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Book: Methods for the Study of Religious Change

Chapter: Chapter 6 Fieldwork on Experience: Spirituality, Individuality and Authority

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.24441


In Chapter 6 on religious experience the central methodological question is: how to approach religious experience in modern forms of religion? It is often thought that religious experiences in our era of individualization and subjectivation are purely personal, and that the content of an experience can only be found in the singular mind of the individual believer. This chapter even signals that a “dogma” in the academic literature on contemporary spirituality is that reaching for unique and authentic experiences is a prime and fundamental epistemological principle for understanding modern religion. The religion researchers in this chapter argue on the basis of their participation in a new-religious meditation course, that this “dogma” has to be nuanced. Their method of participant observation is the main instrument by which they detect that in a spiritual atmosphere in which personal, unique and authentic experiences are stressed indeed, these experiences are at the same time incited, approved and even pre-constructed by new-religious authority. Precisely by participant observation, so by being social outsider and social insider in new spiritual worlds, one may find that individual, unique and authentic experiences are at the same time socially “constructed.”

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