Religious Experience

A2 Argument from Religious Experience for developments paper 2012

  • Created by: Lauren
  • Created on: 27-04-12 14:37


  • Religious Experience = encounter with divine, non-empirical occurrence which for believer is most convincing proof of God
  • Difficult to define, even by St. Teresa of Avila - received many profound visions & described as God "establishing himself in the interior of this soul", in such a way that "she has no doubt she has seen God"

Can be split into 2 basic groups:

  • Direct - where person feels are in contact with God
  • Indirect - where is an inner experience of God's immanence & 'something other'
  • C.F. Davis - suggested 7 types, including awareness (seeing work of God when looking at world), interpretive (answered prayer) & revelatory (receiving enlightenment & knowledge)
  • Unique (perhaps one of problems)
  • Most occur in private but some shared by many (corporate experience), E.g. Toronto Blessing
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Scholars made various attempts to define

  • Smart - believes involves "some kind of perception of the invisible world"
  • Schleiermacher - says R.Exp. is "one that offers a sense of the ultimate & an awareness of the whole"
  • Tillich - states is a feeling of ultimate concern & describes as an encounter followed by special understanding of its R.Exp.
  • Buber - argues God reveals himself on personal level through interactions with others & nature, said 2 types: I-It (ordinary encounters) & I-Thou (involves close family/friends/God - deeper emotional level)
  • James - R.Exp. draw on common range of emotions but directed at divine, where "God is present, though invisible; he fell under not one of my senses, yet my conscious perceived him"
  • Dawkins - argues no such thing as R.Exp. & are merely expression of person's pyschological needs

May be convincing for those who have had one, but least convincing for anyone else

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Several different types of R.Exp.

Dramatic/Coversion Event

  • (Direct) is numinous, from Latin meaning divinity
  • an experience which offers evidence of wholly nature of God & where may see a vision/have sense of awe & wonder
  • often is conversion event, E.g. Paul on road to Damascus, heard Jesus, became Christian missionary

Responses to Life & Real World

  • (indirect) where person's understanding of the world changes
  • Often happens as result of prayer
  • H.D. Lewis - claims is "Not just a feeling...but a conviction or insight, a sense that something must be"
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  • Divine self disclosure where God reveals self to select few who may acquire rel. knowledge E.g universal truths of God/prophecy
  • 2 types: propositional = in which God communicates divine messages to humans E.g. Moses & 10 commandments, & non-propositional = in which person comes to moment of realisation of divine truth through R.Exp. E.g. Buddha gained enlightenment

Near Death Experiences (NDEs)

  • Occur when person dies & upon resuscitation can recall experience
  • Raymond Moody - carried out research & found are number of core experiences incl. feelings of peace & ineffability, & seeing/going through tunnel
  • Some doubt are not R.Exp. but those who had them claim is proof of after life
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  • Where person experiences ultimate reality & brings with it sense of unity & dependence with divine
  • Diificult to describe in ordinary lang. & mystic St. John of Cross observed "Human language is unable to express the sense of mystical union with God" 
  • However, convinced something happened, E.g. famous mystic Mother Julian of Norwich - claimed to have received 'showings' at time of sickness & had profound insights though uneducated
  • Intensely personal - communicate with levels of reality beyond spatio-temporal world
  • 2 types: theistic = involves awareness of God, & monistic = awareness of soul, self & conscience
  • William James - listed 4 characteristics = ineffability, noetic quality, transciency & passivity
  • Can be extrovertive (look outwards top see God in world) & introvertive (look within slef to see personal identity merging into divine unity)
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Corporate Experience

  • E.g. Toronto Blessing - large no.s seemed to experience God at same time & wept, laughed hysterically & shook uncontrollably
  • Some see as hallmark of true Christian Church, others have questioned its validity as R.Exp., claiming are engineered through mass hytseria
  • Scholars have accepted are certain factors that can trigger R.Exp, E.g. music, prayer, dance & meditation
  • Most religions use music in worship & dance to express joy E.g. Sufi tradition in Islam
  • Evangelists E.g. Benny Hinn rely on music to set atmosphere & rifght circumstance for people to feel have received a R.Exp
  • Hinn's work inspired by Kathryn Kulmann (adopted technique of pushing people down  & claiming 'slain in spirit) & believes is God speaking to him, but many disputed his ideas/methods incl. other Christians
  • Prayer = communion with God & comes in many forms, may also create conditions for R.Exp.
  • Meditation = prayerful state where person seeks understanding & union with God & for Buddhists, aim is to seek loss of self; can lead to R.Exp.
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Arguments in favour of R.Exp. as proof of God

  • = a posteriori as based on premise that experience is product of facts about real world
  • Can be set out as premises:
    • Premise 1 - 'experience of X indicates reality of X'
    • Premise 2 - 'experience of God indicates reality of God'
    • Premise 3 - 'it is possible to experience God'
    • Conclusion - 'God exists'
  • Jung - says arg. is absolute, cannot be disputed b. has meaning to believers & can change lives
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However, has numerous problems

  • Experience does not always indicate reality of something as can be easily mistaken & open to reassessing what believe have experienced
  • Therefore better to say is probable experience indicates reality (particlarly w/ God as exp. of divine is ambiguous) & conclusion of premises cannot be sustained on basis of claims, most they amount to is a tentatively probable conclusion that God exists
  • Form of arg. being set out in premises = inductive w/ those who believe ex. does prove God arguing inductively (look at subjective tesatimonies of individualsto find similarities & conclude existence of God)
  • Swinburne - argues inductively that is reasonable to believe God is loving & personal, "good creator will seek to interact with his creatures" = was suggesting that R.Exp. can be felt empriically & interpreted non-empircally, so should believe people when say have had one
  • Brian Davies - said eventhough can make mistakes when interpreting, if didn't believe anything without 100% proof, would never establish anything at all
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Arguments in favour of R.Exp. as proof of God

  • Supporters of this view argue proof of R.Exp. lies in fact that lives of experients changed forever w/ many of greatest events in history result of R.exp.
  • E.g. Joan of Arc led French armies to victory after receiving visions, & those who became founders of faith after R.Exp. like Guru Nanak, & Paul who was converted on Road to Damascus after seeing vision of Christ (became Christian Missionary)
  • Nevertheless, problem still is that conclusion depends on correct interpretation of evidence & this may be influenced by beliefs already held
  • Cumulative arg., based on view that if all diff. arguments about religious belief were put together, then are more convincing than one arg. alone
  • However, though would have much weight, not enough to convince sceptics; Hume - said could not "secure us against all delusion", & several weak args. put together are not strong, are just one large weak one
  • Swinburne - claims people in general tell the truth & so cannot realistically work on basis of always doubting R.Exp; called this 'principle of testimony' & argues unless have evidence to contrary should always believe those who claim to have had R.Exp.
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  • Since people generally tell truth, are only 3 types of evidence that could render them unreliable: if actual circumstances are unreliable (drugs), something suggests person is lying, & if exp. can be explained in terms other than God (mental illness)
  • Swinburne maintained also principle of credulity, where states that so many people claimed to have hade R.Exp. that seems to be from God, is only rational they should be believed, "How things seem to be is a good guide to how things are" - in his view R.Exp. provided evidence for existence of God
  • However, Vardy - is cautious, says that people, having seen phenomenon, could be mistaken & therefore would be right to remain sceptical unless much evidence to support what had been seen
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Arguments against R.Exp. being proof for existence

  • Main problem is cannot be verified by empirical testing - will always remain ambiguous & open to innumerable interpretations; Wittgenstein said each person sees experiences differently so all testimonies unreliable
  • R.M.Hare - says R.Exp. is a 'blik', an unverifiable & unfalsifiable way of looking at world; is a personal intrepretation whether choose to believe is God or not, but cannot be proved for anyone else
  • Hick - observed testimonies equally well interpreted in non-religious ways
  • Cole - says is because people cannot experience God in same way experience world/people, "God is not material, nor does he have a definite location"
  • Others suggested R.Exp. could have natural explanation E.g. drugs/alcohol, or as Freud suggested - a psychological reaction to the hostile world, in which construct God as a father/protector
  • However, Swinburne had already eliminated R.Exp. claims that came from such circumstances
  • Issue of consistency - are many types of R.Exp., but if God was source of all of them, safe to assume would be some similarities E.g. revelatory regarded as untrustworthy & not accepted in Buddhism unless from advanced experient, & in Catholic Church revelations strictly tested
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  • Critics argue NDEs could be kind of mental phenomenon, possibly caused by lack of oxygen to brain, though opinions remain divided

Summary of arguments against:

  • - if no God, can be no experience of him
  • - any such experiences opne to interpretation
  • - testimonies unreliable as pre-existing beliefs may have input
  • - may be induced by psychological needs
  • - emotions & sensations reported can be explained by biological/neurological imbalances in body
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More Against

  • Dawkins - "If we are gullible, we don't recognise hallucinations or lucid dreaming for what it is...& as such are...not good grounds for believing that God's actually there"
  • OTOH, Steere - argues "it constitutes a continual challenge to what William James calls a 'premature closing of accounts with reality'"
  • Must be asked whether language of R.Exp. is meaningful & serves to convey anything of significance
  • For Logical Positivists, all Rel. lang. essentially meaningless since no observations could verify claims, & Ayer dismissed on grounds only interesting from 'psychological pov' - experients make claims in same way as if have seen empirical object but it cannot be tested
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Defending Religious Experience as a proof

  • Whilst true that if God does not exist can be no experience of him, requires proof there is no God, & theists would argue that existence of God is beter explanation for many phenomena than what is offered by science; Swinburne - "our experience ought to tip the balance in favour of God"
  • Also, whilst true experience open to religious & non-religious intrepretation, illogical to assume all rel. interpretations incorrect, some may actually be God - validity could be tested by looking at effect has on experient
  • Also, no grounds to suggest testimonies of believers unreliable, may be more accurate in identifying valid R.Exp. than non-believer b. know what to expect, & not all can be a psychological phenomenon - reasonable to assume God would meet psychologcal & emotional needs
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Counter arguments (Against) & Conclusion

  • However, Flew - argues testimony of believers is biased, irrational, questionable & cannot be regarded as meaningful b. nothing to count against it; believers often so convinced of truth refuse to consider evidence to the contrary
  • Supported by Sam Harris - while belivers not mad, their core beliefs are, but Dawkins claimed testimonies are simply manifestation of mental/psychological needs, created to cope with fear of unknown


  • No clear cut answer; are too personal & subjective to provide convincing proof for non-experients
  • Neverthelss, for those who have had them, are most convinving proof of all
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