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Joshua Elliot Bovill 18th January 2010
`Arguments from religious experience are never convincing.' (35 marks)
Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud present challenges to religious experiences.
Marx's challenges to religious experience arguments are sociological he suggested that the
origins of religious experience are to be found in society.
He states religion is about mythological beliefs and an unreal god that distracted people from
the real world, religion is `the opium of the people', religious experiences create alienation
and a religious experience could be the product of the desperate situation in which a person
Freud's challenges to religious experience arguments are psychological he suggested that
religious experiences are a product of human psychology.
He states religion is an illusion, religion expresses people's desires and religion originates
from a childlike desire for a God who resembles a father figure.
Some people have rejected James' claim that religious experience is primary. For example,
many sociologists point out that the most likely people to have religious experiences are
those who are already religious.
However James' view has its weaknesses, for example some people have suggested that
religious experiences are similar to hallucinations caused by drugs such as LSD. Furthermore
J.L. Mackie argued in `The Miracle of Theism' that if mystical experiences are explainable
psychologically, which James' stated is possible, then mystical experiences can have no
authority even for the person who has the experience. Instead, Mackie suggest that people
who believe mystical experiences are authoritative are `insufficiently critical'.
Challenges to religious experience arguments include physiological challenges.
One argument against religious experiences suggests that they have a physiological cause
this means they are the product of physical changes in the body. For example did Paul have
epilepsy? This could possibly explain his experience of bright light. Equally, it is known that
damage to the brain can cause hallucinations and delusions, as can brain tumours.
The weakness of this challenge is that there is no evidence that every person who has had a
religious experience was suffering from an illness that can cause side effects such as
hallucinations, visions and delusions in its victims.
Many commentators, such as William James, suggest that the authority of an experience is
limited to the person who has the experience. If this is the case, religious experience
arguments are never valid for anyone except the person who had the experience.
William James stated the four characteristics of mystical experiences as ineffable, noetic,
transient and passive.
Ineffable is used to refer to experiences that are beyond human powers and abilities to fully
describe and communicate. In particular it is used to describe the fact that God is entirely
distinct from physical objects and it goes beyond human ability to describe God accurately.
Noetic refers to something that gives knowledge, such as a revelation from God in which
God reveals something.
Transience refers to the fact that religious experiences are experiences that are temporary.
The experiences do not last forever.
Passive describes the common state of a person who has a religious experience. Often
people do not seek out or will religious experiences instead the experience happens to
them they are passive.
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Joshua Elliot Bovill 18th January 2010
On the other hand there are arguments in favour of religious experience arguments.
Philosophers such as Alston and Swinburne argue in favour of religious experience
Richard Swinburne, `The Existence of God', has suggested that there are five recognisable
types of religious experience, which he divides into two groups public and private
Public experiences can further be divided into ordinary experiences and extraordinary