x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The unity of religious experience

We all live in the same space, in the same world, and experience the same reality. Nothing else makes sense. The differences lie in how to interpret that reality.

Notice that the headline says "of religious experience", not "of religions". I am not saying that all religions are the same, or equal. What I am drawing our unified attention to is that we all live in the same space, in the same world, and experience the same reality.

Nothing else makes sense. The differences lie in how to interpret that reality. In his now classic 1987 survey an Oxford scholar, David Hay, analysed the results of polling on religious experience among the UK population. The question was framed as follows: "Have you ever been aware of, or influenced by, a presence or power, whether you call it God or not, which is different from your everyday self?"

Thirty-six per cent of those surveyed answered yes to this question, even though church attendance in the UK is much lower than this number. It suggests that religious experience is a phenomenon that is culturally independent of formal organised participation. Although in a 1966 laboratory study on meditation, those who were trained in meditation were more likely to have spiritual experiences. However, of those 36 per cent of the population, 66 per cent never speak about it.

One of the more interesting aspects of the findings was that 24 per cent of those who identified themselves as either atheist or agnostic reported religious experiences. One may say that the survey question itself, "a presence or power different from your everyday self", was broad enough to be widely inclusive. But at the same time, what is acknowledged here is "religious" experience.

The survey also showed that religious experience was more common among educated people. This may indicate only that being educated merely helped in understanding the question and providing courage enough to answer it. On the other hand, it may be the factor that enabled the comprehension of the experience itself and the ability to articulate it.

In a 1996 study on mysticism, Ralph Hood divided the analysis of spiritual experience into two factors. One that is core and basic, common across all participants and all traditional boundaries. It comprised things like a distinct perception of the unity of the world, or an experience of pure consciousness or nothingness. The second factor involved culture-specific interpretation and conceptualisation.

This brings us to our point. Each of us is bumping up against the same reality. Some are more sensitive or predisposed to it than others. The question becomes, not whether other people are participating in the experience of the same reality; it is whether or not they possess a framework for making sense of that part of ultimate reality they encounter.

Fifty per cent of respondents report being distressed during the encounter, although the majority of that 50 per cent report a sense of "peace" and "calm" as the long-term after-effect. But still, the atheists and agnostics unfailingly report that it is a cause of "confusion" for them. This further supports the value of access to a framework for understanding and an effective guide for making constructive use of these encounters. But that framework must be sound and grounded in some sort of relevancy and effectiveness criteria. One could apply to it the criteria for sound knowledge in the field of epistemology, justified true belief, having warrants and validity.

The original state of the human constitution, what we call fitrah, is one. Our experience of the world - allowing for variations in aptitude and opportunity - is also one. It should be no surprise that similar experiences are reported cross-contextually. The point that is interesting is how people are able to make sense of them.

Jihad Hashim Brown is an advisor on academic affairs. He delivers the Friday sermon at the Maryam bint Sultan Mosque in Abu Dhabi.