Religious Experience - mrslh Philosophy & Ethics
Religious Experience - mrslh Philosophy & Ethics
God exists – I spoke to him this morning
What is a religious experience?
Wholly other from what is customary or usual
Not usually describable
Not universal to human beings
Different interpretations in different cultures
Cannot be verified
Gives insight into the unseen
You cannot experience God unless he allows you to
• Any experience that is interpreted as religious.
Eat this sweet
• Write down what it tastes like.
• I can never experience things as you do – I do
not even know whether when we both call
something ‘sweet’ that it is the same taste for
both of us. Similarly, I cannot share your
religious experience – I can only feel mine.
‘Some people drink too much and see snakes,
whilst others fast too much and see God’.
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)
When a man says God spoke to him in a
dream it ‘…is no more than to say that he
dreamed that God spoke to him’.
Religious Experience and the argument
• A religious experience may be understood as any
encounter with God, or what is ultimate. It is an
experience of transcendent reality, seen in many
different ways in different faith traditions.
• There are actually a number of different types of
argument. For instance, some argue from ‘direct
awareness’ – the view that God can be known
intuitively (directly) by the person perceiving him.
This is very personal however, and has limited
capacity to persuade others.
• Most commonly, theistic philosophers have preferred
to talk about an argument from religious experience:
an inductive and a posteriori argument based on the
evidence of witnesses and testimonies.
A summary of the inductive argument
1. If an entity is experienced, it must exist
2. God is the sort of being that it is possible to
3. People claim to have experienced God
Other forms of argument
• A few other types of argument based on
religious experience might also be
considered, although they are less favoured
by modern philosophers.
• The ‘historical argument’ states that the
experiences of key individuals have been so
great and impressive that they must be true:
Mohammed, St. Paul, etc. Such individuals
had enormous influence after receiving
• The ‘cumulative argument’ states that so
many people have had religious experiences
in the past that they simply cannot all be
making it up. God must be the cause of (at
least some of) this.
St. Paul – vision of Christ knocked him
off his horse
The trouble with these arguments is
that they’re very subjective and
ambiguous. Who’s to say whether
Mohammed has had a ‘great’ impact
Also, it’s implausible that God would
be evident in all of these differing
experiences, since so many are so
different. Surely they rule each other
Read and annotate God and Human
• Draw up a table
• Reasons to support the argument from
• Reasons to refute the argument from religious
Is religious experience widespread?
31% of British people and 5% of Americans have felt
close to a powerful spiritual force or have had an
experience they consider to be religious’.
They experience may last for a few seconds but may
last a lot longer.
Those having the experience perceive it to be different
from any other kind of experience.
They produce a change in both behaviour and
Types of Religious Experience Swinburne
Ordinary Experiences – where a person interprets a natural
event as having religious significance
Extraordinary Experiences – experiences that violate normal
understanding of nature (ie turning water into wine)
Describable in ordinary language – (ie a dream)
Non Describable – experiences of God/wholly other that
cannot be explained using words. Teresa of Avila
Non Specific – looking at the world from a religious
Visions – 3 types
• Teresa Alvila – intellectual vision (more of an
• Bernadette of Lourdes – corporeal vision (seen
as a physical person)
• Joseph speaking to angels in a dream –
How would you categorise these?
• Awe and beauty and intricacies of God’s
creation, such as DNA
• A young girl seeing a vision of Mary
• John Wesley feeling that his heart had been
‘strangely warmed’ and his sins ‘removed’ by
• The Qur’an being revealed by Muhammad
(pbuh) by Allah
• Moses receiving the 10 commandments
John Hick – ‘experiencing as’
• John Hick developing from Wittgenstein’s
‘seeing as. Hick interpreted Religious
Experience similarly. It is not that people
are experiencing different things – but they
are experiencing the same thing differently.
The Varieties of Religious Experience
William James, author of
The Varieties of Religious
• A significant aspect of religious experience is the
considerable variety of types: conversions (like that of
St. Paul), corporate experiences, near death
experiences, or mystical encounters.
• The philosopher and psychologist William James was
impressed by this great variety. He thought that the
heart of religion lay in personal experiences which for
the individual would be “absolutely authoritative”.
James sees experiences as personally persuasive, rather
than as evidence to prove God to others inductively.
• James regarded mysticism as a significant state of mind
or awareness, identifying four key features of such
(1) Ineffability – they cannot be explained (2) Noetic Quality – they
impart knowledge, (3) Transiency – they are over quickly, (4)
Passivity – they come upon the individual without being sought
Teresa of Avila
Evaluating William James
Ineffable– they cannot be explained
Noetic - they impart knowledge
Transient - they are over quickly
Passive- they come upon the individual
without being sought after
• How could William James’ four characteristics be applied to
the St Teresa extract?
• How could William James’ four characteristic be applied to
another case study you have considered?
Criticisms of William James
• Logical Positivists would argue against this
• Bases his understanding on a subjective
understanding of religious experience.
• If we took David Hume’s approach to the
Cosmological and Teleological arguments –
there may be another reason for religious
experiences – a whole committee of gods,
demons or perhaps telepathic forces…
Philosophical Problem: Cultural
In Christian Europe,
it is common to hear
involve the Virgin
How do you
In India, Hindu
account for this?
likely to experience
1. Both experiences of the divine are objectively
2. One experience of the divine is objectively
true and others are objectively false
3. All experiences of the divine are subjectively
true, but none are objectively true
All are objectively true
• It is possible that all these experiences are
objectively true. This means that in Christian
Europe, the Virgin Mary is actually
encountered and similarly in India, Ganesh is
• But this causes problems – denies the truth
claims of major religions
• Denies the NECESSITY proposed by the
Ontological and Cosmological arguments. The
world seems to be shared by several Gods
who all claim to have created it.
One is true, and one is false
Paradise Lost (Milton)
• Argued that the Christian God is objectively
true and other religions are objectively false.
Whilst the Indian may have perceived himself
as experiencing Ganesh – it is infact a demon.
• However, if Demons can imitate religious
experience that well, who is to say that all
religious experiences have not been created
Both are subjectively true John Hick
• The pluralistic hypothesis.
• If the PH is true, then nobody
has a direct experience of the
divine. Hick calls this ‘the real’
– not even Moses. Everyone
‘clothes’ the divine in symbols
,images and forms that are
personally or culturally
meaningful to them.
Criticism of Swinburne
• JL Mackie (Credulity) In the balance of
probabilities, it is more likely that a person is
mistaken than God is the explanation.
• Gale – religious experience is not the same as
other types of experience and therefore
normal rules do not apply. Whilst normally
we should trust our senses. However, if we
dream we have seen monsters under our bed,
then in a sense, we have ‘experienced’ a
monster under the bed. Yet wouldn’t argue
that it was veridical.
• Davis argues that whilst normally we should
accept what people say as a matter of course,
however ‘God’ is not a trivial matter that we
would be happy to take someone else’s word
for. Swinburne needs to make a much
• Michael Martin suggests that Swinburne’s
credulity and testimony can be used to
suggest that God doesn’t exist.
• An atheist may have a strong sense of the
absence of God; using Swinburne’s argument
perhaps we should assume that the world is
as the experience suggests – there is NO God.
that the world is probably.
Weaknesses of the argument
The problem with an inductive argument is that it only ever gives probable
explanations for states of affairs. This can lead to questionable ‘leaps’ in
the evidence. Claims to experience God can never amount to proof as
there are many alternative explanations: states of mind can be chemically
or drug induced, or they might be part of a natural and sub-conscious
healing process, or they might result from activity in the temporal lobes.
A number of philosophers have also made criticisms of
the argument from religious experience. J.L. Mackie has
argued that it is wrong to draw evidence from people’s
claims to religious experiences on the grounds that there
are ‘disanalogies’ between these and other normal
experiences. Mackie states that religious experiences
have different characteristics from other perceptions, so
they should not carry the same degree of authority. They
are not part of the same scheme of shared and verifiable
experiences common in daily life.
• The argument from religious experience is also
challenged by the ‘verification principle’, supported
by the British philosopher and atheist A.J. Ayer. This
is the principle that a proposition can only be
meaningful if it could be verified analytically or
• That is, we could only regard religious experiences
as meaningful if we could check their truth through
the logical sense of the terms (analytically) or
through gathering some body of supporting
• Ayer is particularly critical of mysticism, because it
tries to ascribe significance to a being (God) who,
by definition, cannot be meaningfully described. If
there is no possible way to check what is meant by
‘God’, then why should we accept the validity of
has something to say about this
debate. In his book The God Delusion,
Dawkins tells a story from his student
days. He recalls that a fellow
Scotland and claimed to have heard
“the voice of the devil – Satan
In fact, it was just the call of the Manx
Shearwater (or ‘Devil Bird’), which has
an evil sounding voice.
For Dawkins, this highlights the key
problem with personal experiences.
They are often used in an appeal to
God because people are ignorant of
more straightforward physical or
psychological explanations for what
the perceive. It is an argument based
Possible responses to criticisms
• Mackie’s claim that religious experiences are disanalogous with normal
experiences seems harsh. William Alston suggests that there is
continuity in our experiences, focusing on our ability to check
perceptions, detect regularity, share experience, and have common
views of public objects between cultures. Religion might well fit into
• Dawkins’ use of a personal anecdote is not revealing of religious
experience as a whole. In most cases, testimony or personal
experience are not easily deconstructed in natural or psychological
Contrary to Scooby Doo, there isn’t
always a ‘perfectly straightforward
Can we verify religious
experiences? What would a
good method be like?
Burden of proof: do the religious
have to prove their experiences
are genuine, or must sceptics
Should God be something we can
experience for ourselves?
Are religious experiences
really different from normal
Alternatives to Religious
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