Religious Experience

Scholar Summaries

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F.D. Schleiermacher

  • First attempt at presenting religious experience as a vehicle for revelation
  • "feeling of absolute dependence"
  • Special faculty of apprehension/ appreciation required
  • Intuitive
  • Deeper than level of rational thought


  • Private concept- conflicting claims
  • Can feelings lead to knowledge claims?
  • Psychological origins?
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Søren Kierkegaard (1813- 1855)

  • God= irrational (see Kant)
  • "leap of faith", beyond reason
  • Subjective- "no objective way" of reaching God


  • Strengthened by Kant
  • Subjective things cannot be proven true
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Rudolph Otto

  • "apprehension of the wholly other" (direct experience)
  • experience of the "numinous" and holy
  • One can perceive the numinous through direct intuition
  • "mysterium, tremendum et fascinans"
  • Ineffable, though often described with words like "awe"


  • Kant- can't know the noumena, only the phenomena
  • Numinous- God too other to be experienced?
  • Feelings cannot generate cognitive truth claims and are often unreliable
  • Prior belief may shape experience
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Martin Buber

  • personal encounter with the divine
  • "I- thou" not "I-it" relationship with God
  • People are incorporeal and can connect with eachother and God through direct apprehension


  • Brian Davis- everyday relationships not comparable to relationships with God
  • Psychology- relationship with God conditioned by those we have with friends etc.
  • Peter Donavan- "Can we know God by Experience?" Sense of encounter may be mistaken- we cannot verify intuition
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William James (Religious Experience) 1842-1910

  • Unifying core (PINT)
  • feeling= source of religious experience. Felt, not conceptualised.
  • "men in their solitude" "stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine"
  • Cannot establish cause so test effects instead
  • Not interested in brain's functioning- "mystical"


  • No cause
  • Corporate not included
  • Not all ineffable
  • Katz- effects often shaped by belief
  • Lash- does not point to God
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William James (Conversion)

  • 2 types of conversion experience
  • Volitional- conscious and voluntary
  • Self surrender- person gives up- leaves it to God
  • Conversion happens when we are not looking for it
  • Subconscious divine intervention


  • First type is not passive so contradicts PINT
  • May not be a result of God
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William Alston- Defends mysticism

  • Everyday experience is reported and believed so why is religious experience doubted?
  • It is possible we perceive God if there is a God to perceive.
  • Sense perceptions- if we reported seeing a red car, noone would doubt our sense perceptions.
  • No reason to reject experience just because it is unusual.
  • Antirealist


  • Lash- God is a mystery so can't be sure
  • Vardy- modest claim- if you believe in God it is reasonable to believe in religious experience
  • Anti realist- shows claims to religious experience are acceptable within the form of life of religious believers
  • Katz- interpretation- can't identify cause
  • Martin- religious experience conditioned by prior beliefs
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Richard Swinburne

  • Cognitive- conforms to reason/ test
  • Defines religious experience by separating into categories
  • Principle of credulity- what seems to be, probably is
  • Principle of testimony- "experiences of others are probably as they report them"


  • Flew- 10 leaky buckets
  • Conditioned by religious tradition- only interpretation makes it religious
  • Vardy- likens to ordinary too much, too rational- "little feeling for the numinous"
  • Martin- negative principle of credulity- what seems not to be, probably isn't
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