Religious Experience

Numinous Experiences

Rudolf Otto

The Idea of the Holy

Experience lies at the heart of all religion and is indepedent of background or beliefs.

Numnious comes from the latin 'numen' which means 'to bow the head'.

Mysterium Tremendum et fascinians

Mysterium= felt but cannot be described

Tremendum= causes aweinspiring terror

Fascinians= we are drawn to and facinated by it.

All experience is numinous in some way. We feel powerless, small and insignificant, frightened and awestruck by a God who is wholly other.

1 of 12

Visual and Auditory Experiences

Must be individual, private experiences of hearing or seeing something.


St Paul, Muhammad, Moses, Guru Namak

St Teresa of Avila

Experience must leave the person feeling at peace.

Experience must contain a message that fits in with Christian teachings.

Excludes all non-Christian experiences.

Would discredit some Biblical accounts like the 10 Plagues of Egypt

2 of 12

Wittgenstein's Private Language

For something to be meaningful, it must be shared between at least 2 people.

A language that cannot be translated into another cannot have meaning.

A "private language" which only you can understand is totally meaningless.

Special Revelation must occur in an untranslatatable, private language as it is ineffable (undescribable). A language that cannot be shared has no meaning.

Wittgenstein would argue that because religious experience is undescribable and only shared with God, it cannot really have any meaning. 

3 of 12

Indirect and Corporate


St Augustine of Hippo said indirect experiences happen because God is always present in the world, but there is nothing really supernatural about them.

Surely people are just reading things into the world that aren't really there?


The Toronto Blessings

When a group simultaneously has private religious experiences. 

The behaviour in Toronto seems too random and bizarre to be the work of the Biblical God.

Could be mass hysteria caused by an emotionally charged environment.

Crowd psychology will bring out certain emotions in individuals.

4 of 12

F.C.Happold Mysticism

Soul Mysticism

Not a union with God but a discovery of the soul that leads to a feeling of self-fulfillment.

Nature Mysticism

We can unite with God through nature as He is immanent. By looking at the world arround us, we can trigger a religious experience

God Mysticism

Humans desire to return to the immortal ground of God's love. Through religious experience, we unite with God and our soul becomes god-like while maintaining its own identity.

5 of 12

William James Mysticism

Vareties of Religious Experience.

Based on the Gifford Lectures.

A religious experience is true because it is wholly possibily and the person actually believes it is true. As long as the person who had the experience thinks its real, then it is.

Must be: transient (temporary)

           : ineffable (beyond desription)

           : Noetic (provides direct knowledge of God)

           : Passive (initiated by something else, not the person having the experience)

Bertrand Russell said that you could use James' argument to prove the existence of Santa Clause.

6 of 12

1st and 2nd Hand Religion

7 of 12

General and Special Revelation

General revelation is knowledge of God that is available to all at all times. They are messages imbedded into the world. 

General revelation examples: the beauty of creation

                                         : the complexity of DNA

                                         : the human eye

Special revelation is only available to specific people at one time. It is temporary and is eventually lost forever. 

Special revelation examples: Jesus

                                        : Miracles

                                        : Prophecy

8 of 12

Propositional and Non-Propositional Revelation

Propositional Revelation

St Thomas Aquinas

Revelation that provides factual knowledge about God.

"believe that"

Non-Propositional Revelation


Knowledge can only be gained through experience of the world. God does not reveal facts about himself.

The experience is ineffable but the believer will try to explain it.

"Belief in"

9 of 12

Conversion Experiences

Experiences that change your belief system (or lack of one)

Must be obversable changes in behaviour.

Alternative Explanations

Starbuck: conversion experiences have the same emotional patterns that other changes do too. Usually happens in 15-24 year olds who are simply trying to find their own identity.

When you surround yourself with others who all believe the same thing, then you will try to copy them. Football crowds show this.

10 of 12

Argument for God From Religious Experience

There is so much recorded evidence for the existence of religious experiences: Moses, Guru Namak, St Paul, St Bernadette, Mohammed, St Teresa of Avila and the Toronto Blessings.

There are many similarities between different accounts of religious experience. There are also observable effects of the experiences.


Principle of Testimony: accept what someone says as truth unless we have reason to not trust them.

Principle of Credulity: we must accept what appears to be the case unless we have enough evidence to prove the contrary.

Occam's Razor: we must accept the explanation that makes the least assumptions about the world.

11 of 12

Scientific Explanations

Jung: only accepts numinous experiences. Spiritual development is essential to our psychological wholeness. An archetype (or shared idea) of God exists in all of our minds. We're in a mass delusion.

Ramachandra: Religious experience is linked to temporal lobe epilepsy. Epilepsy patients have more reactions to religious imagery than those who are healthy.

Feuerbach: God's attributes are our attributes or our desires. Religion is simply human projection. "God is man written in large letters".

Freud: God is a product of our subconsious. Our experiences of him are simply hallucinations and God is a reflection of our desire for a father figure. Could also be a result of drugs or other hallucigens.

Persinger: God Helment. Could stimulate a religious experience by sending neurons through certain areas of the brain.

12 of 12


No comments have yet been made

Similar Religious Studies resources:

See all Religious Studies resources »See all Philosophy resources »