Wondrous Events: Foundations of Religious Belief

Wondrous Events: Foundations of Religious Belief

Wondrous Events: Foundations of Religious Belief

Wondrous Events: Foundations of Religious Belief


James McClenon examines the relationship between wondrous events--extrasensory perception, apparitions, out-of-body and near-death experiences, sleep paralysis, psychokinesis, firewalking, psychic surgery, and spiritual healing--and the foundations of religious belief.


This book is a sociological study of events labeled as wondrous. I make no claims regarding the physical causes of wondrous experiences. My theories and hypotheses pertain to the sociology of belief, medicine, religion, and folklore.

An experience-centered approach allows the researcher to use first- hand narratives as data (Hufford, 1982a). Rose (1989), Stoller (1989), and Narayan (1989) provide alternate pathways for this style of presentation. This approach permits more accurate portrayals of "what really happened" and "the way things really were" than a more traditional analysis would allow. Yet, paradoxically, I cannot claim to understand fully "what really happened" or to know "the way things really were," especially in situations where people may be seeking to deceive me. I argue, however, that this uncertainty is not problematic.

Sociologists and anthropologists are often unable to determine if their informants are lying or have reconstructed their memories of events. In my analyses here, however, I cannot be certain that my own observations are always valid since some of my respondents use deception. Although I have no method for evaluating sincerity quantitatively, this does not negate the value of an experience-centered approach. If observers believe that a particular event occurred, then that event is sociologically real. It affects those who believe in it. By the same token, if I have been misled, this deception suggests that others have been similarly misguided. Even in cases where I am virtually certain that informants have fabricated stories (see Chapter 6), their narratives are part of a folk tradition. The tales they tell are oral literature, accepted by believers as true.

Various readers have commented on aspects of this study. Skeptics have asked that I qualify descriptions of wondrous events with terms like "ostensible" or "alleged." They want me to state, for example, that an informant "believed she saw" a phenomenon rather than "she saw" the incident. They argue that the latter phrase suggests that the event . . .

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