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Nevertheless, I think it is uncontroversial to presume that religious culture is shaped in part by the desire of practitioners to experience their practice more meaningfully. First, to proceed along these lines, we need to develop and refine our ways of characterizing the subjective side of religious engagement within this middle range. Perhaps the lowest form of engagement is simply a state of mild attentiveness and interest.

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Continuing from there, we might find a wide variety of markers rather than a single scale, as religious engagement can take many forms. However, I suggest that it may be possible to understand increased religious engagement in general terms of perceptual discernment and emotional attunement , especially as directed towards whatever religious meanings and values are made materially present for example, by objects, language, ritual behaviours, imagery, music and so on within the context of a religious activity.

One of the advantages of focusing on this middle range of experience is that its central feature, variability of engagement, suggests that it can be made amenable to empirical study. Within this range, personal involvement varies over time within individual religious lives—even within the same activity—as well as across individuals, activities, settings, traditions and so forth.

And as we collected more and more experience samplings over time, we might find that the data points gave rise to definite shapes and patterns. What would those patterns tell us? And what further studies of ordinary religious experience would they open up? Once we have a fairly good sense of the variability of engagement within a particular religious tradition or community, our attention can turn to the processes by which more specific kinds of religious engagement are enhanced.

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And, as suggested above, such processes can be further broken down into processes of religious learning and adaptation. Let us take each of these in turn. The critical importance of religious learning is indicated by the variability of engagement and experience just mentioned—variability between practitioners who belong to the same tradition or community, as well as within the practice of a single individual over time.

Religious learning, as delineated here, includes everything relevant to the experiential enhancement of religious practice that can be acquired by practitioners: knowledge, skills, habits, sensitivities and so on. The processes of religious learning that are most accessible to investigation are those that are explicitly defined as such. For example, glossolalia speaking in tongues is something that certain religious traditions encourage practitioners to learn, sometimes in a fairly deliberate way.

How does this work? Who guides the process, how is progress defined and what kinds of skills are required?

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More generally, questions pertinent to the study of religious learning include the following: What is involved in becoming a practiced practitioner? What distinguishes the religious expert from the novice, the engaged and fulfilled practitioner from the disengaged and unfulfilled? What techniques are used and what resources are required for the acquisition of skilful practice?

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What are the common pitfalls that hinder this process? How do practitioners understand the religious learning process and its goals, and how have different traditions understood this process historically? What kinds of methodologies and theories—especially cognitive theories—can help us to investigate and understand religious learning? Another way to define religious learning in the context of regular practice is to say that it includes all the ways in which practitioners adapt themselves to a practice in pursuit of various experiential goals.

But this is not the only adaption that occurs. As in many processes of evolution, religious adaptation is actually two-sided: over time, religious cultures are also adapted to the needs and desires of religious practitioners. Processes of religious adaption can be effected by self-conscious and deliberate choices, for instance in the careful selection of music for worship see Porter, But they can also take place gradually through largely unconscious processes of cultural change and social selection.

This socio-cultural side of religious adaption opens up another set of questions, which are separable but not entirely distinct from the questions of religious learning. In general, questions of religious adaptation have to do with the way in which various material aspects of a religious practice are adapted to enhance the meaningful experience of that practice. Religious materiality is a complex sphere of growing scholarly interest Meyer et al.

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In many cases, the way in which religious materials have been adapted to religious experience may be fairly easy to discern: for instance, positions of prostration are widely used to induce feelings of reverence, certain religious architectural styles evidently developed in part to express theological meanings, and religious music can be tailored to induce appropriate moods and so on. However, more comprehensive and rigorous investigations of the specifically experiential contribution of religious materiality may depend on the development of special theoretical and methodological approaches.

Accordingly, in this section I wish briefly to indicate how the pursuit of these questions requires a distinctive orientation, as well as the cooperation of diverse disciplinary perspectives. No doubt questions like the ones just laid out have already been investigated by numerous scholars, and a substantial amount of knowledge about ordinary religious experience can be gleaned from a variety of sources. Yet to my knowledge there are few if any systematic treatments of these questions that can be used to guide and inform both scholarly and public discussion of ordinary religious experience.

In general, my sense is that topics of religious engagement, learning and adaptation as discussed here have received comparatively attention, especially from those involved in the empirical study of religion. One reason, it seems, is that the specifically experiential dimension of regular religious practice and learning is difficult to subject to rigorous, empirical investigation. But another reason is that it has not been prioritized as an object of study. Consider the study of prayer.

Moreover, within the existing literature, the scope of interest is limited in a way that mostly excludes the experience of prayer. This limitation is indicated by the collection introduced by Ladd but see Aveyard, , as well as his own comprehensive review of the psychology of prayer Spilka and Ladd, It seems that the majority of studies have focused on measuring the frequency of prayer and the relationship between prayer and other indicators both religious and non-religious worship attendance, health and so on , and when prayer practice itself is the object of study the focus has been primarily cognitive rather than experiential.

Even with respect to the motivational dimension of prayer ibid. This is precisely the dimension of prayer and other religious practices to which I am directing attention here. Again, this lack of attention likely has a lot to do with the challenges presented by normal experience to objective, empirical study compare with the study of musical experience, which faces similar challenges; see, for example, Juslin and Sloboda, In the face of these challenges, I suggest that ethnographic studies of religious practice can play a critical role in the development of new methods for the empirical study of religious experience.

This is an experientially directed question, and her answer is a detailed account of a culturally specific process of religious learning. In her construction of this account, Luhrmann makes heavy use of psychological concepts, which one reviewer has criticized as a possible weakness of her approach Jenkins, Yet I would argue that such theoretical extensions of ethnography are precisely the kinds of interdisciplinary innovations that are required if we are to make progress on the questions laid out above.


There are no psychologically innocent approaches to the study of religion—including those that give experience a wide berth—thus perhaps the better path is to confront experience as directly as possible and correct for inevitable biases and blind spots by drawing from multiple disciplinary and theoretical perspectives. In particular, how we understand the role of religious materiality in experience depends implicitly on our theories of perception and cognition Barrett, a.

As mentioned above, in many cases it is difficult to describe how a religious culture has been adapted specifically to the production of religiously meaningful experience. Thus, for example, our attempts at objective description of the physical objects used in a religious ritual can differ in significant ways depending on our theoretical assumptions about how objects, bodies and ambient light interact to produce visual experience cf. Marr, ; Gibson, Likewise, our sense of what is relevant for an ethnographic study of religious music depends on theoretical assumptions about the perception of musical meaning for example, Clark, In summary, although the descriptive detail of ethnography may be a necessary basis for the study of ordinary religious experience, to investigate and understand processes of religious leaning and adaptation this detail needs to be extended by carefully selected theories of cognition and perception.

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Finally, in closing, I would like to address two potential objections to the study of ordinary religious experience as outlined here. First, because I am directing attention to experiences of the inherent meaning and value of religious practice, it could be objected that this orientation is apologetic in nature. But seeking to understand how a religious practice is experienced as meaningful and valuable does not necessarily entail any desire to demonstrate its absolute or universal value. On the other hand, because my intent is to promote naturalistic ways of understanding ordinary religious experience, it could be objected that this approach necessarily discounts religious that is, theological interpretations of the special value of religious practice.

In reply to this last objection, I would point out that various naturalistic and theological interpretations of religious experience can and do peacefully coexist within religious practice. For example, a Christian evangelical likely believes that the presence of the Holy Spirit does not depend on the quality of worship music, but that does not mean that she is indifferent to how well this music is played. How to cite this article : Barrett NF Ordinary religious experience, learning and adaptation: a call for interdisciplinary inquiry.

Palgrave Communications. Footnote 2. On the other hand, I do not want to exaggerate this tendency in a way that leans towards specifically Protestant notions of the importance of experience. What is claimed here is a general desire for meaningful experience, not an aspiration to strong experiential justifications of religious belief. I am not sure what word would serve better in these cases. Barrett NF a The perception of religious meaning and value: An ecological approach.

Research in the Social Scientific Study of Religion.

The scientific method

Brill: Leiden, the Netherlands, pp — The work of this group of scholars — not developing psychological theory themselves, but using psychological viewpoints within another discipline or enterprise — largely belongs to the second form of cultural psychology, and will be left out of consideration here. In current cultural psychology, there is a return to the interdisciplinary approach from the former days Jahoda As one of the social sciences, psychology is in need of close collaboration with, e.

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Further, it becomes necessary to study not the isolated individual, but also the beliefs, values and rules that are prevalent in a particular cultural situation, together with the patterns of social relatedness and interaction that characterize that situation. Psychology cannot fulfill this task without the aid of other cultural sciences. In contemporary cultural psychology a variety of concepts and theories is employed, drawing from different strains of thoughts Triandis Finally, d also an example from psychoanalytic reasoning will be provided.

The notion that psychological phenomena depend on practical activities has a long tradition, ranging from Marx and Engels, to Dewey and contemporary thinkers like Bourdieu. Religious people very often cannot explain on a cognitive level why they perform as they do, for example, in rituals. Accordingly Roman Catholics cannot account for their behavior during Mass, nor can Buddhists for the reasons for experiencing grief as they do Obeyesekere Yet people perform perfectly in accordance with the expectations of their religious sub culture, often with a competence and to an extent that a foreigner will never learn to manage.

Religion regulates conduct, although this conduct cannot be conceived of as the conscious following of rules. This scheme is not even of a primarily cognitive nature at all, but is something belonging to the body.

People act not because they know consciously what to do, it is as if their body knows for them. Affect, for example, is not the result of properly knowing how to feel — it is ruled by an immediate corporeal structure. They belong to both the individual and a sub culture, in fact, they are precisely the nexus between an individual and a cultural institution. Unlike western secularized societies, religion in most cultures is not just a specific practice performed on specific occasions. The same applies to those western subcultures where religion still is predominantly a shaping and integrating force.