less religious than the rest of us, and to an extent you’d be right – the vast majority of elite scientists in the U.S. identify as nonbelievers. But rank-and-file scientists stack up a bit differently, with between 40% to 50% reporting belief in a personal God. A new study by James S. MacPherson and Steve W. Kelly (University of Strathclyde, Scotland) suggests that two personality traits may help faithful scientists reconcile their scientific and religious viewpoints: creativity and positive schizotypy.

South American society offers insight into spiritual experience

mystical_rainforest_path_1It’s often been claimed that human religiousness is universal – that societies everywhere have gods, spirits, ghosts, creation myths, religious rituals, or any combination thereof. This assertion is often used to base arguments about the genetic origin of religious behaviors. But what if there were a society that had no religion? Would that mean that religion is learned, not inherited? Followers of linguist Daniel L. Everett (Bentley University) claim he has found just such a society: the Pirahã, a South American tribe. But as is so often the case in the study of religion, things might not be so simple.

Can animals have spiritual experiences?

Spiritual_BessyIt’s a question many religious parents dread: “When Spot dies, will he go to heaven?” Countless children – and adults – have wondered whether their pets possess spirits, and the debate isn’t likely to go away anytime soon. Still, recent research in neuroscience may shed light on this age-old question by suggesting that many animals are capable of religious experiences, including near-death encounters and profound feelings of awe and oneness. According to these studies, the root of spiritual experiences in humans and animals is a structure shared by both – the limbic brain.

Near-death experiences: products of carbon dioxide, or more complex?

Are near-death experiences all in the head? How about the blood? A recent study has found a link between elevated carbon dioxide levels in cardiac patients’ bloodstreams and eerie experiences such as life reviews, meeting with deceased relatives, and passing through a tunnel of light. The study has led some commentators to suggest that all near-death experiences, or NDEs, are produced by excess carbon dioxide in the blood at the time of resuscitation. So do we now understand all there is to know about NDEs? Not so fast – science is rarely that simple.

Mystical experiences the same everywhere? Maybe not

Among the many debates raging among those who study religion today, perhaps none is so pervasive – and emotionally charged – as the question of whether there is something about religious phenomena that is fundamentally the same across cultures. Some scholars, such as religious historian Jonathan Z. Smith, argue that there is no fundamental “essence” to religion and that the behaviors we describe as religious are actually a wide variety of heterogeneous, hodgepodge, culturally constructed phenomena, some of which are related to each other and others of which aren’t. Others, following novelist and popular writer Aldous Huxley, have argued that there is a “perennial philosophy” that guides all human cultures and which can be accessed through transformative mystical experiences. However, while mystical experiences do appear to occur in most societies, new research suggests that even these most fundamental aspects of what we consider religion can differ greatly across cultures, raising questions about the validity of the perennialist ideals.

Religious and mystical experiences common among Americans

Mystical_experience_outsideWhile predictions of the imminent death of religion in an increasingly “secular” world often sound quaint, if not downright out of touch, profound religious experience can still seem like the purview of a fringe minority. After all, being “born again,” or achieving “mokṣa” (liberation) are not exactly everyday experiences, even for those who say they have had them. Nevertheless, a new survey by the Pew Form on Religion and Public Life finds that nearly half of all Americans have had what they consider a “religious or mystical experience,” over twice as many as in 1962.

Multinational study on near-death experiences underway

Let's face it—we're all gonna die. But what is death, exactly? Is it merely a biological process—the cessation of neural and physiological activity—after which comes nothing? Most neuroscientists would say that's exactly what it is, but many people who have suffered cardiac arrest and experienced near-death phenomena disagree with this commonly held perception. Now, Dr. Sam Parnia of the University of Southampton is in the midst of a three-year research study to determine the validity of near-death experiences and learn more about the nature of death and human consciousness.

Ann Taves's Religious Experience Reconsidered

For those of us who view some features or aspects of religion (such as ritual or religiousTaves_Cover experience) as adaptive, their sui generis character presents few obstacles to the scientific study of religion. The evolutionary history of these aspects of religion is assumed to have stabilized the features that proved beneficial or that promoted reproductive success in the individuals who possessed or practiced them. Nor do the findings on religious experiences and practices emerging from the neurosciences seem that surprising from this perspective. If some aspect of religion is adaptive, then it should exhibit consistent design features that can be detected in brain and behavior. Similarly, from this perspective, religion’s affect on health is also predictable and unsurprising. However, there are very serious problems with this “religion as adaptation” position, many of which have been discussed ably by others in a variety of venues. One of the most intractable problems for this position is the issue of the nature and putative function of experiences deemed religious. In Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things, Ann Taves rightly recommends the somewhat more cumbersome phrase, “experiences deemed religious” rather than the more familiar “religious experiences” because this shorthand expression obscures some important facts about religion and “religious experiences” in particular.