Paranormal Phenomena and Religious Experience

As a scholar of religion I employ a materialist or naturalist method, one which takes accounts of paranormal phenomena or religious experience as mere data to be explained (even explained away). Other scholars, however, are interested in exploring paranormal phenomena; a few years ago I attended a session at the AAR on the evidence for paranormal or parapsychological phenomena.  And many scholars are interested in religious experience, most notably Ann Taves in her recent book, Rethinking Religious Experience. (It’s worth pointing out that it appears Taves is every bit as much of a naturalist in her approach—it seems, for her, that experiences can more or less be explained with social and scientific research.)

But even if paranormal phenomena are real, and even if people do have religious experiences, are these relevant for the study of those social formations colloquially called religions?

Let’s say someone out there can move things with her mind—will this knowledge help me understand why Protestants in the Bible Belt are predominantly opposed to gay marriage but Protestants in the northeast US are not? Let’s say that people do have religious experiences—will this knowledge help me understand why Neopaganism appeals to middle class white people but glossolalia doesn’t?

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2 Responses to Paranormal Phenomena and Religious Experience

  1. Marcos says:

    Of course it would help. Then you would be able to explain both phenomena as manifestations of the war between God™ and the Devil™.

  2. Cris says:

    The category of “paranormal” is of course large, contested, and unstable. Having said that, many things or ideas that traditionally fall within the rubric of paranormal are the kinds of things that fall within the rubric of religion. As someone interested in the cognitive roots of religion and historical development of supernaturalism, I see substantial connections between what people consider “paranormal” and what people consider “religious.” Both traffic, at some overlap in a Venn diagram, in supernatural or non-empirical agencies, powers, and/or forces. I see the demarcation between the paranormal and religion as malleable, osmotic, and fluid.

    You and I have briefly discussed this issue in the past, so I think it’s time for me to think harder about it and post some kind of analysis. I’ll let you know when I do.

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