Is Seeking A “Deep Religious Experience” Hedonistic?

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June 3, 2017 by Rua Lupa

I was online scrolling through my Facebook feed when I came across this written by John Halstead sharing his latest blog post “What American Gods Tells Us About the Need for Religious Ecstasy“,

“American Gods possibly reflected and probably magnified a dissatisfaction among many Pagans with popular forms of Paganism. And it offered one possible alternative: literal belief in the gods and devotional forms of worship. Popular Paganism was failing to produce the kind deep religious experiences that many of Pagans craved, and devotional polytheism promised to answer that craving.
There is a lesson here for Godless Pagans and other Religious Naturalists. If we want our religions to thrive, and if we want to experience the depths that spirituality has to offer, we must find ways to tap into the experience of transcendence and ecstasy.”

My honest personal view on this is that I find that the search for transcendence or ecstasy in order to have a “deep religious experience” is frankly hedonistic – Let me explain why.

A major problem with such an approach is that this kind of quick high and a constant search for it will inevitably go to greater and greater lengths for such experiences as your body adapts to those feelings and needs a stronger dose to reach the level of that first feeling again. Just like people who regularly enter and leave relationships like a rotating door chasing that “Fire” of romantic love. Which is why you have people who regularly enter and leave religions as “that fire” is not apparently there for them anymore. Along with all that, such religious ecstasy also has a potential risk of triggering psychosis, especially if the rituals that trigger it focus on things such as an “outer body experience” or “embodying a Spirit”.

A religion cannot last if ecstasy and transcendence is its sole function, and if it does, its is either being sustained by a revolving door of practitioners, or is designed to get ever more involved and then becomes their only identity.

This is essentially how mysticism traditions arose – to allow the practitioners to go to greater depths for that transcendence and ecstasy as they enter each Order within the religion. Each Order having peers who would be understanding, supportive, who would not judge, and who you can trust in these more impassioned acts. As, naturally, those who have had none of the previous experiences would not understand the purpose or logic behind these intense rituals. But such deep systems of belief are vulnerable to abuse by those that are higher ranking within, and becomes difficult to determine if it is abuse or a new deep ritual practice that you are being inducted in. Worse, is if you are given no choice for an out. What begins as a seeking of deep religious experiences, can then end up being a very unhealthy and even dangerous practice.

Does this mean I think that any ritually derived expression of ecstasy or transcendence is bad? No, I think that one should be aware of the potential risks and consider why they are seeking these sensations to begin with. If it is not just about that feeling, then it certainly would not be hedonistic and serves some practical function – which you must determine for yourself if such a function is valuable to you. But I would argue that when a ritual intends to cause ecstasy or transcendence, the majority of the time, at the root of it, is just seeking to find that feeling – and that is why I feel like it is hedonistic.

I personally feel like the core reason for craving these feelings to begin with is not the lack of experience of transcendence and ecstasy in practice, but the lack of contentment. A religion should not be constantly searching for a high, but provide fulfillment, contentment, peace with one’s self and their environment, and support when we need to act to change situations to be healthier for all.

In essence, you are cultivating a secure kind of love for one another, which is the ultimate high. And these highs would occur naturally when in celebration with community, in festivals, and in service to our community. When playing and celebrating with loved ones – can it really get any better feeling than that? Other than the most intimate form of love between “lovers” of course. I don’t think anything can really top an orgasm with a consensual partner. And that kind of love needs just this kind of contended nourishment to thrive beyond the first flares of a relationship anyway – acknowledging that the high from the first flares of a relationship passes and matures into a more secure contented love. That is what any religion should be able to achieve and sustain for a happy healthy religious community.

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6 thoughts on “Is Seeking A “Deep Religious Experience” Hedonistic?

  1. Mark Green says:

    I take your point, Rua, but I have to say…so long as it isn’t destructive, I am pro-hedonism. I see pleasure as fundamentally good.

    I agree that contentment is a far more sustainable, steady product of an effective religious practice, however: a generalized sense of well-being, connectedness, and love in community. Having a few times a year when we go for the high of ecstacy then gives us a place to “land” which is comfortable, shares understanding, and is willing to go there again with us when the time rolls around.

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    • Rua Lupa says:

      I would argue that Hedonism leads to destructive outcomes, because it by definition is solely sought out without regard to other concerns. My introductory line should perhaps had emphasized that this was about religion where the pursuit of religious experience was the sole point. Not any and all experiences of “religious experience”. Which I had hoped was understood when reading the rest of the article. To periodically enjoy the pleasures of life, is not by definition Hedonism. Other than that, I completely agree with your statement.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Rua Lupa says:

      My response has become a follow up article in this engaging subject 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. […] In a recent post entitled, “What American Gods Tells Us About the Need for Religious Ecstasy“, I speculated that one of the reasons Neo-Paganism seems to be on the decline and Devotional Polytheism on the rise, is that the former no longer offers the experience of ecstasy or transcendence to many people, while the latter does.  In response, Rua Lupa argued that “the search for transcendence or ecstasy in order to have a ‘deep r… […]

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  3. […] previous article, ‘Is Seeking A “Deep Religious Experience” Hedonistic?‘ had apparently been misinterpreted as saying that all experiences of ecstasy and […]

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  4. […] have written about the ecstatic religious experience. John has written about its value; Rua cautions about pleasure-seeking for its own sake, warning of hedonism and suggesting that pursuit of pleasure […]

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