A study of some Secular and Religious Experiences
Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2000).
Marghanita Laski was a professed atheist who found herself unable to escape from thinking and writing about religion. This was why she found herself drawn to the study of those unusual but widespread experiences that are usually labelled mystical by religious writers; she preferred the more neutral term ecstatic. She approached the subject from two angles: she constructed a questionnaire and gave it to 63 friends and acquaintances over three years, and she collected a large number of literary texts and analysed them for content.
The book has four sections. Part One presents the results of the questionnaire. These are analysed in considerable detail, with tables and a bar graph; some appendices provide further statistical treatment and other information. Laski brings an acute and critical intelligence to bear on this material, although since her sample was selected it can tell us little about the prevalence of such experiences in the population at large. No doubt a professional psychologist, writing today, would provide more sophisticated statistics, but this will not be a serious omission for most readers.
Part Two examines ecstatic experiences in detail, drawing mainly on the literary texts but also on other material. Here Laski looks at such things as the duration of these experiences, the physical claims made, the different varieties of experiences, the circumstances in which they occur, the most useful ways of naming them, their probable availability, and so on.
Part Three is largely speculative. In it, Laski discusses the results of ecstatic experiences with particular reference to what William James called over-beliefs that may arise from them. Although she seems a little apologetic for including this material, I am very glad she did; it is first-class.
Finally, in Part Four she summarizes her findings and makes suggestions for further specialized study; few of these, so far as I know, have been taken up by others.
At the outset Laski distinguishes two kinds of ecstasy, which she calls Intensity and Withdrawal. These correspond fairly closely with what other writers have termed the extrovertive and introvertive mystical experiences. She is uncertain about how the two types of experience are related to each other and in her introduction to the book she regrets that she was unable to learn more about withdrawal, in part because this seems to be more characteristic of Eastern mysticism, which she did not feel competent to discuss in detail. The book is thus mainly concerned with intensity ecstasy.
From her survey Laski reached a number of conclusions about ecstasy. It is typically rather brief, usually lasting a few minutes, occasionally up to an hour. When it seems to last longer than this the effect may be due to what Laski calls `afterglow'. There is a tendency for intensity ecstasy to be associated with feelings of light and upward movement, and for withdrawal ecstasy to be associated with dark and downward movement. Ecstasy may be accompanied by physical sensations of various kinds, usually pleasurable but sometimes painful.
Ecstasies may be of various kinds. In some, the person feels that life is joyful, purified, renewed; Laski calls these Adamic. In others, there is a feeling of knowledge gained, and this involve the idea of contact with a source of knowledge, often identified with God. Taken to the extreme, this state results in the experiencer becoming identified with what is experienced: he or she actually becomes God. This is generally frowned on within Christianity, although writers on mysticism generally grade these experiences in order of supposed value.
Some people have what appears to be the obverse of ecstatic experience, which Laski calls desolation experiences. Laski does not feel that she has been able to deal with these adequately and they are not discussed in detail.
The circumstances in which ecstatic experience occur are variable. Childhood is often thought to be a time when ecstasy is common or even semi-permanent, but Laski presents evidence which suggests that this may not really be the case. Women may experience ecstasy in childbirth, although, perhaps surprisingly, this does not seem to be related to whether the birth was easy or difficult, painful or relatively pain-free. Sexual love may precipitate ecstasy, and people were clear about the difference between `ordinary' orgasm and ecstasy.
Laski uses the term `trigger' to describe the circumstances that can induce or precipitate ecstasy. An interesting point here is that sudden or flashing lights are often involved, both as triggers to ecstasy and also as images used to describe the feelings of ecstasy. This suggests to me the possibility of a neurophysiological explanation, since we know that the brain is affected by photic stimuli of this kind, which can even cause epilepsy in susceptible individuals. Waves of the sea, and water in general, are another common trigger. Works of art may also have this property. However, Laski concludes that we know little about which qualities are important in triggers and further research would be worth while.
Throughout history, and no doubt long before history was written, people have tried to induce ecstasy, often by means of drugs. Laski was writing before drug-taking became so intrinsic a part of modern Western culture but she does say something about the subject, mainly in connection with mescalin, which was in the news at the time. She points out a number of differences between naturally occurring ecstasy and experiences reported by people using mescalin and she seems rather unimpressed by their claims.
Laski describes Part Three of her book as `frankly speculative'. It is, however, closely argued and I am very grateful that she included it. Her position is that ecstasy (intensity ecstasy, anyway) is closely related to problem-solving and creativity. In very general terms, the process has five stages: the asking of the question, the collection of material, the fusing of the collected material (when the ecstatic experience itself occurs), the translation of the fused material into communicable form, and the testing of the answer. This process typically results in the formation of an over-belief. These five stages are discussed with the aid of abundant quotations, taken from accounts of religious conversion, scientific discovery, and other sources.
In Part Four Laski presents her conclusions. As an avowed atheist, she does not accept the validity of the totality beliefs that ecstasy sometimes gives rise to, but she is very far from saying that ecstasy has no importance at all. She writes, `I do not think it sensible to ignore, as most rationalists have done, ecstatic experiences and the emotions and ideas to which they give rise. To ignore or deny the importance of ecstatic experiences is to leave to the irrational the interpretation of what many people believe to be of supreme value... I do not believe that to seek a rational explanation of these experiences is in any way to denigrate them, but rather that a rational explanation may prove at least as awe-inspiring as earlier interpretaions.'
Laski's book is among the very best to have appeared on this important subject; it deserves to be ranked with such classics as William James's `The Varieties of Religious Experience'. In my view it largely succeeds in what it sets out to do: provide a satisfying secular explanation of ecstatic experience. And, as an added bonus, it is superlatively well written.
%S A study of some secular and religious experiences
%A Marganita Laski
%I Cresset Press
%P xii + 544 pp
%O Paperback Edition 1965