Philosophy revison

Revision on religious experiences for A2 Philosophy


Religious Experiences

Richard Swinburne believes that religious experiences help prove the existence of God. He believes that it is important to categorise the two types of experience:

  1. Public experiences
    1. Ordinary, interpreted experiences such as the beauty of the sky
    2. Extraordinary experiences, such as Jesus walking on water
  2. Private experiences
    1. Experiences that are describable in normal language
    2. Experiences that are ineffable (cannot be explained in language)
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Swinburnes two principles

The Principle of Credulity - if someone appears to be present, it makes logical sense to say that they are so, unless the observer is under particular circumstances (intoxicated, has a mental illness 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

The Principle of Testimony - it makes sense to believe what people tell you, since the majority of people tell the truth.

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

Swinburne also argues for the priory argument- existence of a cosmological god

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William James

William James, who wrote Varieties of Religious Experience. He broadly defined religious experiences as:

"The feelings, acts and experiences of individual men." James argued that something is real if it has real effects. We can't really deny that religious experiences have effects on people, so James goes one step further and uses the effects as evidence for the existence of God.

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James' PINT

P: passivity - you are not in control of the experience I: ineffable - the experience cannot be described in human language N: noetic - the experience leads to a greater understanding T: transient - the experience is temporary   Must have all of these properties in order to render it a religious experience

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Criticisms 1

  • R. Otto argued for numinous experiences, saying that God is transcendent and so he can only affect us by filling us with a sense of awe. He called this: "Mysterium tremendum" -- Kant criticised this view, stating that we cannot use our senses to experience God, since he is in the noumenal world whereas we're stuck in the phenomenal world


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Freud's criticisms

A major criticism on the argument from religious experience is the argument from psychology, advocated largely by Sigmund Freud. Freud called religious experiences wish fulfilment, referring to religion as: "A universal, obsessional neurosis." 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. Freud argued that the male will inevitably be killed out of jealousy, leading to feelings of guilt. These guilty feelings pass down through history into people's unconscious minds 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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Carl Jung

Carl Jung, another psychologist, also argued that religious experiences were not evidence of God's existence. However, Jung differed from Freud and argued that, as an agnostic, religion is actually positive. He referred to God as a universal archetype, and said that a belief in God is part of the collective unconscious which all humans share. He called religious experiences natural processes, and argued that faith can help combat psychological problems.

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Corporate and Individual Experiences

Corporate experiences are experiences that happen in public places to several people. One of the best examples of this is the Toronto Blessing 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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Strengths and Weeaknesses


  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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Individual Experiences


  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

Speaking in Tongues/Glossolalia- Glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, is a particularly well-known form of religious experience, whereby people slip into an indistinguishable language (adhering to the view that such experiences are ineffable) and appear possessed by God's grace. Biblically, speaking in tongues wasn't uncommon. It happened to the Gentiles and the Disciples

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