The Varieties of Spiritual Experience, David Yaden and Andrew Newberg.

Review by Richard Saville-Smith
‘When we began writing this book, we imagined it as a largely descriptive endeavour, in conscious contrast to the many current books in psychology that are presented as evidence-based self-help books. We hoped to articulate (William) James’s perspective and show its continued relevance, provide a number of personal accounts of spiritual experience, and then review contemporary research in psychology and neuroscience… However, the emerging research on meditation practices and psychedelics has raised the stakes involved with the scientific study of spiritual experiences.’ (Yaden 2022: 399). This reflection suggests that in the five years of creation its authors have been buffeted by events. ‘The scientific progress over this time has been so astounding that it has been difficult to keep up with the evolving research, scholarship, and standards. What we once considered a fairly fringe sub-field is now becoming mainstream (Yaden 2022: ix). David Yaden and Andrew Newberg are not wrong. The stream of scientific knowledge production on the subject of religious and spiritual experience has become a river.  A search of the scientific literature shows that since the publication of William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience in 1902 there have been 17,739 publications in the American National Library of Medicine. More than three quarters of these publications have taken place since the start of the 21st century and more than a quarter have occurred in the last five years as Yaden and Newberg were writing this book. This data confirms the flourishing scientific interest in the subjects of religion and spirituality. It also shows how, as in all the best scientific endeavours, the authors have been writing in flux, in flow, they have been writing while swimming. 

The academic papers which make up the bulk of this scientific knowledge production normally follow a particular format, with their research question(s), method, data, analysis, discussion, and conclusion (often that more research is required). Here, in a book length format, is the capacious space to play, to include nuance, historical reflection and a philosophical discussion of the presuppositions which are usually deferred, pushed beyond the text of short scientific papers, by references to other texts which refer to other texts which no one can remember reading. In the 21st century web of science a book is a luxury, and a necessity, to take stock and consolidate where we have come from, where we are, and where we might go. In its very publication The Varieties of Spiritual Experience makes a welcome contribution. 

As this review is for Philosophy and Psychiatry what follows is a critical review/essay which engages in the text from the basis of my own standpoint in mad studies grounded within religious studies. As my Masters’ thesis was titled ‘The Ideology of Science in the Study of Religion’ and my PhD, also from the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh, was on the intersection of madness, psychiatry and religious experience, I come at this subject from a very different place than the ‘scientific’ standpoint of the authors. My hope is that by acting as a counter-current within the academic flow, part two of this review/essay may make the conversation more turbulent but also more fun. I am certainly grateful for the opportunity to engage with this text as it has provided the impetus for me to clarify my own thinking on the relationship between altered states of consciousness as spiritual, and altered states of consciousness as religious - and for me this justifies the value of the work from the outset. 

The Varieties of Spiritual Experience is divided into three parts: ‘The Science of Altered States’, ‘The Varieties’, and ‘Considerations and Applications’ but the whole book throbs with the continuing vitality of William James’s classic text The Varieties of Religious Experience from 1902. This is a big book. Not only because the subject of altered states of consciousness have fascinated humans for millennia, prior to modern concepts of science or psychiatry, but because there is an explicit comparative process involved in spanning the 120 years of psychology between James and this text. This is not a bridge across the river but a bridge in time from 1902 to 2022 which largely bypasses the detours of positivism and the many years when experience was disbarred as a proper subject of scientific study. This is a book about altered states of consciousness, there is nothing ordinary about Yaden’s conception of spiritual experience. Yaden is unequivocal that by spiritual experiences he does not mean spiritual or spirituality in general. Just as for William James religious experience was not about religion or religiosity, for Yaden, spiritual experiences are existential experiences (at a place, in a time) which are intense, substantial deviations from one’s normal waking state of awareness (Yaden 2022:47).  Although he presents the idea of a spectrum of experience from the mild to the extreme, Yaden follows James’s research agenda with a bias towards the extreme. Yaden’s interest is in the jerk of transcendence and the possibilities of transformation, think tripping rather than microdosing. 

The first part of the book grounds readers in the thinking of William James. The updating of ‘Religious Experience’ to ‘Spiritual Experience’ is one Yaden justifies on a number of grounds, from scholarly advice to opinion polls. This is a matter which I will return to, but if James is to be updated then his subtitle ‘a study in human nature’ might reasonably be updated to ‘a study in human consciousness’. This is a work of contemporary psychology and neuroscience, but more psychology than neuroscience which is more an adjunct literature than the main strategy of inquiry. I concur that the need for more neuroscientific engagement in this area is clear. As a work about altered states of consciousness as spiritual experience, psychology and neuroscience have legitimate claims to study these ambiguous concepts. When James wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience neuroscience was neurology and the discipline of psychology was inchoate, a trickle rather than a river. Indeed, James’s Principles of Psychology (1890) counts as an originary text, a spring from which a particular American psychology would flow; a spring which saw psychology formed out of the philosophy departments of Universities, like Harvard, where James worked. This contrasts with the European spring which was more closely aligned with medical origins, exemplified by Freud. This comparative transatlantic origin story is useful to bear in mind, even if the two springs confluence into the discipline of psychology. It recognises the divergence in approaches to the subject of religion; whereas religion was always an (infantile) problem to Freud, it was always a fascinating opportunity to James. The Varieties of Spiritual Experience draws in detail on The Varieties of Religious Experience not as a marketing hook, but as a point of loving reference which is written into every chapter and reflected in the optimism of the approach. The problem with religion and spirituality is not one of negative valence, but how to reconcile experiences of the divine to scientific study.

The substantive contribution is found in Part II where Yaden seeks to build a typology of spiritual experiences based on a contemporary survey and the consequential factor analysis. He describes the rainbow of spiritual experiences in psychological constructs, the colours of experience are: Numinous, Revelatory, Synchronicity, Mystical, Aesthetic and Paranormal. By providing an example of how psychologists generate and analyse data Yaden is well aware of the challenges that such a typology brings. It is this quantitative approach to qualitative data that differentiates this book from James. James got no further than the ladder of mysticism (of which, curiously, no mention is made) but that early typology was not grounded in data. Yaden has data, but is coy about presenting the usual data tables one would expect to find in a short scientific paper. I found this a little disconcerting as the structure of the sample and the (online) sampling strategy is germane to the validity of the empirical data and the reliability of the extrapolated results. The book mentions a survey which had 461 complete subjects in the USA but the detailed questionnaire is not disclosed, even not in an appendix. Yaden also points readers towards a further (legacy?) website ( This website features a front page picture of an astronaut floating above the earth with the words “Share and learn about your self-transcendent and awe-inspiring experiences”. This invitation is loaded with values and is suggestive of why Yaden’s research found spiritual experiences to be overwhelmingly positive. Currently Jules Evans has a research project that openly seeks participants who have had challenging psychedelic experiences , it is likely that his results will produce a somewhat different picture from Yaden’s incitement to positivity.

It is in part III that the historical background and the typological contribution operate together to provide a substantial opportunity for discussion and reflection on spiritual experiences. It is here that the philosophical work is done with chapters on interpretation and integration, philosophical reflections on beliefs, transformations, clinical applications, consciousness and altered states. In this section Yaden reflects on both James contribution and the contribution of his novel typology. Here Yaden advances the idea of ‘mystical agnosticism’ (Yaden 2022: 386) within an argument in favour of epistemic humility about how little psychologists and neuroscientists still know about consciousness. His epistemic humility extends to his concession about the adequacy of science: ‘Despite incredible success in elucidating the physical world, science may not be able to fully adjudicate the metaphysical and epistemic issues surrounding spiritual experiences – at least at present, and possibly not ever’ (Yaden 2022: 401). This is very reminiscent of James’s epistemic humility about how little is known about the relation between (phenomenal) consciousness and transmarginal or subliminal consciousness (c.f. chapter 20 in James). The honesty of this debate should be applauded. I applaud it. If you are already broadly familiar with James and have grasped the intention of Yaden’s typology and are short of time, I’d recommend devoting what time you have to the third part of this book.

Part Two.
In the previous section I shifted from ‘the authors’ to ‘Yaden’ in particular. Formally, the book is co-authored with Andrew Newberg and the text periodically speaks of ‘we’ when authorial opinion surfaces explicitly. However, my reading of the text suggests the lead author’s voice is dominant. This is partly a matter of deduction as the ideas of neurotheology, which Andrew Newberg champions elsewhere, take a fairly background role in this text. My assumption allows me to engage in more radical speculation about the relationship of Yaden to his subject matter and to the significance of this book. This does not concern his personal spiritual experiences (these neither limit nor delimit the capacity to investigate phenomena which are transculturally and transhistorically recognisable), but it does allow me to address his institutional role at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research. It is my proposal that this book is informed by the symbiotic relationship between Yaden and the institutional values of that centre. By recognising this culturally situated institutional framing the significance of this book takes on a new light. Let me explain.

Yaden adopts ‘the great partition’ which James deploys as a device to confine and differentiate his lectures on religious experience from a general discussion of religion. As James puts it: ‘At the outset we are struck by one great partition which divides the religious field. On the one side of it lies institutional, on the other personal religion…one branch of religion keeps the divinity, another keeps man most in view. Worship and sacrifice, procedures for working on the dispositions of the deity, theology and ceremony and ecclesiastical organization, are the essentials of religion in the institutional branch’ (James [1902] 2002: 28). James then operationalises a definition of personal religion as ‘the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine (James 1902 2022: 29). My critique is that when Yaden updates William James’s use of the word religious, by substituting it with the word spiritual, he simultaneously separates spiritual experience out from the context of religion. The messy relationship of personal and institutional religion allows James to lecture about the psychological rather than the social, but he does not construct personal religious experience as independent from religion. James’s psychology may address feelings, acts and experiences, but they are still in relation to the object of the divine.

By contrast Yaden appears intent on purifying spirituality by decontextualizing it from religion. This is an obvious move in a modernist psychology which views religion as encumbered with superstition, institutional power and the metaphysics of the supernatural, rather than as a repository of ways of thinking about the human encounter with reality. It is what has already happened to Hindu yoga and Buddhist meditation practices in America. In a scientific approach religion is a mess and its supernatural overbeliefs exceed the naturalistic worldview of science making it difficult to bring to order. By contrast James thinks ‘the most interesting and valuable things about a man are usually his overbeliefs (James 1902 2002: 397). For the science of spiritual experiences these are just a nuisance. But aligning spiritual experience with personal religion over and against not just institutional religion but the altogether of religion, both personal and institutional, is a much more radical move than swapping “spiritual” for “religious” in the title of a book. It involves an abandonment of traditions of how to talk about the divine, of how to speak the unspeakable. It is certainly the case that Yaden’s view of religion is very western Christian, monotheistic rather than polytheistic; Capital G and singular ‘God’, rather than the ideas of the continuity of ancestral spirits. From an American cultural perspective, the urge to secularise spirituality can be understood as intuitive. It accommodates those who affirm they are spiritual not religious, without alienating those who like to think of themselves as spiritual and religious. In a psychological study the historical conflicts between religion and science can be largely sidestepped by discarding the mess of institutional religion as James suggests. The problem is that by discarding religion per se a jeopardy is created in relation to the vocabulary for the divine as object, as other.

In this scientific study the very process of extracting a typology, experience is theorised, essentialised, depersonalised, disembodied, individual accounts of experiences are translated into types. For Yaden, spiritual experience becomes a way of naming positively valenced altered states of consciousness. The historical/cultural/contextual expressions of the divine which provide the framing for such altered states of consciousness can be acknowledged as socially constructed and then dispatched to allow a perennial scientific spirituality as part of the human condition. This is more Walter Stace than William James and it is done without sufficient recognition of contemporary religious studies literature in this field, particularly Ann Taves’ body of work. The difficulty can be illustrated in the most prevalent category of the numinous which involve ‘the presence of God or divinity’ (Yaden 2022: 182). It appears that God is not dead, but very much alive in the secular scientific health care system. But if the subject of religion, which includes traditional ways of thinking and speaking about divinity, is erased - with what is it to be replaced?

The institutional read-through from Yaden to the Johns Hopkins University Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research is found in the account of Roland Griffiths, its leader, replicating Walter Pahnke’s Good Friday Experiment into the religious significance of psychedelics. Whilst Pahnke made the assumption ‘that for experiences most useful for comparison with the typology of mysticism, the atmosphere should be broadly comparable to that achieved by tribes who actually use natural psychedelic substances in religious ceremonies’ (Pahnke 1963: 87). Griffiths rejects this premise and isolates the subject from a communal setting. As Yaden puts it later ‘in such healthcare settings we must inevitably strive to demystify the mystical and secularize the spiritual’ (p 399). This is the scientific agenda laid bare. The sacramental view of psychedelics is replaced by the technology of a secularized, medicalized biopower applied to individuals as subjects. It remains a matter of intrigue as to the nature of the conversation between The Center of Psychedelic and Conscious Research and Harold Koenig at Duke who champions the role of religion in psychiatry and whose presence is largely absent from this book. 

When Yaden cites James’s ambition for The Varieties of Religious Experience as ‘setting forth the philosophy best adapted to religious needs’ (Yaden 2022: 34) he immediately glosses this: ‘That is, James intended to provide a philosophical view for why these experiences provided psychological consolation and how this could be leveraged to improve mental health’. This interpretation subsumes religious needs within the biopower of psychiatry. Griffiths’ correction to Pahnke’s experiment is consistent with an isolated science of spiritual experiences which passes by the communal dimension of spiritual experiences which occur everywhere from charismatic/pentecostal churches to ayahuasca ceremonies.

Of course, the ‘great partition’ is a figment of academic convenience on the part of James, he says so himself. It may be useful, but it is a fiction he deploys to circumscribe the topic. The altered states of consciousness that James and Yaden address may be found in the set and setting of solitude, but the subject enters that solitude with preconceived cultural interpretations of the divine which are not cleansed or purified by the act of isolation. Whether it is the Buddha’s solitary experience under the bohdi tree or Jesus’ triggered in the baptismal crowds, neither can be separated from their religious context. The psychology of spiritual experiences which seeks a divorce from religion in the 21st century by placing it within the clinic misunderstands the totalising powers of religions in meaning making at the intersection of faith and practice, memory and prediction, the experience of self/not-self, and as means of navigating altered states of consciousness. It does not matter if you consider yourself to be religious. When I use the word god or the divine you respond with ideas and understandings (positive or negative) which are culturally informed. To treat James’s idea of the overbeliefs of religions as scientific mistakes misunderstands the nature of the human lust for meaning. In the ascendant process of self-transcendence, ego-dissolution, dying to self, neuro-plasticity, whatever, much is possible. But it is the process of reintegration in the downclimb which provides the opportunity for both change AND continuity. From this view, the explanatory authorisation of religious rituals as Pahnke proposed and the explanatory authorisation of the clinic as Griffiths proposes are remarkably similar - but radically different in the way they situate the apprehension of the relationship to the divine.

To be clear I have every respect for the work which Roland Griffiths leads, but my legitimate concern is that we live in a world where Oregon has just permitted psychedelic therapy under licensed practitioners. If every one of these was a clone of Roland Griffiths, I would have no problem. But as novice practitioners turn to Yaden’s book they may skip all of the introspection and epistemic humility in part three and go straight for the typology. The risk is that in their hands it becomes an evidence-based self-help book - which was exactly not what it was meant to be. I’m a licensed practitioner, of course I understand spiritual experiences, I read a book about them. We’ve heard it all before when they were called the clergy.

Review by Richard Saville-Smith. Richard Saville-Smith is an independent scholar based on the Isle of Skye. His book Acute Religious Experiences: Madness, Psychosis and Religious Studies is published in the Bloomsbury Advances in Religious Studies Series on March 9th 2023. 

The Varieties of Spiritual Experience. 21st Century Research and Perspectives. David B. Yaden and Andrew Newberg. Published in september 2022 bij Oxford University Press, 440 pages. Available here