Religious Experiences

  • Created by: sumbum999
  • Created on: 08-11-18 09:27

Principle of Credulity & Principle of Testimony

'If somebody believes that she has experienced something then they probably have. It is a credible statement'

The Principle of Credulity is Swinburne's principle that people should be believed unless we have a good and valid reason to disbelieve/doubt them in anyway. This is often used in relation to religious experiences to validate an experience that a believer may have - if we do not have a reasonable cause to doubt them, then we should believe their statement.

'If it makes sense, we believe the testimony of others. The witsness is an honest witness and statements seem believable'

The Principle of Testimony is Swinburne's second principle, stating that people are in general truthful - we must have good reasons to doubt their honesty. Unless a person is a known lair or disturbed in some sort, their description of their religious experience, for example, is probable to be true. If we had a default position to doubt everything that a person says, then conversation would become near impossible and truth almost non existent. We don't doubt the experiences of others without good reason - if they state that they saw a helicopter fly above the town, then it is likely that they did experience such. 

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Credulity & Testimony Criticisms

The clear distinction that Swinburne does not clarify is that ordinary experiences and testimonys are different to that of religious experiences. An ordinary testimony is understandable and most advanced adults would know what a helicopter is, without confusing it for a butterfly. Religious experience isn't like this. We cannot define God, nobody actually knows what God is. An epistemic distance lies between us and God, a God that we cannot fully describe with mortal words, he is simply undefinable. If you cannot define something clearly, for example in ordinary terms your vision is blurred or too far away, you can easily be mistaken. We can be true in what we are describing of what we saw, but this doesn't mean that they have seen the real truth. 

Problem of Other Minds

This exists as an epistemological question. Other minds 'do their own things', differing from person to person dependant on different experiences, influences and opinions. All we see is their behaviour, and not actually the processes within their mind.

In relation to Religious Experiences, if you claim to have an experience then can be telling the truth, but another person cannot experience it nor know if it happened. If you can't share this experience, then how can it be classified as evidence? You can be sincere and wrong at the same time. The sincerity of a belief can't be confused with the validity of a belief.

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William James/ The Nature of Religious Experience

Ineffability: Experiences are beyond the ability of our words to express, James descirbes an experiencer as entering a mystical state of mind that is 'negative'

Noetic Quality: Gives kind of knowledge unlike the knowledge of any other human experience

Transcience: Experiencer has the experience for a very short time, rarely more than half an hour, but the effects of the experience are life-changing

Passivity: Those who have an experience claim that they have no will of their own as they're under the influence of a higher power

James' descriptions cannot be mistaken as justification for the experiences divine origin, but rather that the experience is genuine, despite the fact that its origin is unknown. Claims should be tested rather than just accepted, as the possibilty of delusion or the presence of mind-altering substances needs to be discounted. 

It is also crucial to understand, as Kant said, that we interpret different experiences in a manner that fits our own understanding of the world. Depending on our upbringing or religious background, then our experiences will shape how you interpret an experience. 

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Corporate Religious Experiences

An experience shared by a group, such as the Toronto Blessing

These corporate experiences, despite the fact they are shared by a group, are still individual, but on a widespread scale. People cannot experience the same thing due to our different perceptions. People might be carried away by some sort of mass hysteria, however we cannot be certain, as we don't experience the same things. 

Corporate experiences evoke suspicion and belief in various people. 

Cynics state that just because people claim to have had an experience and feel closer to God, it doesn't necessarily mean that they are, they may have interpreted the events wrong. You can change your whole life and attitude to life based on the words of another; that doesn't mean that these words have to be true. 

Despite the extremities of modern corporate experiences, many religious believers view them as an ordinary type of experience. It is generally the experience of a community, for example at their church they attend or a faith found within the school/family. 

Jame's passivity supports corporate experiences, as believers often believe and act as if they have been taken over by another being, hence hysterical laughter etc. in Toronto Blessing.

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Corporate Religious Experiences Criticisms

  • People don't behave the same as they do when alone; If one person, or a certain amount of people start laughing, this can become 'contagious', similar to yawning becoming contagious. 
  • Hallucination; People attracted to evangelical/charismatic worship are already pre-disposed this the behaviour of corporate experiences, an atmosphere created by preaching about the Holy Spirit, singing gospels etc. It could be suggested that hallucinations are caused by such occurences, causing people to believe that they are having a direct experience with God.
  • Work of Demons; Could corporate experiences be the working of a greater spirit/demon or the devil attempting to humiliate religious believers? At the 'speaking of tongues' in the Apostles, where a preacher could be heard in all different languages, it is comprehensible to suggest that this was a religious experience, however when people begin impersonating animals, it could be viewed as a mockery of God. Either way, this explanation requires a divine being or devil, and therefore does not answer the actual question of whether they are plausible occurences, rather just replacing one transcendental and non-verifiable explanation with another.
  • Mass Hysteria; Phenomen that transmits collective illusions of threats through a society as a result of fear or rumours etc.
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Personal/Mystical Religious Experiences

Involves the sense of something which reveals the transcendent, beyond the normal world

Mystical experiences are often the most intense personal experiences. The experiences are not rational in any normal understanding of the everyday world, however it appears that they reveal something that has an impact on ones life or beliefs

St Teresa of Avila is the most well-known example of a mystical experience, in which her experiences and multiple visions of Jesus gave her a physical and spiritual reaction, which many have dismissed as due to her sexual frustrations (she was a nun). Avila herself dismissed these claims, stating that if it had been then she would have an underlying feeling of disgust.

However, these experiences are said to have impacted her life. She stated that religious experiences happens within a tradition with normas and teachings, similar to how we are influenced by our religious upbringing and personal experiences as to how we might interpret a religious experience. 

St Teresa also states like James how there must be change; not mere change, but visible, clear change for the good. This could count as good supportive evidence, but it is not the material proof that some people seek. You can believe you had an encounter with God and therefore change in a good manner, but this doesn't necessarily mean that you have encountered God.

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Rudolf Otto and Personal Experiences

Numinous: Description given by Otto to any experience of God which transcends the everyday.

Wholly Other: Name given by Otto to that transcendent nature found in mystical experiences, unlike any other. The term signifies that God is not a being among beings but rather of a completely different order from anything in ordinary experiences.

Otto describes the concept of numinous to describes ones encounter with God, the wholly other. The experience is described by him as seductive, using the phrase mysterium tremendum et fascinans (mystery tremendous and fascinating). By fascinating, Otto refers to the older meaning of drawing something in, compelled by attraction. Otto states that the experience is excessiveky powerful, with no adequate words to describe it in our language. Because the wholly other is completely different to us, transcendent and unlike anything in our daily lives, it cannot be described using ordinary language. Our language is based on the material and earthly things we experiences, which is no way correlate to God. The experience is purely religious. 

This idea is in line with James notion of ineffability

Otto argued for religious experiences of the numinun because we can't know God, e.g through reason, unless he shows himself through reason.

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Understanding Religious Experiences

  • Union with Greater Power: Any mystical experiences involves a union with a power greater than ourselves. The question remaisn as what would be this union and to what extent is it actually genuine. The presence of God is completely different to the presence of a human being, there is no sense of an equal union either as humans are not equal to God, but people still feel colser to God after these 'unions'
  • Psychological effect: The whole experience could be simply an illusion or trick of the mind. Our minds play tricks on us, whether its children and imaginary friends or schizophrenia. Sometimes we want or fear something so much it becomes reality. Humans are prone to many perceptual errors, so we may imagine God because we want so hard to see him.
  • Physiological effect: Betrand Russel 'if you eat too little, you see visions; and if you drink too much, you see snakes'. Substances, illnesses, mental health issues and dehydration can alter our perception of the world, the same way as if we deprive somebody of sleep they will hallucinate. Many of the great mystics whom experienced God underwent fasting periods and other disciplines which would alter their mentality - St Teresa of Avila suffered from illness and was given to intense self-mortification prior to her visions of Jesus
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  • We cannot know the midn of another, the experiences are private. We make assumptions of how people perceive things without actually knowing the truth
  • Just because somebody is sincere, does not mean that they are interpretating something accurately
  • Difficult to know how much reliance to put on an experience that we cannot explain (issue of ineffability)
  • Mind altering chemicals can cause delirium tremens, a condition which can lead to hallucinations
  • People are often mistaken, whether this be ignorance, a lack of vocabulary or scientific knowledge to explain it
  • It isn't necessarily true that an experience experienced as 'numinous' must be religiously interpreted - people can have experiences of art and nature that go beyond the everyday, which may be called spiritual, but not understood as anything related to God. John Cottingham - 'The 'spiritual' dimension of experience, the dimension of the 'sacred' as it has often been called in religious parlance, does not in fact require religious belief at all'
  • There is a distinction between the event of an experience and its interpretation - we are the ones whom decide what it means to us. Gwen Griffith-Dickinson - 'Experience and interpretation can be seen as seperate, either conceptually or in practice'
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