Indirect Religious Experiences


Indirect Religious Experiences

Experiences, thoughts or feelings about God which are prompted by ordinary experiences in daily life such as observing the stars, watching beautiful sunset etc. 

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Richard Swinburne - Public + Private Experiences

5 recognisable types of religious experiences: 

Public =

1. Ordinary Experiences = where person interprets natural event as having religious significance. E.g. beauty of the natural world

2. Extraordinary Experiences = appear to violate normal understanding of the workings of nature. E.g. Jesus walking on water 

Private =

1. Describable in Ordinary Language = experience such as dreams, can be put into words. (Joseph's dream in BIble (Matthew 2)

2. Non-describable Experiences = direct experiences where God is revealed (beyond human powers of description) (St. Teresa of Avila)

3. Non-specific Experiences = e.g. looking at the world from a religious perspective.

= wide range of experiences under 'religious experiences' umbrella.

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Principle of Credulity + Testimony = Evaluation R.

Two principles used to assess claims about R.E.

1) Principle of Credulity = ought to believe things are as they seem to be unless and until we have evidence that they are mistaken. E.g. drugs influence, pathological liar etc.

  • However, some argue that religion itself is a particular circumstance, and that you are more likely to see things which aren't there if you belong to a religious group

2) Principle of Testimony = appeals to idea that people usually tell the truth. 

  • However, this can be criticised as a view that is far too optimistic and idealistic for mankind


Just because not everyone doesn't have R.E, does not reject possibility.

People w/o religious beliefs may find harder to recognise R.E as R.E, reason perhaps why only people who have R.E's are already religious (able to interpret easily)

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William James Argument Background

Mystics frequently use paradoxes to describe experiences, indicating difficulty of describing/expressed to others.

Likened to music than a conceptual speech.

Great authority for person concerned, often have a marked effect on person's life, become central and affects their behaviour.

Because so powerful, religious experiences = inspiration for and source of religious institutions.

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James' identification of four characteristics

These will enable to identify mystical experiences: PINT (rearrange)

1. Ineffability = most easily recognisable, sensations beyond verbal description - unutterable or if given then meaningless to listener because experience very individualistic.

2. Noetic Quality = states of knowledge, not just emotional experiences. Bring new insights/unobtainable truths beyond what intellect can grasp = revelations from God.

3. Transiency = do not last long, range from 2 mins to 2 hours. Significance still great to individual despite physical duration. May seem long when in reality quite short. 

4. Passivity = loss of control to more powerful being, feeling 'overwhelmed' - assuming entirely different personalities, writing/drawing prophetic visions/messages with opposite hand to normal or speaking in different voice/language.

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James' view on origins of religious experiences -

James = sign that religious experience from God if leaves behind 'a good disposition'. 

Michael Abrams stabbing George Harrison in 2001 believed heard voices telling him to do this. Voices did not leave good disposition = not from God, Abrams mentally ill. 

  • Authority + meaning for only individual who has the experience.
  • Religious experiences can be linked to our subconscious ideas.
  • On their own do not demonstrate existence of God, but can suggest existence of something larger than ourselves and in that union find our greatest peace. 

'Psychological Phenomena', not argument against belief in God, just means natural to a person like a self-awareness or thinking. (Could be from God too)

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Evaluation - are R.E veridical?

William James - R.E highly subjective + no authority for non-experiencer, but could bring benefits to recipients + society (individual changes, people learn from him/her?)

Emile Durkheim - person who has R.E, does not only see new truths of which unbeliever is ignorant, but is stronger.

Carl Jung (psychologist) impressed by healing effects of R.E. 

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Challenges - Drugs/Alcohol

R.E similar to hallucinations caused by drugs - LSD, alcohol / James recognised, said despite taking drugs/alcohol can still be a genuine experience: "drunken consciousness one bit of the mystic consciousness' - no evidence every person with R.E drug/alcohol user.

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Physiological and Psychological Challenges


  • Illness - epilepsy, brain tumours/damage 
  • Harsh practices of aesetics e.g. starving themselves, lack of sleep 


  • Associates with neurosis 
  • Religion fulfilling people's psychological needs - wishful thinking - religion = illusion
  • Religious experiences only part of this fulfilment. 
  • Religion - child-like desire for a God who resembles a father figure
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Criticisms of Freud

Freud thought religion + R.E form of obsessional neuroses caused by repressed sexual trauma.
BUT, mental health experts = many causes to mental illness not just sexual trama 

Freud theories rooted in Oedipus complex, no agreement whether actually exists let alone universal.

Need for male father figure which is why people believe in a God, BUT certain cultures have female Gods (Hinduism), or no Gods (Buddhism) = Freud subjective, own views.

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Sociological Challenges - Karl Marx

R.E = product of culture in which person lived. That's why Christians see Mary and Hindus see Shiva.

Religion + Christian Teaching hides truth of person's situation by making it give comfort of drug

E.g. Lower castes/poorer people stop seeing inequality + don't do anything a/b their lives because think granted Heaven (because if treated badly will go to Heaven)

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Replies to Marx

1. Religion has inspired change - Martin Luther King Jr. (belief in equality from Christian faith) + Mahatma Gandhi

2. Religion doesn't just 'oppress' but is a source of strength, hope + comfort, faith important when in difficult situations e.g. civil wars.

3. Marx's idea in practice - (Russia, Lenin + China, Mao) caused much more damage and suffering.

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Lack of evidence + Corporate Religious Experiences

Lack of evidence, only person's word. Changes in lifestyle could be brought about by something else, only show person has changed does not give insight into nature + origins of R.E.


Toronto Blessing of  of 1994, whereby many people who visited a Pentecostal church went through strange religious experiences, from speaking in tongues (glossolalia), to laughing hysterically, to barking like dogs.

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Evaluating Toronto Blessing + Corporate R.E


  1. Corporate experiences are more numerically valid
  2. They often show shared feelings and responses, which are more valid than individual experiences
  3. Suggests that experiences come from God, not individual imaginations


  • Taking the Toronto Blessing as an example - why would God show himself by making people laugh hysterically and bark like dogs?!
  • Hank Hanegraaff argues that such phenomena are the result of mass hypnosis
  • William Sergeant argued that mass religious conversions are down to conditioning
  • Christian psychiatrist John White refers to corporate experiences as:

"learned patterns of behaviour"

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Glossolalia - Speaking in Tongues

People slip into indistinguishable language during R.E. Examples also in Bible.

Emil Kraepelin - people who speak in tongues are schizophrenic - 'unhealthy'

Refuted by Kildahl - good for stress relief 

Felicitas Goodman - simply in trance 

Refuted by Samarin, criticised Goodman for looking at 1 group in his study.

Newburg's Study - experience is real to the person (William James :)) but not necessarily real in itself. "Question still left open."

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Individual experiences

Individual experiences are self-explanatory... they relate to the Swinburne and James view. Strengths

  1. Corporate experiences can be described as being down to 'mass hypnosis'
  2. They can be authenticated personally
  3. They are less likely to be conditioned


  • Don't appear as valid as corporate experiences
  • There are often no witnesses to these experiences
  • Lack of empirical evidence
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