The fundamental problem for psychologists and other science-minded empiricists is that religious experiences such as epiphanies are not susceptible to objective testing-and are thus, dismissible. Even so, they recognize that such experiences have a powerful impact not only on the individual but ‘peripheral’ believers, and in some cases, can affect an entire culture.
The nature of the “self” has been a matter for theologians, philosophers, and scientists since the advent of these disciplines. The spiritual perspective that we must “see through the conditioned self that we think we are in order to see our real self” has been a source of philosophical debate for centuries. To address this notion on an academic level requires an understanding of how the brain works, how the function of thinking takes place, and must address notions of free will (determinism), personal self, higher self, and nature vs. nurture.
While psychology is quite comfortable with theories about how we learn, the dispute as to whether we have true free will or whether biology dominates our thinking, rages on. Accordingly, debates over how this applies to religious experiences and religiosity in general aren’t likely to be resolved any time too soon. And while various philosophers like David Hume (1711-1776), Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), and Gilbert “Ghost in the Machine” Ryle (1900-1976) have formulated a number of different theoretical approaches, most delve into what seems to many to be wishful speculation, void of anything resembling a scientific approach.
Nevertheless, a synthesis of analytic approaches both past and present-day seems to point to somewhat of a consensus, namely the need to gain control over the processes of thought when approaching religious experience; stilling the “small” self (the everyday, conditioned self), so that the “higher” (potentially transcendent self), can emerge. A considerable amount of research has gone into the study of meditation, prayer, ritual, and other mindfulness techniques that have long been purported to have this result. However, as Hume pointed out over two centuries ago, by stilling the mind, one is in effect switching off any sense of awareness-thus defeating the purpose.
Good v. Evil
Central to many of the great religious traditions is the concept of the will as it relates to the existence of evil and suffering. Without free will and the recognition of one’s ethical obligation to make decisions accordingly, the concept of morality becomes meaningless. This issue is always balanced with the eternal question, “Why would a loving and merciful god allow unfairness, injustice, cruelty, and even physical and mental illness to exist?” For the materialist, of course, this issue is no issue at all: good and evil are purely a manifestation of man. (The Buddhist and Hindu relationship with Karma puts a rather difficult-to-follow-from-a-Western-perspective twist on how one should approach this paradox.)
The Mind/Consciousness” Reality
From other perspectives, such as that of the famous, mystic-friendly psychiatrist Carl Jung, the greater issue becomes to what extent individuals are capable of seeing the potential for evil in themselves (located in what he termed the ‘shadow‘). But broadly speaking, this is all meaningless from a Western scientific perspective since what a human being is “conscious” of is still a mystery. While several models have been proposed to speculate about the “mind/consciousness” reality, psychology generally boils it all down to electro-chemical activity that does not appear capable of generating a conscious mind. And while other factors such as near death experiences (NDEs), prayer and meditation (and the effects of ‘distant healing‘), and results from other parapsychological research are often considered when approaching this subject, they are, for the most part, eventually deemed fraud, wishful thinking, or self-delusion, void of measurable “proof.”