There are countless different terms used to describe anomalous experiences including but not limited to: paranormal experience, supernatural experience, psychic experience, mystical experience, transcendental experience, religious experience, spirtual experience, numinous experience and so on. Additionally we might also consider Near-Death Experiences (NDE), Out-of-Body Experiences (OBE) and Psychedelic Experiences to be related phenomena, in that such experiences often possess similar characteristics and effects. In order to account for the conceptual biases associated with some of these terms, new un-loaded labels have been developed such as anomalous experience and non-ordinary experience. Such terms are generic and so may be applied to a wide variety of experiences, not all of which are necessarilly supernatural in nature.
Nevertheless there remains a distinction in the literature between the idea of a religious or mystical experience and a paranormal or supernatural experience, but where do we draw the line between them?
Definitions of the term "religious experience" often stress the importance of communion with either a divine being or a sense of oneness with nature and wider reality. Richard Swinburne, as an example of a definition of religious experience, has proposed a five point system of classification:
Type 1 - Experience of God or Ultimate reality mediated through a common, public, sensory object; e.g. feeling union with a divine power when observing a sunrise.
Type 2 - Experience of God or Ultimate reality mediated through an unusual, public, sensory object; e.g. seeing the Virgin Mary in an unusual cloud formation.
Type 3 - Experience of God or Ultimate reality mediated through private sensations that can be described in normal sensory language; e.g. seeing God in a dream.
Type 4 - Experience of God or Ultimate reality mediated through private sensations that cannot be described in normal sensory language; e.g. feeling a distinct sense of presence.
Type 5 - Experience of God or Ultimate reality that is not mediated by any sensations; e.g. direct communion (Swinburne in Peterson et al, 2002, 20-22)
It is clear from such taxonomies that religious experience is a multi-faceted phenomenon. There is a wide variety of forms that it might take in manifesting (not to mention a wide array of possible interpretations of these forms). The essential object of experience in religious experiences, according to this system of classification, is referred to as God or Ultimate Reality; these are concepts widely used to express what it is that the religious experience is of. Other terms are also occasionally used including labels such as; divinity, oneness, the all mighty, love, light, nirvana, unity, the void, joy, bliss consciousness and so on (it is perhaps possible to see a distinction between personalised objects of religious experience, such as a sense of loving presence, and impersonal objects, such as oneness or love).
The objects of paranormal experiences are slightly different, and may be separated into two broad categores; Entity Encounters and Psi phenomena.
Interestingly the apprehension of the objects of paranormal experience often occurs in much the same way as the objects of religious experience (God/Ultimate Reality) are experienced. The object of experience may be:
1. Mediated through a common public sensory object
2. Mediated through an unusual public sensory object
3. Mediated through private sensations that can be described in sensory terms
4. Mediated through extrasensory sensations that cannot be described in sensory terms
5. Non-Mediated direct communion
The only difference, therefore, is in the type of object experienced. Swinburne's 5 types, then, can be used to refer to paranormal experiences simply by replacing the notion of God/Ultimate Reality with, for instance, ghost, apparition, spirit, telepathy, clairvoyance, clairaudience and so on. What makes it difficult, however, is that multiple objects can turn up during a single experience, this will be discussed later.
William James argued that a claim to religious experience could be considered valid if it was seen that the experience had brought about a moral change in the experient. - that is based upon the "fruits" of the experience (James, 2004, 211; Bridgers, 2005, 14-15). James considered the characteristics of "philosophical reasonableness and moral helpfulness" (2004, 28) to be the fruits that demonstrated the validity of religious experiences. This transformative factor was key to James' interpretation of the religious experience. Paranormal experiences of all types, for instance UFO sightings, alien abductions, ghost/apparitional experiences and so on, are also found to be associated with personality and world-view transformation. In an investigation into the effects of paranormal and spiritual experiences on people's lives Kennedy & Kanthamani (1995) reported that:
"...the experiences resulted in increased belief in life after death, belief that their lives are guided or watched over by a higher force or being, interest in spiritual or religious matters, sense of connection to others, happiness, well-being, confidence, optimism about the future, and meaning in life. They also indicated decreases in fear of death, depression or anxiety, isolation and loneliness, and worry and fears about the future" (1995, 249)
Such transformations are also often described by those who have had psychedelic experiences having consumed consciousness altering drugs (Leary, Metzner & Weil, 1993).
Out-of-Body Experiences (OBE) and Near-Death Experiences (NDE) seem to exist in a mid-way position between those experiences that are considered to be religious or mystical and those that are understood to be paranormal or psychic. This transition from the paranormal to the religious via OB and NDEs does not occur in discreet steps, but rather is apparently blurred and intermixed. Numerous reports of OBEs, for example, feature encounters with aliens or trips aboard flying saucers. This extract from an interview I conducted, via the internet, with an NDE experiencer called R.A. clearly demonstrates the merging of religious and UFO experiences during his NDE:
"I did not know that heaven in scripture was squarish shaped before my NDE. I tend to think of it now as some type of spaceship"
On this "big rectangular boxy spaceship", R.A. encountered a "wonderful being" manifested as an "Inexpressable Light of Love". This particular case goes to show how easily the experiences more traditionally characterised as religious, i.e. "light of love", and experiences more common to UFO encounters, i.e. heaven as a "spaceship", can become intertwined.
Similarly, Thomas Bullard (1989) has noted, in his schema for the abduction scenario, that many accounts of alien abduction also feature a form of theophany or encounter with a divine being (1989, 153). Bullard writes:
"...abduction reports sound like rewrites of older supernatural encounter traditions with aliens serving the functional roles of divine beings or nature spirits" (Bullard, 1989, 157-158)
For instance Rojcewicz (1986) has noted that the Betty Andreasson abduction case of 1967 provides a fascinating perspective on the blurring of distinctions between religious and abduction experiences. Betty Andreasson interpreted her abduction experiences as visitations from angelic beings:
"We can clearly see here the fusion between experience and belief, description and interpretation. Betty's Christian beliefs color her interpretation of the appearance of her abductors, calling them "angels," despite her verbal and pictorial descriptions to the contrary" (1986, 138)
Rojcewicz sees this as the intersection of "two or more belief traditions...in one experience" (ibid) (we might even consider the possibility that two or more belief traditions developed from a single experience).
Psychedelic experiences induced via the consumption of psychoactive plants and chemicals also seemingly represent a merging point between the religious and the paranormal. Numerous investigators have explored the relationship between psychedelic drugs, paranormal experiences and psi abilities (Luke, 2008) - much of the work pointing out interesting correlations. Certain psychedelic drugs (e.g. DMT, Psilocybin, LSD) are associated entity communications, often akin to abduction scenarios, fairy encounters and so on (e.g. numerous narrative accounts in Strassman, 2001). Other psychoactive drugs (marijuana, ayahuasca) are traditionally considered to be conducive to the development of psi abilities and experiences.
The experiences listed in this diagram are not exhaustive. It is merely meant to demonstrate a possible spectrum of anomalous experiences. Those experiences highlighted in yellow represent experiences of impersonal union with the oneness of reality; those in blue are experiences involving personified entity encounters; those in purple represent impersonal psi experiences. Any of these experiences may occur independently or in tandem during an NDE, OBE or psychedelic experience.
Do these experiences, then, occur along a spectrum with one type of experience at one extreme and another at the other, changing only by subtle and varying degrees? Rojcewicz (1986) has suggested that so-called UFO phenomena be considered to exist within a continuum of extraordinary encounters, one which includes encounters with other creatures of folklore and myth; angels, fairies, monsters. Might this same continuum also include encounters with God?
Why is it that the experience of paranormal phenomena, including UFO abduction and contact experiences, are not considered religious in the sense implied by the term religious experience? Is there some form of cultural hierarchy of significance at play that judges the value of an experiene by the type of object experienced?
Bridgers, L. 2005. Contemporary Varieties of Religious Experience. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield.
Bullard, T.E. 1989. UFO Abduction Reports: The Supernatural Kidnap Narrative Returns in Technological Guise. The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 102, No. 404, pp. 147-170.
James, W. 2004 . The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Barnes & Noble.
Kennedy, J.E. and Kanthamani, H. 1995. An Exploratory Study of the Effects of Paranormal and Spiritual Experiences on Peoples' Lives and Well-Being. The Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, Vol. 89, pp.249-265.
Leary, T. Metzner, R. & Weil, G.M. 1993 . The Subjective After-Effects of Psychedelic Experiences: A Summary of 4 Recent Questionnaire Studies. In T. Leary, R. Metzner & G.M Weil (eds) 1993. The Psychedelic Reader. New York: Citadel Press.
Luke, D.P. 2008. Psychedelic Substances and Paranormal Phenomena: A Review of The Research. Journal of Parapsychology, Vol. 72, 77-107
Rojcewicz, Peter M. 1986. The Extraordinary Encounter Continuum Hypothesis and Its Implications for the Study of Belief Materials. Folklore Forum. 19:131-152.
Strassman, R. 2001. DMT: The Spirit Molecule. Rochester, Vermont: Park Street Press.
Swinburne, R. In Peterson, M. Hasker, W. Reichenbach, B. & Basinger D. 2002. Reason and Religious Belief: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.