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Core Religious Experiences in Cross-Religious Research

Spivak D., Gruzdev N. Core religious experiences in cross-religious research // Pluralisme et reconnaissance: Defis des particularismes et des minorites. — Paris: IIIT France, 2008. P. 373–387.

Core Religious Experiences in Cross-religious Research

D. Spivak*, **, N. Gruzdev**

* St. Petersburg branch, Russian Institute for Cultural Research

** Institute of Human Brain, Russian Academy of Sciences

People are essentially the same, to judge by basic psychological mechanisms; people are different, to judge by their religious beliefs and attitudes. In radical terms, the former brings us to the idea of the possibility of peaceful coexistence, the latter to the inevitability of the notorious ‘clash between civilizations’ (Huntington 1996). A novel concept which is to be considered against this background, is the ‘varieties of core religious experiences’, to recur to the formulation of the famous monograph of William James, which gave rise to modern religious studies, at least in the West (James 1929).

Core religious experiences is a cluster of attitudes, orientations and values which are positioned too deep to be understood or conceptualized by a person. At the same time, they are situated sufficiently high in one’s psyche to contribute to latently forming foundation of one’s religious beliefs and behaviour patterns. Core religious experiences is a notion which is typical for present-day research, tending to leave sophisticated ‘big narratives’ in favor of ‘middle range theories’, preferably well-grounded in empirical studies (the term was originally coined by R. Merton, cf. Stepanov 1995, p.76–83).

The objective of the present report is to regard basic trends in contemporary research of core religious experiences, basing upon an original cross-religious Russian-American study, the Russian empirical part of which was conducted by us, basing on the facilities of Human Brain Institute, Russian Academy of Sciences, in St.Petersburg, Russia.

Russian material has been important for us due to conflicting tendencies rooted in the history of Russian spiritual life. On the one hand, Russia tended for many centuries to belong to the very core of the world of Oriental Christianity, sometimes labeled as Pax Orthodoxa. On the other hand, as a result of the Socialist revolution, militant atheism was imposed for seventy years as the official creed. The latest decades present a picture, important details of which are still blurred. However, presence of both religious renaissance, and ongoing secularization, conducted along the lines typical for post-industrial societies, is obvious.

Looking for an adequate instrument to conduct our research, we have recurred to ‘Index of Core Religious Experiences (INSPIRIT)’, which was elaborated by Dr. Jared Kass and his team, at Lesley University, Cambridge in Massachusetts, USA, at the beginning of the 1990ies. Having regarded the whole variety of core religious experiences of the contemporary people, J.Kass supposed that these may roughly be represented by subjective reports, graded as either affirmative or negative answers to eighteen simple questions (for brief formulations, cf. Attachment 1, for details see Kass, Friedman, Lesserman, Zuttermeister, Benson 1991).

Validity of Kass’s approach was corroborated by its application in study of outpatients of hospital-based behavioral medicine programs. Having processed his data, Kass found that people who scored high on his INSPIRIT scales,—that is those who were more religious,—tended to be much better protected from stress-related components of their respective illness (cardiological, oncological, or traumatological), than those who were less religious.

This study was obviously limited in terms of cultural (female American urban dwellers), as well as religious background (37% Catholics, 23% Protestants, 40% Judaists). The questionnaire in general was tailored so as to fit primarily into the context of the three Abrahamic religions, as well as Buddhism, in a more remote perspective. However the general trend corresponded well to the classical intuition of G.Allport which served as initial for the INSPIRIT: religiosity tends to serve as a highly effective mechanism of coping with stress-related components of illness (cf. Allport 1968).

Having translated INSPIRIT into the Russian, and carefully adapted it to local conditions, we have applied it in systematic study of Russian urban dwellers. The main group consisted of 102 young pregnant women, observed shortly before giving birth, i.e. on the verge of stress which was sharp, although quite natural. Reference group comprised 82 college students, predominantly female; this and some other choices were taken by us in order to correspond as much as possible to the groups observed by J. Kass.

Our initial hypothesis was that Russian material would reveal regularities which would be more or less different from the American data, and we were prepared to trace back causes and effects of these differences. However the main results proved to be unexpected for both us and professor J. Kass, who kept consulting us throughout the study. If we take only the main (integral) index, which is formed as mean quantity for all items, its value proved to be equal to 2.48 for the main Russian group, and 2.64 for the reference Russian one. Compared to 2.80 for the American sample, there seems to be some difference. However this visible difference proved to be statistically insignificant (the values of mean standard deviation were 0.61, 0.46, and 0.83, correspondingly).

One has to remind here that absolute values are not really demonstrable, especially in such cases as the INSPIRIT, where the interval for the integral index is quite narrow, ranging from approximately 1 to 4. Structural characteristics tend to be much more constructive, which however proved not to be our case.

Having applied factor analysis, our American colleagues came to conclusion that all seven items involved into their study, were very much interconnected. In fact, all of them proved to depend upon a single hidden factor, which must be regarded as the main—in fact, the single—source of each of these seven types of core religious experience (for illustration cf. Attachment 2, Figure 1, where each value gives an estimate of how much is the corresponding type of experience conditioned by the hidden (central) factor).

As to the Russian material, five of its seven factors proved to be interconnected, approximately along the same lines, and with similar factor loadings, as the American ones. Two items did not form a special cluster, tending to follow the same general tendency, only less firmly than in the American case (these items are marked blue at Figure 2, Attachment 2, which presents data for the Russian main group). This means that judging by both absolute value of the integral index of religiosity, as well as the inner structure of particular items, core religious experiences of present-day Russian urban dwellers tend to reveal no considerable differences from the American ones.

If this tendency would be corroborated by data of other tests and/or surveys, it would be possible to formulate a tentative assumption concerning the absence in Russia of strong movement(s) of radical religious fundamentalists, firmly opposed to spiritual values of present-day USA and, most possibly, Western Europe. It would be explained or, at least, partly conditioned by the fact that deep religious attitudes, represented in our study by core religious experiences, are in fact shared by the majority of Russians, on one hand, and people belonging to the Western civilization, on the other.

* * *

Having formulated this tentative conclusion, which is quite novel for understanding the essence of the dynamics of religious psychology in Russia—and, most possibly, in the post-Communist world in general—we feel it timely to consider two major differences which were detected in our study.

Firstly, the absolute value of the integral index of religiosity was somewhat higher by the Americans (2.80 as opposed to 2.48/2.64 for the Russian sample, main/reference group). Looking through our materials, we have detected that this difference was mainly due to the fact that there were about three times more Americans who scored very high on the majority of items, than the Russians: exact data are 26%, as opposed to 9.

Secondly, we have detected only one item which did not fit into the main factor pattern, common for both the Russian, and the American group. It consisted in having one or a number of ‘spiritual experiences’, whether it be ‘an experience of profound inner peace’, ‘meeting and listening to a spiritual teacher or master’, or a ‘near death experience’. We have to state that both the main Russian group (2.4), and the reference Russian one (2.5), revealed quite strong inclination to have this cluster of subjective spiritual experiences (standard deviation was correspondingly 0.6, and 0.8).

Interpreting both differences, we wish to recur to our earlier analysis of the dynamics of religious psychology in the post-Soviet Russia (Spivak 1998). During the last 4–5 years of the Communist regime, statistical surveys registered that about 46% of the total population of Russia labeled themselves as Orthodox Christians (by dwellers of big cities this level was somewhat lower, about 43% in Moscow and St. Petersburg). In any case, this level should be regarded as high, judging by standards of the contemporary Western civilization. Our idea was that it mainly conditioned by latent protest against the Communist regime, which meant that with the onset of large-scale liberal democratic reforms this tendency was most likely to wane promptly.

As soon as the reforms began (1990–1991), the level of Orthodox Christians dropped considerably, that is, from 43 to 19% in the total population of Russia, and from 43% to 25, in Moscow. A group of 8-9% strongly religious, permanently practicing Orthodox Christians kept consolidating as the core of this group, which could be tentatively labeled as religious fundamentalists.

At the same time, there was a group of people, preferring to label themselves as ‘Christians in general terms’, which more than doubled in the same years 1990-1991, from 22 to 47% (total population), and from 22% to 43 (Moscow). Judging by additional information, we found it possible to tentatively label this group as people with either moderate or low level of religiosity, influenced by postmodern spirituality, often in its easily marketed (New Age) kind. This group could be tentatively labeled as religious liberals.

Having been attained, this structure tended to dwell on in the forthcoming years. Recurring to data of surveys conducted by the main Russian research institutions, two main processes may be traced back. The level of people regarding themselves as Orthodox Christians, has stabilized on a level of 50 to 80 percent of the Russian population, according to surveys based upon different criteria, and tends to keep growing. At the same time, people who are to be labeled as strongly religious by the traditional criteria, comprise only 4 to 8% of the population, while the rest tend to be related to the church much more loosely (for details, see data of periodical surveys conducted by the independent Levada Center in Moscow, Russia (2003), especially compared to results of longitudinal study of K. Kaariainen and D. Furman 2000).

About 5% of the population of Russia labeled themselves as Muslims, less than 1% as Buddhists. It seems that in the majority of regions (Northern Caucasus forming an obvious exception), basic processes in religious psychology of adherents of these religions tend to conform to the main tendency singled out by us in the preceding discussion.

Our impression is that this digression might be quite useful in interpreting the results of our empirical findings. Turning to two differences which have been singled out by us, we may suppose that about 9% of the Russians who in fact did acknowledge themselves to be more religious than their compatriots (by scoring much higher than average on the INSPIRIT scales), represented the group that has just been tentatively labeled by us as religious fundamentalists. The size of the comparable group tends to be even lower in the Western Europe. As to the USA, it tends to be several times larger there, due to peculiarities of the religious situation in that country (for details, see Inglehart, Norris 2004): hence 25% in Kass’s research.

As to the rather high level of Russians who reported having one or many ‘spiritual experiences’—that is, being quite spiritual, although not necessarily religious in the traditional sense of the word—influence of the mentality of the group tentatively labeled by us as religious liberals, more or less imbued by ideas and practices belonging to postmodern spirituality, could be supposed in this case. We feel thus that data collected by us are not only representative for personal religiosity, but tend also to reflect at least some important tends proper for the societal one.

* * *

A special topic of our research consisted in external corroboration of our findings. In fact, our research program included:

— a test designed in Russia by a team of independent researchers, in order to measure the level and structure of personal religiosity (Myagkov, Scherbatych, Kravtsov 1996);

— a questionnaire elaborated by our research team in order to measure occurrence of altered states of consciousness (ASC), which we regard as a separate, special type of core religious experiences (Spivak, Bechtereva, Spivak, Danko, Wistrand 1998);

— two standard psychological tests designed to measure the levels of neurotization, elaborated and published under the supervision of L. I. Wasserman (Wasserman 1999), and N. A. Kurganskikh (Krylov, Manichev 2000, p. 309–314);

— and, finally, a test elaborated to give an estimate of Ss’ predisposition and ability to creative performance (Tunik 2003).

These methodologies were introduced into our study in order to test the hypothesis that core religious experiences might be linked to other types of psychological processes (i.e. neurotization, creativity) - or, even, conditioned by them. In fact, there is quite a lot of knowledgeable and influential scientists who would from the very beginning contest that religious experiences present no more than peculiar manifestation of either general neurotization, or spontaneous creativity (in the form of ‘religious daydreaming’), especially under stressful conditions.

Our main findings are presented in Appendix 3, Table 1. As we see, core religious experiences, measured by three independent questionnaires, have automatically formed a single cluster. We wish to point out here that this result corresponds quite well to findings of J. Kass. Having regarded external corroborations of his INSPIRIT test according to his own procedures and methodologies, he found that it tended to correlate quite well with the ‘intrinsic religiousness scale’ of the ‘Religious orientation inventory’, a well-known standard instrument of psychological research (Allport, Ross 1967).

At the same time, the ‘religious factor’ proved to be independent of other factors in our research. This means that the ‘variety of religious experiences’ cannot be reduced to other psychological processes, at least in the framework of our research, forming a special dimension of psychological functioning in stressful conditions.

As to other methodologies applied by us, Table 1 shows that both methodologies directed at measurement of the degree of neurotization have automatically formed another strong factor, while creativity formed the third one. Interpreting these data, we have to suppose that coping with stress, one tends to recur not only to spiritual/religious attitudes, but also to other kinds of psychological processes, some of which may be potentially pathogenic (neurotization), while others potentially expanding one’s consciousness field, or even healing (creativity).

* * *

Physicians and medical psychologists became interested in the results presented by J. Kass and his colleagues because thanks to them they finally came to understand to which degree, and in which way, could religiosity be fitted into the process of treatment conducted by them. If religiosity tended to reduce stress-related components of the disease, then it was timely and helpful to introduce meditation over religious symbols, or performance of rituals into the process of treatment, on a day-to-day basis.

Prolonging this vision, one could imagine how different creeds would be measured and compared by their iathrogenic effect. The main trend of this process seems to be obvious: psychotechniques proving to be most effective, would be extracted from the framework of the respective religions, to be molded together, and further elaborated into a new form of ‘spiritual psychotherapy’. Having given this new impetus to clinical psychology, religion would again be removed as far as possible from the realm of clinical practice.

One has also to take into account that the Christian faith, as well as traditional religions in general, is primarily not about feeling well and fine, let alone, resolving the ‘peace-of-the-mind problem’. In fact, it is about suffering, repenting, and striving to attain salvation. Spontaneous healing is but a casual happening on one’s spiritual way, which is to be taken humbly, being welcome only in the case when it is obviously attained by divine grace.

Thus starting from a well-balanced cluster of observations concerning the role of religiosity in reducing stress-related components of disease, clinical psychologists have tended to move towards contradicting essential religious attitudes and beliefs.

Basing on our results, we would propose a different approach, withholding due respect to traditional creeds and theologies. Our idea consists in centering upon the elaboration of methods allowing us to reconstruct the field of core religious experiences in its essential details, both in statics and dynamics, and to trace back ways of establishing effective communication with this independent dimension of inner life, primarily in order to attain its constructive incorporation into the general context of psychological mechanisms, processes, and states.

Attaining in this way access to communication with one of the deepest layers of psyche, we would hopefully be able to preview major trends in its future dynamics—or, at least, map possible ‘rupture points’ in the course of the ‘dialogue between civilizations’,—and to detect points being focal for starting and conducting a scientifically based interreligious dialogue, both on personal and societal level.


This study was supported by the Russian Foundation for Basic Research, grant 06-06-80048.

The authors are grateful to professors N. P. Bechtereva, J. Kass, S. Krippner, D. MacDonald, N. L. Mouskhelishvili, L. I. Wasserman, and to K. Wistrand, for valuable advice and continuous support.


Allport G. W. (1968) The Person in Psychology. Boston: Beacon Press, 1968, 117–126.

Allport G. W., Ross J. M. (1967) Personal Religious Orientation and Prejudice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 5, 432–443.

Huntington S. (1996) The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. NY.

Inglehart R.F., Norris P. 2004 –

James W. (1929) The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature / Modern Library. NY, Random House (=

Kaariainen K, Furman D. 2000 –

Kass J. D., Friedman R., Lesserman J., Zuttermeister P., Benson H. (1991). Health Outcomes and a New Index of Spiritual Experiences. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 30(2), 203–211.

Krylov A. A., Manichev S. A. (eds.). Practical Manual in General, Experimental, and Applied Psychology (2000). St.Petersburg: Piter, 309–314 (in Russian).

Levada Center 2003 –

Myagkov I. F., Scherbatych Y. V., Kravtsov M. S. (1996). Psychological analysis of personal religiosity. Psychologicheskij Zhurnal, 17(6), 119–122 (in Russian).

Spivak D. L. (1998) Altered States of Society: a Tentative Approach. - In: A World in Transition. Humankind and Nature. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, p.33-42.

Spivak, L. I., Bechtereva, N. P., Spivak D. L., Danko S. G., Wistrand K.-R. (1998). Gender specific altered states of consciousness. International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 17(2), 181–185.

Stepanov Y. S. (ed.) (1995). Language and Science at the End of the 20th century. Moscow: Russian State University of Humanities (in Russian).

Tunik E. (2003). Modified Creativity Assessment Packet by Williams. St.Petersburg: Rech (in Russian).

Wasserman, L. I. (ed.) (1999). Questionnaire for Express Diagnostics of the Neurotization Level (‘the UN scale). Research commentary and manual. St.Petersburg: Bechterev Institute of Psychoneurology (in Russian).


Attachment 1.

Index of core spiritual experiences (formulations of stimuli)

1. How strongly religious (or spiritually-oriented) do you consider yourself to be?

2. About how often do you spend time on religious or spiritual practices?

3. How often have you felt as though you were very close to a powerful spiritual force?

People have many images and definitions of the higher power that we often call God. Please use your image and your definition of God when answering the following questions.

4. How close do you feel to God?

5. Have you ever had an experience that has convinced you that God exists?

6. Indicate whether you agree or disagree with this statement: “God dwells within you”.

7. The following list describes spiritual experiences that some people have had.

Please indicate if you have had many of these experiences and the extent to which each of them has affected your belief in God.

A. An experience of profound inner peace.

B. An overwhelming experience of love.

C. A feeling of unity with the earth and all living beings.

D. An experience of complete joy and ecstasy.

E. Meeting and listening to a spiritual teacher or master.

F. An experience of God’s energy or presence.

G. An experience of a great spiritual figure (e.g. Jesus, Mary, Elijah, Buddha)*.

H. A healing of your body or mind (or witnessed such a healing).

I. A miraculous (or not normally occurring) event.

J. An experience of angels or guiding spirits.

K. An experience of communication with someone who has died.

L. An experience with near death or life after death.

M. Other (specify).

* In order to correspond to the Russian socio-religious situation, the brief list of ‘great spiritual figures’ consisted of Jesus, Mary, Mohammed, and Buddha, in the Russian version (D.S.).

Attachment 2.

Factor structure of core religious experiences by the contemporary Americans and the contemporary Russians

Figure 1. Factor structure of core religious experiences by the contemporary Americans.
Figure 1. Factor structure of core religious experiences by the contemporary Americans.
Figure 2. Factor structure of core religious experiences by the contemporary Russians.
Figure 2. Factor structure of core religious experiences by the contemporary Russians.

Appendix 3.

Factor analysis of relations between religiosity, neurotization, and creativity in normals, in stressful conditions

Table 1. Factor analysis of relations between religiosity, neurotization, and creativity in normals, in stressful conditions.
Table 1. Factor analysis of relations between religiosity, neurotization, and creativity in normals, in stressful conditions.


Dimitri Spivak earned his Ph.D. in linguistics and psychology in 1998 from the State University of St. Petersburg. He is currently Director of the St. Petersburg branch of the Russian Institute for Cultural Research, and Chairholder of the UNESCO Chair for Comparative Studies of Spiritual Traditions, their Specific Cultures and Interreligious Dialogue in St.Petersburg, Russia. He has published a number of books dedicated to fundamental issues in consciouness research (Altered States of Consciousness: Psychology and Linguistics, 2000), and in cultural studies (Metaphysics of St. Petersburg, in three volumes, 2003–2005).


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