Philosophy - Religious Experience


Types of Vision


  • A type of Empircal Experience - experience through the senses. Seeing God in nature.
  • e.g Berandette Soubirous - saw a vision of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes - 'I am the Immaculate Conception' - the priest then knew she had seen Mary.


  • A type of Corporal experience - has no power over the experience - not perceived by sight.
  • e.g. Pharaohs Dream & Josephs Dream


  • The is no image - 'see things as they really are' - they can't be described using ordinary language.
  • e.g. St Teresa of Avila - expereinces with Jesus Christ
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Rudolf Otto - Numinous experiences

The Idea of the Holy - encounters with the scared / holy - the holliness of God.

  • The numinous - relating to the power or presence of a deity (God)
  • e.g. C.S.Lewis - Chronicals of Narnia - at 15 started an Atheist, had an ongoing experience and a 'compelling embrace for God and became a Christian at 30.
  • Our feelings of the numinous are 'sui generis' (of their own kind) - God is different from anything and everything and is beyond the natural world.
  • Numinous feelings are not just more intense feelings but in a complete world of there own.
  • They are Non-rational - we can't use reason and explanation
  • They are 'mysterium tremendum et fascinans' (tremendous and facinating mystery) 
  • They inspire a feeling of awe and wonder, aswell as fear and terror
  • It focuses on God's transcendence and iminance - God is so far from humanity we need numinous expereince to be able to approach Him.
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William James - Mystical Experiences

'The feelings, acts & experiences of men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine' 

  • The objective of Mystical Experience is to have 'union with God'
  • Religous Experience is Primary and Religious practice is Secondary - we dont have experiences because we go to church but they are an interaction with God.
  • James doesn't see God as being omnipotent and is likely to be finite than infinite - God isnt a single entity rather a collection of Gods. He believes God is temporal and finite.

4 criteria for a mystical experience- PINT

  • Passivity - beyond the person's control 
  • Ineffable - can't be described in words, has to be directly experienced, and cannot be transfered or imparted to others. A feeling you can't explain.
  • Noetic quality - give new knowledge - so the experiencer learns new things
  • Transinecy - can't be sustained for long

A mystical experience is so God can meet an individual and help them with personal concerns - God is not found in one relgion, but is perceived by individuals. God is unique to everyone.

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Walter Stace - Non-sensuous & intellectual union

Does Mystercism make sense?

  • Stace defines mystercism as non-senuous and non-intelectual 
  • Mystcis - someone who has had a religious experience not people.
  • Visions are not mystical experiences - real experiences have no shape, smell, sound  -they're non sensuous. However they are sensuous experience.

Types of Mystical Experience

  • Extrovertive - sees the world of normal object - but a non-senuous entity, shines through it. e.g. Candle
  • Introvertive -  Ordinary conciousness is replaced by a new form of conciousness
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Challenges to Religious experiences

Do experiences come from an external source? Does the mind act as a receiver? What is the meaning behind the experience from God?  If the experience is generated in the brain, what is the meaning?

Relgious experiences are difficult to prove.

  • We only have the word of the individual,
  • If they are subjective / private they are only in the mind
  • If there ineffible -  they can't be explained by the experiencer
  • There are natural explanations
  • Some religious experiences contradict one another


  • Some experiences are group experiences - you dont just rely on the testemony of one person.
  • Just because they are private, doesn't make them false
  • They may be ineffible, so difficult to compare and investigate, doesn't make them false
  • There are so many reported experiences, its hard to say they don't happen.
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Challenges to Religious experiences from science

Most challenges by science claim experiences are a product of the mind

1. Sigmund Freud - religion is wish-fulfillment by the uncounsious mind - when people claim to have visons - there just hallucinations caused by our need to have control over our helpless state.

2. TLE - Temporal lobe epilepsy - suffers are prone to have visions and expereinces - religous experiences are nothing more than abnormal states of  the brain. Great religious figures have suffered with this condition. e.g. St Paul

3. TLE is supported by neurotheology - religious experiences are produced by electrical stimulations of the temporal lobes in the brain - The God Helmet is used to stimulate these lobes and found that they did indeed cause a religious like experience. This suggests that religious experiences of God are not from God but caused by the brain.

4.  Religious experiences can be caused by certain drugs - e.g. LSD or entheogens - people who take them feel 'Divine from within' and claim to have religious experiences.

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Responses to Science

  • Freud's Hypothesis can't be tested
  • All the remaining challenegs claim religious statments can be bought about by the individual's own mental state.

Religious believers respond 

  • God wants to give people religious experiences, these have to be processed by the brain as this is how we process things - the temporal lobes is the strutre of the brain God uses to bring about religious experiences.
  • The mind can generate them and interact with God - as God is personal and relates to people in many ways - God's Holy spirit and Gift to humans is used as a guide and comforter.
  • Christains don't have to wait for God to reveal something to them, they can reach out to God - for those who experience God through nature will experienece God's power.
  • We reach out to God through our mind.
  • For Christains, the mind can both receive and initiate the experiences from God and also reach out to God.
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Swinburne's principle of Credulity

The existence of God cannot be proved by logical arguments - our experiences of the world suggets God probably exists.

The Principle of Credulity

  • 'If it seems to someone X is present then X is probably present, what someone perceives is probably so'
  • All religious experiences ought to be taken as genuine - the way things seem to be is the way things really are in the absence of 'special considerations.

Special Considerations - (However Swinburne rejects all of them)

  • The Reliability of the claim - if the claimer is a frequent lier    (Doesn't mean there lying now)
  • The Truth of the claim - if the claims are perceptually unlikey (Can't prove claims are false)
  • Diffiuclty showing that God was present in the experienece    (God is everywhere)
  • What can be claimed can be accounted for in other ways       (God underpins all processes)
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Swinburne's principle of Testimony

In the absence of special conditions the experiences of others are as they report them - unless there is evidence to doubt its true.

We should believe what people tell us provided there isn't a valid reason why we shouldn't

  • 1. Someone who has a religious experience follows the Principle of Credulity 
  • 2. The Testimony of others who report similar experiences supports such a claim
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Evaluation of Swinburne

Against Swinburne

  • Relgious experiences are reliable evidence for the existence of God.
  • However can we move from being convinced about the reliability of what people claim to claims about God?
  • Accounts of relgious experiences are first-person private - how do we prove something that happened within their head and confirm their vision?
  • Even if every expereince showed that it was an expereinece of God - it would not prove that God is the right explanation for such experiences.

In Favour of Swinburne

  • If someone really believes they have had an experience of God, this will change their life forever. Since we often see a change in lifestyle after an experience, this is strong evidence for the reliability of the claim.
  • This can then be supported by Testimony
  • We need to consider 'the Cumulative Argument' - Relgious experience strengthens all arguments for the existence of God. 
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The Influence of Religious Experience

Religious experiences can be foundational - experiences have been the direct cause of founding of many religions. e.g. Saul, became Paul the apostle for Christianity.

Religious experiences are inspirational - causes martyrs - those who have died and convinced others have become saints e.g. Joan of Arc, Mother Teresa.

Religious experiences are at the heart of pilgrimage - e.g.Bernadette Subirous - a shrine at Loudres.

Religious experiences are Life Changing. e.g. Billy McCurry & Nicky Cruz- they bring about new life in people, some become inspired.

e.g Billy Cruz was part of a big gang, his friend, who was was an evangelical, tried to convert him and change his ways, but to no success. Eventually, over time the church held a meeting and this converted Billy and some of his friends to Christianity - they took all their gang related items to the police station and left the gang, at a price. He is now very active within the church. 

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The Value of Experience for Religious Faith

Religious Experience confirms faith - e.g. Teresa of Avila said that she didn't know that Christ had been involved with the experience - but she knew and felt that Christ was close by.

Religious experiences will strengthen faith for believers - they will feel the experiences and their beliefs hold truth and justice.

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