What Makes an Experience ‘Religious’? The Necessity of Defining Religion

  • James L. Cox University of Edinburgh


In this paper, I build on Peggy Morgan’s work on religious experience by arguing that in order to identify experiences that qualify as ‘religious’, we first must know what we mean by ‘religion’. Building on my prior writings in which I define religion  non-theologically, I suggest that religious experience has no necessary connection to encounters with postulated supernatural or divine entities. Rather, religion results from how authoritative traditions mould individual or group behaviour. This contention results from defining religion as limited to  three necessary conditions: identifiable communities (whether explicitly or implicitly comprised), authority and tradition. I compare this application of religion to religious experience with that formulated by Ann Taves, who defines religion as that which people ‘deem religious’ and religious experience as reflecting encounters with ‘specialness’. I argue that Taves’s use of religion and religious experience proposes a theory incorporating unreflective, common sense understandings that inadvertently suppress critical thinking. By defining religion in  socio-cultural terms, I have distanced the academic study of  religious experience from theological or quasi-theological assumptions and established it firmly within the social sciences. 

Keywords: definition; religion; religious; experience; non-religion; authority; community; tradition