Philosophers of Religious Experience

  • Created by: lucedemps
  • Created on: 22-02-17 08:39


  • Richard Swinburne was a British philosopher born in 1934
  • He said that there are 5 types of religious experience, the first two are part of the 'public' realm and the remaining three are part of the 'private' realm. 
  • The first is when you see 'God's action' in a public object or scene e.g. the sunset is really the 'hand of God'.
  • The second is a breach of natural law  e.g. miracles where water turns into wine or Jesus raises the dead.
  • The third is a personal experience that can mostly be described through normal language e.g. Moses and the burning bush, Saul on the road to Damascus, 
  • The fourth is a personal experience that cannot be described in normal language- it is ineffable and can only be explained by using negatives or metaphor
  • The fifth is not a specific experience, but more of a constant, or regular, feeling that God is simply 'there'
  • Swinburne also put forward the Principle of Credulity (in most circumstances it makes logical sense to presume the observer was present/not imagining it), and the Principle of Testimony (it makes sense to believe what people tell you, since the majority of people tell the truth).
  • Finally, Swinburne argued the Priory Probability argument (the probablility of the existence of a cosmological God is higher than that of UFO's, so the likelihood should be taken seriously). 
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  • American philosopher and psychologist, William James, was born in 1842 and died in 1910. His argument is documented in 'Varieties of Religious Experience'.
  • James came up with four characteristics which he claimed enable us to identify mystical experiences: passive, ineffable, noetic, transient.
  • Passive means the person was not in control of what happened to them. Instead the experience just happens and is from God.
  • Ineffable means the experience of God goes far beyond the human powers of description. The person is unable to describe the experience or feels they can't do it justice.
  • Noetic means the person receives knowledge of the divine which is not otherwise available.
  • Finally, transient means they are not permanent. The effects of the transient experience are however, long lasting and involve a changed view of the universe.
  • He went on to argue that since experience is the final arbiter of truth, then God- as the object of religious experiences- must be accepted as factually true.
  • James said the spiritual value of religious experience is not undone even if we can find a psychological explanation. He rejected the Freud's view that religious experience was the result of a repressed or perverted sexuality and saw it as an attempt to discredit religion by those who started with an antipathy towards it.
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  • Sigmund Freud was a Austrian neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis who was born in 1856 and died in 1939
  • He called religious experiences wish fulfilment, referring to religion as "a universal, obsessional neurosis."
  • Religious experiences are illusions caused by the desire for security and meaning. They are an attempt to deal with our struggles in life
  • He argued that religious experiences stem from the Primal Horde Theory. This theory states that every society consists of a 'primal horde' of people who gather around a single dominant male
  • He drew a comparison between religion and his famous Oedipus complex, in that God acts as a replacement father figure. He also suggested that people turn to religion out of a fear of death, an argument supported by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.
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  • German-born scientist and material philosopher, Karl Marx, was born in 1818 and died in 1883.
  • Marx argued that society is divided into two groups: the working class (proletariat) and the ruling class (bourgeoisie).
  • He defined religion as an "opiate of the masses," a form a social control that dulls the pain of oppression for the proletariat whilst preventing them from seeing what needs to be done to stop their exploitation. 
  • He said that "people can't really be happy until the abolition of the illusion of religion".
  • Marx concluded that mystical experiences are the outward manifestations of this drug-induced state.
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  • Scottish philosopher, David Hume, was born in 1711 and died in 1776
  • He introduced the conceps of 'Hume's Fork', which tests the validity of statements by ensuring that they are either raitional and logical or that they equate with our experience of the world. In otherr words, it must be either rational or empirical, otherwise it is nonsense. He continues to prove how miracles do not pass this test.
  • Hume defines a miracle as ‘a violation of the laws of nature' and argues that they are highly improbable by defenition, as laws of nature can't be broken.
  • He also considers the issue of testimony, arguing that "there is no miracle attested to by people of good sense, education, integrity, and reputation, where the miracle is witnessed by many such people".
  • Hume went on to say that religious people have a psychological need to believe in miracles; they are biased, and suspend reason in favour of belief.
  • Finally, Hume proposes his conflicting claims argument; if two miracle stories conflict, they cancel one another out.
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  • Rudolf Otto was a German theologian and philosopher who was born in 1869 and died in 1937.
  • He used the term ‘numinous’ in his book 'The Idea of the Holy (1936), in referring to being in the presence of an awesome power.
  • Otto believed that the holy is an apriori quality of the human spirit which is shaped by our cultural heritage and an understanding of the religion around us. To Otto we are all capable physically of having a religious experience.
  • He suggested that religion must derive from a being that is totally separate from this world and that it is in the presence of such a being that numinosity is experienced.
  • Otto also said that numinous experiences have three components that together make up the phrase mysterium tremendum et fascinas
    • Mysterium- it is "wholly other" and entirely different from anything we experience in ordinary life. It evokes a reaction of silence.
    • Tremendum- it provokes terror because it presents itself as overwhelming power where God is the ultimate focus.
    • Fascinas- the experience presents itself as merciful and gracious, in which the observer feels privileged to have encountered God.
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  • Psychologist Carl Jung was born in 1875 and died in 1961. He differed from Freud and argued that, as an agnostic, religion is positive.
  • Jung believed that a religious conversion experience involves tapping into our unconscious mind in which dwells an archetype of God.
  • A religious conversion experience represents the human capacity to tap in to the God archetype buried in our unconscious mind. He called this process individuation, whereby the individual person becomes whole by uniting with their God archetype.
  • He called religious experiences natural processes, and argued that faith can help combat psychological problems. However, he still didn't believe that they were caused by the divine. 
  • Jung offered an explanation for the conversion of St Paul on the road to Damascus, saying that he had always been a Christian in that he had always had the concept of God in his unconscious mind. His conversion was just the process of individualisation. 
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  • C.S. Lewis was a British author and theologion who was born in 1898 and died in 1963.
  • He was brought up going to church but found it uninspiring- an attitude that changed when he was in his thirties, with a volitional conversion that he claimed was logical and rational, not emotional.
  • He defended miracles by arguing that we have two options about how we view the world:
    • We are either naturalists and believe that reality is physical and there is nothing else, or
    • We are supernaturalists and we believe that non-physical things exist such as God and the soul.
  • He saw naturalism as self defeating, because if we are just physical beings who are subjected to the laws of cause and effect then our decision to believe in naturalism is physically caused and we have no choice about what we believe.
  • However, if we take the alternate approach, we accept the possibility of God, therefore accepting the possibility of miracles.
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  • Anglican priest and academic, Maurice Wiles, was born in 1923 and died in 2005
  • WIles has two main arguments as to why miracles do not happen. The first is similar to Hume's, saying that if they are violations of the laws of nature, they must occur infrequently or not at all.
  • Secondly, he rejects the idea of any interventions by God into the created universe from a moral perspective, saying that a God who chooses to help someone and not another, as well as ignoring those in need, would not be morally good.
  • It is theologically better to believe in a God that does not do any miracles than one that was not morally good.
  • Wiles targets the story of the water being turned into wine and argues that the event is done to prevent the embarrassment of the hosts. However, in a world where suffering occurs on such a large scale, this would seem to be an arbitrary whim on God’s part.
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