Religious Experience


William James AO1

William James (1842-1910) was a psychologist who responded to Freud (also a psychologist). He said that although it's unreasonable to believe in a universal God, these experiences strongly suggest a personal God for each individual.

James says that an experience is genuine if it is:

  • Noetic - Able to gain partial knowledge of God 
  • Transcient - The effects of the experience do not last long
  • Passive - Under the complete influence/control of God
  • Ineffable - Is imposible to describe in words
  • Leaves a postivie effect on the persons life after the eperience

James will use psychological testing to check if the experience was caused by God or if it was the person interpreting it incorrectly. 

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Conversion Experience AO1

Saul was a devout Pharisse (Jewish man) who persecuted Christians. 

Saul was travelling to arrest Christians and persecute them in Jerusalem. In the Book of Acts in the Bible it claims that Saul saw a flash of light from heaven and claims to have heard God ask him why he persecutes Christians. 

He was blinded from the experience and then a few days later he converted to Christianity - He wrote many parts of the new testament. 

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Mystical Experience AO1

Isaiah (6:1-3) is said to be one of the greatest prophests, he had a religious experience of God in a temple. 

He saw many bright flashing lights and felt the whole temple shake, he claims to have seen visions of an angel with 6 wings. 

From these mystical descriptions it shows that he witnessed God. 

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Corporate Experience AO1

The pentecost  is a well known corporate experience. 

Gods Apostles were all visited by the Holy Spirit and given the gift of speaking in tongues (different languages) after Jesus' resurection. 

This gift allowed them to spread Gods message. 

Found in the Book of Acts 

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Definition of Key Terms AO1

Religious Experience - A subjective experience which is interpreted by a religious framework. 

Mystical Experience - A supernatural experience where the person can hear voices, see visons and feel an overwhelming presence of God, e.g. St Theresa of Avila 

Corporate Experience - A group of people have the same experiecne at the same time, e.g. Toronto Blessing  

Conversion Experience - Someone abandons their old way of life to start living a new way, e.g. Nicki Cruz 

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Swinburne AO2

Swinburne (1934-today) belives that religious experiences should be taken just as seriously as normal experiences unless there is good reason to disbelieve someone. He developed the ideas of the principle of credulity and testimony:

  • Credulity - He believes that our senses are reliable and that we should trust what we see/feel as it is generally valid as long as the person is healthy. 
  • Testimony - He believes that we should always believe and trust what peole tell us as generally people tell the truth and would not lie about an experience. 


  • Feurbach would say that God is just a human projection, what we see is just a reflction of our desires or aspirations.
  • Bertrand Russell would say that our senses are unreliabe as 'if you drink too much you see snakes'. This may link to platos view on the senses being unreliable.
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Schleiermacher AO2

Schleiermacher (1769-1834) was a theologian who believed that religious experience was at the heart of all faith

He did not belive that religious experiences required any testing as they are self-authenticating. However for the experience to be genuine in his eyes you need to feel 'complete dependance on God


  • Swinburne would support him and suggest that all of our experiences are genuine and do not require any testing to be real, we should trust (principle of credulity) 
  • William James may argue that the experience always needs to be tested to check if it is caused by God even if it fits into the criteria of it being genuine. 
  • However James notes that the experience is genuine if it is passive 
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Otto AO2

Otto (1869-1937)  believed that every religious experience is a feeling of awe and wonder in the presnce of God. He says that everyone who experience God should accept them for what they are. 


  • 53% of UK modern society do not consider themselves to be religious and therefore we can assume that other factors will cause people to have religious experiences. 
  • Psychologists (Freud and Feurbach) would say that these experiences are just 'wish fulfilment'
  • Dawkin would say that religious experiences are 'tricks of the mind', he believes that we are programmed to see faces and hear voices even if they are not there. People who believe these experiences are from God are impressionable or have been bought up to believe this.
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Dawkins AO2

Dawkins (1941-today) believed that these experiences are a 'trick of the mind' and that people who trust them to be God are impressionable and have been bought up to believe this. 


  • Swinburne would argue that it is not a trick of the mind and that we need to trust what our senses tell us, principle of credulity
  • Although they would disaree, James would say that we need to carry out psychological testing to see if it was caused by God or caused by a trick on the mind.
  • Bertrand Russell would suggest that "if you drink too much you see snakes" suggesting that different factors can cause an experience to be interpreted wrong 
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Freud AO2

Freud (1856-1939) was a neurologist and linked religion to mental illness. He observed some mentally ill patients and began to see links between them and religious people. He belived that they both showed obbsessive behaviours e.g. prayer and worship. 

He also belived that religious experiences were a form of wishful thinking and a projection of human desires (similar to Feurbach), Jesus or God may have also been a vision of a father figure that the person is lacking 


  • Fuerbach said that religious experience was just 'wish fulfilment' and that the visions were just a projection of what humans desire. 
  • Dawkins would agree that there is no evidence for religion and prevents thinking of why the universe was created, also that religion is most likely a menal illness ("the root of all evil documentary")
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Kant A02

Kant (1724-1804) believed that as humans we can only experience things in the empirical world, this would make it impossible for us to ever experience God. Our senses are finite and limited therefore we cannot ever experience and unlimited God. 


  • Dawkins says that there is no evidence of God and therefore we cant ever experience God. 
  • Plato would say that we should not use empirical knowledge as it decieves us from the truth. 
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