Introducing ‘Disruption’ to Acute Religious Experiences: An Interdisciplinary approach to a multidisciplinary problem

  • Richard Saville-Smith University of Edinburgh


Psychiatry and Religious Studies have common interests in extreme and extraordinary states when articulated in the languages of religions. For Religious Studies the problems with the category of religious experience are philosophical and profound; whilst the resurgence of interest in religion by psychiatrists (three meta-analyses in the past five years) has not repaired the damaging legacy of reductionist interpretations.

In this paper I adopt an interdisciplinary approach to the religious experience discourse. From psychiatry I apply the new idea of Disruption, which makes its first appearance in the US psychiatric textbook DSM-5 (APA, 2013); and the older Biopsychosocial model (Engel, 1977). From Physiology I apply the language of ‘ictal’ (Adachi, 2002, 2010) to privilege a dynamic idea of time. These concepts involve particular epistemological presuppositions and, as this is an interdisciplinary, rather than a multidisciplinary contribution, these will be critically developed.

The approach I propose provides a way of holistically addressing the categories of Mysticism, Possession and Altered States of Consciousness, as acute or extreme categories of experience. I propose that the idea of ‘Disruption’ can act as a pre-interpretive placeholder for a real existential experience which might (or might not) result in a non-pathological diagnosis of religious experience. The outcome depends on the socialisation of interpretation. I hope to show that the idea that there might be alternative interpretations removes the need for a sui generis defence of religious experience. By insisting on a biopsychosocial approach within an ictal framework, a way beyond the linguistic impasse of interpretation is proposed; the essentialism, implicit in the mysticism discourse, is questioned; and the non-medicalisation of Possession confirmed.

The limitations of this paper point to the opportunity for further conversations between interested parties, including people with experiences of Disruption.

How to Cite
SAVILLE-SMITH, Richard. Introducing ‘Disruption’ to Acute Religious Experiences: An Interdisciplinary approach to a multidisciplinary problem. Journal of the British Association for the Study of Religion (JBASR), [S.l.], v. 18, p. 25-45, feb. 2017. ISSN 2516-6379. Available at: <>. Date accessed: 29 mar. 2023. doi: