Religion as a Technology of the Imagination: Reflections on the Significance of Religious Experience for the Science of Consciousness

Nathaniel Barrett, Institute for Culture and Society, Univesity of Navarra at Pamplona


What can the study of religious experience contribute to the science of consciousness? This paper outlines one way of seeking an answer to this question by focusing on “ordinary religious experiences” that are learned or cultivated through religious practice. Within this scope, I am especially interested in the effects of practice on the experience of everyday life. The central concept for my approach is imagination, considered as a basic condition for conscious experience. After a brief discussion of imagination and its role in experience, I propose to think of religious practice as a “technology of the imagination”: a set of techniques for changing our way of experiencing the world by reshaping the imagination. I suggest that this capacity is distinctly human: no other animal, it seems, can change its experience of the world. But religion is not the only such technology that we have. If music and other arts and disciplines can also work to change experience, what, if anything, sets religion apart? I close with a brief consideration of various naturalistic ways of distinguishing religion as a special technology of the imagination, highlighting those that are most suggestive for our understanding of human consciousness.