Religious Experience


What is a Religious Experience?

  • Non-empirical
  • 'Mental event'
  • Spontaneous/ brought through extensive training
  • Public/ Private
  • Bring people a deeper awareness of God and/ or their religion

There are many types of religious experience, however the main four are:

  • Visions
  • Conversion
  • Numinosity
  • Mystical

One example of a group religious experience was the Toronto Blessing, at the Toronto Airport-

'The Toronto Blessing is a supposed outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the people of the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship Church, formerly the Toronto Airport Vineyard Church, where people had all sorts of odd psychological displays. Pastor Arnott began focusing almost exclusively on “the party of the Holy Spirit.” Experiences were being held in higher esteem than Scripture.'

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Three examples of visionary religious experiences are:

  • Julian of Norwich- 'Revelations of Divine Love' is based on a series of sixteen visions of Christ, one specifically was Christ bleeding in front of her. She received the knowledge that everything comes from God
  • St Bernadette- At 14 she saw a vision of the Virgin Mary for over several months and was given instructions saying that the water at Lourdes was healing water, a chapel was to be built
  • Joseph- In Matthew's Gospel, Joseph is warned in a dream to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt
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Examples of Conversions:

  • Falcus- Renowned criminal but after having a religious experience converted and completely changed his identity
  • Nicky Cruz- had a similar experience to Falcus; after his conversion he became a preacher encouraging others to follow religion
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Ruldolf Otto (1869- 1937) was best known for his analysis of religious experience and his concept of 'numinousness'. The word is paired with the latin phrase 'mysterium tremendum'As mysterium, the numinous is "wholly other"- entirely different from anything we experience in ordinary life. But the numinous is also a mysterium tremendum. It provokes terror because it presents itself as overwhelming power.

He described his ideas in his book, 'The Idea of the Holy', in which he stated that "there is no religion in which it [religious experience] does not live as the innermost core and without it, no religion would be worthy of the name".

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A Mystical Experience can be described as being 'ecstatic' in that your connection to life expands significantly, this connection is with yourself and can be related to an experience with God.

William James ('Varieties of Religious Experience', 1902) discussed the four characteristics of a mystical experience. These include:

  • Ineffability- Experience defies expression
  • Noetic Quality- People gain a greater insight and knowledge of God
  • Transcient- States of religious experiences cannot be maintained
  • Passivity- People gain the feeling of being overtaken by a superior power

Happold also looked at Mysticism in two ways:

  • Mysticism of the knowledge and understanding of God
  • Mysticism of the love and union with God

St Bonaventure's three characteristics:

  • Purgative ("mystic is purified")
  • Illuminative (intellect and feelings are affected)
  • Unitative (mystic gains a continuing union with God)
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Swinburne: Testimony and Creduility

Swinburne argued that people who have relgious experiences were telling their truth, and he attempted to highlight this through his Principles of Testimony and Credulity.

The Principles suggested that we should accept someone's testimony of their religious experience, unless it was 100% proved to be untrue.

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God's decision?

Alston, in his book 'Religious Experience and Perception of God', created his "Theory of Appealing".

He explained how people can have religious experiences in the same way they can have any other experience because it is God's choice in whether he makes contact with his creation.

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Challenges from Philosophy

  • Kant argued that the finite (humans) will never be able to experience the infinite (God).
  • How do we experience God if he is not a material being?
  • When people encounter objects, they are verifiable, when people encounter God their experiences are not verifiable. Can they be trusted?
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The Problems with Verification... Drugs?

  • Experiences are individual
  • Personal and Subjective
  • Empirical testing is useless because there is no proof

Carol Frank Davis argued that there is no proof of any religious experience because the most likely reason for experiencing them is because people have been under the influence of drugs and have suffered hallucinations. Everything they say is unlikely to be true, making them unreliable resources.

Martin supported this idea, arguing that claims of religious experience are delusional and possibly related to substance misuse.

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  • Freud- relgious experiences are illusions, they are projections of peoples' desires or "wish-fulfilment".
  • Professor Ramachandran- heightened activity in the temporal lobes of patients and so was able to stimulate a religious experience... religious figures could have suffered the same thing?
  • Persinger- religious experiences are no more than the brain responding to external stimuli, nothing more
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Parable of the Invisible Gardener

Related image

Since there is no evidence to suggest that the gardener exists, apart from the garden itself, the parable is the perfect way to conclude this question of religious experience because it highlights the problem with these theories. Apart from their word of a religious experience, we have no proof because we haven't experienced it.

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