Evaluating reliance on narratives in the psychological study of religious experiences

Wesley J. Wildman, Patrick McNamara

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


In studying religious and spiritual experiences (RSEs), psychologists of religion have relied heavily on narratives. How sound is this practice? Using the Phenomenology of Consciousness Inventory (PCI), we diagnosed basic features of RSEs as narrated by 39 participants. This information permitted comparison with third-party ratings of narratives of the same experiences using the PCI's phenomenological categories. Analyzing participant ratings against baseline happy and ordinary experiences showed that the RSEs in our sample possess distinctive phenomenological features. Analyzing participant ratings against third-party ratings of RSE narratives disclosed significant and intelligible differences. Psychologists of religion should rely on RSE narratives where they are effective at communicating experiential content and supplement them with other approaches where narratives are less effective. Combining best practices from both approaches yields a more complete description of RSEs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)223-254
Number of pages32
JournalInternational Journal for the Psychology of Religion
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2010
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was sponsored in part by funding from the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences and from Boston University School of Theology. We are grateful to Ms. Erica Harris and Mr. Paul Butler who tested subjects; to Mr. Ephraim Josephs and Mr. Derek Michaud who rated narratives; and to Deborah Kelemen and Catherine Caldwell-Harris for discussions and advice.


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