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date: 24 March 2017

Pain and Religious Experience: Theory and Methods

Summary and Keywords

This article examines the way that the hurting body enhances, deepens, and informs religious experience. It begins by examining the contested category of religious experience, contrasting the essentialist with the constructivist approaches. Both are complicated by consideration of embodiment—specifically, of the body in pain. Two concrete cases of religious pain, or sharp discomfort, are discussed as illustrations of a qualitative approach to studying pain and religious experience. This method is evaluated against two examples of a quantitative method. The article concludes that a qualitative interpretation of the meaning, rather than the analysis of causes, of religious hurting are superior, within specified parameters. Finally, the qualitative method requires an exposition that takes the form of a narrative in which the researcher acts as a close observer–participant.

Keywords: religious experience, pain, constructivism, embodiment, schemas, rituals, Neot Smadar, Bedouins, dysphoric, nociception

Pain serves as a useful tool of religious practice and a powerful form of discourse among religious individuals and communities today. As in the past, Pilgrims still look to discomfort and even to pain for deepening their experiences; monks and nuns still suffer voluntary forms of physical pains, and rites of mourning, commemoration, expiation, passage; and others still inflict bodily pains on willing participants. However, while the literature on religious experience is immense and continues to grow, work on the role of physical pain, even austerities, in religion has been relatively meager. Furthermore, given the as yet unresolved issue of defining religious experience, it may be too early to provide a systematic overview of the precise relationship between painful bodily states and such experiences that may be deemed religious. This article will outline the essential issues involved and provide a possible direction for future work on pain and religion.

The article consists of three major parts: a discussion of religious experience as a contested category; the role of the body in religious experience and ways in which pain implicates the body in religious practice; and finally, two major ways of studying pain in religious experience: the quantitative and qualitative approaches. I will argue in favor of the qualitative approach and the narrative form it often must assume, but subject it to some of the scientific constraints under which quantitative studies operate.

Contesting Religious Experience

In his work on South Indian religion, Fluid Signs, E. Valentine Daniel described a group of pilgrims who were undertaking a pilgrimage to Sabari Malai, following in the (mythical) footsteps of the god Lord Ayyappan, son of Shiva, as he struggled against a beautiful demoness.1 The pilgrims had committed themselves to celibacy, bare feet, sleeping on the hard ground, hunger, and other forms of self-deprivation. Hardest of all was the long barefoot trek on hot surfaces, causing pain from blisters, sore muscles, and burns. Daniel demonstrated how all of this discomfort actually contributed to the feelings of devotion displayed by the pilgrims toward God. He noted: “Several pilgrims seemed to believe, however, that after a while, pain, having become so intense, began to disappear. In the words of one pilgrim from my village, ‘At one moment everything is pain. But the next moment everything is love (anpu). Everything is love for the Lord.’”2 Daniel explained that this was the experiential goal of the difficult pilgrimage: the love for Ayyappan would become so intense that all other thoughts and feelings were blotted out.

Pilgrims are not mystics, but the ritual, with its discomforts and pains, produces states of consciousness that block out everything but love for their God. The implication, and the agenda for researchers who seek other ritual subjects undergoing dysmorphic performances elsewhere in the world, is that perhaps a singular state of consciousness can be attained and described that is both entirely personal and at the same time universal.3 Would this constitute a religious experience, and is it, in fact, universal and sui generis? Perhaps a less dramatic example would help clarify the matter further.

In Becoming Religious, Susan Kwilecki, interviewed several women who had undergone significant religious conversion, or who otherwise displayed strong religious feelings and views.4 Kwilecki developed a careful psychological and sociological analysis of the factors that brought these women to possess their religious feelings, but the subjects themselves, like Daniel’s pilgrims, have no doubts about the authentic (sacred) nature of their encounter with the divine.

Kate, born in 1941, was a mother of four when interviewed by Kwilecki. She was described as possessing an appearance that suggested a sweet disposition. “However, beneath that soft mien, I quickly learned, lurked an intense, uncompromising attachment to God. Poised on the edge of the sofa, she launched into a testimony before I could ask the first interview question: ‘I serve a risen Savior, Jesus Christ. And God planned for him to come into the world and to suffer so that man might be saved.’”5 The personal circumstances that led Kate to her intense convictions are complex, but not unusual. They reveal family and domestic stress, social turmoil, the ups and downs of marriage—nothing truly out of the ordinary. However, in 1987, in the wake of several years of family crises, she looked again at John 3:16 and saw it in a new way. This time, she explained the words “believe in,” the attitude toward Christ required for salvation, as a translation of “pisteuon,” which meant, she said, total surrender of oneself to another. “Now I know that I’m his, and I know that he’s inside me,” she announced to her interviewer. “If he’s inside me—and he is—and I walk out that door, he walks out that door . . . There’s never a place that I’ll go that he’s not there. He’s with me. And so I just commune with him like, all the time.”6

Regardless of how Valentine’s pilgrims or Kwilecki’s subjects might feel about the circumstances that brought them “nearer to God” or produced their religious experience, one thing is reasonably clear. They would deny that their inner experience was the product of either physical hardships or family crisis. They would refuse to acknowledge that they were expressing social or psychological facts in some intensely personal idiom. If they could articulate this, they would argue that their experience is immediate and genuine, that it is different from all other experiences they have had—it is sui generis—and that it is about something sacred: God. For them, this is hardly an academic matter, but this folk theoretical interpretation of their own experience resonates with Rudolf Otto and Mircea Eliade. In fact, this emphasis on the intentional experience of the holy was a major position for much of 20th-century religious scholarship in the United States (at places like Harvard and the University of Chicago, and with journals like Numen and History of Religions), and it continues to do battle in academia today against a vast array of reductive forces: interpretive anthropology, cultural psychology, feminism, post-colonialism, post-modernism, social and cultural constructivism, scientific reductionism, and numerous other enemies of the sacred. To repeat what has been often said (following Rudolf Otto): there is a distinct sacred experience of something altogether different, which is holy and cannot be explained away. Religious experience is an apperception of that “Holy,” and it is authenticated by its phenomenal intentionality, and few other tools.

This is most striking when the experience of the Holy is ostensibly unmediated by other religious practices, that is, when it is mystical. By definition, all mystical experiences must be about that common core—whether this is described in theological terms or in terms of pure consciousness. The differences in mystical reports can be accounted for in terms of the ineffability of the experience itself. This position (the so-called “perennialist” or essentialist) has been as influential in the field of mysticism as the work of M. Eliade has been in the study of myth and ritual during most decades of the 20th century. It is associated, again, with Rudolf Otto’s study, Mysticism East and West, of Meister Eckhart and Shankara and with a long list of other scholars and popular writers.7

In recent years, the essentialist position has been undermined, not only by philosophers and social scientists, but also within the study of religion itself. As Russell McCutcheon argues, in a Nietzschean vein: “There is no territory, no original, and thus no direct experience of a real world, without the application of a prior, constructed map that not only exists at a distance from that which it eventually represents, but more importantly perhaps, whose use actually transforms the generic, chaotic and thus unknowable limitless background.”8 McCutcheon notes—correctly—that, “the essentialist approach has, for the past few hundred years settled on private experience as the true essence of all religion.”9 And indeed, the turn by so many 20th-century religion writers to the experiential dimension of the sacred mirrors the Romantic epiphany. This is brilliantly analyzed by Charles Taylor in the works of artists, poets, and even theorists like Theodore Adorno, who “still held in some way to the original Romantic ideal of a full reconciliation of reason and sensibility, a pleroma of happiness in which the sensual desire and the search for meaning would be fulfilled in perfect alignment.”10

This insight, a neo-Kantian one for religious writers, stands in marked tension with the Nietzschean emphasis on the “utter lack of order in original raw experience, the “formless unformable world of the chaos of sensations,” and the realization that “reality” is the imposition of order on chaos. In literature, in all of human communication, a tension plays out here between the alleged particular and the overly general or abstract—a pitched battle actually over the meaning of the symbol and the reality that it allegedly represents.11 For the religion essentialists, the symbol is never merely a map, it is a special container, the actual territory or place where the sacred becomes revealed as “hierophany” or the “Holy,” and is directly accessible to unmediated experience.

The Essentialist and Constructed Positions Contrasted

The distinction between the essentialist and the constructed interpretation of religious experience is not simply a matter of theory when you take into account the sort of discourse we encountered in South India12 or Virginia.13 Consider three distinct possibilities: The actors are undergoing some extraordinary, indeed revelatory, experience, which they accurately report; the actors are undergoing some powerful but unspecified (“chaotic”) experience, which they interpret by means of some preconceived “map”—their religious folk theory; the actors are experiencing a culturally and socially over determined constellation of values and feelings, which is neither universal (essential) nor uniquely individual. Ann Taves has argued that “the experience of religion cannot be separated from the communities of discourse and practice that gave rise to it without becoming something else—an experience considered “mesmeric” in the context of the late 19th century might have been regarded in an earlier setting as a visionary journey to heaven.14 In removing the narrated experience from its embedded cultural context in order to fit it into a theoretical discourse (including mystical theology), we lose what is genuine about it—the entire setting. The experience, Taves quotes William James, becomes “decomposed.” The context, be it a Hindu pilgrimage, a difficult American family, work, or psychiatrist couch, does not occlude any genuine experience but constitutes it.

On this theory, Daniel’s narrating experience of pain-turns-to-love and such theoretical discourses as either Eliade’s hierophany or Glucklich’s neuro-dynamics are not mutually validating.15 They involve fragmentation, both theological and scientific reductions to which religious persons are likely to passionately object. But regardless, according to theorists like Taves, McCutcheon, Desjarlais and other “map” theorists, nothing meaningful (sacred) is left over beyond the speaker’s “markings and soundings”—her mastery over the language rules that constitute her cultural world.”16 There is nothing primordial or universal about the religious person’s claims, nothing that language translates into a meaningful narrative. Rather, the medium is the message.

This is a persuasive and widely held view today, but as presented here it still does not account for the way that individual consciousness develops, that is, for the way in the language of Peter Berger that cultural products are “internalized” before they become “objectivated” again.17 This is the domain, cognitive theorists argue, where the objectivist fallacy lurks. The objectivist fallacy means taking the world and our experience of it as consisting of objects, properties, and relationships that exist independent of our interpretation of them.18 But if reality is constructed, how does it come to feel natural (objective)? The map theorists (social and cultural constructivists) are perhaps less likely to commit the objectivist fallacy than the essentialist who attributes the content of consciousness to some transcendent or at least objective reality.19 But the threat remains real in strictly epistemological terms. In the words of Clifford Geertz, the empirical passage between cultural productions and personal experience is “treacherous.”20 From a psychological point of view, replacing ostensibly objective reality (“the sacred”) with cultural facts (“the highly valued”) does not solve the problem of how the individual comes to accept (in a cognitive manner) any fact as though it were objective, thereby generating the phenomenal impression of the objective world.

The argument of McCutcheon and others against essentialism is consistent with the view that language does not express concepts that map onto objects, properties, and relationships in a literal, univocal, and context-independent fashion. In psychology, this anti-objectivist view belongs in a long-running socio-cultural response, most famously associated with Lev Vygotski, to neo-Kantian schema theorists like Piaget and others who have argued that thought and knowledge emerge by integrating objective information into pre-existing schemas.21 Where constructivist theorists fall short—they may not be wrong, but they fall short—is in failing to acknowledge the role of the body in the formation of so-called (pre-conscious) “schemas” on which cultural idioms depend. The familiar work of Mark Johnson and George Lakoff on embodied schemas mediates between the twin poles of socio-cultural theory and the cognitive theory of schema. On their understanding:

Meaning includes patterns of embodied experience and preconceptual structures of our sensibility (i.e., our mode of perception, or orienting ourselves, and of interacting with other objects, events, or persons). These embodied patterns do not remain private or peculiar to the person who experiences them. Our community helps us interpret and codify many of our felt patterns. They become shared cultural modes of experience and help to determine the nature of our meaningful coherent understanding of our “world.”22

This view requires both the movement of the body in space and the mediating interpretation of culture in turning these movements into metaphors. Consciousness itself (the awareness of awareness) can be regarded as such a metaphor—a map if you will—consisting of both objects and the subject.23 And from “object” as a schema one derives subsidiary schemas such as link, goal-path, center-periphery, part-whole, and a variety of others, which come to define the way that the “subject” may interact with the object.24

Pain, Brain, and Consciousness

However, the concept of maps as the cultural scripts for mental contents is too neat, too fixed. In fact, maps can be volatile, unsteady, vulnerable to disruption via trauma, illness, physical strain, or, for that matter, religious rituals. These can produce disorientation, gaps, reversal of values, and other fissures, which have been subjects of fascinating psychological and cultural studies.25 But that does not mean that the breakdown of the map is sheer chaos or meaninglessness.

For example, because of the way the body functions in ostensibly traumatic contexts, pain signals to the brain (nociception) can actually be overridden by powerful information coming out of the brain: emotions, beliefs, attention to significant distraction, and so forth. This is a universal neurophysiological aspect of the human organism, but it has vast cultural implications. Hence, we see with the pilgrims in South India, that strong motivation and distraction mask over the feeling of foot pain as a matter of physiology. This is an objective fact (as understood by scientific positivism). But psychologically, pain “becomes” love, due to the way the pilgrim’s culture construes this cybernetic nature of nociception—and the entire experience is construed along the goal-path schema as a means to relating to God.

In more elaborate psychological processes (Melzack’s neurodynmics), the embodied nature of the construction of consciousness can translate into the subject’s awareness of possessing a discrete and embodied self that is a “recipient” of cultural influences. Some of these psychological processes, in ritual contexts, feel as though they enable the subject to internalize cultural values, while others enable the subject to voluntarily become disembodied, and hence, experience ecstasy, self-transcendence, self-surrender, love,, and so forth.26 In other words, as far as individual consciousness is concerned the relationship between the cultural and the embodied is bi-directional, each informing the other, depending on each other, neither entirely primordial.

The pilgrim’s feeling of love toward God is a complex combination of embodied presence—consistent with a neuro-psychological process—and learned evaluations for interpreting these, and so is Kate’s feeling that God is inside of her wherever she goes. The universal here is not an essential experience or an objective idea but the complex and systemic relationship between body-self and culture.27

The study of religious ideas, consequently, must sometimes go beyond disembodied texts (maps). It does so not in order to find an essential core (either mystical or biological) but to examine the way that experience reveals the binary and dynamic play between culture and embodied schemas, or how maps come to define territory. It’s how any individual’s phenomenal being-in-the-world (including the feeling of embodiment) emerges creatively as she moves about and works, and how such a world can emerge even while the subject is trying to bypass ideological constructions. This is where the impression of something ultimately meaningful may be found, even when the concept of the sacred is absent or when it is articulated in idiosyncratic ways. In such a context, members of a religious community may come to regard language and thought as obstacles to the realization of truth, but pain or discomfort as magically transformative.

Ways of Investigating Painful Religious Experience

Recent years have seen a relative uptick in the production of scholarly studies on the body (and pain) in its cultural and religious settings.28 These can be divided into two broad categories. The first includes studies of the body itself—be it in pain, disease, at war or on the gallows, the evolving body, and so forth. Such studies inquire what sort of information the body provides and what causal factors explain how the body behaves in its many contexts. The second category encompasses the body in the mind: how does a given culture imagine the body, how does the body act as a trope, what are the many ways of inscribing and reading the body as culturally conceived? If one may generalize, the first category falls in biological, psychological, and anthropological domains of research, while the second is more literary and cultural, and has included religious studies.

It is important, as seen in Sacred Pain,29 to examine the boundary—or rather, interplay—between the two approaches. And so, given the contested terrain of what constitutes “religious experience,” one must begin the examination of pain and religious experience with a brief introduction to the two broad approaches—which can be termed “quantitative” and “qualitative.”

Given the wide and still robust prevalence of pain (rituals and discourse) in religious life, what do we learn from quantitative approaches and what from qualitative? A note on this terminology: the two terms usually refer to research methodologies or modes of data gathering and analysis. For example, broadly comparative data with statistically significant sample sizes based on questionnaires or observations tend to be quantitative; while long duration observer-participant immersion in single communities tends to be qualitative. These two methods yield two different sorts of information, such as the role or function of a ritual (for example, in social organization or economy) on the one hand, and something more subtle—perhaps one may call it “religious experience”—on the other.

So, beyond the methodological assumptions, there are also distinct substantive ones: the significant (signifying or meaningful) facts of particular phenomena (in quantitative approaches) are social functions and evolutionary causes. These derive from the aggregation of bodies functioning in a causal environment. In contrast, the other assumption is of a mind or a self who interprets his or her world and undergoes authentic (and ambiguous!) experiences that are never causally reducible to mechanical or biological antecedents.

The religious and/or ritual uses of pain have received a fair amount of attention from the perspectives of both assumptions—two examples of significant quantitative approaches may illustrate such work: that of Harvey Whitehouse and his colleagues, and that of Richard Sosis.30 These will be contrasted with a qualitative approach, making it possible to determine whether and how the two approaches can be combined with regard to religious pain.

Quantitative Work

Whitehouse, an Oxford University anthropologist, began his project with the ethnography of a millenarian cult in Papua, New Guinea. He divided religious groups into large and small scale organizations and came up with the concept of “modes of religiosity” to characterize the doctrinal mode, with its routinized orthodox approach, in contrast with the imagistic mode that has its own infrequent and arousing—often dysphoric—rituals. Both modes are largely concerned with the transmission of religious information. Repetitive and doctrinal content passes via the first mode, and rare and climactic content transmits via the other. In his work, Whitehouse is particularly interested in memory, which he regards as episodic, for the doctrinal mode and schematic for the imagistic mode. The overall framework for this theorizing is cognitive-evolutionary. It seeks to answer such questions as, what are the cognitive mechanisms that allow for the survival and prospering of religious groups? The answer is either endlessly repeated doctrine and re-enacted ritual practice or rare but traumatic “rituals of terror,” like the painful initiatory rites of New Guinea.

How does one validate such theoretical claims? The large team Whitehouse assembled employs a combination of quantitative measurements in widely distributed settings around the world with attempts to measure more subjective (“semantic”) units of information. To oversimplify a huge project: researchers apply semantic network analysis to questionnaire responses, focusing on such features as degree centrality (the number of connections for a given concept), “betweeness” centrality (the direction from which connections derive relative to other terms), and other features.31 This leads to “nodes” or concepts that figure prominently in the semantic network (the world of verbal responses), which enables a quantifiable measurement of meaning (qualitative data) in the information obtained from ritual participants.

One of the researchers who joined Whitehouse’s team (doing research in Israel), but who subsequently left, is Richard Sosis from Connecticut. His work has supported the familiar argument that ritual participation increases social bonds. According to Sosis, the mechanism is the trust and cooperation that develops between ritual participants who undergo pain. The toleration of pain acts as a costly signal of in-group commitment. The more painful or costly the ritual, the harder it becomes to fake the willingness to pay and hence the signal becomes compelling or persuasive.

This hypothesis can be tested in a variety of ways. For example, volunteers agree to play a common pool resource game, and the effects of the rite then emerge through self-reporting and behavioral measures indicated by answers to questionnaires addressing the game. Ritual populations are then measured against nonparticipants to yield significant improvement in the internalization of group ideology and demonstration of group cohesiveness.

The value of such work is considerable. At the very least, as Whitehouse puts it, it tries to transform subjective psychological states into data that can be used to support an evolutionary thesis. Critics have noted several shortcomings, and it is possible that essential elements of the religious experience of the body in pain (the folk theory) are left out when ritual pain is understood as cost, signal, or as mnemonic tool.32 In fact, the category of experience is left unexamined in the theoretical underpinnings of the scientific work here. It is not clear, for example, that responses to questionnaires are capable of revealing something as elusive as the meaning of pain when it serves as the somatic lynchpin for the way participants map out their experience.33 Or, if it is unlikely that religious experience exists independent of its mode of expression, as we have seen in the section “The Essentialist and Constructed Positions Contrasted” (Taves, McCutcheon and the others), it is not clear how answers to the researcher’s questionnaires—a mere “calculus” in Wittgensein’s terminology, played here by befuddled informants in an artificial setting—reveal anything truly significant beyond the way they play this narrow aspect of a larger game.

In contrast, it can take the qualitative researcher years of deepening familiarity with his or her subjects before the research itself (on the subject of religious pain) could actually begin, that is, before the deeper questions can be asked. Since the religious situations observed are often dysphoric or painful, one may wish to know: what is the medium or long range nature of the motivation that participants feel in relation to the rite? Does this motivation change over time, and does that alter the way the ritual’s discomforts are evaluated? In fact, what are the affective responses to the hurting, and what sort of language do participants use to express this? While patients usually report pain as frustrating or depressing, religious actors may speak of pain as somehow rewarding or even satisfying.34 There is something subjective at work here. Grasping this may help us understand the function of the rituals (along with the meaning), but it requires an intimate phenomenology that eludes questionnaires.

Qualitative Work

Contrast this collection of data to a different approach of long duration. Glucklich’s Sacred Pain argues (following David Bakan) that “telic centralization” (the strengthening of a goal or telos) is a way of strengthening a social and ideological connection, and that pain can serve such a purpose.35 That work is supported by literary and scriptural study and by second-hand reports from anthropological studies. But such theories require field observations. Unlike the vast comparative studies discussed above, there are narrow and long duration forms of data collection in the culturalist mode discussed by R. Friedland and J. Mohr.36 Due to its emphasis on inner meaning and personal values, such work can be virtually biographical in its attention to the details of the subjects’ life. Two brief examples, related to pain or discomfort in religious contexts, are included here:

  1. 1. A remote desert community in the South of Israel, which was founded by a “teacher” 25 years ago. The community is isolated and private (not to say secretive), and possesses an extremely strong labor-based discipline that one may guardedly call “religious.”37

  2. 2. Bedouin pilgrims (from Israel) to Mecca.

In both cases my research has been ongoing for years and has included close familiarity (indeed, friendship), shared work, and the breaking down of barriers of mistrust. There has been little “questioning” in the sense of detached academic encounter, but rather a great deal of conversing, repeated over a span of years. Changes in the subjects’ attitudes and feelings, the internal contradictions and variations that the years have brought about—all of these have been observed and noted. Below is a brief summary of two subjects/friends. The material provided is as-yet unpublished:

Alon is a 60-year old man, married with five children. His body is slightly bent and arthritic, and his skin is sun-parched. He was a high-ranking officer in an elite commando unit of the Israeli military, and he holds a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy from Hebrew University. He joined the groups that engaged in spiritual study under a charismatic teacher in Jerusalem in the 1980s. He was among those who founded the community of Neot Smadar and has always played a leading role in its management. Information obtained from Alon required a close familiarity and countless hours working with him (for example, laying bricks for a new sidewalk), often under a sizzling sun at 110 degrees or hotter. The most trying, exhausting, and painful project Alon had experienced in the community was the 10-year construction project of an enormous art center. The work was part of a spiritual practice (“self-enquiry”), that is to say, a form of asceticism, designed to weaken individual identity while strengthening a common telos.38 The workers lacked expertise and experience, and most of them worked on this after their regular working hours, during the hottest hours of the day—sometimes late into the early hours of the morning—only to rise before dawn and begin their routine work day. At times they physically collapsed from heat and exertion, or they worked with sprained muscles and dislocated backs. This how Alon described (in A. Glucklich, unpublished material, 2015) one such moment:

So we started pouring cement, and it was getting to be evening—there were numerous complications, and the hose was giving us problems too. It went really badly. At some point, I was so exhausted I literally fell apart. I left the cement area, sat next to one of the buildings, and could not move. My whole body collapsed. This cement work, which ended late, was an astonishing, crazy effort. This over-exertion was one of the themes of our life during those years. So too was the theme of not keeping score of profit, fatigue, time, or how much-how little sleep to get. It wasn’t even about testing your own limits . . .

Alon never articulated explicitly theological views, but he shared the community’s belief that individual identity is predicated on a metaphysical illusion and acts as an obstacle to the realization of truth. The ascetic practice that removes this illusion leads to compassion. In the words of his colleague, who was discussing Jesus, Buddha, and the concept of bodhisattvas: “Self-enquiry is suffering, but it’s the only way to attain the highest states of human existence.”

Amna is a 66-year old Bedouin woman who is married and has five children. The youngest is a 23-year old young man who still lives at home (with his older brother). Although some of Amna’s children are married or college educated, and hold middle class jobs (her oldest is a mayor), she continues to clean houses, just as she has done for the last 40 years. She intends to carry on until she can afford to build homes for her two unmarried sons and marry them off. She suffers from arthritis, high blood pressure, a bad back, bad kidneys, and chronically painful feet. Twenty years ago, Amna turned to religion and became a devout Muslim (Bedouins have been rather secular over the last few decades). Since then, she has been to Mecca 14 times and performed the Hajj once—mostly by slow bus via Jordan, on a modest budget. She fasts on Thursdays and never fails to fast on Ramadan, refusing even water on hot days while working at her physical job. My awareness of Amna’s situation has required over 20 years of increasing familiarity. I observed her turn to religion in 2001, and these descriptions are from my unpublished material, 2015.

What can one learn about Alon and Amna’s bodies in pain (and religious experience) that cannot be picked up by a questionnaire? Neither of these individuals would agree to discuss their inner world with a stranger and neither would reduce, or even demean, their worldview by filling out forms. Of course, that is not to say that the religious experiences of the two people, or anyone else, are so uniquely individual that they owe nothing to measurable cultural factors (language, values, beliefs, and so forth) and perhaps even to universal psychological or biological factors. But in relation to moments of painful experience, something interesting has, up to now, eluded those kinds of observation. Both Alon and Amna report a paradoxical evaluation or attitude toward their own bodily feelings, and this might not come up in a questionnaire unless the researcher is sufficiently close to his or her subject and knows to look for this.

For example, Amna tries not to complain about her back while at work, but will grab it and quietly groan when she believes she is unobserved. When directly asked about it, she assumes a stoic attitude and smilingly says: “what can you do—we all get old.” In contrast, according to her accounts of the trips to Mecca, the hurting during pilgrimage is different. She finds herself walking or standing for hours, on her bare feet, in a hot and crowded environment, often nudged from behind (around the Q’aba). She reports that, “My heart expands outward and surrounds everyone there. We are all one, and I feel a deep joy just being there with everyone.” When directly asked about pain, she answers: “The pain is no problem, it’s a sacrifice, an offering. I feel better about myself because I have it.”

Alon and his colleagues in Neot Smadar hold no theological beliefs, although they share a definite philosophy (they may deny this) that resembles—to some extent—early Buddhist ideas about the self. In their community, they continue to undergo painful trials by means of projects that they periodically undertake beyond their daily work routine—often in the hottest hours of the day and going sometimes (when pouring cement, for instance) until after midnight.

The labor itself, in the hot desert, can be painful: hard on the knees, hot, tiring, frustrating, at times, even humiliating. According to Alon, one must desire it, give oneself over to it, learn how to “join” the others, and how to go beyond individual comfort and interests to participate in something more important. As one of Alon’s colleagues put it, “The project is a school for learning how to enjoy something that we do not necessarily desire.” There is no metaphysical reason for this, no God, no spiritual quest or sacrifice—but there is also no blind and mechanical response to evolutionary forces that produces cooperation. What there is, instead, is a hyper-refined awareness of the individual self, the community, and the tortuous process by means of which one comes to understand the tricks that the ego plays and the role of the community as a sort of teacher, a mirror to see through these tricks. In that context, participation leads to liberation and joy. The hard work—once you fully and attentively participate in it—is a source of profound satisfaction, precisely because it does not serve you and goes beyond your personal needs and desires.

These accounts may seem extremely subjective and anecdotal, although they are consistent with the material collected in Sacred Pain. But are they useful beyond biography? Can we place them in some scientific framework where they may complement the measurements of Whitehead’s teams? Can they fill the qualitative gap in the quantitative agenda?

The answer to all of these appears to be affirmative. The paradoxical descriptions (enjoyable pain) point to the nature of motivational states of mind when painful events take place in “sacrificial” (highly valued) contexts. Paradoxical descriptions can systematically unpack the meaning of the “pain as cost” concept that cultural evolutionary theories promote. This combination of qualitative and quantitative approaches requires a careful method, such as the one suggested here.

The Science of Positive Hurt

Is there a way of combining the quantitative and qualitative methods in a way that retains their respective advantages while minimizing their shortcomings? For example, is there another sort of questionnaire that can be administered in a broad cross-cultural manner (a quantitative advantage), but that also addresses the question of motivation, which is highly subjective?

The “McGill Pain Questionnaire” is familiar to anyone who has gone to a pain clinic and was asked to fill out intake forms. The location and intensity of the pain are requested, but so are highly semantic qualities. Over 70 terms are provided, and the patient is to select the best descriptions of his or her pain. The terms include burning, throbbing, pinching, piercing, frightening, isolating, confusing, punitive, and so forth. Three domains are covered: sensory, emotional, and evaluative. The psychological and philosophical aspects of this semantic field have been discussed in Sacred Pain, and there is no space to repeat this discussion here. However, researchers of painful rituals may wish to administer this questionnaire (in the local language) to ritual participants twice: once before the ritual, in reference to medical or chronic pain; and again, after the ritual, in response to the pain of the ritual. It may prove instructive to compare the answers in all three domains (sensory, emotional, evaluative) and measure the results. For example, someone like Amna may describe her backache as disruptive or frustrating in one context but transformative or ennobling in the “sacred” context. Whether the pain would be described in the same terms on the sensory level is open to question, but the emotional and evaluative descriptions are clearly altered. Personally, I believe the subjective reports on pain intensity would be reduced when the evaluation becomes positive.

If a statistically significant population is measured in such a way and if results are consistent with my observation of a small number of closely observed individuals, the researchers will be bound to explain the change. Why do sacred painful rituals change the perception and evaluation of pain? In fact, there is a hypothesis in place that might explain this phenomenon, which was offered by the author of the McGill Pain Questionnaire—the Canadian pain specialist Ronald Melzack.39 The hypothesis, in brief, is the top-down (or output to input) neurological modulation of pain. The experience of pain, which depends on afferent (from periphery to brain) sensory information processing, can be radically changed by sufficiently strong efferent (from brain to periphery) information. If the event that causes the pain is perceived and evaluated in a positive light, the pain experience will be formed accordingly. Two football players suffering the same injury—one of them while scoring a touchdown, the other while failing to defend against the touchdown—will experience their pain differently.

In other words, pain is not purely biological (though the mechanism is neurological), but psychological and cultural as well. A number of questions come up: if dysphoric rituals are socially useful (and are valued), do they alter the experience of pain? Do pain semantics reflect these changes? What are the conditions that make this possible, that is, does one learn to respond to pain in more positive terms? Finally, because these rituals and their underlying purpose are valued, the participant is motivated to attain these experiences; therefore, we need to understand how motivational states of mind toward pain are cultivated in order to turn the aversive ritual into an appreciated experience. I am arguing here that we should not expect that ritual subjects would spontaneously value their ritual pain, but that they must learn to do so. This is a long duration process that precedes any single rite and characterizes years of childhood enculturation. Given this assumption, we can put the matter in more humanistic and experiential terms: what are the contours of conscious experience when we look at people who harm their bodies for some purpose? How do we understand their personal motivations, their ideas of a goal and a path, the personal and collective meaning of their actions and ideas and their feelings of achievement, which are so satisfying to them? Finally, how did they come to acquire this complex attitude?

The Narrative Approach

Consequently, the record that one assembles in long duration observations takes the characteristic of phenomenological (thick-descriptive) and narrative-oriented communication. However, it is important to avoid what Pierre Bourdieu called narcissistic or “egological” reflexivity, and what Clifford Geertz called, following Roland Barthes, “the diary disease” in narrating the participation with the people one studies. These conditions imply an overly impressionistic hermeneutic of the work without due attention to the social conditions that define one’s own situation.40 Bourdieu’s solution to this is what he calls “participant objectivation,” which is an awareness not of one’s “lived experience” but of the limits and effects of that experience as underscored by the social conditions that make them possible.41 In another way of putting the matter, one needs to think of such a study as an encounter: “To encounter religion, as I understand it, is to undertake a ‘disciplined suspension’ to use Robert Orsi’s phrase, of one’s own locative impulses and thus allow the difference between the scholar’s own world and the world of the religious other to emerge in as much detail as is possible.”42 In religious communities, be they Bedouin” clans, Neot Smadar, or even a Carmelite monastery, such occasions arise every time interlocutors remind the researcher how badly they are misconstruing them and how blindly they sometimes project their own social practices onto the way they observe and interpret what is going on around them.

It should become clear that the study of pain and religious experience, when carried out in the field, is extremely difficult. On the one hand, the research needs to account for the causal factors that play a role in the way the body (brain) processes pain, and perhaps the ways that communities organize. On the other hand, “research” must become a narrative of a journey towards the core of religious practice, until the researcher can fully join in seeing whatever it is that participants experience as religious.

One may follow in the footsteps of Charles Taylor, who acknowledged his own indebtedness to M. Heidegger, P. Ricoeur, A. MacIntyre, and J. Bruner when he wrote:

I have been arguing that in order to make minimal sense of our lives, in order to have an identity, we need an orientation to the good, which means some sense of qualitative discrimination, of the incomparably higher. Now we see that this sense of the good has to be woven into my understanding of my life as an unfolding story. But this is to state another basic condition of making sense of ourselves, that we grasp our lives in a narrative.43

There are three dimensions to the narrative that emerges. The first includes the events, experiences or speeches that are selected for consideration. Second, this narrative unfolds in a temporal manner, in which the reader too learns to situate herself. Finally, the narrative is no mere stringing of discrete events, even when mutually caused, but is subject to a moral ordering. Some overarching theme must organize them in a meaningful way, what Taylor called “orientation to the good.”44

Attention to this narrative structuring of the researcher’s work allows a more nuanced approach to the discursive work within distinct communities. For instance, we can see that, in some religious communities, pain and discomfort are not experienced as aversive, but as good work, and they may actually be satisfying, or at least highly valued. Religious experience (with pain) may be nothing like religion at all, but somehow significant nonetheless. Pain may deepen religious experience, but the researcher may sometimes access such an experience only by joining the physical work and may communicate it by writing a narrative that reads like a story with a strong telos. Any other approach may be analytically useful, but unrecognizable in the eyes of those who report actual experiences.

Further Reading

Bashir, Shahzad. Sufi Bodies: Religion and Society in Medieval Islam. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Bynum, Caroline. Holy Feast and Holy Fast. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.Find this resource:

Cohen, Esther. The Modulated Scream: Pain in Late Medieval Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Flood, Gavin. The Ascetic Self: Subjectivity, Memory and Tradition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Glucklich, Ariel. Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Martin, Craig, and Russell T. McCutcheon, ed. Religious Experience: A Reader. Sheffield, U.K.: Equinox, 2012.Find this resource:

Melzack, Ronald, and Patrick D. Wall. The Challenge of Pain. New York: Penguin, 1996.Find this resource:

Morris, David. The Culture of Pain. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.Find this resource:

Olson, Carl. Indian Asceticism: Power, Violence and Play. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of Worlds. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.Find this resource:

Taves, Anne. Fits, Trances & Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.Find this resource:

Thernstrom, Melanie. The Pain Chronicles: Cures, Myths, Mysteries, Prayers, Diaries, Brain Scans, Healing and the Science of Suffering. New York: FSG, 2010.Find this resource:

Throop, Jason C. Suffering and Sentiment: Exploring the Vicissitudes of Experience and Pain in Yap. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.Find this resource:


(1.) E. Valentine Daniel, Fluid Signs: Being a Person in the Tamil Way (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).

(2.) Daniel, Fluid Signs, 269.

(3.) Harvey Whitehouse and James Laidlaw, Ritual and Memory: Toward a Comparative Anthropology (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira, 2004). See also, Harvey Whitehouse, “Rites of Terror: Emotion, Metaphor and Meaning in Melanesian Initiation Cults,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 2.4 (December 1996): 703–715.

(4.) Susan Kwilecki, Becoming Religious: Understanding Devotion to the Unseen (Carnbury, NJ: Associated University Press, 1999).

(5.) Kwilecki, Becoming Religious, 77.

(6.) Kwilecki, Becoming Religious, 80.

(7.) Rudolf Otto, Mysticism East and West: A Comparative Analysis of the Nature of Mysticism (New York: Macmillan, 1970); Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: A Study in Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness (London: Methuen, 1977). More recently: Robert K.C. Forman, Mysticism: Mind, Consciousness (Albany, NY: SUNY, 1999). For a critique, see: Steven T. Katz, Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978).

(8.) Russell T. McCutcheon, “Introduction,” in Religious Experience: A Reader, ed. Craig Martin and Russell T. McCutcheon (Sheffield, U.K.: Equinox, 2012), 15. On “maps,” see Jonathan Z. Smith, Map Is Not Territory: Studies in the History of Religions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978). See also, Tyler Roberts, Encountering Religion: Responsibility and Criticism after Secularism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013).

(9.) McCutcheon, “Introduction,” 10.

(10.) Charles Taylor, Sources of The Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 477.

(11.) C. Taylor, Sources, 472. See also Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 9; Gilbert Ryle, Collected Essays: 1929–1968 (New York: Rutledge, 2009), 489–490.

(12.) Daniel, Fluid Signs, 1987.

(13.) Kwilecki, Becoming Religious, 1999.

(14.) Ann Taves, “Excerpt from ‘Conclusion,’ from Fits, Trances, and Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James” in Martin and McCutcheon ed. Religious Experience, 127.

(15.) Ariel Glucklich, Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), analyzes the experience of South Indian pilgrims in terms of the neurodynamic benefits of self-induced pain.

(16.) McCutcheon, “Introduction,” 4.

(17.) Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York: Anchor, 1990).

(18.) Mark Johnson, The Body in the Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), x. See David Yamane, “Narrative and Religious Experience,” Sociology of Religion 61.2 (Summer 2000): 171–189.

(19.) Mark Johnson, The Body in the Mind. See also George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, 2d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2003).

(20.) Clifford Geertz, “Making Experiences, Authoring Selves” in The Anthropology of Experience, ed. V. Turner and E. Bruner (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1986), 377–378.

(21.) Mary B. McVee, Kailonnie Dunsmore, and James R. Gavelek, “Schema Theory Revisited,” Review of Educational Research 75.4 (Winter, 2005): 531–566. In contrast, see Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct (New York: Harper Collins, 1994); David J. Buller, Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005).

(22.) Mark Johnson, The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination and Reason (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 14.

(23.) Stanley A. Mulaik, “The Metaphoric Origins of Objectivity, Subjectivity, and Consciousness in the Direct Perception of Reality,” Philosophy of Science, 62.2 (June 1995): 283–303.

(24.) Francisco Aanibanez, “The Object Image-Schema and Other Dependent Schemas,” Atlantis, 24.2 (December 2002): 183–201.

(25.) The “Stanford Prison Experiment,” for example, conducted by Philip G. Zimbardo, displays the ease and rapidity with which cultural personas disintegrate. See P. G. Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (New York: Random House, 2007); Kent L. Brintnall, Ecce Homo: The Male-Body-in-Pain as Redemptive Figure (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

(26.) For the former see, Whitehouse, “Rites of Terror,” 714; for the latter see I. M. Lewis, Ecstatic Religion: A Study of Shamanism and Spirit Possession (New York: Routledge, 2003), 49; Thomas J. Csordas, The Sacred Self: A Cultural Phenomenology of Charismatic Healing (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 119.

(27.) That was the central thesis of the phenomenological research in Glucklich, Sacred Pain and earlier, Ariel Glucklich, The Sense of Adharma (New York: Oxford, 1994).

(28.) Esther Cohen, Leona Toker, Manuela Consonni and Otniel Dror, eds., Knowledge and Pain: Probing the Boundaries (Amsterdam: Editions Rodolpi, 2012); Sarah Coakley, ed., Religion and the Body (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997); R. Marie Griffith, Born Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity (Berkeley: California University Press, 2004).

(29.) Glucklich, Sacred Pain, 2001.

(30.) Whitehouse, Ritual Memory;Harvey Whitehouse, ed., The Debated Mind: Evolutionary Psychology versus Ethnography (Oxford: Berg, 2001); Richard Sosis and Candace Alcorta, “Signaling, Solidarity and the Sacred: The Evolution of Religious Behavior,” Evolutionary Anthropology, 12.6 (2003): 267–274.

(31.) Kathleen M. Carley and David S. Kaufer, “Semantic Connectivity: An Approach for Analyzing Symbols in Semantic Networks,” Communication Theory, 3 (August 1993): 183–213.

(32.) Ilkka Pyysiainen, “Review Essay: Memories: Religion and Cultural Transmission,” Anthropological Quarterly, 79.2 (Spring 2006): 341–353; William E. Paden, “Comparative Religion and the Whitehouse Project: Connections and Compatabilities,” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, 16.3 (2004): 256–265.

(33.) McCutcheon, “Introduction” in Craig Martin and Russell T. McCutcheon, Religious Experience.

(34.) Glucklich, Sacred Pain, 21–23.

(35.) David Bakan, Disease, Pain and Sacrifice: Toward a Psychology of Suffering (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968).

(36.) Roger Friedland and John Mohr, Matters of Culture: Cultural Sociology in Practice (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

(37.) Ariel Glucklich, Everyday Mysticism: A Religious Community in the Secular Age (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, forthcoming).

(38.) See Richard Valantasis, “A Theory of the Social Function of Asceticism” in Asceticism, ed. Vincent L. Winbush and Richard Valantasis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 544–552.

(39.) Ronald Melzack, “Pain: Past, Present and Future,” Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology 47 (1993): 615–629; Ronald Melzack and Patrick D. Wall, The Challenge of Pain (New York: Basic Books, 1983).

(40.) See Clifford Geertz, Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1988), 90–92.

(41.) Pierre Bourdieu, “Participant Objectivation,” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 9.2 (June 2003): 281–294.

(42.) Robert Tyler, Encountering Religion: Responsibility and Criticism after Secularism (Columbia 2013), 16. “Discipline suspension” applies not to the adherence of a scholarly worldview but to the act of applying it as a tool to reduce the other.

(43.) C. Taylor, The Sources of the Self, 47.

(44.) See David Yamane, “Narrative and Religious Experience,” 183.