Religious Studies: Philosophy. Religious Experience.

What is a religious experience?

  • A non-empricle occurance which may be percieved as supernatural.
  • Described as a 'mental event' which is undergone by an induvidual, which the person is aware of. 
  • Religious experience may be spontaneous, or as a result of intense training (e.g. monks meditating). 
  • Recipents of religious experience usually say what has happened to them has 'drawn them into' a deeper knowlage or awareness of God. 
  • It is important to remeber that the experience itself is not a substitute for the Divine, but a veichal thst is used to bring people closer to the Divine. 
  • The experience that each induvidual has is absoloutley unique and cannot be shared with anyone. 
  • Genuine religious experiences seem to be encouraging; they do not condem the induvidual, but help them to live a better life, or help others.
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Types of religious experience.

  • There is an infinate number of different religious experiences, as one is unique, but there have been attempts to classify them based largely upon the results of the experience.

Types of religious experience.

  • Visions. 
  • Conversions. 
  • Mystical experiences.
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Visions introduction.

  • A religious vision occurs when an induvidual believes that they have seen or heard something supernatural or a superntural being. 

There are three ways in which an induvidual may experience a vision..

  • An interlectual vision brings knowlage and understanding such as a relevation from God. 
  • An imaginary vision where something that strenthens faith is seen with the minds eye such as Jacobs vision of a lader to heaven. 
  • A coporeal vision is where the figure is externally present such as St Bernadette's vision of the Virgin Mary. 
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Visions examples.

  • St Bernadette had visions of the Virgin Mary at the age of 14 years old, over several months. At first the vison did not speak to her but later Bernadette was given instructions by the 'Imacculate Conception' (The Virgin Mary), that the spring water at Lourdes had healing powers and that a chapel was to be built on the site. 

Some dreams are considered by induviduals to have been visions. Mattew's Gospel Joseph is warned in a dream to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt to protect them from Herod. 

  • Julian of Norwich also recieved a vision: "And he showed me, a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, on the palm of my hand, round like a ball. I looked at it thoughtfully and wondered 'What is this?' And the answer came, 'It is all that is made'"
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Visions: Numinosity.

Numinosity definition: the feeling of the 'holy' and includess awe, fascination, religious awarness and the smallness of self. 

  • Many testomonies from those claiming to have has a religious experience refer to a sense of being in the presence of an awesome power, yet feeling distinctly seperate from it. The word given to this feeling is Numinosity.
  • While many regard numinosity as a feature of religious experience, some classify it as a 'type'  in its own right and contrast it with mystical experience. 
  • The German theologian Rudolph Otto used the term 'numinos' in 'The Idea of the Holy' in refering to being in the presence of an awesome power. He suggested that religion must derived from a being that is totally seperate from this world. It is in the presence of such a being that numonosity is experienced.
  • Otto complained that many of the visions recorded in the Bible, such as Moses' vision of the burning bush, are experienced of the numinous because they involve a much more direct encounter with God. Moses spoke to God when he approached the burning Bush.


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Conversion introduction.

  • A vision often results in a conversion. This is when the effects of a religious experience are life-changing. 
  • The term 'conversion' in the sense of religious experience, refers explicity to 'regeneration', and an assurance of the 'truth of the Divine'.
  • The result of a conversion on a personal level is usually a greater understanding of faith. 
  • 'Religious conversion' is the process that leads to the adoption of a religious attitude or way of of life. These effects can be perminant or temporary. For instance Saul to Paul on the road to Damascus. Following being spoken to by 'the risen Christ'  and being asked "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" which then led to Saul changing his name to Paul and converting to Christianity and dying a Martyr's death in Rome.
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Types of conversion.

There are two forms of mental occurance which lead to a difference in conversion process's.

  • A concious and volentary experience- volitional typeThe volitional type is a gradual change and is a slow development of new morals and spiritual habbits. The person may suddenly become aware of the change one day. 
  • An involeuntary and unconcious experience- self surender type. For William James the concept of conversion by self-surrender can be illustrated by the expresision "mans extremity is God's oppurtunity". 
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Features of Conversion.

There are two things in the mind of the candidate for conversion:

  • The present rightness or wrongess in their life- their sins or something they want to change. 
  • The positive changes they wish to make.

While the majority of conversions are gradual, the sudden experience would appear to be the most significant and profound. It has the potential to convert people who with no religious belief whatsoever prior to their conversion. 

With gradual conversions, the induvidual originally rejects any notion of religious faith. Then he or she reaches a position where some aspect seems acceptable. Following this, the person then reaches a climax at which point a full conversion takes place. This process is a vehical with which the most complicated series of objections of faith can be resolved. 

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Examples of conversions.

  • Religious conversion is likely to include a change in belief on religious topics, which in turn leads to changes in the motivation for ones behaviour within the social enviroment. This means it is appropriate to speak of intellectual, moral and social conversions. 
  • Intelectual conversions involve conflicts between 2 systems of thought. The result of the conflict is often that the new one is 'true' and the old one is 'false'. It can be to, or from, a religious system of thought, or from one religion to another. 
  • A moral conversion does not revolve around around a system if thought, but around ones lifestyle. An example of a moral conversion is 'Swearing Tom'. (lived an awful life, a preacher said that even the wickedest of men could undergo a change of heart. Went from swearing Tom to Praying Tom).
  • An example of a sudden social conversion is St Paul on the way to Damascus. The conversion took place slowly in the subconcious, followed by a rapid and sudden concious experience. James calls this 'subconcious incubation'.
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Jame's conclusions about religious conversions.

Jame's conclusions about religious conversions are as follows..

1.) Sudden conversion us very real to those who have had the experience. They feel the process has been 'performed' upon them. God causes the conversion. 

2.) For Methodists, salvation is not truly recieved unless they have been through crisis of the sort which is involved in conversion. 

3.) Those having a sudden conversion feel it to be a miracle rather than a natural process.

4.) Even when James saw conversion as being a natural process, he maintained that it was inspired by the Divine. 

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Permanence of conversion.

  • Those experiencing sudden conversion may know very little about what they have come to believe and testify in. Knowlage may amount to little more than what they have read in leaflets or a local preacher. As a result, there is more chance of these people deciding in the future that there are inherant problems with the information provided and chose not to follow the religion. 
  • However, gradual conversion is more likely to permentant than a sudden conversion. This is as a result of the procedure being slow and thorough as a result of having more facts and understanding the religion they are entering. 
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Mystical experience introduction.

Mystical experiences are experiences where the recipent feels a sence of 'union' with the Divine. 

There are several features that accompany the experiences which enable recognition. These are.. 

  • Knowledge of the 'ultimate reality' is gained. This is knowledge that is normally hidden from human intellect. 
  • A sense of freedom from the liminations of time, space and the human ego is experienced. 
  • A sense of 'oneness' of unity with the Divine is experienced. 
  • A sence of bliss or serenity. 
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Characteristics of mystical experiences intro.

  • James recognised that the term 'mystical' is used in a wide variety of context, but suggested that using it to refer to 'any person who believes in thought-tranferance or spirit return' is far to ambigious. 
  • As a result of this, in 'The varieties of religious experience' , he offers four charecteristics which helps to identify mystical experiences. These charecteristics are.. 


Noetic quality. 



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Characteristics of mystical experiences: Ineffabil

Ineffability: the experience cannot be communicated in normal speech.

  • James suggested that ineffability is the most easily recognised charecteristic of mystical experience. 
  • As religious experiences are private events; the recipient goes through certain sensations that are beyond verbal description- they are unutterable. 
  • With religious experiences there is awarness that there is something to be described, but there is no way of doing do. 
  • St Teresa of Avila stated that "I wish I could give a description at least the smallest part of what I learned, but, when I try to discover a way of doing so, I find it impossible."
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Characteristics of mystical experiences: Noetic qu

Noetic: the mind gaining knowledge and understanding. 

  • Despite mystical experiences being classed as 'ineffable' recipients are quick to point out that they do provide insights into unobtainable truths, although not through intellect. Rather knowledge is grasped through intuition and perception. 
  • The noetic quality of a religious experience, therfore, brings intuitive understanding and realisation of the truth. 
  • Throughout her 'shewings' of divine love, Julian of Norwich had noetic experiences, one of which was described as follows "Also in this He shewed me a little thing, the quantity of an hazel-nut, in the palm of my understanding and thought: What may this be? And it was answered generally thus: It is all that is made." this is a noetic experience as she gained experience of what God created and his holyness.
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Characteristics of mystical experiences: Transienc

Transiency: refers to the fact that religious experiences only last for a limited time. 

  • It would apear that most religious experiences last between a few minutes and about two hours and may be difficult to remeber. 
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Characteristics of mystical experiences: Passivity

Passivity: refers to the fact that the religious experience occurs without any action on the part of the recipient. 

  • While undergoing an experience, James stated that one 'looses control' to a more powerful being, namely God, and is overwelmed. 
  • St John of the Cross "I abandoned and forgot myself, laying my face on my Beloved; all things ceased; I went out from myself, leaving my cares forgotten among lilies."
  • However, the significance and effects of the experience are out of proportion to its physical duration. The effects of loss of control include induviduals assuming entirely different personalities, writing or drawing certain prophetic visions, or messages with the opposite gabd to normal, or speaking in a complelty different voice or language. 
  • This leads to one conclusion- although many people try to control experiences, they are in fact beyond human control. 
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Types of mysticism.

  • Happold sought not to establish a set of criteria to identify mystical experiences as James had, but to provide some sort of context in which to think about and discuss them. 

We can divide mysticysm for convienience into two different types.

  • The mysticism of love and union. 
  • The mysticism of knowledge and understanding. 
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Types of mysticism: Love and union.

  • Happold suggests the mysticysm of love and union is the longing to escape from lonliness and the feeling of being 'seperate'.
  • It requiers some sort of union (or re-union) with God or nature and a loss of self. 
  • Happold believes that two urges that govern all of us is the desire for seperation (the need to be an induvidual) and the desire to be a part of something bigger that ourselves (the need to be accepted in some way). These two urges are constantly in conflict with each other. 
  • Hapalod believes that the urges have their origin in the fact that we are in some way sharers in what we would call 'the Divine life'.
  • This suggests that despite our need to be induviduals, we are always trying to get back to God- hence the desire to be part of something bigger than ourselves. 
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Types of mysticism: knowledge and understanding.

  • Happold says that people have another urge which is inherant in all of us. 
  • We need to try and find out the 'secret of the universe' (the meaning of life). 
  • He says that we do not seek this in sections, but want to know 'the whole story'.
  • The way we look for answers to such an ultimate quesion is through experiential knowledge of God.
  • Happold points outthat philosophers oftene play games of 'conceptual counters'. By this he is referring to deductive arguments and logic. The point about experiential knowledge of God is that it is intuitive. 
  • In James's terms, this suggests 'noetic quality' 
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Aspects of mystical experience.

Futher to his seperation of mysticall experience into two types. Happold suggests that there are three aspects of mystical experience..

  • Soul mysticism does not deal with the concept of union with God, instead it see's the soul as something that is hidden, or to use Otto's terminology, 'numinious'. Mystical experience in this context, therefore is the idea finding the soul, and therfore complete fufilment. This form of mysticism does not deal with the God of classical theism, although it does relate to certain Buddist and Hindu philosophies. 
  • Nature mysticism is found in the belief that God is immanent. He is everywhere, and therefore can be 'united with' in many aspects of nature.  
  • God mysticism is the contention that the souls of human kind desire to return to their 'immortal and infinate Ground, which is God'. There are suggestions that mystical union with God requires the human soul to be 'deified', it almost becomes God while retaining its own identity.
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Religious experience as an argument for the existe

  • Many people are more likely to believe something if it has been experienced. In religious terms the significance of this was summed uo by Johnthan Edwards "There is not one grace of the spirit of God, of the existance of which.. Christian practice is not the most decisive evidence".
  • This means that the experience of god, is the best evidence we have that God exists. The evidence for our experiences is not empirical or logical, but 'spiritual and divine'.
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Existential and value judgments: Part A.

  • Existential judgement: a 'primary' question, and is converned with the nature of something- how it came into existance, what it does and of what it is made.
  • Value judgmenets: a 'secondary' question, and is concerned with the meaning, importance and significance of something.
  • William James distinguished between existential judgmenets and value judgements. He suggested that value judgements could also be considered as spiritual judgements, as they involve our personal interpretation. 
  • The distinction between existential and value/spiritual judgements is extremely important when considering religious experience. To do this, we must ask the following questions; 1.) what happened and 2.) what does it mean.
  • James was aware that many people in the late 19/early 20th centry were happy to dismiss alleged religious experiences as the product of a 'faulty mind'. This view remains popular today. 
  • James accepted this view but saw no obvious problem with it and spoke of 'religion and neurosis'  as compatible and necassary partners. 
  • Some question both nature of these 'experiences' and any attempt to use them as evidence for the existance of God. James defends credibility of these experiences.
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Existential and value judgments: Part B.

Induced experiences.

  • Some experiences we have considered could be confused with the effects od consuming alchol and/or drugs. James recognised this as a fact.
  • "The drunken consciousness is one bit of the mystic conciousness, and our total opinion of it must find its place in our opinion of that larger whole" James, 1902.
  • In conclusion it seems apparent that mystical experiences are states of conciousness, which are either spontaneous or induced. 
  • While 'under the influince', mystics feel a greater depth of understanding. Although this understnading may be lost as the influince fades, a sence of profound feeling is retained.
  • No matter what ties may connect different people who have these experiences- social, cultural or religious- their experiences are unique. 
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Challenges to religious experience introduction.

  • In examining James view, we have considered the possibility of using people's testomonies of their religious experiences to postulate Gods existance. 

There are however critics of religious experiences established by:

  • Sigmund Freud. 
  • V.S. Ramachandran. 
  • Micheal Persinger.
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Challenges to religious experience: Freud.

  • Psychiatrist who founded the psychoanaltic school of psychology. 
  • Freud fundamentally believed that people were completly material meaning that if we could understand about the physical/biological side of life, we would fully understand human beings. 
  • This approach ignores our metaphysical existance (the idea of the soul). 
  • Also it suggests that the urge some people felt towards religion was no more than a psycological obsession. 
  • Freud saw religious experiences as essentially illusions. He believed that they were projections of the ultimate, oldest and most profound ideas people had. For example, if someone claim to have been 'on the cross' with Jesus, a Christian who was happy to accept the authentistity 
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