The Aim of the Project

Based on a thorough collection and systematic analysis of descriptions that conceptualize religious practice as experimentation, our project offers important insights into religious self-conceptions of Western and Asian modernity.


It analyzes the “scientification” of the religious discourse on experience, outlines strategies of verifying salvific and “spiritual" effects of religious practice, and highlights the discursive self-positioning of being spiritual in a modern, contingent, and scientifically explored life world.


The project allows to amend current concepts of religious experience that still portray “religious experiences” as single, outstanding, and overwhelming events with crucial aspects of long-term “experimentation with experiences” as systematic “self-cultivation,” or experimental “technologies of the self.”



Research Focus I: Religious Practice as Experimentation


In the early 20th century, it was especially William James who gave the term 'religious experience' the nuance of something factual, that means, as a scientifically valuable introspective awareness that points to something 'real.'  During that time, especially non-Christian practitioners applied and developed epistemologies to investigate 'religion' scientifically. In contrast to Spiritualists who mostly relied on other people for their research, some practitioners intentionally turned their own bodies into scientific instruments to gain insights that were believed to be best observable by the experimenters’ own experience. This study collects and contextualises autobiographical sources of these self-experiments with 'religious' or 'spiritual' experiences in Great Britain and Germany between 1880 and 1950. The analysis follows a narratological approach to better understand how central motifs, structures, and metaphors were portrayed and perpetuated. Following this trajectory will highlight how experiment, experience, and religion co-developed as concepts, and continue to influence the understanding of each other.



Research Focus II: Experimental Systems, Spiritual Practices, and Religious Experience


Another point of focus for the project is the analysis of the experimental practices of spiritual actors. The case study that is actively pursued in this respect is that of spiritual animal magnetism. While this practice started as a healing practice involving the laying on of hands, it was soon realized that the method led to a sleepwaking state to which proponents ascribed special characteristics. Especially magnetically induced clairvoyance quickly led to an experimental interest within the animal magnetic community. From that point onward, spiritually inclined magnetizers tried to prove religious concepts such as the existence and content of the afterlife through experimental means.


Using spiritual animal magnetism, the project develops analytical tools by drawing from science studies in order to probe deeper into what spiritual experimentation looked like. Exactly what were the goals of these animal magnetic experiments? How were they achieved? What were the boundaries, and how did opponents react to these investigations? The outcome will provide useful theoretical considerations and conceptual notions to other inquiries into religious experimentation and the use of science by spiritual and religious groups.