Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things

By Ann Taves | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER FOUR Comparison CONSTRUCTING AN OBJECT OF STUDY

In our analysis in the previous chapter of the way in which Bradley and Barnard attributed their experiences to the Holy Spirit and a transcendent power we distinguished between descriptive analysis, which analyzed how Bradley and Barnard explained their experience in their own terms, and metaexplanatory analysis, which analyzed the narratives from a naturalistic perspective. The latter generated alternative naturalistic explanations—flagged as hypotheses—that can be formulated as research questions. So, for example, if we take the hypothesis that Barnard's attempt to visualize the absence of self-awareness triggered an alteration in his sense of self in relation to his body and the world, we can translate it into a research question by asking if visualization practices can trigger such alterations and, if so, how are they are processed and formed at unconscious levels before surfacing to awareness.

To get at this question we would need to specify precisely the features of the experiences that interest us. Barnard's experience taken on its own is of limited help in this regard. Not only was his description very vague and stated many years after the fact, but as a single experience it does not provide any way to tease out what aspects of it, if any, might be cross-culturally stable and what aspects might have been unique to him. To establish this we would need to conduct comparative research. Ideally, we would have real-time data (or as close to real-time as possible) from people in a variety of cultural contexts and traditions. Comparison of these experiences would allow us to specify common features more precisely and then, on that basis, to explore the ways in which cultural differences emerge.

We could also ask other questions. In light of the distinction we have made between simple and composite ascriptions, we could ask, for example, if there are traditions that consider visualization practices efficacious relative to a goal they deem religious. If so, do the practices always work? If not, how do practitioners deal with or account for that? Assuming for the moment that visualization practices can trigger such alterations but do not do so reliably, we can ask whether the efficacy of the practices is linked to factors such as personality, training, or beliefs about whether the practices work. We could design research to test such possibilities.

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