Religious Experience Essay

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Krystianne Hall
Religious Experience
Critically assess, with reference to William James, the arguments from religious
[35 marks]
There are many arguments for the existence of God. The oldest of which is the argument from
religious experience, also known as the experiential argument. A religious experience is a
nonempirical occurrence, which may be perceived as supernatural. It is a `mental event'
undergone by an individual of which that person is aware. Such experiences are usually
spontaneous however can be brought about by intense training and selfdiscipline. Experiences
of this nature are of great religious significance. We are interested solely in five types of
Religious experience: numinous, corporate and conversion experience, visions and voices. But
the main issue raised by this subject is whether or not the experiential argument is evidence of
the existence of God. Richard Swinburne would argue yes: `an omnipotent and perfectly good
creator will seek to interact with his creatures and in particular with human persons capable of
knowing him' (Swinburne's Is There a God?). However it could be argued no, that it is simply a
`mental event' going on inside someone's head, like a dream or a memory. William James
(18421910), a US psychologist and philosopher from Harvard University, wrote arguably the
bestknown book ever written on religious experience in the early twentieth century: The Varieties
of Religious Experience. James set out to study religious experience through scientific
investigation, taking an objective a stance as possible and his findings are of great significance in
the field.
There are many biblical examples of religious experience, such of that as St. Paul in the Acts of
the Apostles, Acts 9.38. St Paul not only experiences voices (the act of hearing the
supernatural/religious leader communicate with you) but also undergoes conversion. Saul is
travelling from Jerusalem to Damascus on a mission designed to continue the Jewish campaign
against the Christian sector. As Saul approaches Damascus he has an intense experience. A
light shone around him and he was knocked to the ground, he was then struck blind and heard a
voice say: `Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?' `Who are you Lord?' Saul asked. `I am
Jesus, whom you are persecuting' he replied, `now get up and go into the city and you will be told
what to do'. This voice Saul `identified as the risen Jesus'. This experience led to the conversion
of Saul, the arch persecutor of the Infant church, into Paul, the arch evangelist and apostle of the
Gentiles. However this experience could be argued physiologically, Paul may have had a medical
illness or an epileptic seizure, or psychologically, perhaps it was just a hallucination. Freud's
psychological approach against religious experience would simply argue that the experience was
down to psychological need the desire to project a father image onto the universe.
Descartes highlighted many of the problems with the argument from religious experience when
he showed just how uncertain most of our everyday perceptions were let alone those of

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Krystianne Hall
supposed divine origin. Swinburne however would argue this point with his principles of credulity
and testimony. The principle of credulity states that if it seems to a subject that x is present, then
x probably is present what one seems to perceive is probably so. In other words experience is
usually reliable and can be trusted. The principle of testimony works in a similar way. Usually
people tell the truth.…read more

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Krystianne Hall
the shift is religious, then we are probably dealing with a religious conversion. Edwin D Starbuck
does not believe that the conversion experience is proof of God he says that conversion is a
normal adolescent process and is needed to allow a child to move from their small world into the
wider intellectual and spiritual life of maturity.
William James book The Varieties of Religious Experience is regarded as a classic for looking at
religious experience in an objective, yet sympathetic way.…read more

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Krystianne Hall
the existence of God, but to take an objective stance in the matter. Taking the same approach as
David Hume did to the cosmological and teleological arguments for God's existence: perhaps
religious experiences are not created by God, but by a whole committee of Gods, or even
demons, or perhaps by some telepathic force of some kind. Although the experience may be
occurring, it does not prove God.…read more

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Krystianne Hall
the experience within our own framework. But what is considered by many as the greatest
criticism of religious experience comes from Immanuel Kant. Kant rejected all claims to religious
experiences. He did so because God is not an object in space and time and, since humans have
only got five senses which are used to record experiences of spatiotemporal objects, then it is
impossible for God to be experienced by humans at all.…read more


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