2. Ethnological and Neurophenomenological Approaches to Religious Experiences
The Study of Religious Experience - Approaches and Methodologies - Bettina E. Schmidt
Arizona State University
A compelling aspect of religious experience is the similarity in the reports across people, time and cultures which suggest their bases in human nature. Cross-cultural research is a key tool for establishing these universals, as well as for determining the social differences in the manifestation of these phenomena (for example, the predominance of possession experiences in politically stratified societies). Biogenetic structural approaches help to identify the foundations for these experiences, placing them in the context of brain functions and the structures of consciousness. Neurophenomenological approaches that establish homologies of the structure and content of these phenomenological experiences with brain functions provide a basis for understanding the significance in relation to human nature. This paper provides: 1) a cross-cultural approach to religious experiences, noting both universals and social complexity differences in the manifestations of classic forms of religious experience; 2) a biogenetic approach to the alteration of consciousness associated with many religious experiences, characterizing them in relation to an integrative mode of consciousness in which the functions of ancient brain systems are elevated and integrated in consciousness; and 3) a neurophenomenological approach to religious experiences that characterizes some of the typical experiences in relationship to the activation and deactivation of specific brain systems. These approaches help to clarify why religious experiences are universal in terms of their relationship to innate aspects of brain function and the basic operations of consciousness.