International Journal of Existential Positive Psychology

How Atheists Interpret Self-Transcendent Experiences: An Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis of Three Atheist Men

Alison Manuel-Morgan, M.Sc.

University of East London

Tim Lomas, Ph.D.

University of East London


Self-transcendent experiences have mystical connotations. While there is a growing body of research on the well-being benefits of different self-transcendent experiences, little has been done to understand the differences between theistic and non-theistic interpretations of this phenomena. Using interpretative phenomenological analysis, semi-structured interviews were conducted with three atheist men, each having had different types of intense self-transcendent experiences. Three interrelated master themes centring around the transformational benefits of STEs were identified: 1) embracing their STEs as a sublime encounter, 2) viewing the phenomena as rationally explainable and, 3) choosing to secularly articulate the experience and incorporate its benefits into their lives. The findings of this exploratory study support the conclusion that atheists interpret, apply and benefit from STEs differently to theists. They further suggest that through a new language for spirituality, the phenomena of STEs may be liberated from its supernatural associations to be better assimilated within the secular domain of mainstream society.

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