The best books on religious experience

Miguel Farias Author Of The Oxford Handbook of Meditation
By Miguel Farias

Who am I?

From about the age of 14, I have been exploring how unusual ideas and experiences might change a person’s life. This led me to become an author and experimental psychologist studying the effects of religious beliefs, rituals, and meditation exercises on our minds and bodies. I have spent a good part of the last 4 years putting together a book which tries to answer many of my questions on the varieties of meditation practices around the world.   


I wrote...

The Oxford Handbook of Meditation

By Miguel Farias, David Brazier, Mansur Lalljee

Book cover of The Oxford Handbook of Meditation

What is my book about?

This is the most comprehensive volume published on meditation, written in accessible language by world-leading experts on the science and history of these techniques. It covers the development of meditation across the world and the varieties of its practices and experiences. These are some of the questions it addresses: what were meditation practices developed for and by whom? How similar or different are they, how effective can they be in changing our minds and biology, and what are their social and ethical implications?

The books I picked & why

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Sufis of Andalusia: The Ruh al-quds and al-Durrat al-Fakhirah

By Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi, R.W.J. Austin (translator),

Book cover of Sufis of Andalusia: The Ruh al-quds and al-Durrat al-Fakhirah

Why this book?

A delightful 12th-century spiritual travel book. As a young man, the mystic Ibn Arabi travels through southern Spain, Portugal, and North Africa in search of holy figures. He meets plenty of them, who tell him of their daily spiritual and physical discipline and experiences of God. In one of my favorite depictions, Ibn Arabi is harshly told off by one of the individuals who refuses to acknowledge he is the one whom the young traveler seeks — if people learn of his spiritual eminence, he finally confides, he will never have a moment of peace; there will be a never-ending queue of individuals seeking guidance, healing, and prayers from him.

The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman

By Davi Kopenawa, Bruce Albert, Nicholas Elliott (illustrator), Alison Dundy (illustrator)

Book cover of The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman

Why this book?

Imagine a Martian landing on planet Earth, meeting with people in Europe and the USA, and writing about it. Part of this book is filled with such freshness of vision and its cuts through the problems and vices of our civilization; the other part is no less of an extraordinary tale of a religious leader brought up in the Amazon who seems to move effortlessly between the natural and supernatural realms.


The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks

By Various, Benedicta Ward (translator),

Book cover of The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks

Why this book?

Here we have fragments of the lives of female and male hermits living in the Egyptian desert, trying to live the Christian life away from the temptations of cities. Colourful depictions of their relationships, experiences with angels and demons, and the techniques used to move closer to God and conquer human frailty. These accounts are a superb antidote to today’s mindfulness which feels rather mind-numbing compared to these accounts of meditation.    


Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism

By Gershom Scholem,

Book cover of Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism

Why this book?

From physical travel to the heavens to elaborate meditations on Hebrew letter permutations and terrifying dialogues with God: the richness of Jewish religious experience is narrated here with historical detail and psychological insight. Its final chapters which bring us close to our times are no less surprising: Scholem describes how the disillusionment with a prophetic figure who converts to Islam to save his own life sparked an atheist movement within Judaism. My favorite book on the psychology of religious experience, though written by a historian. 


The Forged Coupon: and Other Stories

By Leo Tolstoy,

Book cover of The Forged Coupon: and Other Stories

Why this book?

Tolstoy describes and plays with religious experiences across various of his novels. He doesn’t take them for granted: the initial enthusiasm and prospect of personal change seldom leads to real transformation. Here, though, in one of his last writings, we follow the contagious spell of true conversion of heart. When a serial murderer meets a pure soul his self is transformed and goes on to change the life of others. 


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Kabbalah, Brazil, and spirituality?

5,309 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the Kabbalah, Brazil, and spirituality.

The Kabbalah Explore 17 books about the Kabbalah
Brazil Explore 30 books about Brazil
Spirituality Explore 155 books about spirituality

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Mysticism, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, and The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature if you like this list.