How will these resources help you? 

Religious experiences are at the heart of religions as innovators and reformists often have their faith confirmed, challenged or replaced following an intense encounter with ‘the Divine’. These resources explore these experiences through various disciplines. First, a phenomenological approach provides a categorisation of these experiences for us to understand them. Recent scientific developments have led to a new field - neurotheology - where we can see, and perhaps even replicate, how the religious experience looks within the brains of the person experiencing them. Finally, the list turns to the linguistic and anthropological discipline to look more deeply at one form of religious experience common across Charismatic and Pentecostal Christian congregations - ‘speaking in tongues’. 

Categorising religious experiences

The Varieties of Religious Experience: A study in Human Nature

by William James, published by Penguin Classics, (1985), 9780140390346

Psychologist William James gave this lecture over 100 years ago, and it has since been included in the canon of texts used in the Religion and Worldview classroom. While the examples given are almost exclusively from Christian settings, the categorisations and various impacts of the experience can be seen in any religious experience from any tradition. While James does not question the truth claims attached to these experiences, he offers us a way to view them more scientifically and precisely. What is similar between them? In what ways do they differ? This will be fruitful when discussing religious experiences and exploring the links between the philosophical and psychological disciplines applied to religion and worldviews. 

Audiovisual clip

God on the Brain

by Horizon, published by BBC Two, (2003)

Medical and scientific advances in the past 50 years have allowed us to gather empirical data about religious experiences that were not accessible before. This documentary explores this data, and various explanations for religious experiences are given. While some see physical causes for religious experiences as a challenge to their validity, others view these physical causes as a way that we can connect with the creator. The documentary may leave your students with more questions than answers about the relationship between religious experiences and the brain. It will also help them to explore the truth claims made in religion and worldviews. 

Hardwired for God?

Phantoms in the Brain: Human Nature and the Architecture of the Mind

by V.S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee, published by HarperCollins, (1999), 9781857028959

In this book, neurologist Ramachandran studies patients after brain damage, with a particular focus on temporal lobe epilepsy. One of these encounters led him to ponder if we are ‘hard wired’ for communication with ‘the Divine’ - that God may have designed the brains of some individuals to have ‘antennae’ to help them connect with and experience their creator. He suggests that the brain needs to ‘create a script’ to make sense of the world. His views on religious experiences could be used not only for this topic but also in broader discussions about the apparent conflict between religion and science: Ramachandran doesn’t see that there must be a conflict at all.

A case study: speaking in tongues

Glossolalia and the Problem of Language

by Nicholas Harkness, published by University of Chicago Press, (2021), 9780226749419

Glossolalia (or speaking in tongues) has its roots within Christianity from the time of Jesus. The Book of Acts tells readers of how on Pentecost the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles, and through that Spirit, they were able to speak in new languages. This has become one form of religious experience that mainly Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians practise to this day. In this linguistic and anthropological study of glossolalia that is practised in Korean mega-churches, Harkness studies not only the structure and sounds of the prayers but also the political and sociological setting in which this worship is occurring. This academic text will take some unpacking for use in the classroom, but as a case study will raise interesting questions and enquiries from students. 

Audiovisual clips

Horizon - God on the Brain

published by BBC One, (2021)

A girl explains why she wants to be baptised and tells her experience in the Pentecostal Church.
Around the World in 80 Faiths - A Charismatic church in South Africa

published by BBC Two, (2009)

An exploration of devotion to the Holy Spirit in churches in South Africa.

Further Materials

Is The Human Brain Hardwired for God? by Dr. Andrew Newberg, published by Big Think, (2012) Watch this video
The Story of God: Medical Reasons for Visions, published by National Geographic, (2019) Watch this clip
Ruth Marx teaches Religion and Worldviews, is a Consultant for Religious Studies and PSHE, a Farmington Fellowship Scholar and a published blogger on Re:Online.

Text © Ruth Marx, 2023.