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5. the primal core

At the heart of many religious movements, particularly new religions, lie "primal experiences"--unexpected vivid encounters that are considered to be other than "normal." Such experiences take many forms. Above all, they not only shock those who experience them but also bring about a change in their attitude toward the material world. Primal experiences involve such things as dreams, visions, voices, spiritual healings, a sense of presence, notions of destiny, sightings of ghosts, inexplicable spiritual phenomena, and other "occult" events. Primal experiences are important for new religious movements because they affirm the reality of the new mythology. Before a person has a primal experience, he or she may view the new mythology as simply an unusual or even intriguing way of seeing the world. But following such an experience, even novel myths seem unremarkable and acceptable.

Primal experiences give life to mythology in a startling way. They are enough out of the ordinary that secular society tends to deny that they are real. And because primal experiences are unusual, medical and psychiatric establishments identify them as abnormal and classify the people who have them as disturbed or mentally ill. Naturally, most people do not welcome being labeled in this fashion, and so even people whose lives are changed by primal experiences are often reluctant to talk about them.

Nevertheless, many people do speak of having primal experiences outside the context of a new religion. When they later join a movement of their choice, they note that in the outside world they had felt odd and uneasy about telling anyone of their experience but that within the new religion they have found a ready audience. They find that other members of the new religion not only take their particular experience seriously but reinforce its reality by relating tales about similar experiences that others have had. More importantly, new converts find that within the new religion their hitherto unexplained and somewhat embarrassing experiences are given a convincing theological interpretation in terms of the ideology of the group ...