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Religious Experience and Existential Angst

February 23, 2013

I’ve been thinking about existentialism and it’s relationship with religious experience. While it may not be immediately obvious, I think there is a connection between the basis for existentialism and religious experiences that can tell us something about the epistemic status of those experiences.

Existentialism starts from the position of existential angst. This is the dread or despair that comes with a realisation that life is ultimately meaningless. This can take a variety of forms:

  1. Personal – One day I am going to die and that renders my goals and values meaningless.
  2. Impersonal – The world is essentially unknowable and impersonal and my relationship with the world therefore has no meaning.
  3. Temporal – The universe is billions of years old and will continue for billions of years after humans are gone, are star has exploded, our world evaporated. Human values are therefore a transitory blip on the cosmic clock and can have no ultimate meaning.
  4. Spatial – The universe is so big compared to the fraction of the surface of a small ball of rock that we live on, and so inhospitable to all forms of life that we are familiar with, that human values become so small and insignificant that they can have no ultimate meaning.

Of course, you are welcome to combine these cheerful thoughts in any way that you see fit.

How does this relate to religious experience? One obvious property of religion is that it tells us that life does have meaning, and in particular that human values are part of that meaning. It seeks to reject one or more of the bases for existential angst.

One of the things that has stuck in my mind since first learning about the philosophical tradition surrounding religious experience is how they sounds so familiar to me. Religious experience, according to William James, is characterised by four properties:

  1. Transient – not a permanent mode of experience, and the subject returns to some state of “normality”.
  2. Ineffable – impossible to describe in words.
  3. Noetic – the experience gives us knowledge of something otherwise inaccessible to humans.
  4. Passive – it isn’t possible for the subject to control the experience.

I think there is another overarching principle that unites these four properties into a “religious” experience: the experience is mystical in nature. It collapses the distinction between the subject that the “other” is some sense. The subject feels that they have become “one” with the universe. For the religious believer, or someone brought up in a cultural context in which this mystical aspect interpreted within a particular theological framework, these experiences are labelled as experiences of a god or gods, or some other underlying metaphysical framework.

Minus this theological baggage, I have had many experiences that fulfil this definition. When I’m sailing I occasionally find myself in a state that I can only describe as a “religious” experience (believers will contend that it isn’t religious as I don’t attribute the experience to a god, but other than that label I haven’t heard a definition that doesn’t feel like a natural fit to my experiences). These are, by definition, impossible to fully describe, but thinking about existentialism has helped me start to put words to what I experience.

The religious experience erases existential angst, even if only temporarily. I find myself alone at sea, at night, staring at the moonlit sea. All that matters is being me, here and now. Spatial and temporal existential angst can have no meaning in such a setting. There is no universe, apart from the sea around me. There is no past, no future, there is only the present moment. I know everything that it is important to know, my meaning is being here having this experience. Existence becomes intensely personal….

Then after a moment that feels much longer I lose the feeling and return to “normality”. And realise that I will never be able to describe accurately what I felt, just do my best to put myself in situations where I can recreate the feeling.

The point of this is that I know just how powerful religious experience is, and I attribute that power to the fact that existential angst disappears. I think we all have to acknowledge the power of the different forms of dread that cause this angst, and at one point or another I’m sure everyone has paused to consider the meaningless of the human condition. Religious experience gives us reason to dismiss these deep concerns when we are forced to temporarily believe that we have meaning and enduring value.If we have a background of theological tradition to bring to the experience it can provide the framework to fix a long-term belief that this meaning and value exists externally to the “normality” we routinely experience. While I know that my experience was transitory and not an accurate reflect of a “higher” reality, the religious believer comes to see it as access to a truth.

Does this work? Surely the very nature of religious experience precludes it from allowing us to discern any meaning for humanity at large? A religious experience tells me that I have a meaning, but the collapse of spatial, temporal and personal causes for existential angst to me here now and the fact that this overrides the impersonal cause for existential angst tells me something else: this meaning is completely unrelated to others and the human project at large. Once the experience is over I have no obvious way of extending the temporary feeling of meaning in my life to the lifes of others without ungrounded presuppositions of a theological nature.

To summarise an overly long post – religious experience negates the causes of existential angst temporarily and for an individual only. I see no reason to extend this negation to others or humanity at large given that they have no way of knowing or experiencing what I have experienced.

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