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Sir Alister Hardy, Religious Experience, and EHEs

Rhea A. White
pub: EHE Network, Inc.
Copyrright©2001, EHE Network, Inc.


British biologist Sir Alister Hardy applied telepathy in his theory of evolution. He also was very interested in spiritual experiences and founded the Religious Experience Research Unit, Oxford, England, to collect and study them. He surveys 3,000 in his book The Spiritual Nature of Man We compare his classification and findings with the Network’s, showing where we overlap and where we differ. This 1998 flyer is the 2nd edition of one first published in 1997.


In 1969 Sir Alister Hardy, who was knighted for distinguished work in zoology and is well known for his theory of the role telepathy may play in evolution, founded the Religious Experience Research Unit (RERU) at Manchester College in Oxford. The aim of the RERU was to collect and classify contemporary accounts of religious experience, much as we at the EHE Network have done, although our range of experiences is much broader, Mystical Experiences being just one of the five classes of EHEs, albeit a very important one. In the Spiritual Nature of Man (Clarendon Press, 1979). Hardy reports on the results of the first 3,000 experiences RERU collected. Several other scholars conducted research under the auspices of RERU, and an overall review of the center and its work by John Franklin, an active member of the Hardy group, was published in our journal.

In 1985 the center was renamed the Alister Hardy Research Centre (RERC) in honor of Sir Alister who died that year. More recently, it has become the Religious Experience Research Centre, which is housed at Westminster College, Oxford OX2 9AT, England with Peggy Morgan as its Director [tel: (01865) 251847]. It is a Registered Charitable Trust. The Society publishes a 24-page newsletter entitled De Numine for its members. Its collection of experiences now numbers 6,000.

A membership organization, the Alister Hardy Society, also at Westminster College, was founded to promote and support the RERC with Robert Waite as Administrative Secretary.

RERC continues to operate under Hardy’s (and the EHE Network’s) assumption that transcendent, mystical, spiritual, and religious experiences are universal throughout the human species. From our viewpoint, however, whether or not an experience is considered "exceptional" depends on the worldview one unconsciously lives by and accepts as "reality." We also consider as potential exceptional human (i.e., transformative) experiences the full range of exceptional (i.e., anomalous) experiences. When the full potential of any exceptional experience has been realized, it becomes an exceptional human experience (EHE), and as such serves as a catalyst for the experiencer’s continued realization of his or her spiritual and transformative potential. Although many of these exceptional experiences are not overtly spiritual in the least, such as poltergeists, apparitions of deceased animals, and being in the zone in sports or in any art or craft, we hypothesize that nevertheless they have great spiritual potential. We also are broader in our thinking than the Hardy group because we propose that although all EHEs are spiritual and transformative, and each has a component that can best be described as "not of this world," they are expressed in ways that are definitely of this world rather than serving as a means of simply transcending it. The world is implicated in all that an EHEer realizes and carries out as a result of his/her EHEs.

Hardy’s work overlaps the EHE Network’s to some extent. He devotes four chapters of his book to the various features that distinguish the different types of seeming religious experience. In other words, he tried to base his classification on the experiences as they were reported rather than on an a priori classification. We, too, have tried to do this.

The first six major divisions of Hardy’s classification are Sensory or Quasi-Sensory Experiences: Visual, under which he includes visions; illuminations; a particular light; feeling of unity with surroundings of people; out-of-body experiences; déjà vu, and transformation of surroundings. The second group is composed of Sensory or Quasi-Sensory Experience: Auditory, including calming voices; guiding voices, being spoken through (the gift of tongues, and "music" and other sounds. Third is Sensory or Quasi-Sensory Experience: Touch. Here are included healing, comforting, feelings of warmth; being hit, shocked, etc., and guiding. The fourth is Sensory or Quasi-Sensory Experience: Smell. The fifth is (Supposed) Extrasensory Perception, including telepathy; precognition; clairvoyance; supposed contact with the dead; and apparitions. The sixth group consists of Behavioral Changes, such as comforting and guiding; healing; exorcism, and heroism. In Chapter 5, he describes the clues he could find which would reveal the dynamic patterns, constructive and destructive, initiated by the above experiences. He also attempts to relate to individual development within the self and in relation to others. Seemingly tacked onto the foregoing factors, which cut across all types of experiences, he includes a section on experiences occurring in dreams, which we would class as a type of experience in itself. The "cognitive and affective elements" he singles out are: Sense of security, protection, peace; Sense of joy, happiness, and well-being; Sense of new strength in oneself; Sense of guidance, vocation, inspiration; Awe, reverence, wonder; Sense of certainty, clarity, enlightenment; Exaltation, excitement, ecstasy; Sense of being at a loss for words; Sense of harmony, order, unity; Sense of timelessness; Feelings of love, affection (in oneself); Yearning, desire, nostalgia; Sense of forgiveness, restoration, renewed; Sense of integration, wholeness, fulfillment; Hope, optimism; Sense of release from fear of death; Fear, horror; Remorse, Sense of guilt; Sense of indifference, detachment; Sense of purpose behind events; Sense of prayer answered in events; Sense of presence (not human).

The special value of this classification is that it is derived empirically from 3,000 accounts. In terms of our five classes of EHEs, the mystical, the psychical, and the death-related are evident here, and also some enhanced experiences (heroism, comforting, guiding). However, our largest class, encounter experiences, is missing.

The cognitive and affective elements of experiences described we would call psychological and spiritual concomitants of many types of EHEs, and in some instances, e.g., sense of release from the fear of death, we would call an aftereffect.

The other categories are not really about specific types of experiences but what we call triggers, concomitants, and aftereffects of EHEs. For the most part, the attributes listed in the above six categories and our five groups are germane to one or perhaps two to three types of experiences. But triggers, concomitants, and aftereffects cut across many categories of experience. They are not specific to any one. We further classify the three categories of triggers, concomitants, and aftereffects into physical, physiological, psychological, and spiritual qualities of experience.

Hardy does this too, to an extent. Thus, his 7th category, Cognitive and Affective Elements, are primarily psychological and spiritual concomitants in our classification. His group 8, Development of Experience, is broken down according to whether the experience involved the individual alone or in relation to others and periods of significant development (life stages). We view 7 and 8 as aftereffects as well as Hardy’s 9th category, Dynamic Patterns of Experience, and his 12th, Consequences of Experience. That leaves his 11th category, Antecedents or "Triggers" of experience, which corresponds to our own by that name.

We have further developed the concept of EHEs to include the EHE process. William James, one of the pioneers in the study of spiritual transformation, Carl Jung, and Hardy himself, along with the work of many other scholars and experiencers led to our hypothesis of the EHE process. It is in effect the classical process of spiritual transformation, except the key stages or transitional experiences along the way we hypothesize are triggered by EHEs. Because they, in their many forms, seem to initiate and keep the process moving at all stages, we call it the EHE process. We feel it is a primary aim of our work to point out the essential role EEs/EHEs have played in human life throughout history, and perhaps more importantly, today. The importance of their role deserves as much recognition as we now give to empirical data and rational inference. Unfortunately, most people tend to recognize the results of the EHE process but not the process itself. This is an important reason why the EHE process is not sufficiently known, recognized, or honored. Hardy’s 9th category does recognize it.

Sir Alister Hardy and the RERC are to be congratulated on their ambitious undertaking in collecting 6,000 experiences and deriving one of the most extensive classifications in existence based on half of them.


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