Edexcel course notes: extension material on Rudolf Otto’s discussion of numinous religious experience/secularization.

From the Edexcel syllabus:

2.1 The nature of religious experience   a) Context of religious experience across religious traditions, range of definitions related to belief in God and/or ultimate reality, theistic and monistic views, ineffability, noetic, transience, passivity.   b) Types: conversion, prayer, meditation, mysticism, numinous. Relationship between religious experience and propositional and non-propositional revelation.   c) Alternative explanations, physiological and naturalistic interpretations, objectivist and subjectivist views.

With reference to the ideas of W James and R Otto.
Although this might seem like something taken from the pages of Viz Comic, this is actually the philosopher and author Colin Wilson recounting a youthful Carl Jung’s experience of the numinous.

The following is a brief extract from Douglas E. Cowan’s Sacred Terror: Religion and Horror on the Silver Screen in which he discusses Rudolf Otto’s theology of the ‘numinous’.

As every reader of Otto or his many interlocutors knows, arguably his central concept is the numinous, the “holy” shorn of any ethical or rational trappings. “There is no religion”, he writes, ” in which it does not live as the real, innermost core” ([1923] 1950, 6)…As such, [Otto] does not dispute that the idea of the holy has come to mean “goodness, absolute goodness” ([1923] 1950, 6), but he points out that it has done so only as human religious belief, practice, and most importantly, reflection, have evolved and developed.

Rather, in the holy, he is talking about a “unique feeling response”, an affect that when it “first emerges and begins its long development, all those expressions…mean beyond all question something quite other than “the good” ([1923] 1950, 6). Whatever criticism we can offer about the theological assumptions built into Otto’s argument, one of the most important aspects to grasp is that the primordial religious state or experience is affective; it is a feeling, an emotion. …Reflecting on a “‘fear’ that is more than fear proper’ and citing such passages as Exodus 23:27 (“I will send my terror in front of you…) and Job 9:34 (“…not let dread of him terrify me”) – Otto writes that “here we have a terror fraught with an inward shuddering such as not even the most menacing and overpowering created thing can instil [sic]. It has something spectral to it” ([1923] 1950, 13, 14).

Cowan continues, quoting Otto as follows:

“It is this feeling which, emerging in the mind of primeval man, forms the starting-point for the entire religious development in history. “Daemons” and “gods” alike spring from this root, and all the products of “mythological apperception” or “fantasy” are noting but different modes in which it has been objectified “.

Whether Otto is correct in saying that human religion finds its genesis in fear, he points directly at the heart of sacred terror. Even when this primordial dread has long passed into systematic theology, ritual, dogma, and sheer fancy, it is never far from the surface of the soul. “That this is so”, writes Otto, “is shown by the potent attraction again and again exercised by the element of horror and ‘shudder’ in ghost stories, even among persons of high, all-round education” ([1923] 1950, 16). Since the turn of the twentieth century, cinema horror has been one of different modes, in which this fear has been objectified. It has become our campfire, our blanket and flashlight, our haunted house, the place to which our imaginations return when we confront the dread of the unseen order. “The ‘cold blood’ feeling may be a symptom of ordinary, natural fear,” Otto concludes, “but there is something non-natural or supernatural about the symptom of ‘creeping flesh’ “([1923] 1950, 16). The chapters that follow explore a number of ways in which scary movies have peeled away the veneer of late modern sophistication to reveal the “daemonic dread” that still lurks beneath.

The problems with Otto’s account of the numinous have already been noted here. To recap them, first of all, many religious experiences are mystical in character and involve a sense of unity with or non-separation from an ultimate reality that is both peaceful and tranquil (rather than terrifying) and also non-theistic in some cases. For example, Buddhist experiences of enlightenment or Nirvana tick both of these boxes. In other words, there is no God that one feels oneself to be in awe of and separate from. The unity of the atman or soul with the impersonal Brahman in the Hindu Upanishads is also noteworthy, and the oldest date back to the 7th Century BCE. They appear to be the product of the practice of yoga, an ancient contemplative technique and one which might be equally catagorized as primal. A sense of non-separation from God can also be found in the mystical writings of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which in turn implies an emphasis on the immanence of God, rather than the transcendence that Otto seeks to foreground.

Otto’s claim that at its core, religion is emotional and grounded in fear has, nevertheless, some explanatory power. It is not difficult to imagine that the first human beings felt themselves to be very much at the mercy of natural forces over which they had little control, forces which they thought were expressions of the power of the gods (or a God). Sacrifice might have been one way to placate these divine powers. We see Noah do this in the book of Genesis after the Flood, and the system of Brahminic ritual and sacrifice found in early Hinduism is another example.

In his discussion of the genre of Horror movies, Cowan goes on to argue that many films of this type explore religious themes and values, which in turn betrays our vestigial preoccupation with religion itself. As he puts it himself:

“We may tell ourselves that we are becoming more sophisticated in our world view, that we have left behind the superstitions of the past, that our explanations for unexpected phenomena now account for their origin and power without reference to supernatural beings or powers, and that religion is no longer a necessary component of social life – but in North America, at least, most of the data available to us indicate otherwise. Indeed, the issue is not one of secularization – that cinema horror discloses to us the abandonment or minimization of religious belief in late modern society – but an overwhelming ambivalence toward the religious traditions, beliefs, practices, and mythistories by which we are confronted, in which we are still often deeply invested, which we are distinctly unwilling to relinquish, and which we just as often only minimally understand.”


  1. What are your favourite horror movies?
  2. To what extent do these films explore religious beliefs and practices?
  3. Are there any ways in which they exhibit an ambivalent attitude to religion?
  4. Is Cowan correct to claim that the continued popularity of horror movies represents a challenge to the secularization hypothesis?
  5. Are there any other reasons for the popularity of horror movies that might indicate that the religious content does not show that we still take religion seriously?
  6. Can cinematic horror be used to support Otto’s ideas about numinous religious experience?
  7. Is Otto right to suggest that religious experiences are essentially emotional, with a particular emphasis on fear and awe?