Religious Experience



Swinburne believs that religious experiences help prove the existence of God. He believes that it is important to categorise the two types of experience:

  • Public experiences
    • Ordinary, interpreted experiences such as the beauty of the sky
    • Extraordinary experiences, such as Jesus walking on water
  • Private experiences
    • Experiences that are describable in normal language
    • Experiences that are ineffable (cannot be explained in language)
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More importantly, Swinburne puts forward 2 principles to support the argument for religious experience:

The Principle of Credulity - if someone appears to be present, it makes logical sense to say that they are so, unless the observer is under particular circumstances (intoxicated, has mental illness)

  • However, some argue that religion itself is a particular circumstance, and that you are more likely to see things which aren't there if you belong to a religious group

The Principle of Testimony - it makes sense to believe what people tell you, since the majority of people tell the truth

  • However, this can be criticised as a view that is far too optimistic and idealistic for mankind
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Swinburne also argues for the priory probability argument, whereby he states that the probability of the existence of a cosmological God is higher than that of, say, the existence of UFOs, so the likelihood should be taken seriously

  • Anthony Flew criticises Swinburne's prior probability argument, accusing him of simply adding up theories to create a "cumulative case." Using the analogy of ten leaky buckets, Flew stated that arguments for God make a "bucket" but the flaws of all these arguments put holes in the buckets - it is pointless trying to full up a bucket with holes in it!
  • Caroline Frank Davis replies the Flew's criticism of Swinburne by suggesting that you can stack the buckets so the holes don't overlap, securing no leakage and therefore providing a solution - the arguments for God's existence can be used to prove religious experience
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William James

Another advocate was William James, who in "Varieties of Religious Experience" defined religious experiences as - "the feelings, acts and experiences of individual men."

James, like Willaim Alston, argued that something is real if it has real affects. We can't really deny that religious expriences have effects on people, so James goes on step further and uses the effets as evidence for the existence of God - they reveal something about the "divine."

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William James

James summed up religious experience by giving 4 descriptions (PINT)

  • P: passivity - you are not in control of the experience
  • I: ineffable - the experience cannot be described in human language
  • N: noetic - the experience leads to greater understanding
  • T: transient - the experience is temporary

This is similar to the Martin Buber belief: Buber spoke of "I-thou" experiences, calling all experiences personal one-to-one conversations with God

  • Nicholas Lash rejects James' view that experiences are directly personal, arguing that experiences are about experiencing God through pattern setters
  • Vardy rejected Lash's view, calling him an anti-realist
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William Alston and Rudolph Otto

William Alston argued that experiences are non-sensory; God is spiritual, and cannot affect people physically. Similarly, Otto argued for numinous experiences, saying that God is transcendent and so he can only effect us by filling us with a sense of awe, calling it "Mysterium tremendum"

  • Kant criticised this view, stating that we cannot use our senses to experience God, since he is the noumenal world whereas we're stuck in the phenomenal world
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Sigmund Freud

A major criticism on the argument of religious experience is the argument from psychology, advocated by Sigmund Freud. Freud called religious experience wish fulfilment, referring to religion as "a universal, obsessional neurosis."

He argued that religious experiences stem from the primal horde theory. This theory states that every society consists of a "primal horde" of people who gather around a single dominant male. Freud argued that the male will inevitable be killed out of jealously, leading to feelings of guilt. These feelings pass down through history into people's unconscious mind.

According to Frued, males focus their guilt onto a totem animal. They pray to this totem and sacrifice animals to appease it in order to gain a sense of atonement for what they have done. Freud likened this totem to the act of communim, and said that God is the ultimate totem.

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Sigmund Freud

Freud also outlined the structure of the psyche: the id (primitive desires), ego (rationality and reflection) and superego (moral compass)

He drew a comparison between religion and his famous Oedipus Complex, in that God acts as a replacement father figure. He also suggested that people turn to religion out of fear of death, an argument supported by Dawkins

  • Michael Palmer criticises Freud, asking how the Oedipus Complex applies to religions where people believe in multiple gods - saying that Freud's argument "all evidence is discredited."
  • Paul Vitz takes Freud's logic and argues that atheists are simply rejecting their father figure by not believing in God
  • Anne Marie Rizzuto argues that Freud has not removed the illusion with religion, but he has replaced religion with an illusion
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Carl Jung and Flew

Carl Jung, another psychologist, also argued that religious experiences were not evidence of God's existence. However, Jung differed from Freud and argued that, as an agnostic, religion is actually positive. He referred to God as a universal archetype, and said that a belief in God is part of the collective unconscious which all humans share. He called religious experiences natural processes, and argued that faith can help combat psychological problems

Flew proposed the vicious circle argument in opposition to the argument from religious experience. He argued that everything which we are is based on something else - x leads to y, which in itself life enforces x. Religious belief, Flew said, enforces a religious experience, and vice versa.

  • However, this doesn't account for a) people of one religon having religious experiences relating to different religions or b) people converting to religion without having a religious experience
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David Hume

Hume put forward the conflicting claims argument to oppose the argument from religious experience. He simply argued that two opposing religious experiences cancel one another out and discredit them, calling this "a triumph for the sceptic."

  • Both two conflicting religious experiences still leaves the possibility of one being correct
  • J. Smart argues that all religious experiences come from the same God, but merely interpreted differently
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Criticising the argument from religious experience, Karl Marx put foward the sociological argument, stating that religion is merely a way to oppress and alienate lower classes

Marx gave 4 particular images to enforce his argument:

  • Humans are flower-covered chains - religion oppresses us, even it if seems to comfort us
  • Religion is a false sun - it appears to give light and clarity, but does not
  • Religion is the "opium of the people"
  • Religion is "the sigh of the oppressed."

Edwin Starbuck argued that religious experiences are often drawn to social pressures

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Corporate and Individual Experiences

Corporate experiences are experiences that happen in public places to several people. One of the best examples of this is the Toronto Bless of 1994, whereby many people who visited a Pentacostal Church went through strange religious experiences, from speaking in tongues, to laughing hysterically, to barking like dogs


  • More numerically valid
  • show shared feelings and responses, which are more than individual experiences
  • Experience comes from God, not individual imaginations


  • Hank Hangraaff - such pehenomena are the result of mass hypnosis
  • Willaim Segeant - mass religious conversions are down to conditioning
  • Christian pyscharatrist John White - "learned pattersn of behaviour"
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Individual Experiences

Individual experiences are self-explanatory, relating to the Swinburne and James view


  • Corporate experiences can be described as being down to "mass hypnosis"
  • They can be authenticated personally
  • They are less likely to be conditioned


  • Don't appear as valid as corporate experiences
  • There are often no witnesses to these experiences
  • Lack of empirical evidence
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Speaking in Tongues/Glossolalia

Glossolalia is a particularly well-known form of religious experience, whereby people slip inot an indistinguishable language (adhering to the view that such experiences are ineffable) and appear possessed by God's grace.

Biblically, speaking in tongues wasn't common. It happened to the Gentiles and the Disciples

  • Emil Kraepelin referred to people who speak in tongues as schizophrenic, calling it unhealthy
  • John Kildahl refuted this, saying that glossolalia is actually good for stress relief
  • Goodman studied glossolalia and argued that when people speak in tongues, they are simply in a trance
  • This was refuted by Samarin, who criticised Goodman for only looking at one group in his study

In 2006, the Newburg's Study was founded to investigate the phenomenon of glossolalia.They deduced that the experience is real to the person (so James would argue that it is therefore real) but not necessary real in itself - "the question is still left open."

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