Non-Ordinary Experiences of Non-Believers
By Robert Bernstein
Dr. Ann Taves is professor emerita of Religious Studies at UC Santa Barbara and Principal Investigator of the Inventory of Nonordinary Experiences Project. For almost thirty years, she has been studying unusual experiences that some people consider mystical, religious, and/or paranormal.
Her books include: "Fits, Trances, and Visions", "Experience Reconsidered" and "Revelatory Events".Taves gave a most Non Ordinary talk to the Humanist Society called "Non-Ordinary Experiences of Non-Believers"!
"Nones" are people who don't identify with any religion. Nones are the fastest-growing "religious" demographic now in the US. Humanists are the most self-conscious and organized subset of the Nones.
Much has been written about what Nones believe. But there is very little research on what they experience. This is what she does.
Notably, she is interested in experiences that stand out as weird, unusual, significant and/or life-changing. These are the kinds of experiences that are often contested. They may be interpreted as deities or extraordinary abilities. They may have a big positive or negative effect on the person's life, depending how they are interpreted.Previous studies have used the "Daily Spiritual Experiences" scale. One question asks the participant to affirm or deny the following statement: "I feel God's presence." But, Taves points out, this does not ask how they feel this presence or how they know it is God. The same problem happens for feeling a ghost, apparition or evil presence. A wide range of bodily sensations may be present.
In the Book of Acts, Saul of Tarsus (later Saint Paul) is on the Road to Damascus and hears the voice of Jesus asking him, "Why do you persecute me?" Saul was struck blind and could not eat or drink for three days. Those with him were struck speechless.Catholics describe similar experiences. Often, a claim that the Virgin Mary has visited them. There are pilgrimage sites like Lourdes where such claims have been made.Methodist founder John Wesley described a feeling that his heart was "strangely warmed". Charles Finney described "waves of liquid love". Michael James Harner was an anthropologist who used Ayahuasca and wrote "The Way of the Shaman: a Guide to Power and Healing". He thought that spirits could leave bodies and travel to astral planes. As if the dead are still living in some sense.These described experiences inspired her to write her 2009 book "Religious Experience Reconsidered". Religious experiences are not a definite thing. It depends on how the experiences are interpreted.
Taves formed a lab group with Religious Studies and Psychology grad students to study this. She began to look at existing surveys designed to study anomalous, mystical and schizotypal experiences.
She looked at the questions being asked in these different surveys of different experiences. She noticed a lot of overlap. The questions hinted at claims, such as God's presence. Psychosis researchers asked if subjects sensed an "evil presence". There were references to ghosts, apparitions, extraterrestrials, elves and fairies. She was not happy about how they were built into the questions.
It took her several years to create a new survey. She translated the survey into Hindi for India as well as providing it in English in the US. She wanted to study these two different cultures. She wanted to be sure the questions were understood in both cultures. And to make sure assumptions were not built into the questions.She developed 42 questions. She is still analyzing the data. But she has some preliminary results.
The idea is to distinguish between how things feel and seem vs what people believe about it. Putting "seems like" is important. For example, "It seems like I left my body." The subject may be aware of the neurological basis of those sensations.
She separately asked what they believed about it. Whether the experience was positive or negative. And how it affected their life. She asked if they thought science could explain it or if Something More was needed. A separate question is whether a supernatural agent is involved.
Someone might believe an experience is spiritual, but still think science can explain it and don't need a supernatural agent.
She studied over 840 participants. 247 said they were neither religious or spiritual. Of the remaining group, half identified as Christian.
Here is where things got very interesting in her preliminary results. First, she discovered that non-believers had just as many of these non-ordinary experiences as believers had.
The second interesting discovery? That, for positive experiences, the effect on the person's life was the same if they were a believer or a non-believer. But for negative experiences, being a believer seemed to moderate how negative the experience was.
Christians were more likely to view negative experiences through a religious or spiritual lens. This seemed to soften the impact of these negative experiences.To offer an explanation for why viewing negative experiences through a spiritual lens might moderate their effects, Taves referenced an essay "Life Without Meaning" by Humanist philosopher Richard Norman. She talked of how Humanists and religious people get meaning from the same sources:
1) Being connected to the natural world
2) Being rooted in a human community
3) Having intimate relationships
4) Being at home in a universe that dwarfs our mundane concerns.
Why make meaning? We think it is tied to goal-directed action. But, in fact, we perform many goal-directed actions without much consciousness. We eat because we are hungry. Other animals can have such goal-directed actions.
In fact, we can apply Norman's four features to other animals:
1) Other animals are connected to other living things
2) Other social species are rooted in community
3) Other mammals can have intimate relationships with offspring. Some may also have social groups.
4) Experiencing a universe that dwarfs our concerns may be uniquely human.
If Norman is right about this, then positive experiences are inherently meaningful. We don’t need to spend time thinking about what they mean. Negative experiences – experiences that disrupt our connection to the natural world, our community, or our intimate relationships – cause us to struggle to make sense of what has happened.
As the responses to the survey suggested, religious people may find their beliefs helpful when confronted with negative experiences, but of course not always. She noted that "It was God's will" is not necessarily satisfying even for a religious person during a time of hardship or loss.
She thinks it is more likely that religions offer more than beliefs, including deeper roots in community. It is that community that may bring resilience during hardship rather than the beliefs.
She suggested that those who reject religious beliefs may not be aware of what else they are giving up. That was the case in the non-religious family in which she grew up. Her parents had broken with their Protestant background. This also meant giving up the social connections and support system that went with it.
She advised Humanists to build secular equivalents of these connections and support systems.
Taves then took comments and questions.
I asked if she could say something more about the nature of these non-ordinary experiences. There clearly is a spectrum of such experiences and the words used may not clearly describe where on this spectrum they lie. I gave the example of a person sitting on a mountain top saying they felt a great peace and a oneness with everything. It could be a mild feeling. Or it could be a life-changing transcendent experience.
Taves said these would be distinguished in her surveys under the question of how much impact the experience had on their life.
I followed up, asking if she and/or the subjects believed that these transcendent experiences represented insights into the true nature of reality.
She said that some of the subjects definitely felt that. But her own feeling was quite different.
She said that some people in the field of psychology feel that the field has gotten too sterile. Some want to inject a bit of "woo-woo" into the field to remedy this.
But her goal is the opposite. She wants to inject science into Religious Studies!
Humanist Society President Judy Flattery gave an example of her dog dying last month. She talked about her sense of loss of no longer being able to pet it.
Taves talked about how Buddhism deals with such things. They take it as a given that "life is suffering". They practice sitting with feelings and not adding the suffering stuff on top of it. One can use Mindfulness Meditation to achieve this. She also gave the example of Byron Katie. Katie invites us to twist our problems in a bizarre way to create Four Questions. Questions that kick us out of our usual way of thinking about our problems.
Wayne thanked Taves for putting so much thought into her research questions. Others applauded this. Taves replied that she wants humanities scholars to look at complex issues like non-ordinary experiences and not dismiss them.
I would like to add that I independently came to know Ann Taves because I am friends with one of her recent PhD students at UCSB Elliott Ihm. Elliott Ihm did his dissertation research on the subject of Awe. In case you are interested, he said that this painting has been scientifically determined to be most likely to inspire a feeling of Awe.
Albert Bierstadt, Among the Sierra Nevada, California, 1868, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of Helen Huntington Hull, granddaughter of William Brown Dinsmore, who acquired the painting in 1873 for "The Locusts," the family estate in Dutchess County, New York, 1977.107.1 (Credit: Smithsonian American Art Museum)
It was painted by German-American artist Albert Bierstadt in 1868 and the title is "Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains".
Here is a photo of Elliot with my wife and me and another Sierra Club hiker on Flores Peak. Elliott is the one in the University of Wisconsin t-shirt. I think we experienced a bit of Awe up there, too.