Religious Experience

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A2 Philosophy: Religious Experiences
What does the exam board expect you to know?
Arguments of religious experience from William James, the aims and main
conclusions drawn by William James in his book The Varieties of Religious
Experience and the following forms of religious experience: visions, voices,
`numinous' experience, conversion experience, corporate religious experience
and the concept of revelation through sacred writings.
The traditional arguments for the existence of God are at best inconclusive.
Most philosophers would agree that the existence of god cannot be proved or
demonstrated to others. Religious experiences are different as for those who
have these experiences they have authority and convince them of their
religious beliefs even more or in some cases persuade them to change what
their beliefs actually are.
-Over 30% of British people have "felt close to a powerful spiritual force" or
have had an experience which they might consider as "religious". Those who
have these experiences often speak of them as being very different to any
other kind of experience. They can also produce a change in both behaviour and
attitudes about the world.
What is clear is that there are a huge variety of different religious experiences.
These include: mystical experiences, numinous experiences, visions, voices,
corporate experiences, miracles and corporate experiences. The main question
which we must ask ourselves in this topic, what if anything does religious
experiences show?
Differences between a mystical and a numinous religious experience
Mystical- feeling at one with God- God is revealed directly
Numinous- experiences of awe and wonder in the presence of an almighty God.
(Difference being you are not at one with God, you are just in the presence)
William James and his book The Varieties of Religious experience: a study in
human nature.
James was a psychologist and aimed in his book to survey the various types of
religious experience and its implications for philosophy. William James defined
religious experience as "psychological phenomena" however, he did not
believe that it caused problems for religious belief, instead religious
experiences actually were evidence of a God. Although some psychologists
viewed religious experiences as evidence of some kind of mental disorder,
James disagreed and placed such accounts as central to any understanding of
James focuses on mystical experiences chiefly in his book, as a mystical
experience is something which is difficult to define, James recognised this and

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Passive- the experience is not initiated by the person experiencing it
but rather they have a sense that something is acting upon them.
Ineffable- The experience is beyond proper description. No adequate
description can be given in words.
Noetic- Despite the ineffability mystical states are not just feelings, the
experience gives the mystic a deep and direct knowledge of God.
Transient- The experience is temporary and cannot be sustained,
although it's effects may last a long time.…read more

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Mackie argued that if mystical experiences are explainable psychologically (as
James said they are) then mystical experiences can have no authority even for
the person who has that experience. How can we trust our minds? Mackie
suggests that people who believe mystical experiences are authoritative are
"insufficiently critical".
Numinous religious experiences
The name `numinous' comes from the Latin `numen' meaning to bow the head.
Numinous experiences are experiences of awe and wonder in the presence of
the divine.…read more

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Numinous experiences cannot be the only ones as
other types of experiences are well documented.
Other Understandings of religious experience
Schleiermacher agreed with Otto that religious experiences are primarily
emotional. These emotions are deeper than reason. Schleiermacher believed
that the experiences are not numinous but are at their core a feeling of
absolute dependence upon the divine. Experiences are a dependence upon a
"source of power that is distinct from the world" and at the very heart of
religion.…read more

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Conversion and Corporate experiences
Conversion experiences: Although it is not empirically possible to detect a
religious experience, the changing result of that experience is something
which can be detected. Often after someone claims to have had a religious
experience they experience a dramatic change in their lives.…read more

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Bible and question whether the experience fits in with what is revealed in
Gods nature elsewhere.
Wilkinson and Campbell note that it would be necessary to evaluate each
person's experience as some might have been carried away with the
atmosphere. Some might fake the experience- relates to mass hysteria.
Swinburne's defence of religious experience
Swinburne suggested that there is no reason why claims of religious
experience should be treated any differently to ordinary empirical claims.
Swinburne offers two principles to support this.…read more

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Freud believed that human religious behaviour was a neurosis caused by
childhood insecurities and the desire for a father-figure to protect us.
According to Freud, religious experiences are hallucinations that have a simple
psychological explanation, just as dreams are caused by deep desires which we
are unaware of, religious experiences are also the product of our subconscious
and are caused by the desire for security and meaning. If they prove that God
exists then we no longer need to fear death.…read more


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