1. How to Study Religious Experience: Historical and Methodological Reflections on the Study of the Paranormal
Wolfson College, Oxford
In this paper I will give a brief account of the role of experience in the study of religion, from E. B. Tylor and Andrew Lang in the Nineteenth Century to so-called ‘ontological turn’ in the Twenty First Century. I propose a form of cognitive, empathetic engagement as an ethnographic method that is well suited to the study of religious experience. In essence this implies openness to the other, critical awareness of one’s own perspective, and reluctance to move too quickly to explanation. It is consistent with aspects of phenomenological, dialogical and ontological ethnographic methods, as well as the anthropology of wonder, which has been used to bridge ethnographic and theological perspectives. I then use the study of the afterlife as an example of the ‘common core’ or ‘experiential hypothesis’ of religion, which brings us back to the key role of experience in the formation of religious ideas and practices.