The Experience Project awards $1.7 million to 22 research projects

Author: Brian Wallheimer

O'Shaughnessy Hall sunrise

A research collaboration that aims to build new understanding about how religious and transformative experiences occur and shape people’s lives is awarding its first round of funding with more than $1.7 million going to 22 projects.

The Experience Project, a $5.1 million project supported by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, looks to answer questions about how religious experiences affect a person’s concept of God; how transformative experiences can affect a person’s identity, values, belief system and behaviors; and how religious and other types of transformative experiences differ.

The project is co-directed by Michael Rea, a professor of philosophy, and Samuel Newlands, the William J. and Dorothy K. O’Neill Collegiate Associate Professor in Philosophy — both of the University of Notre Dame’s College of Arts and Letters — and L.A. Paul, a professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s College of Arts and Sciences.

One component of the project, Rea said, focuses on the nature and significance of religious experiences.

“We’re trying to figure out what we can and should conclude about God and God’s love for us through the patterns and varieties of religious experiences throughout the world,” he said.

Another component focuses on ordinary but momentous events people face every day, Paul said.

“The project takes a bold new approach to understanding some of life’s deepest existential questions by exploiting the resources of analytic philosophy and empirical social science to try to get a better sense of the importance and meaning of lived experience, self-realization and our understanding of our place in the world,” she said.

The project offers non-residential funding and residential fellowships at Notre Dame’s Center for Philosophy of Religion and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and also funds a series of collaborative workshops.

Project funding falls into one of three research categories — social science, philosophy and philosophy of religion.

Among the projects receiving non-residential funding are:

  • “Receptivity of God through Ritual,” by Terence Cuneo, a University of Vermont professor of philosophy. Cuneo will investigate the connection between religious experience and religious activity, especially liturgical activity in the Christian tradition. Through four essays, Cuneo will explore the ways in which people come to appreciate rituals and the crucial role they play in developing an ability to experience God in the ordinary.
  • “Transformative Understanding,” by Tania Lombrozo, a University of California, Berkeley, associate professor of psychology. Lombrozo will develop the claim that gaining understanding — as opposed to simply gaining knowledge — is a transformative experience that can change beliefs, values and attitudes. Through a series of studies, she will investigate the nature of transformation people undergo when coming to understand something new and how that understanding can change worldviews.
  • “Shifting Bodies, Shifting Feelings: Birth Transforms Positive Emotions from Self-Relevant to the Selfless,” by June Gruber and Sona Dimidjian, psychology faculty members at the University of Colorado Boulder. The pair will test folk theory assumptions that birth radically transforms one’s experience of emotions in ways that cannot be understood without having had the experience. They will examine how birth enhances emotional diversity, specifically selfless emotions.

Nineteen additional projects, including researchers at institutions such as University of Oxford, Princeton University, Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will receive funding in the first round. For a complete list, visit

In an upcoming funding cycle, the Experience Project will award additional grants for work in philosophy, theology and religious studies. For more about the project, visit