Religious Experience


Mystical Experience

  • 'mysticism' refers to a sense of connection with God at a deep personal level, where God is beyond the boundaries of reason and knowledge
  • its the idea that all religions share in common a sense of the divine, expressed in different ways
  • Mystical experiences are difficult to describe in ordinary, everyday language
  • F.C. Happold's book Mysticism: A Study and an Anthology looks at this kind of religious experience in different religious traditions, including Christianity.
  • it conveys the idea that this physical, empirical world is not all there is, and that God is the foundation of everything
  • God is known not through reason but by intuition, through the soul rather than the rational mind
  • they often arise through prayer and contemplation
  • They can involve seeing visions or hearing voices
  • The recipitant of the numinous experience is filled with the sense of awe and wonder
  • well-known mystical experiences include the visions of Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, Francis of Assisi and Bernadette Soubirous
  • Mystical experiences are also described in the Bible
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Conversion Experience

  • Conversion experiences involve abandoning an old way of life and adopting a new one, based on an inner experience
  • Sometimes conversion experiences are dramatic and sometimes they are gradual
  • H.D. Lewis' book Our Experience of God describes a pattern found in many conversion experiences:
    • the individual is dissatisfied with their current 'system of ideas'
    • The person searches for answers e.g. by reading scripture or trying out going to church
    • There is a point of crisis, which can be emotional, with a sense of the prescence of God. The person might see a vision, hear a voice or have a strong sense of forgiveness.
    • There is a following sense of peace and joy, and a keenness to tell others about the experience
    • In the long-term, there is a change of direction for the person
  • Conversion experiences have been the focus of psychological studies
  • William James says that in conversion experiences, something which was once on the edge of a person's consciousness becomes at the centre, and religious aims become a habitual focus of energy
  • Well-known conversion experiences include the conversion of St Paul on the road to Damascus
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Corporate Religious Experience

  • a corporate religious experience is when several different people all have the same religious experience at the same time
  • Some people think these have more evidential force as there are more witnesses the experince
  • Others think that people could be carried along by others emotion and that they do not have more evidential force
  • Well-known corporate religious experiences include the story of Pentecost (Acts 2) and modern experiences of the Torento blessing.
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Near-death Experience

  • Near-death experiences are sometimes reported by people whose hearts have stopped beating or who have been comatose
  • has been described as an 'out-of-body' experience. People feel a loving prescence or a sense of great peace, and feeling as if travelling through a tunnel towards a bright light
  • Some people see these as evidence of life after death, whilst others are more sceptical and think they are more likely to have a natural, scientific explanation
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William James

  • He wrote a book called The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)
  • he aimed to take an objective, scientific approach to religious experience and explore it through collecting people's own accounts of their experiences
  • He thought that religious experience could be tested for validity by its long lasting effects, just as medicine can be tested by seeing whether it makes the patient better
  • James' approach to understanding truth is pragmatist - he thought that the truth of something could be established by its practical results.
  • He identified four main qualities of religious experience:
    • Ineffability - difficult to express in normal everyday words
    • Transcience - The experiences do not last long although the effects may last a lifetime
    • Noetic Quality - Recipitants feel they have learned something they didn't know before
    • Passivity - the person feels the experience is happening to them rather than that they are doing it
  • He noticed that religious experiences feel very convincing to those who have them
  • He concluded religious experience does not prove anything but that it should be taken seriously
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Rudolf Otto

  • He wrote a book called The Idea of the Holy (1917)
  • He aimed to explore the nature of the divine as encountered through religious experience
  • He thought it was central to religion and that people should experience God or the divine
  • He thought that the divine could be described as 'mysterium trememdum et fascinans' - an awe-inspiring, fascinating mystery
  • Otto thought that divine has three main characteristics in religious experience:
    • A quality of mystery making the individual realise that God can never by fully understood
    • A quality of ultimate importance
    • A quality that is both attractive and dangerous
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Swinburne's Principles of Credulity and Testimony

  • Swinburne wrote a book called Is there a God? (1979). He argued that people should take religious experience just as seriously as other kinds of experience
  • In his principle of credulity, he said that we should be prepared to trust our own experiences unless we have good reason not to - if we think that its God then we should be prepared to believe that its God
  • In his principle of Testimony - if people tell us they have had an experience then we should believe them unless we have good reason not to.
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Psychological Interpretations of Religious Experie

  • Ludwig Feuerbach was very influential in psychological interpretations of religious experience. He argued that God is the invention of the human mind
  • Feuerbach believed that God is created by the human mind and He is all the things that we wish we are ourselves.
  • Sigmund Freud used similar ideas in his interpretation of religion
  • Freud thought that the mind is made up of the ego, id, and  the super-ego
  • He thought that God is created in our minds because we can't cope with being adults in the world so we make up an imaginary parent figure
  • Religious experience happens when this sub-consciousness invention takes over the imagination. For Freud, people who have religious experiences need psychological treatment.
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Physiological interpretations of religious experie

  • Neurophysiology is the study of the brain and nervous system
  • some neurophysiology studies suggest that such experiences could have a natural cause rather than a supernatural one
  • 'Persinger's helmet' is a device created by Michael Persinger which induces feelings similar to those of a religious experience. It could suggest that religious experience is caused by magnetic fields rather than by God
  • studies of near-death experiences sometimes show that these sensations can be created artificially. The findings could suggest that near-death experiences are caused by endorphins or other emotion-altering hormones in the body rather than by God.
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