In the Shadows of Religious Experience: Hostility, Violence, Revenge

CFP – Society for the Phenomenology of Religious Experience, 2021 Conference (Online), Hosted by the University of Vienna, Department of Philosophy, and in association with the research grant “Revenge of the Sacred: Phenomenology and the Ends of Christianity in Europe” (FWF P-31919)

Recent advances in the study of religion successfully have demonstrated the positive, community-building potentials of religious experience in terms of its material/performative practices, psychological models of coping with pain/crisis, and embodied habits that help individuals establish more co-creative forms of reason in order to develop more grounded social imaginaries and epistemologies.

Without disregarding or disagreeing with the innumerable potential effects and benefits of having and creating religious experiences, in this conference we wish to focus more so on how the irrevocable ambivalence of religious experience simultaneously can lead it to bear its discontents and negative socialities, namely, in the forms of hostility, violence, and revenge.  Although violence is not the necessary product of hostility, it always looms as a threat and is often motivated by various processes of enmification.  And although revenge is not a necessary response to some preceding act of violence, individuals and groups quite often resort to it in order to appease aggrieved individuals and parties.  Of course, this trifecta of hostility, violence, and revenge very often is invoked in political activities irrespective of religious traditions and engagements.  Yet in all too many cases, this trifecta becomes even more pronounced due to the ways and means individuals and groups have, and choose to have, religious experiences and use religious narratives to justify violent responses.   

Can we describe phenomenologically the core motivations for why hostility, violence, or revenge too frequently are preferred over peaceful interactions and phronetic engagements with others?  Does a certain entitlement or perverse freedom arise from a sense of representing divine power, stemming from unconditional claims that are promoted “in the name of” a transcendent principle?  To what degree does the dialectic between purity and compromise play a role in the will to act violently towards others who one deems to embody a “threat of disorder,” a stain of impurity, or are simply passed by indifferently? Could the clear-cut orders of “the sacred” and “the secular” possibly contribute to deepening an age-old dualism or desire for equilibrium through revenge? Further, if religious experience does not necessarily invite the irrational (or on the contrary, hyper-rational) responses of seeking the harm, injury, or “correction” of others, in what way do forms of religious experience contribute to the (re)production of negative socialities that revolve around imaginations of threat and disorder? What kind of responsibilities might the presence of a non or a-religious community or politic play in creating spaces of opposition and conflict?

In order to find constructive answers to such questions, we invite reference to the whole phenomenological movement, including post-phenomenology, hermeneutics, and deconstruction; historical and contemporary research with the engagement of phenomenology, theological phenomenology, experienced-based comparative studies like cultural anthropology of experience, qualitatively based sociology of religion, as well as theological and psychological perspectives that utilize phenomenological research methods. Abstract and Paper proposals on the following topics would be most welcome:

– Critiques of the relationship between “religion” and “secularism” as a social, political, and epistemological separation that is prone to deepen habits of hostility, legitimize violence, and motivate revenge;

– Analyses of the role religious experience (and the discourse about it) might play in academic, social, and political discourse(s) on hostility, violence, or revenge;

– Developments of accounts of religious experience that clearly demonstrate its inherently ambiguous role in how it fundamentally is constitutive of the “human condition”;

– Depictions of the theologico-political undercurrents of late modern social imaginaries that nourish the habitus of “cultures of violence”;

– Descriptions of how the break-down of meaning in a) the maelstrom of globalization, b) the advent of apathy and indifference in a modernity spinning out of control, and c) the social construction of murderous consent to neoliberal exploitation and the resulting nihilism of a commodified society committed to the myth of progress all have influenced religious communities and their contemporary self-understanding.

Please submit papers of no more than 600 words, formatted for anonymous review, before July 10, 2021. Enclose your biographic information in the body of email. Email for the submission is You should receive an acknowledgment of your submission. Provisional notifications of acceptance will be emailed by July 20, 2021. Authors whose submissions are provisionally accepted must become members of SOPHERE before acceptance is confirmed


The format of presentation: 30 minutes including question and answer period, i.e. a paper of approximately 3500 words.


Selected papers will be published in a special issue of Religions and other venues.



Jason Alvis

Michael Staudigl


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Olga Louchakova-Schwartz writes about her experience interviewing international experts and psychological theory’s emancipatory potential in cross-cultural settings.

Read more here:


Map of the world

In 2019, I stepped in to facilitate our divisions’ participation in the CODAPAR interdivisional grant, obtained by Merry Bullock from Div. 52, to create a series of video-interviews with colleagues abroad. The idea was to highlight how this or that type of psychology “incarnates” in particular cultural contexts. This project now is in its final stages. Director’s cuts of the interviews can be seen online and underscored  an interesting aspect in our seemingly very theoretical, i.e., potentially abstracted from pragmatics, discipline—in cultural context, mediated by living people with their live-through pragmatic relevances and tasks, theory acquires a powerful practical dimension going far beyond its clinical uses. This statement is, of course, a triviality—however,  hearing how psychologists in Chile, England, and South Africa use philosophical psychological concepts to impact the orientation of power structures in their countries, how they put theory at work  to better the human condition makes one pause and think, you know, think about the emancipatory purpose and the used or missed possibilities of one’s professional life.

And so,  I bring the lessons of interviews into our community. The link between the theory of psychology, the theory of human consciousness, behavior, identity, and knowledge, appears dry at times. We do make an impact via the input into the APA policies, our participation in APA’s convention, and the division itself (kudos to Fred Wertz,  Scott Churchill, and Mary Beth Morissey this year). But what would be our ways to positively impact the psychology communities abroad? And do we even need to rise this agenda? Here is another observation: When preparing for the interviews, I asked Thomas Theo, who has a broader engagement within our field than do myself, a phenomenologist,  to help me to find the potential interview responders. All those who responded—a Chilean, a Brit, a South African—were from the “coasts.” By contrast, recently I had to review a very well written theoretical paper from the heart of central Europe. The paper was on the clinical dimensions of religious experience in contexts of psychosis and health, and the related issues of the stability of the ego: the author, an established philosopher, was phenomenologically counterpunching Freud. And while writing the author back a list of references from our bank of humanistic, existential, Jungian, spiritual/religious psychological theories,  I realized that these somehow never reached the clinical jungles of central Europe, or if they did, they were never “mainstreamed”. The whole approach was Flemming (a name of a popular German crime TV series which features a forensic psychoanalyst detective of the same name). Not that one thinks of three people as a representative sample, but involuntary geopolitical analogies are hard to escape.

To counteract the Flemming-effect, it would be good to have a substantial theoretical dialogue, a low cost post-COVID-19 option provided by the Internet. I tried this format in the Society for the Phenomenology of Religious Experience just recently in a two day webinar on Pandemics and Reason which attracted people from seven countries (Todd DuBoise gave a talk, and apropos, the in-person 2019 SOPHERE conference in Valparaiso University was hosted by Jim Nelson) . Next year, we can do something like this together. The topic will be the phenomenological criticism of secular reason, that is, of theory. Not that religious reason is necessarily better (and is there such a thing as religious reason?), but we can inquire what works and what doesn’t. A trick about phenomenological philosophy, which is where I stand, is that it serves as a bridge between people of different countries and disciplines. In response to a groundedness of theory in the consciousness of experience, a dialogue ensues. By virtue of “My beginning is my end,” (recently used as a subtitle to the book  Indigenous Psychology of Spirituality, edited by Alvin Dueck) the beginning of psychology a theoretical/philosophical discipline is in central Europe. If the idea of cross-cultural theoretical dialogue with psychologists from different orientations appeals to you, stay tuned.

About the author

Olga Louchakova-Schwartz is currently the professor emerita of psychology and comparative religion at Sofia University (formerly Institute of Theoretical Psychology), where she was also the founding director of Transpersonal Education and Research Specialization, the World Wide Learning Exchange Program, and co-founding director of the Neurophenomenology Center. She currently serves as a clinical faculty member at University of California, Davis School of Medicine. She is also a visiting scholar at Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, and has an MD and a PhD in neuroscience. She founded the Society for Phenomenology of Religious Experience in 2016. Louchakova-Schwartz’s work and interests lie in phenomenological philosophy, especially phenomenology of religious and spiritual experiences and dialogical approaches, and their effect on the self, body, and cognition.

This post is first published for the Philosophy Day, Springer, 2021

Philosophy, my love. You came to me late in life. These are relationships with a sense of autumn, a sense of immortality. In the 1980s in Russia, at the time of my Hippocratic oath at medical school, I read Lenin, Marx, and Hegel, and a bit of Feuerbach and Popper, and it was OK—actually, self-evident and uneventful. But Avicenna’s sharply medieval profile in the medical history book branded my mind. And then, came a promise—the white, cooling presence of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus: the terms of endearment. It took me thirty long years to fully face Husserl:  the promise turned real, the vocation.

I am writing this love letter today, on the fated Saturday of November 7, 2020, in Berkeley, United States. The “alternative facts” are finally losing their bite. I thank you, philosophy, for the firm hand you gave me during the past four years of political insanity.  Working my way through the Logical Investigations has been my saving grace. In the world of menacing Goya-esque shades, you remained real. You spoke the truth, you stood clear of lies and greed, you safeguarded my mind.  Please reach out to those still confused, whose mind is in rage or despair …  Is it the immunity to virus, or is it our mental health that is at test?  Aequam servare mentem (Horace), ‘keep the clear mind’— like the gladiators of Roman antiquity, we need your clarity, Philosophy, to be victorious over the pandemics, over the climate catastrophe, to win life over self-destruction.

The kind of philosophy I do is called phenomenology (a.k.a. continental philosophy).  As would be true for many people (I suspect), I did not choose one form of philosophy over the other.  The most difficult thing, a Sufi philosopher, Ibn-Arabi, says, is to know one’s own predisposition. How many times does one get into relationships before making it right? Phenomenology landed on my lap by an accident, but with a strength of extreme determination. I was searching for a method to study spiritual phenomena–and nothing seemed to work. I felt empty, disenfranchised: how does one reconcile the immediate sense of truth in experience with the impossibility of passing this sense to others?  The life of the soul, inwardness, spirit, all the things intuitively graspable but intellectually extremely vague, a class of events embraced by the brave New Age but everywhere else believed to be epiphenomenal, with no rights to truth…  I entered the researcher “dark night of the soul”. Then, a random encounter with an obscure Sufi sheikh, obviously a charlatan, gave me the word: phenomenology.  I read, and I found my method, or rather, I found the world of meaning in which, suddenly, I could breathe and walk.  By contrast with egocentric top-down choices, these passive inevitabilities are indubitable.
Phenomenological philosophy proceeds by clarification of the expressions of experience. From there, one thinks what, in the mind or in the cosmos, makes such experience possible. These are the so-called transcendental apriori-s.  By means of such reverse reflection, religious or spiritual experience acquires its horizon of possibility and becomes legitimized.  Instead of being something crazy or elitist, it turns into a real research problem that is interesting enough to become a subject of a systematic study.  This grew into a book, The Problem of Religious Experience (Springer 2019).  But then one may ask: what does this angle have to do with counteracting the pressures of social insanity?

There is a Buddhist story about a man who was meditating in the mountains in order to see Buddha Maitreya. With no Buddha in sight for many years, the man left the mountain. Down the road, one last act of compassion purifies his mind: all efforts suddenly make sense, everything comes together, and he sees the luminous Buddha. In a sense, philosophy works in the same manner: one strives to think, to find the path through the manifolds of meaning, to find the words which grasp the meaning and pass it onto the other person, unaltered. One learns to ask the right questions. One follows ideas into their history and communes with the great minds of the past. Gradually, slowly, the mind starts seeing, and gradually, slowly, the universe starts making sense. Husserl’s idea of truth goes beyond Aristotelian correlation, into the full adequacy of thought and what is—this is mathesis universalis, the first philosophy. “Alternative facts” dissolve, while naked facts and things as they are come upfront. Philosophy is truth in perception.

If, O reader, you are a spiritual person, you probably have heard many times that in order to advance on the spiritual path, you need to silence your mind.  Please know:  this is a lie. The reality is that systematic thinking is embodied, more so than any yoga or meditation can ever give you. Hence, philosophy is an experience. The hard work of philosophizing brings in a state of peace and fullness like no other, the state of oneness with God (theosis) of Christian faith, the “stateless state” of Vedanta.  It is just recently that I had such an experience while working on the axiomatic theory of imaginary numbers in the early Husserl—who could imagine this?  But if one pauses and reflects, this is exactly how it should be. The medieval Iranian philosopher Suhrawardi says that in knowledge, the knower and the known become one; Husserl says that when your thought is adequate to how things are, the intention is fulfilled by its object, and this is the experience of truth… so, it feels right to think, to exercise your mental muscle, to reach the luminous certainty of truth. She is both savvy and smart, Philosophy, this belated love of mine.


for a topical issue of Open Theology

Phenomenology of Religious Experience V: (Ir)Rationality and Religiosity During Pandemics

Edited by:
Olga Louchakova-Schwartz (UC Davis and Graduate Theological Union)
Jason Alvis (University of Vienna)
Michael Staudigl (University of Vienna)


“Open Theology” ( invites submissions for the topical issue “Phenomenology of Religious Experience V: (Ir)Rationality and Religiosity During Pandemics”, prepared in collaboration with the Society for the  Phenomenology of Religious Experience (<><>).

In the context of the current COVID 19-crisis, the vexed relationship between religion, intuition, discursive reason, and instrumental rationality has become ever more complicated.  Given resurgent appeals to the transformative (purifying, redemptive, liberating, etc.) force of religious resources in times of crisis–both manipulating and hopeful—we invite papers which explicate the involved aspects of (ir)rationality, on a societal, social, communal, and personal scale. Our working hypothesis is that the by now apparent lapses and discontents of secular reason contributed, if not lead to, the COVID19 pandemics.  With the toll of deaths exceeding 286,000 in mid-May 2020, and industrial countries such as the United States leading the numbers, what does it tell us about the status of knowledge, consciousness, and their relationships with the power networks ?  Given the astounding denials of both trivial-ontic-empirical  and scientific facts of epidemics and the gripping realities of global misinformation, the relationship between the reason—in action, politics, press, local decision-making—and the subjective dimension of religiosity  stand out  in this new light, calling for phenomenological reporting and reflection, which must precede the care and the cure.  While religious experience has been shown to have emancipatory value and enhance resilience and decrease stress, we’d like to clarify if this assessment still stands in this new situation.

Authors publishing their articles in the topical issue will benefit from:
– transparent, comprehensive and fast peer review,
– efficient route to fast-track publication and full advantage of De Gruyter’s e-technology,
– free language assistance for authors from non-English speaking regions,
– complementary membership in the Society for Phenomenology of Religious Experience.

As a rule, publication costs should be covered by so called Article Publishing Charges (APC), paid by authors, their affiliated institutions, funders or sponsors. To view funding opportunities to cover APC please visit
Authors without access to publishing funds are encouraged to discuss potential discounts or waivers with Managing Editor of the journal Dr. Katarzyna Tempczyk (<><<>>) before submitting their manuscript.


Submissions will be collected from September 1 to March 31, 2021, via the on-line submission system at
Choose as article type: “Topical Issue Article: Pandemics”.
Before submission the authors should carefully read over the Instruction for Authors, available at:

All contributions will undergo critical peer-review before being accepted for publication.

Further questions about this thematic issue can be addressed to Olga Louchakova-Schwartz at<><<>>. In case of technical or financial questions, please contact journal Managing Editor Katarzyna Tempczyk at<><<>>.