Acute Religious Experiences: Madness, Psychosis, and Religious Studies


“When I am sane, I’m an atheist, but when I am mad, I’m driven by the hand of god.” This one-sentence summary of my experience is the inspiration for my PhD thesis, which ended up with the not very snappy title: “Theorising Disruption at the Intersection of Madness, Mental Disorder and Acute Religious Experiences: A Mad Studies Approach.”

Multiple-exposure  portrait of a young woman's face with galaxy inside head

I went back to university as a recovery strategy to get over my most recent detention in a locked ward in Inverness, Scotland; one of those “nice” modern buildings on the grounds of an old asylum, where the original expansive gardens had been paved over to put up a parking lot (very Joni Mitchell). Being at the University of Edinburgh gave me an easy identity and an electronic card which accessed beautiful buildings and liberating libraries shelved with shining books, some of which winked—I. M. Lewis’s Ecstatic Religion, Ann Taves’s Religious Experience Reconsidered, and, of course, William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience.

Being in a “School of Divinity” provided some entertainment value; what the hell is a School of Divinity? I wasn’t “looking for god,” I was trying to understand extraordinary/anomalous/extreme states of consciousness. As I had a sense these were nothing new, that they were part of the human story, a School of Divinity seemed a fair alternative to sociology, anthropology, psychology, or psychiatry.

I study in a “subject area” called religious studies, which has nothing to do with theology, orthodoxy, or Christianity. Religious Studies is a secular approach which utilises mixed methodologies to study religion in all of it diverse manifestations and forms. I chose mad studies as a standpoint. This provided a novel approach which allowed me to re-read the literature on the phenomenality of madness in both psychiatry and the humanities. It is pretty well understood that psychiatry has traditionally sought to diminish religious experiences by either pathologizing them or instrumentalizing them. But I found that, over in the humanities and social sciences, madness was distorted by a kind of self-censorship to protect those who exhibited the phenomenality of madness from being pathologised.

This strategy of sanitization is applied by religious leaders to protect the people their texts describe. So, for example, when Moses is in conversation with a talking fire, he’s always having a “religious experience” and never a “psychotic break.” Around the turn of the 19th century, when psychiatry provided the shock troops for the assault on Christianity, as part of the wider ascendency of naturalism, modernity, and science, Jesus’s sanity came under concerted attack. Showing Jesus to be mentally disordered struck at the supernatural heart of the Christian religion. The response of theologians and biblical scholars was not so much to defend Jesus’s sanity, but to ignore the debate. Moses, Jesus, and all the rest couldn’t be mentally disordered because they were religious figures. It was a stand-off between incommensurate rhetorical positions which served the philosophical and socio-political interests of antagonistic participants.

This sanitizing of the phenomenality of mental disorder—visions, voices, possessions—extends well beyond the interest of religious practitioners to protect “their people” from the reductionism of psychiatrists. It permeates contemporary western scholarship in the humanities and social science, scholars who also resist psychiatric reductionism to “protect” participants in, for example, shamanism, spirit possession, mysticism, and psychedelics from psychiatric reductionism.

The more I read, the more I realized that there were two competing discourses: The psychiatric discourse, which reduces experiences of extraordinary/anomalous/extreme states of consciousness to mental disorder, and the humanities and social sciences discourse, which seeks to protect the cultural interpretations of such experiences against psychiatric reductionism. Conformity to one or the other of these binary discourses was not so much a choice scholars made as a set of assumptions they inherited, based on their position within the academy. Whilst there is a well-understood sub-discipline of the psychology of religion, the bitterness in the conflict means there is no established psychiatry of religion. Certainly, there are psychiatrists who have an interest in religion but they rarely engage with religious studies texts and their work is spurned by those in the humanities and social sciences who still see psychiatry as a threat.

As a mad person, this didn’t make any sense to me. I may reject the language of psychiatry as much as I like, I may question the labelling of my own diagnosis, but when I am driven by the hand of God, I damn well know something extraordinary/anomalous/extreme is going on—and if I choose not to use psychiatric language, it doesn’t stop psychiatrists locking me up… and just because they locked me up, didn’t mean they’d won. So, back at university, my task was to find some way in which the states of mad consciousness, understood as religious experiences, could embrace the madness without succumbing to the reductionism of psychiatry.

From a mad studies standpoint, the problem takes on a whole new dimension. The authenticity of Moses or Jesus or shamans, or practitioners of spirit possession, etc., was not the problem. The problem lay in the 20th century approach to a normative sanity and the (moral) presupposition that mad is bad. If madness is not necessarily badness, if madness is a way of talking about experiences and experiential states of consciousness which individuals endure and may overcome, the idea of a constructive madness which is articulated in religious terms becomes thinkable.

After Moses had his chat with the voice in the fire, he went on to lead a liberation struggle; after the shaman engages with the spirit world they return with power. Is it possible to think about the crazy which is marbled in the world’s holy books and echoed in long traditions of oral accounts of religious experiences as instances of non-pathological madness? And if so, such instances could be identified and problematized, rather than smoothed over, in order to reveal the constructive power of madness within the human story.

That’s the idea, but how to write about it? I’d have to do something more interesting than jump up and down asserting my point that MADNESS IS A VITAL PART OF HUMAN HISTORY. Just pointing to Arjuna’s account in chapter 11 of the Bhagavad Gita or the Sufi traditions of fanā or the power of the ecstatic at the margins of mainstream religious practices isn’t enough. Instances don’t make a theory and simply providing case studies of the crazy in religion was never going to do more than produce a catalogue—of contestable evidence.

My solution was to take the two discourses I’d identified and, rather than setting them against each other, I set them alongside each other as parallel interpretations. My thought was to expose these as (no more than) alternative academic discourses which were both written by rich, white, educated, western men emerging from a legacy of western colonialism. Both discourses engaged in a process of “othering.” The psychiatrist othered the “mad” and the anthropologists and religious scholars of the 19th century othered the “primitives.” Both engaged in a self-serving comparison with their own normative values. My hope was that this approach could show that the problem is not in the experiences, but in the way we think about them in the 21st century, shaped by whether one was inculcated into the sanitization of the humanities and social sciences or the reductionism of psychiatry.

It was straightforward to identify the psychiatric discourse—it was fully articulated in the changing process of the DSM series with the twists and turns from DSM-I to DSM-5. But in reading the texts I was blown away to discover that the DSM-5 introduces a formal recognition of what I now understand as explanatory pluralism. In the DSM-5 chapter on dissociative identity disorder, which is a recent replacement for multiple personality disorder, the DSM-5 takes an idea out of an appendix in DSM-IV and slaps it right into the main criteria as a contra-indicator. You do not have dissociative identity disorder if the disturbance is “A NORMAL PART OF A BROADLY ACCEPTED CULTURAL OR RELIGIOUS PRACTICE.” There is a disruption of self, there is a crisis, but it is not necessarily a mental disorder, if there is a better cultural or religious explanation.

Wow. Here was I setting up two conflicting discourses of interpretation and the DSM-5 had already conceded that the situation was not as polarized as I first supposed. But, before patting the DSM-5 authors on the back in congratulations, remember this contra-indicator only applies to dissociative identity disorder—which explicitly includes the ancient concept of possession. Over in the schizophrenia and other psychoses chapter, where visions and voices reside, there is no such contra-indicator, even though visions and voices are, certainly in the west, the dominant indicators of religious experiences. This situation hasn’t changed in the text revisions of DSM-5 in 2022, so there is still some way to go.

It was less straightforward to set out the discourse in the humanities and social sciences as, unlike the consensus authority of psychiatry, there are just individuals punting their best ideas, dressed in language and concept they’d either inherited or invented, but made no claim to having experienced. But critically reading, in search of texts which treated mad consciousness as non-pathological, several examples were identifiable. Only one, William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience, had a methodology which actually addressed the pathological. James acknowledges “the medical materialists” (which translates as “reductionist biological psychiatrists”) but rejects their attempts to devalue religious experiences on pragmatic grounds. The rest just avoided the problem.

For example, Rudolf Otto, who popularized the term “numinous” in his book The Idea of the Holy, deploys a barrage of language in his description of this irrational experience: the ineffable moment, the overplus of the holy, the paradox of the unnamed something, subjectively experienced, the wholly other, beyond ethics and morality, the tremendous mystery which is fascinating and awful (filled with awe) energy, shuddering and dread. As a mad person, the sheer exuberance of his language declares the power of being driven by the hand of god, but the traces of madness are only discernible by a careful reading of the footnotes.

Similarly, Walter Pahnke, whose PhD thesis Drugs and Mysticism still underpins second-generation psychedelic theory, introduces the idea of the psychedelic experience as explicitly contrasting with psychosis. Whilst it is established fact that “psychedelic” was introduced as a term to rebrand “psychotomimetic” (the mimicking of psychosis) drugs, Pahnke acknowledges that the experience of “the subject-object dichotomy transcended and the empirical ego extinguished” can be found in both the psychedelic experience and the psychotic experience. Still, he wants to put clear blue water between these concepts.

The self-serving psychedelic politics of this may be obvious, but the category error is in making his category of psychedelic experience dependent on outcome rather than describing a state of consciousness. By making psychedelic experiences good and psychotic experiences bad, he sanitizes the psychedelic experience whilst overlooking the abundant contrary evidence.

These are two out of the seven instances of texts from the humanities and social sciences on which I focused. In the end I included seven chapters, these two along with two philosophers (T. K. Oesterreich on possession and Walter Stace on mysticism), two psychologists (William James’s pathological programme and Abraham Maslow on peak experiences) and a religious historian (Micea Eliade on shamanism). There were more I couldn’t fit in due to limitations of space—I. M. Lewis’s Ecstatic Religion, Lee Sannella’s The Kundalini Experience: Psychosis or Transcendence? and Ann Taves’s concept of the Special in Religious Experience Reconsidered.

What I discovered was that many of the 20th century authors I was writing about had actually read many of the other authors in my sample. It is this fact which gave me the confidence to think of this as a fractured discourse on extraordinary/anomalous/extreme states of consciousness. What I also discovered was that the intentions of these authors have been consistently abused in the subsequent literature. Roland Barthes’ idea of the death of the author is vividly at play. There are no conceivable grounds to make Mircea Eliade’s concept of shaman universally accessible to anybody who paid a bunch of money and went on a retreat with a drum. Similarly, the overwhelming nature of Otto’s “numinous” was de-theologized by Carl Jung and has subsequently been watered down to mean some vaguely spiritual feeling.

The reason for establishing these two discourses was to introduce the idea of Acute Religious Experiences as a way of bridging the psychiatric discourse and the humanities and social science discourse. The fact that the DSM-5 accommodated explanatory pluralism provided grounds for accepting that Acute Religious Experiences were extreme enough to be of interest to psychiatrists, but grounds to resist conceding the reductionist power psychiatry has historically demanded. But, as a concept, Acute Religious Experiences could also reorganize the data of the humanities and social sciences.

For example, in religious studies, shamanism and mysticism are generally treated as two distinct tropes whose cultural specificity places them beyond comparison. Seeing both shamans and mystics as distinct instances of a religious enculturation of extraordinary/anomalous/extreme states of consciousness doesn’t involve reducing one to the terms of the other; it provides a way of recognizing that mad consciousness is plastic and can and does manifest diversely. This anti-reductionist approach places the value on the recognition of the extent to which mad consciousness has manifested diversely, whilst bringing into view just how extensively mad consciousness has shaped the history of religions.

My book Acute Religious Experiences is a single argument which leads to my proposal for naming such experiences “Acute Religious Experiences.” The term is not a compromise between the pathologizing discourse of psychiatry and the non-pathologizing discourse in the humanities and social sciences. Acute Religious Experiences are always phenomenally mad, but not necessarily pathological. What I’m proposing is not a case-by-case compromise, but a different way of seeing. The concept of Acute Religious Experiences puts an end to the psychiatric predilection for retrospectively diagnosing the great figures of religion as “mentally disordered.” It puts an end to the humanities and social sciences having to defend the sanity of their subjects.

People who have Acute Religious Experience are “out” of the mad closet and liberated from the threat of being pathologised. It is the capacity of mad studies to advance the idea that mad is not necessarily bad, which opens up the need to identify and name madness within the human story.

The practical consequences ripple out from the idea of Acute Religious Experiences. For example, if shamanism or spirit possession or mysticism are understood as ways of constructively socializing madness, how might this affect the psychiatric presumption that returning a person to their previous “normal” is the only or best objective? The analogy with psychedelic therapy is obvious: by stimulating a crisis, psychedelic therapists seek to guide rather than repress. If psychosis is always defined in negative terms, the positive outcomes can never be imagined let alone achieved.

Certainly, it would be helpful if the contra-indicator in dissociative identity disorder was included in the psychosis chapter, but this would involve psychiatry re-imagining a more complicated approach—something that would require engaging with people rather than symptom suppression. It is this kind of change which could lead to acceptance and empowerment of Acute Religious Experiences: that when I am driven by the hand of god I’m having one of the most important moments in my life.


Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.


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  1. You have a lovely expression in your scenic photograph. I have just read your delicious article.

    I want to have my cake and eat it. I want to place madness at the pinnacle of human achievement because being mad is akin to being wild, wild and free, like the animals are. There is no authority but your own heart if you be mad. When I first came to antipsychiatry circles I felt efforts were brought to relieve me of my celebration of my madness, as if my championing of my liberty to be lunatic was my embarrassingly taking stigma from society rather than my rushing to buy a suit and rejoin society. People seemed keen to heal me of the horrid slur of madness. I made little comments here and there about the marvels of shamanism. I am with you on how “madness is not necessarily bad”. However, I also know that my own madness “can” be bad. So I want my cake and I want to eat it and I want to be saying madness is fantastic and I want to say madness is sheer hell. I want BOTH to be true. Madness can be ecstatic and therefore good. But being dead is never a good idea. There are the maggots for one thing. There are the pallbearers and grief stricken gnashers of teeth. Madness can be so very excruciating and degrading and despairing that you can long for being just dead. Great sympathy is needed by the dying of madness. Not wonderous acclaim. What point is there in having visions if the visionary cannot wipe their own rear end due to huge fear that the toilet paper is contaminated with cyanide. The idea that martyrhood is a high achievement for humans would not occur to an animal. To martyr oneself to be a human entranced “visions” factory is not a sign of a new holy messiah but a sign of someone falling to pieces and not in a good way. No animal would willingly plunk itself limbs akimbo on a wooden cross. It would be deemed a sick animal and be given lots of tender veterinarian care. Visions are impressive but not if they snuff out the poor person who is afflicted by them. If martyrdom is part of the vision then believe it might be a vision that cares nothing for the lovely human body and its need of balance, rest and contentment. If it is a body-hating vision like that then there is nothing worth celebrating of such cruelty. Martyrdom, like dying of madness, is not as valuable to any human as balance, survival and wellness.

    There are, it seems to me therefore TWO states of madness, a good, wild, liberating state of being, and a bad, ill, dying, waste of a life state of being. One state needs celebrated, the other state needs cushiony compassion and sympathy.

    I would also be wanting to say that there is not “a mad person” or “a fixed person” but a wonderfully messy blend of BOTH going on in all of us all of the time.

    The maddest people I ever come across are psychiatrists. It is just that this is kept secret even and especially from themselves.

    Was Jesus mad? Was Jesus sane? Why can he not be BOTH. Why must we only envisage the brain as rock solidly reliable and sane or a useless blancmange of incomprehensible idiocy? Why must we only envisage a human as having a breakdown or over a breakdown and never going through a continuous work in progress chaos of BOTH. We do not want to see ourselves as irredeemably frail and vulnerable and fluctuating. We want the confidence trick of imperviousness to threat, especially the threat of our own inner disintegration. And others put huge pressure on us to be that rock with a fixed rock hard brain for them to count on.

    I believe Jesus was a mix of madness and super wellness. And maybe this is how God wants us all to be. But this way I have of understanding there to be a God is only when I am in my faith mode. Like you, I duck and dive under the awning of atheism at times. I tend to do so not because I do not believe in some kind of Creator but because I suspect that this Creator does not want us all to be his puppets on strings only doing choices that we think he might approve of. We are given our own inner “choice making” kit to make of life whatever we will. If there is a God then he loves us enough to want us to be MORE of who we authentically are and not less. That may involve throwing off the shackles of convention and even sanity and jubilantly revel in being wild, mad and free. Madness becomes one’s own guide and God. One becomes a God when mad enough. Inflation and expansion of the psyche happens until there are no borders between the mad un and Oneness.

    But as I say…there is madness good and madness bad. Madness rejuvenating and madness utterly soul destroying to the verge of suicide and beyond.

    Some in antipsychiatry circles want to blame psychiatry for making their madness good be madness bad, by giving them brutal treatments. These people then want to say that madness should have been a good time and that psychiatry robbed them of that natural ascension. Some people DO have mostly benign forms of hallucinations and delusions and so maybe do not see what all the fuss was about, in locking them up AS IF they had madness bad, a SEVERE form of hallucinations and delusions that leave some people blubbering shit covered wrecks unable to feed themselves. In psychiatry there was also this confusion about madness good and madness bad, except for psychiatry all madness was deadly and needed swiftly tackled.

    You want to innovate a new term “Acute Religious Experience”. I think this is fine for madness good. The madness to be celebrated. But today I almost had to stop shampooing my hair because ghastly hallucinations marauded me in a way that makes me feel just ill and doomy and dying. I would cough if I had to call my intense wish to be dead an “Acute Religious Experience”. Indeed, I want to swim out of any notion that what is jumbling me up is spiritual or religious. It would add to my sense of out of control nightmare. I prefer at present to “keep it real” and have ordinary humdrum daily life hold my hand.

    Psychiatry emerged out of the haunting legacy of the Inquisitorial Church, with its notion of madness as “sin” and its chilling religious priests driving out devils and legions and squealling pigs and hedgerow herbalists. Psychiatry with its hands up to stop such religious stigmatizing of the nutty took the barmy under its medical wing and made nice cups of tea for the crazies. Then the pharmaceuticals arrived. Miracle healings that gave the mad something proper to celebrate, like never waking up. A least the profoundly asleep are not profoundly dead of blubbering and suicide or witch hunts by rabid priests. The mad now in lineny hospital caves could linger safely in suspended animation like comatose levitating Lazarus waiting for a visitor.

    Given that there are as many experiences of madness as there are individuals who have them I doubt we can ever call madness only ever good or call madness only ever bad, as a CONSENSUS OPINION. And into each madness there will be bits that feel fabulous and astounding and bits that feel grim.

    I am with SYMPATHY at the moment. I believe in its medicinal necessity. I do not feel that academia gets us all there.

    I studied Divinity for five years. The first thing I chose to do upon leaving after I graduated was to wipe my mind of all the lectures. The pursuit of knowledge beyond its entertainment value strikes me as akin to the never ending pursuit of wealth.

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    • Dear Daiphanous,

      My heart goes out to you as you wait for the Hoover Dam to break, even while I reckon you may agree that this whole planet seems to be “groaning under this age’s yoke” as we wince through intense birth pangs and brace ourselves for the breaking of the waters.

      I see plenty of evidence in the canonical gospels suggesting both that Jesus appears to have burned himself out and that he was dissed and diagnosed by those around him – and that this likely greatly contributed to any burn-out.

      Burn-out, in physicians and/or in others is fascinatingly dealt with, sometimes by omission, by ICD’s, DSM’s and various European countries, as you may also know…

      When I need cheering up, and realize it, I often inflict myself on others, sometimes by asking perfect strangers if they have ever hit a wall, and what the fish said when she did.

      I don’t know which one it was, but I believe she said “Dam!” but through swollen lips.

      Whenever I think of the Hoover Dam, also, I think of Johnny Cash:

      “Or I may simply be a single drop of rain
      But I will remain
      And I’ll be back again, and again and again and again and again…”

      At his memorial, or one of them, one of Johnny’s daughters spoke most gloriously movingly and lovingly of how Johnny had ?stared, I think it was, at “God and the Abyss.”

      When reminded by you, Daiphanous, or by Johnny, his daughter, the Highwaymen or anyone and once more I know I am immortal, I forget I can make mistakes for another while, at least, and try to be grateful for all my ingratitude. It is a struggle, but one I do know I share absolutely equally with every soul – thank YOU.

      I am praying that “God,” through all Her Cosmoses, hugs and holds you close, flooding you with peace and with joy and with love, dissolving forever any impending impendings.

      Comfort and joy, and “God” rest you very, very merry, Daiphanous, and THANK YOU!

      And thank you MIA and Richard!


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      • Dear Tom,
        There is nothing that is not impending on a Deep Time scale. Comets will fizz past our globe. One look at the moon suggests that meteors will smash into the Earth. Mountains and civilizations with ascend and crumple. I am not worried about my list of impendings. I do not scan the horizon or cower in wait for disasters. I am like a planet doctor. I am unflinching in my assessment of cause and effect. I am not frazzled or burnt out from any of my visions. My prophetic visions come from the super well part of my brain. It is my schizophrenia illness, with its grim tactile hallucinations and delusions of persecution, that casts a dark cloud over my daily life. It is my schizophrenia that comes from an unwell and mad part of me that exhausts me hourly. I do not want my schizophrenia. I very much do want my prophetic visions. But not too many of them. You can have too much. I believe the human is not supposed to be concerned about the future. The mountain and the civilization may not collapse in our lifetime so why dwell on it? But visions can be like surveying the up and coming bad weather, to ensure being suitably dressed or properly kitted out with weather proof gear. A huge flood is coming to the globe. A city destroying flood. There is not alot can be done to prepare for it beyond learning to swim and climb to safety. But it is the aftermath that can be prepared for. Knowing it is coming can prepare people to recover much quicker in the after shock.
        Humans in civilizations often have an idealizing confidence in human logic and build their sense of certainty on it, but nature is not logical. Nature is very unpredictable. Humans entertain the hubristic notion that future changes can be engineered by human comprehension alone. A city flattening flood has other ideas. The ancients knew the folly of human certainty. The Old Testament is full of the way natural disasters put paid to the arrogant plans of puny humans. Certainty has a habit of legitimating “control over the uncertain free choices of others”. When natural distasters occur a time of reckonning occurs, a taking stock of human priorities, a reappraisal of core emotions like love and peace and generosity and compassion, feelings that got lost in the pursuit of hollow progress. Sometimes humans are aware of the need to return to simpler ways of being but do not know how to get there. Instead they accuse “the other side” of preventing that blissful return to effortless ways of being, freer ways of being. The blaming builds and builds into a nuclear sabre rattling threat, a planet toasting impending…But along comes Deep Time with other impendings that sweep aside human certainty and return people to simpler ways of being whether they argue for it or not. We are en route to all manner of toxic wars and we think that to stop a war means we have to wage a war, laughably, in the name of “peace”. We do so in the strange cocooning arrogance that nothing natural ever befalls us.

        Tom, I have no interest in the Hoover Dam. I barely know where it is on a map or what the damn dam looks like. I do not much care about it. I am indifferent. I do not fixate on it or any of my prophecies. I am far more interested in whether I shall be having strawberries for dessert tonight.

        I just know that I have predicted the pandemic and other similar occurances. I do not think there is any reason for this. I think making weather and disaster predictions are an innate animal sensitivity we humans used to have but lost. But like I implied already I believe we are not meant to agonize over the future, just live for the beauty in today. Jesus was of that opinion.

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    Unless an irresistable reply arrives I need now to bid my leave of making comments. This is because my genuine “madness bad” is needing me to go off into the wilderness and go within and ruminate about ways I might cope with my torment.

    As usual I must say that I expect The Hoover Dam to break at some point in the future.

    I made a comment today on the recent article by Richard Sears, “Mental Health Campaigns May Actually Lead to Increases in Mental Distress” (click a few times on my name here to get there)…but I must stop whittering on now. I use making comments in the same way one can use a squash racket to avoid dealing with urgent personal troubles.

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  3. Hi Richard

    Thank you so much for presenting what you worked about in your PhD thesis. I read your research log book and your analysis of the pschyciatric and the religious discourse on extraordinary intense mind states with great pleasure.

    As a religious person though, I can’t accept your introduction of the concept of acute religious experience as a denominator for solely intense, extraordinary, even “anormal” mind states that on the content level relate to religious themes and narratives.

    It seems that you are following here William James in his Varieties of Religious Experiences and other scholars uncritically who also only allowed into their analysis experiences that went beyond a certain high level of arousal of energy in the mind driving them.

    The thing is, and I think that a majority of people who follow a religion would agree with me: When you commit to a religious life on a daily basis of whatever cult and practices you follow you have regular “acute religious experiences” of non-intense – and sometimes also intense energy.

    For example, after washing the dishes mindfully for a couple of years connecting to the feeling of the wetness and the warmth of the water may crack open your morning cold heart and bring about an intuitive insight of all things connected and you not cut-off from anything that for a moment or two dissolves ego-boundaries. But the nature of the experience is neither of an extraordinary level of agitation in the mind nor is the insight of interconnectedness itself something extraordinary but rather banal.

    Spontaneously, there come to my mind two scholarly books by religious people, After the Ecstasy the Laundry by Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield, and The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Religion by Dorothee Sölle who both critisize the idea that is of course also cherished partly in religious communities that genuine religious experiences are only of the extreme, extraordinary, irregular kind.

    From my point of view the important question is not so much as how to define or pin down such experiences from an academic perspective but rather this: What do you do when such experiences occur – and in the case of extreme energy, how can you learn to keep yourself safe from being locked up? And when they have faded, how do you use them to refashion your idea of yourself. Do you now see yourself as someone special and different from ordinary folks or can you find a way to feel humbled and more connected to yourself and others?

    As a religious person, I think that our answers to these questions are what really counts.

    Thanks again for your interesting, and very clear and carefully crafted argument. It was really a pleasure to read!

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  4. Hello Richard,
    I find this an incredibly interesting article on so many levels. I was raised a very conservative Christian and then got into some of the branches that seek out these kinds of experiences. I, however, never experienced any of them. It was always kind of weird seeing everyone else dropping like flies being ‘slain in the spirit’ and chattering in tongues…while I stood there wondering what was wrong with me, sigh…
    …and then my wife began to show the signs of DID 15 years ago…and so we throw that into the mix…and I have a very pragmatic view of that: trauma and dissociation driving nearly everything we’ve had to face…
    …and then I’ve always wondered about philosophical materialism and how that drives so many of the modern sciences (even though many of the founders of the various scientific branches were devout Christians) and blinds them to the possibility of the mind and spirit. I’ve brought up the place that materialism ought to occupy in our discussions on this website, but never got any author to engage me about it…
    Anyway, thanks for an extremely thought-provoking and enjoyable article. I don’t know where I personally am nowadays…I’ve moved away from my upbringing some without rejecting it all and yet I’m definitely not a materialist..
    Thanks again!

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    • Hi Sam… interesting that you sought out with fellow believers, but didn’t have the experience.
      There are also others, like me… who are firmly not religious, yet do have the experiences, in which case it feels very much imposed, rather than sought out.

      I am only adding to the ‘data’ here… to say that the experiences and belief in them are not necessarily connected. And that it is much easier to ‘observe’ the experience if you re not caught up in it.

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  5. Hi Richard, I can’t wait to read this.
    I have never used the term Acute Religious Experiences, but it very much applies to me in the sense that the voices I hear include a voice that purports to be God, the others mostly being ‘minions’ (my term, not their self explanation) serving ‘God”… who doesn’t quite live up to the standard of the revealed religions (God, self explaining… in my view).

    The way they have engaged with me is to ask me (God ‘himself’, he says) if I will rewrite the Bible… the ‘need’ that supposedly will serve all humanity… followed by describing me as “the perfect man” (created, nurtured, groomed… )… then a little later, “the perfect man for the job”…. followed after a while by “You are the second coming”.

    So, I am chosen by God… to get a job done… which can be very ‘important’ (“you are the most important man”, say the minions, lol)… and lead to mania… while atheist and rational me says there is no life after death… so a God, self revealed and explained… is rather irrelevant.

    God voice and I disagree on most things… nevertheless he persists with the idea that he will ‘make’ me the second coming, regardless of my willingness to participate.

    It is a little more complicated than that but this is not a bad synopsis of fifteen years of this stuff, where voices basically ignore my cognitive response and persist with their story… which ‘needs’ a second coming to perpetuate their myth by fulfilling the prophecy.

    The means by which I will become the second coming… in the eyes of OTHERS, since I refute the concept, even… is the subject of voice content over the fifteen years… and counting.

    My ‘story’ response, the idea I hold in mind in my response to voices as I play to their story… is that BOTH these ideas are true, simultaneously…
    – that I AM the second coming… by virtue of ‘lived’ experience of being engaged by God voice in the role… AND
    – I am NOT the second coming… by rational analysis

    Of course, this is just a construct I use, to ‘manage’ voices to prevent and preempt extreme states, including mania which can feel good… but dies in the real world, as we would expect. But also pretty dire and cruel threats… in contrast to the ‘promise’ of what being the second coming will bring. The voices play these ideas off to engineer extremes in the classic quest of voice hearers… ‘the’ battle between good and evil.. that generates that sense of importance

    My language is VERY different… but I very much resonated with your opening phrase “When I am sane, I’m an atheist, but when I am mad, I’m driven by the hand of god.” … which is I think just another way of saying my line ” I am the second coming… and.. I am not the second coming”.

    We are just using different words to describe a similar experience, I think, which I have also seen in other hearers.

    Funnily, my ‘attempt’, if you can call it that, to reconcile a clinical perspective with a religious experience perspective… is to rework the clinical description of the stimuli themselves, AVH… to MMS-EP-Religious… lol…
    an abbreviation of Multi Modal Stimuli – with Extreme Provocation – and religious content in the specific context of revealed religions.

    My idea behind this was to posit an acronym that the clinical profession must explain. To convince me Greg that you understand what I am experiencing (not my cognitive response to it)… you must explain HOW my brain is generating extreme provocations from an entity purporting to BE God (MMS-EP-Religious)… regardless of my cognitive response, belief or even considered opinion. This is quite different that subsuming all experience under the symptom ‘AVH’. I put the onus on the rational camp,

    Over the next 10 days or so I will write a more thought through response… for now I just wanted to say bravo… I am glad to see an effort to put side by side… two ‘explanations’ and ask… how do they each relate to the actual experience of it?

    About a third of people who hear voices ‘hear’ religious content… so this is an important space. I will write more as I think about your post.

    (I read that ‘about a third’ somewhere… does anybody here perhaps have a reference statistic or paper on the proportion of hearers that describe content as religious and or spiritual?)

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  6. I think the difference between hallucinated or psychosis-labelled persons on the one hand, and shamans, mediums or channelers on the other, is that the second have cleared their emotional memories through initiations or personal development like mind-body, massaging, breathing or trance practices. This engagement, when completed, provides the perfect clarity and focus necessary to achieve meaningful inner experiences, undisturbed by traumas flashbacks. I consider partial or complete inner experiences, visual, auditory, somesthetic, as perfectly normal, under trance or awake, as is the ability to let a spirit talk or act through your body (I did all that). We are not equal in this, and the ability may be inherited, though.

    Exodus 22:18 “You must not allow a sorceress to live.” Taken as indisputable, this sentence is meant to enforce a monopoly on knowledge and the crime of the potential genocide of a loosely defined social group, used as a scapegoat, via a call to murder by any literal follower of the Bible. How many people still live within this kind of framework on Earth? I think psychiatry as taken the relay in this witch-hunting persecution, but with pseudoscience and chemical lobotomy instead of direct execution. In my opinion, psychiatry in this particular instance can be viewed as a religion, made of dogma, including priests and believers, too. That would makes psychiatry a state religion in most countries. Combined with the violation of human rights, I think this could qualify this kind of psychiatry as fanaticism.

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  7. This article reminds me of a quote from John Nash “The ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way that my mathematical ideas did. So I took them seriously.” This is the man who more or less gave us different ways of applied economics in equilibrium theory in decision making in business. He had to believe his hallucinations to make sense for the world but he paid the price also for believing those hallucinations that were fillers of thoughts.

    There is very important step in that direction where perhaps less judgement and more curiosity is needed.
    Thank you for sharing.

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  8. Having read this most superb piece of art, science and literature over and over, I have become more puzzled as to why Richard chose to refer to acute religious” experiences in the title, at least – especially when so many who have undergone or are undergoing such experiences would not consider them “religious” but refer to them as Peak, mystical, spiritual, numinous, noetic, visionary, self-realization/actualization, near-death, out-of-body, alien-encounter etc., instead.

    I wonder if Richard uses the word “religious” much as Jung did, when he wrote:

    “I have treated many hundreds of patients. Among those in the second half of life – that is to say, over 35 – there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life. It is safe to say that every one of them fell ill because he had lost that which the living religions of every age have given their followers, and none of them has really been healed who did not regain his religious outlook.”

    ― Carl Gustav Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul.

    Sincere thanks to Richard and also to MIA for such inestimable and unique treasures, now brought to us all freely at utterly unfathomable cost to so very many,


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  9. If it’s not already part of your book, I can also recommend ‘Transpersonal Psychology in Psychoanalytic Perspective’ by Michael Washburn, which discusses the difference between spiritual experiences/awakening and genuine psychosis

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  10. Richard,

    Great piece.

    But one minor clarification: You wrote,
    “You do not have dissociative identity disorder if the disturbance is ‘A NORMAL PART OF A BROADLY ACCEPTED CULTURAL OR RELIGIOUS PRACTICE.’ But, before patting the DSM-5 authors on the back in congratulations, remember this contra-indicator only applies to dissociative identity disorder.”

    I believe the contra-indicator is more general. After positing the criteria for “Delusional Disorder,” the DSM clarifies what is referred to in general by the world “delusion.” In doing so, the DSM demarcates a rather full separation of church and (mental) state:

    “An individual’s cultural and religious background must be taken into account in evaluating the possible presence of delusional disorder. … It is important to distinguish symptoms of brief psychotic disorder from culturally sanctioned response patterns. For example, in some religious ceremonies, an individual may report hearing voices, but these do not generally persist and are not perceived as abnormal by most members of the individual’s community. In addition, cultural and religious background must be taken into account when considering whether beliefs are delusional. … In some cultures, visual or auditory hallucinations with a religious content (e.g., hearing God’s voice) are a normal part of religious experience.” (DSM 5, pp. 93-103)

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    • Or to sum it up more succinctly, they have no idea how to separate “delusions” from people’s “normal” beliefs, but that doesn’t stop them from pretending they can tell the difference and charge insurance companies for the service.

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      • “Normal” beliefs vs delusions. I’sn’t that just stupid on spectrum?

        Belief, theory, hypothisis, what the hell is it? We a have a deeply inculturated view that everyone “believes” total Christian inculturated nonsense all the way back to 325Ad nicene creed nonsense.
        Its Bad science, bad religion, bad psychology, horrid philosphy and simply Co-conspiring nonsense when fundemental.

        Belief as fundemental is a childish thing and prelavant. I do believe btw. I believe if I need a toilet I can google McDonald’s and there will be a bathroom I am an atheist as to it being available to keep my bowel from getting ideas and am agnostic as to it being open. Yes at that moment belief, theory, hypothisis is vital but totally fundemental? Hahaha. Hardly. The margin between the sane and insane is a spectrum in regards to functionality can they show up to work that’s it. One flew over the cucoos nest is a documentary. Factually.

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