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.”

Subproject I: Religious Practice as Experimentation

An analysis of autobiographical narratives of self-experiments with 'religious' experiences in Europe between 1880 and 1950

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.

Subproject II: Experimental Systems, Spiritual Practices, and Religious Experience

The subproject "Experimental Systems, Spiritual Practices, and Religious Experience" pursues a theoretical and systematic interest in practices of spiritual experimentation as described by their protagonists. This subproject will look at the advent of the natural sciences in the 19th century and how their experimental methods and language influenced ‘spiritual seekers.’ Were these religious actors inspired by latest experimental methods of these scientific systems in their own practics? And if so, was this interest purely metaphorical, or do we see a crossover in terms of the setup and conditions of religious experiments as well?


Specifically, the case of animal magnetism will be followed. While it 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 here a group of researchers set off trying to model their magnetic experiments after more accepted scientific models, but with the aim of reaching religious knowledge, such as proving the existence of an afterlife. What’s more, this ‘experimenting with (religious) experiences’ exerted a big influence on later systems with an interest in religion and a legitimization based on science and experimentation, such as Spiritualism and psychical research. This experimental influence of animal magnetism will be traced in detail.