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Peak Experiences

Abraham Maslow was a professor of psychology, best known for his work on the hierarchy of needs and characteristics of self actualization. His article Religion and Peak Experiences presented a view of spiritual experience in terms of an actual mental, emotional experience that can be documented and studied by scientist. By removing the cultural relativity from the peak religious experiences, he managed to create terms and methods for analyzing “core-religious,” “peak experiences,” and “ecstasies.” He also develops a hypothesis on why some people never experience these transcendences and offers possible solutions in hopes of bridging the gap between the “mystics” and “legalists.” He closed by concluding that these experiences while entirely naturalistic in nature also fall under the subject of religion.

Maslow’s hypothesis was that if you striped away the localisms, issues of linguistics, philosophies, and ethnocentric elements, then you would be left with this “core-religious experience” or “transcendent experience.” This is complete in agreement with the anthropological theories of ethnocentrism and cultural relativity. For Maslow the issue of non-peakers became an important issue for his research. After fine-tuning his questions and ways of explaining “peak experiences,” he found that the majority of people had had some peak experience or another. Most people who had not experienced something like this or rather had suppressed those feelings tended to be materialistic, mechanistic, and/or scientific based people, whose minds seems to be organized mostly in logical and/or legalistic. To these people such an experience would be a loss of control and a kind of insanity. He actually hypothesized that it was from these transcendent experiences that religion spring up. He pictured all the “high religions” as being founded off the extreme peak experiences of sensitive mystics (533)

Maslow explained, “Organized religion can be thought of as an effort to communicate peak-experiences to non-peakers, to teach them, to apply them, etc” (533). However, this task is stunted greatly because the non-peakers with natural pre-dispositions to be “legalist” or “mechanist,” so non-peakers end up controlling how peakers and non-peakers alike are taught to achieve the state of transcendence. It is here that Maslow pin points the majority of religious strife generated by organized religion, when the mystic and the legalist disagree. The “legalists” as the Pharisees in the New Testament are caught up in the details, going through the motions, far too concerned with mimicking every movement of the ancient rites, but they fall to see the true meaning behind the words and actions and symbols. The “mystics” or sensitive peakers, on the other hand, tend to focus on the idea behind the revelations and achieving peak experiences for themselves.

I chose this article because I had previously read Maslow on the subject of self-actualization and was intrigued. While it was not presented in a spiritual context it held spiritual meaning for me, so I was excited to attempt to see spirituality from Maslow’s point of view. I set out to find and seek to understand the spiritual other, however instead I found ideas that had been running around in my head since childhood, which greatly explain my view on religion in general. Maslow’s “mystics” and “legalist” very much fit my childhood understanding of spirituality in this world. But it was Maslow’s loose-end with his own findings was that some people are non-peakers and it isn’t because of some sort of ideological fear that is what began my personal questioning of religion and the spiritual world, while I was disappointed he had no better answer than I do feel that this piece and Maslow’s studies can be very useful in my research.

Maslow, Abraham. “Religion and Peak-Experinces.” Philosophy of Religion: Contemporary Perspectives. Schedler, Norbert O. Ed. New York: MacMillan Publishing Co.


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