Welsh university pioneers new work on religious experience

By Ecumenical News International
December 23, 2009

While psychological researchers sometimes ask volunteers about their dreams, a unit at the University of Wales in Lampeter, in mid Wales, collects religious experiences that can used as a resource for students taking theology-related degrees - writes Martin Revis.

"Religious experience still happens and can still change lives," said Professor Paul Badham, the director of the university's Religious Experience Research Centre. "Indeed, in some ways, with the decline in institutional religion, people seem more likely to have these experiences."

Since 1969, more than 6,000 accounts have been added to the centre's database from those reporting, "a presence or power different from everyday life, regardless of whether or not they attribute the phenomena to God". The centre marked its 40th anniversary in November 2009.

"There are no common factors, and people of all ages and social backgrounds write in, although it is true that people with some religious background more often report such experiences," Badham told Ecumenical News International. "It might be noted that some feel ill at ease with institutional religion, and find clergy do not appear to always understand what they have experienced."

The main work of the centre, which was founded by the zoologist Sir Alister Hardy, is in teaching masters degrees in religious experience, and in supervising doctoral students. Such research students are currently working on projects including bereaved parents, and the effect of school assemblies on primary school pupils.

Badham said that the evidence is against secularisation theory, which says that as society advances, religion declines.

The academic cited the centre's China project, conducted over the past four years in partnership with Chinese universities. This revealed a far greater degree of religiosity in China than had been anticipated. The exercise involved 45-minute interviews with 3200 people chosen randomly from housing lists across mainland China.

More than half of those questioned felt the influence of "a kind of power that people cannot control or explain clearly", and nearly a third felt comforted or empowered through prayer and worship. Less than one percent felt under pressure because of their beliefs as workplace atheistic indoctrination became rarer.

The study's conclusion that religion is expanding is supported by similar work by the Chinese Communist party, which showed an even higher rate of belief in the world's most populous nation.

"We deliberately chose China because of its profoundly different religious history," said Badham. "This is not merely the 60 years of official atheism, and the attempt during the cultural revolution to eliminate religion, but also a long standing philosophical suspicion of religious claims going back two thousand years or more."

Lampeter is now conducting similar projects based on the China survey in India, Taiwan and Turkey.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]

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