Everybody has a mystical experience | The Sociology of Religion

by Dr. Michael S. (Dr. S) · February 4, 2015

If you can just get your mind together Then come on across to me We’ll hold hands and then we’ll watch the sunrise

From the bottom of the sea

But first, are you experienced? Have you ever been experienced?

Well, I have. Jimi Hendrix

We live in a world where most people believe in God. Despite protestations to the contrary, the number of avowed atheists in the world remains rather small (only 3% in the U.S.A and only 9% in Canada) and this is even after a couple centuries of scientific progress (Hunsberger & Altemeyer, 2006). We can ask the question why and; of course, some people will say that it is because people are stupid and gullible (Dawkins, 2006), but that is not the case. People who accept the existence of God and people who take spiritual experiences seriously do so, not because they are stupid and irrational, but because they are logical and intelligent (Boyer, 2001), because there are structures in their brain that support it (Andew Newberg, d’Aquile, & Rause, 2001; Andrew Newberg & Waldman, 2009), and (most importantly) because they have had experiences that make them question the dogmatic scientific view that the only thing that exists is what you can see with your eyes.

Yes, you heard me right. People believe in the spiritual side of life because they have experiences that make them question the materialism of modern science. This basic, basic observation has been recognized by some very smart people for many thousands of years. In the Western world, there are traditions of spiritual/mystical nature that go all the way back to Plato and beyond (Versluis, 2007). William James, the famous American psychologist, felt that all religions were based on the mystical experience of some charismatic avatar (James, 1982) and others have agreed. Walter Stace, one of the biggest contributors to the study of mystical experience in modern times, called mystical experience “a psychological fact of which there is abundant evidence.” He further went on to say that “To deny or doubt that it exists as a psychological fact is not a reputable opinion. It is ignorance” and “very stupid.” (Stace, 1960 14). I would tend to agree. Indeed, Abraham Maslow made his career on the study of “peak experiences” (Lester, Hvezda, Sullivan, & Plourde, 1983; A. Maslow, 1994; A. H. Maslow, 1968, 2012) which are really just a secular presentation of mystical experience. The point here is that experience is key. People believe, not because they are stupid, but because they have experiences. The question now becomes, how many people have these experiences?

Well, conservative estimates put the number anywhere between thirty and fifty percent (Bourque, 1969; Bourque & Back, 1971; Yamane & Polzer, 1994). And it is not just the uneducated who have these experiences. The limited sociological research that has been conducted on the phenomenon has found that those with more education are equally likely, if not more likely, to have profound mystical experiences (Bourque, 1969; Bourque & Back, 1971). The educated just don’t conceptualize it in the same way (Bourque, 1969). Instead of using religious language and concepts, they use secular concepts or spiritually neutral language. The quintessential representative of neutralized mystical experience comes from Abraham Maslow who called them peak experiences (A. Maslow, 1943, 1970; A. H. Maslow, 1964). Others have used other terms. Forman (1999) for example, calls them “pure conscious events”. But, whatever the terminology, it is clear mystical experiences are far more prevalent than we think. Abraham Maslow himself actually expresses surprise at just how common they are. He writes:

In my first investigations…, I used this word because I thought some people had peak-experiences and others did not. But, as I gathered information and as I became more skillful in asking questions, I found that a higher and higher percentage of my subjects began to report peak-experiences…. I finally fell into the habit of expecting everyone to have peak-experiences and of being rather surprised if I ran across somebody who could report none at all. Because of this experience, I finally began to use the word “non-peaker” to describe, not the person who is unable to have peak-experiences; but rather, the person who is afraid of them, who suppresses them, who denies them, who turns away from them, or who “forgets” them. (A. H. Maslow, 2012, pp. 340-341).

So, what are we to make of this? Well, unless we want to discount evidence, we need to accept as fact that a lot of people have mystical experiences and we have to accept as fact that these experiences form the basis of their belief in things beyond the material world. Those experiences are there and they need to be treated. I’ll talk more about mystical experience a bit later, but for now, I just want to say be careful about importing stereotypes and prejudices into your study and analysis. Pause and think carefully for a moment about how you think about the whole notion of mystical experience? Chances are high that, even if you have had an authentic mystical experience, you have never considered mystical experience as a candidate for serious scientific investigation, and if that’s the case; if you have never looked into it in anything more than a superficial manner, you shouldn’t have a solid opinion about it and you shouldn’t reject it outright. Whatever you might think about the causes of this experience, there is something in mystical and religious experience that is worth looking  at and, as students and scientists, we shouldn’t just discount as such.

As I close off this musing, consider this recent admission by former teen idol David Cassidy that a mystical experience has, at first blush at least, seemed to have helped him with his alcoholism and his disjunctive and misaligned behavior (Sharp, 2013a, 2013b). David self reports that he got positive benefit and help with his addictions simply by having a mystical experience. He writes:

I dropped to my knees and I felt something go through me that was like… I felt this experience that was just… thank you God. I felt this relief. I begged it and I was crying and weeping like a little boy; like a… like a sobbing little infant – like I’m sure I did many times as a kid. And, I felt this incredible sense of relief because I stopped lying to myself. (Zamost, 2014)

Surely, this is something to note! Addictions are one of the most intractable problems to treat. If David actually did have an authentic mystical experience (however we might define that) and if this experience did help him with his addictions (and only a longitudinal look at his life and the life of other addicts would tell us that), then this is certainly fascinating, noteworthy, and deserving of our increased sociological attention.


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[1] The Apocryphon of John in the Nag Hammadi library of ancient gnostic gospels is a good example, but examples of powerful revelatory visions can be found peppered throughout the historical record and scholarly corpus (Robinson, 1988). For an overview of some of the more famous mystics some of whom had revelatory experiences, see (Harmless, 2008).

[2] (Sharp, 2006) Fabric of Consciousness is a term I coined to replace the anachronistic, baggage laden, and easy to misinterpret notions of God, Krishna, etc. FOC underlies all of reality and is the “object” to which all mystical experiences directly point. See http://www.thespiritwiki.com/index.php/Fabric_of_Consciousness