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Title: Godless mystics : atheists and their mystical experiences : towards a grounded theory
Author: Herron, Alice
ISNI:       0000 0004 7960 9109
Awarding Body: University of Surrey
Current Institution: University of Surrey
Date of Award: 2019
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In an era of secular (post)modernity, when increasing numbers of people no longer identify with traditional religious groups, this thesis explores, from both subjective and objective perspectives, how atheists and other non-religious people understand, explain and find meaning in the phenomenon of atheists claiming to have had a mystical-type experience. Overall the project consists of three studies, one using directed content analysis and two using constructivist grounded theory. For the first study, 29 self-identifying atheists wrote accounts of personal experiences that could be described as "spontaneous, transformative, enlightening and/or of a mystical-type". Codes relating to the content, context, impact and processes involved in such experiences were created, drawn from published psychological studies on the topic. The written accounts were checked against the codes to see if the atheist accounts were recognisable in terms of existing literature. It was found that the atheists' accounts were similar to those in the literature in terms of their descriptions of content, context and impact. There was insufficient data in the accounts to ascertain whether they described the holistic process similar to those in the literature. The second study used data from the first study supplemented by data from ten semi-structured interviews with selected atheist participants. Data from both the written accounts and interviews were analyzed using constructivist grounded theory to explore how participants made sense of their experiences and how, if at all, it impacted their sense of atheist identity. The participant's experiences were located within the meaning and identity literature to explore how people who profess not to believe in supernatural agency considered the event meaningful. From the study, an emergent theory proposes that atheists' experiences can be characterised as an intuitive leaps of meaning which bypass the rational mind. The resulting meaning-made appears to resolve earlier dissonance between the individual's normal global meaning system and a prior atypical circumstance in participants' lives. After the event, participants assessed the value of their mystical-type experience in a more rational way. Some dismissed it as a temporary brain malfunction, while others valued it and modified their global meaning orientation accordingly. In some cases, where the apparent meaning of the experience conflicted with the participant's atheist identity, those who valued their experience also modified their atheist identity through processes of assimilation and accommodation. The above study gave an insider perspective on the topic. In order to pursue alternative outsider perspectives, and to confirm or extend the emergent theory, a third study, also using grounded theory, was carried out utilising a focus group format. In order to gain insight into how the non-religious people, but not necessarily atheists, who may or may not have had such experience themselves, make sense of the idea of atheists having such experiences. Participants were asked to discuss vignettes taken from the account of a participant in the earlier study. It was found that through their discussions, the focus group participants mobilized resources to negotiate a meaning for such experiences that reduced possible tension between an atheist identity and an experience that could be described as religious or spiritual. Discursively they did this both through relating to the euphoric aspect described in the account and relating anecdotes about people they knew who also had strange experiences. They did not distinguish between explicitly religious and other anomalous experiences, categorising them all under an umbrella category of human experiences, and they saw no reason why religious people would be more likely than the non-religious to have them. Conceptualising them in this way left their own non-religious status unthreatened by the possibility of such an experience. Consistent with attribution theory, while the atheists, relating their subjective experiences, emphasized context as the most relevant contributory factor, focus group participants, relating experiences of others, gave less importance to context and also considered the personal qualities of the individual concerned. A small number of individuals in both studies, however, left open the possibility of supernatural causality. The thesis sheds light on how atheists and other non-religious people create meaning to explain the anomaly of atheists having mystical-type experiences. Consistent with the aims of grounded theory work, it is hoped the findings can contribute towards the development of an overarching theory of mysticism; add to faith/nonfaith dialogue around the role of such experiences, and possibly be helpful in existential therapy settings where the focus is on finding meaning in life.
Supervisor: Coyle, Adrian ; Williams, Emma Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral