Religion, Superstition, and Numinous Experiences

Religion is a charged topic for many of us. Worship, ritualistic practices, and belief systems date far back to early human history, and we carry its weight to our present day. Religion embeds itself in culture and lifestyle, and it impacts government and politics despite efforts to separate them. It has notoriously pushed back on science and asserts itself as the nucleus of human thought and behavior. Is it good or bad? Is it responsible for teaching us to see life in this way, as either good or bad?

Mother Mary in Brazil

A Google search will tell you that there are approximately 4200 variations of world religions. This number continues to grow and considers that many religions have gone uncounted. The prediction is that we will be unable to put a near accurate number to global faiths. What is the meaning of this?

Perhaps we are beginning to measure the vastness of diversity and all those who fall outside the 6ish (some say up to 12) “main” belief systems (Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, and Sikhism). I also think it’s not uncommon for people to branch off towards denominations with which they’ve grown to feel more aligned. Apparently it’s not very difficult to start your own religious following. There are countless ways to interpret doctrines although some interpretations may call themselves the one, true way. 

An old Islamic mosque in Morocco

There are quite a few similarities across religions. Many have creation stories, leaders or prophets, and practice a variation of pilgrimage. Commonly among religions there are teachings that instill human core values such as love, hope, forgiveness and devotion,. Other taught values include understanding the differences between “right” and “wrong” and emphasizing the importance of service and community. Some may disagree their experience of religion matched its claims, but the roots of intention are there. 

I know many people who have complicated history with religion and have grappled with their self-worth and sense of existence because of it. We hear stories of people healing from exploitation, the effects of fear, guilt, empty promises, and exclusivity imposed upon them. Currently there has been an influx of cult stories being shared and released to the light. 

Undoubtedly the extremism of religion leaves people with scars over salvation. With more transparency about the power dynamics, gross money grabbing, manipulation, and abuse, it’s no wonder people choose to distance themselves or no longer subscribe to the system. No one wants to be vulnerable, the preyed upon victim under a veil of illusions. No one wants to face the wrath of turning away from their god(s) even if they’re unsure whether there will be consequences, and no one wants to face the wrath of exiling from a community. Judgment is a pressure on many levels. There is immense power in group-think and the threat of ex-communication.

I won’t get into intricacies of my own personal history or religion, nor do I intend to preach. All I will say is that from a young age with the Catholic church as my education, I struggled with the closed-ness of it. I had too many questions and was increasingly dissatisfied with the answers I was given. It seemed like the alternative was completely shutting out religion, that it was for the undereducated because of its reputation rejecting science and cultural/societal progression. 

In college, I began to see hypocrisy in myself. I was closed-minded about religion and was judging faithful people, yet the lack of acceptance, perspective-holding, and compassion paired with harsh judgement were among the reasons I disregarded religion and its followers. I didn’t like that a particular religious view is rigidly the only lens and the only way, but I was seeing no religion as the only lens and only way. Moral of the story, you can accept what resonates with others as real while keeping your own views intact.

The remains of a structure for the Greek god Poseidon in Greece

There are plenty of beneficial aspects about religion. It provides comfort, explanation, and purpose in life and death (afterlife if you prefer). Religion is a way to connect with something beyond the self, the wider world, nature, and energy (divine if you prefer). The community allows for closeness with like-minded people. Ceremonies together for celebration, grieving, and rites of passage show support and alleviate loneliness. Many religions teach the importance of kindness towards others, giving, and treating others with fairness. 

In many instances people are able to connect to feeling a general sense of unconditional love. Some religions believe everything happens for a reason, to test and challenge, to reward and heal as part of a divine plan or karmic cycle. Knowing there is a divine plan or karmic cycle makes discomforts with lack of control and the unknown a little easier. Faith and hope are forces that equip an individual with the ability to endure the tragedies in life.

Ganesha in Indonesia

Where does superstition come from? Superstition may be tied to religious beliefs and practices because it capitalizes on the fear of the unknown. To break a repetitive practice, like for example not bow or gesture at each passing of a divine figure statue or burial ground opens the possibility of consequences. Will it attract negative energy, revoke your eligibility for a greater afterlife or reincarnated life?

Even if you’re pretty certain nothing will happen, the risk is too much. I can’t say that there won’t be consequences, but in my experience, the worst of the consequences is personal guilt. There’s nothing wrong with seeking the comfort or peace of mind superstition may provide as long as it doesn’t disrupt your wellbeing. Also consider, what might letting go of potentially limiting beliefs and habits do for you? 

An offering alter in Indonesia

Praying, whether it’s to a divine entity or simply speaking a mantra, is a beautiful way to set intentions, cultivate hope, and mindfully choose words with power. On a trip to Bali a few years ago for a university course, I participated in many prayer ceremonies. I didn’t know who I was talking to, but the energy of collective, spoken words was an overwhelming experience of unity. At one point in a temple, the vibrating energy hovered above in a cloud. Even non-denominational prayer can have immense effects. 

Me after a Hindu prayer ceremony in Indonesia

Spiritual experiences that typically involve religion but may not require the individual to believe are called numinous experiences. Numinous experiences may be some kind of interaction with a divine energy (angel, saint, celestial being, etc.), or it may arrive in the form of a revelation. Some may consider deja vu or syncronicity to be numinous, and others are “visited” in their dreams

The way numinous experiences are depicted in doctrines is usually a story where a nonbeliever or someone questioning faith/having it tested receives some kind of message that affirms or converts them. Also, “chosen” people experience the numinous like in the Jewish Torah, Moses has a vision of a burning bush. 

Various philosophers and artists contemplate the numinous. German philosopher Rudolf Otto extensively wrote about the numinous and mysticism. Generally the experience cannot be described but evoked. The ego is not destroyed but transcended, and there is a sense of collapsing time and space. Have you experienced something extraordinary that has changed your perception and outlook?

What are your core values and beliefs? How does religion, or lack there of, serve you and your experience of life? If you like this page, please share it.

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