Religious Experiences

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Types of religious experience

  • Conversion is a form of religious experience where someone’s life takes a dramatic spiritual turn.  
  • A person may be converted from no religion to religious belief, from one religion to another or from religious belief to atheism or agnosticism.
  • Subjects of conversion are often in a state of imbalance: they are unhappy or leading unfulfilled lives.
  • There are  two forms of mental occurrence which lead to a difference in the conversion process:                                                                                                                            A conscious and voluntary experience – volitional type (Gradual conversion)                        An involuntary unconscious experience – self-surrender type (Sudden conversion)
  • The volitional type is where the person decides that they wish to make spiritual changes in their life and they go about doing the things necessary to bring this about. 
  • The self-surrender type of conversion is less common than the volitional type but the sudden conversion usually produces the more significant and profound effects. Sudden conversions are more likely to be the result of a religious experience as they often affect people who have no religious faith whatsoever before the experience. 
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Types of religious experience

  • The numinous is sense of ‘awe and wonder’ a person may feel when they experience the presence of God in a certain place or building. 
  • It usually describes the feeling that God is very different from us - powerful and awesome. 
  • Some people usually feel this when they enter a church or a cathedral. 
  • However, they might just as easily have a sense of God's greatness by looking at the world around them (E.g. a sunset).
  • The German thinker Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) argues that there is one common factor to all religious experience, independent of the cultural background. 
  • He identifies this experience as the ‘numinous’. 
  • He outlined a whole range of feelings associated with the sense of something that is uncanny, weird or eerie’. 
  • Otto states that the best expression for the numinous is the Latin phrase mysterium tremendum — a magnificent mystery. The mystery is the ‘Wholly Other’ which is beyond apprehension and comprehension.
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Types of religious experience

  • Miracles: Most people who believe in God would say that miracles can and do occur, and would probably claim that they have either witnessed a miracle in their own or another person's life.
  • The definition of the term miracle is not clear cut as the term is now so widely used that the true      meaning is often clouded by people’s own interpretations and experiences.
  • Aquinas defined miracles as: ‘Those things done by divine power apart from the order usually followed in things’ This view suggests that God can do what he wants with his creation.
  • David Hume: Hume’s definition of the term miracle that most philosophers use in their discussions of the phenomena: “A transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the deity or by the interposition of some invisible agent”. In other words, God or another supernatural being would break a law of nature that humans would regard as being unbreakable.
  • Swinburne acknowledges that it is difficult to outweigh the scientific evidence that could count against a miracle, but he maintains that we do have enough historical evidence to suggest that there is a God and that God can violate the laws of nature.
    “If he (God) has reason to interact with us, he has reason very occasionally to intervene and suspend those natural laws by which our life is controlled”
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Types of religious experience

  • Visions: A form of revelatory religious experience that acts as a source of knowledge about God is a vision. This occurs when an individual believes that they have seen or heard something divine or a divine being. 
  • A ‘Corporeal vision’ is a supernatural sighting of an object. It is where a figure really presents itself to a person.  
  • An ‘Intellectual vision’ is a vision without any object or image. The intellectual vision becomes supernatural when a person begins to realise the intervention of God. This intervention is felt through the following effects, such as feeling loved by God, an overwhelming peace in the mind, a deeper belief in God and the benefits and rewards that this belief will bring.  
  • An ‘Imaginative vision’ is the representation of an object by the act of imagination alone or within the mind of a person. An imaginative vision is very different to a corporeal vision and the object is not physically seen with the eyes. In an imaginative vision a being superior to man (Godly) acts directly either on the imagination itself or on certain forces calculated to stir the imagination. 


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Richard Swinburne

  • Richard Swinburne decided there were 5 types of religious experiances; 2 public and 3 private. 
  • Public:
  • Object or scene: For example, the sunset is really the 'hand of God', or the blooming of a flower is a 'miracle of God'.
  • Miracles: Miracles often come under the category of public religious experiences. For example, where water turns into wine or Jesus raises the dead
  • Private:
  • -A private experience which may be explained using normal language e.g. the Angel Gabriel appearing to Mary
  • - A private experience which may not be explained using normal language e.g. mysticism
  • -An ongoing impression of a presence based upon no specific experience,just a sense that God is guiding one’s life.
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Caroline Frank Davis

Caroline Frank Davis created for catagories for a religious experiance, these are;

  • Interpretive:the experience is religious by attribution, for example, the recipient is clearly aware that what they are experiencing is something that can be attributed to the divine/God.
  • Quasi sensorythe recipient of the experience may have a physical sensation where they hear a voice or see a vision.
  • Revlatorythe recipient is left with a feeling of ‘enlightenment’ which means they have gained some new knowledge.
  • Regenrative: the recipient often undergoes some form of transformation following the experience either through conversion or renewal of faith.
  • Numinous: the recipient experiences God’s unapproachable holiness or in the understanding of Otto has an overwhelming feeling of the presence of something greater.
  • Mystical: the recipient has a sense of apprehending ultimate reality or a oneness with God. In simpler terms the experience is other worldly in that the person has a spiritual connection with the divine which is completely different to a normal everyday experience.
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Rudolph Otto

Rudolph Otto was a German theologian and philosopher.

  • Otto uses the term numen, or numinous, to describe a sensation that recipients of religious experience feel. 
  • The numinous is often described as a feeling of being in the presence of something greater than yourself. 
  • Otto identifies two distinct aspects of the numinous, what he terms: mysterium tremendum (the element associated with overwhelming fear and awe of the unknown)and mysterium fascinans (associated with feelings of love, mercy and so on).
  • Numinous: a sensation that the recipient is in the presence of something greater than yourself.
  • Mystrium tremendum: overwhelming fear and awe.
  • Mystrium fascinas: feelings of love and mercy
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William James

  • William James was one of the first to discuss religious experience from a perspective external to theology. James considered the religious experience to be a distinct class of experience defined by its fruits (outcomes). 
  •  William James gave a four fold classification of what an experience looked like: Passive Ineffable Noetic Transient.
  • Passive: Religious experiences were found to be passive, which means the person was not in control of what happened to them. 
  • Ineffability: The experience of God goes far beyond the human powers of description. The person feels like they are unable to describe the experience or not do it justice. 
  • Noetic: The person receives knowledge of the divine which is not otherwise available.
  • Transient: Religious experiences are described as transient which means they are not permanent. A transient appearance may appear to last for a long period of time whereas it may have actually been very short. The effects of the transient experience are however, long lasting and involve a changed view of the universe.

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Are religious experiences proof of God?


  • Richard Swinburne offers two ways in which we can accept that a person has experienced God:
  • Principle of Credulity Principle Of Testimony 
  • Richard Swinburne’s principle of credulity states “If it seems to a subject that X is present, then probably X is present; what one seems to perceive probably is so” Therefore, if  person believes God was present we should accept what a person experiences unless you can prove otherwise.
  • William James offers a strong argument to suggest that people can and do experience God. This can be divided into three areas: Normal people have religious experience Religious experiences have a profound effect The quality of a person’s testimony.
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Are religious experiences proof of God?


  • David Hume: Probability - The probability of miracles/religious experiences actually happening is so low that it is irrational and illogical to believe miracles do occur. Hume is an
    empiricist which means he emphasises experience and observations of the world as the way of learning things. He argues therefore, when investigating miracles evidence is collected from human witnesses. Laws of nature appear fixed and unvarying. Miracles appear to violate the laws of nature. It is more likely that the report of a miracle happening is incorrect than that the laws of nature have been violated.
  • John Mackie: John Mackie argues that people who claim that God is the cause of their religious experiences are mistaken about the cause. He argues, using the example of Peter Sutcliffe, the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ that it is not easy to decide whether a religious experience is caused by God or the product of a faulty mind. Furthermore, what separates Peter Sutcliffe’s experience from other types of religious experience? If Sutcliffe is regarded by society as being mentally unstable and did not experience God then surely this applies to all other claims.
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Verifying religious experiences

FOR: Corporate Experience- If an individual claims to have experienced God it is possible just to doubt but so many people have experianced its hard to doubt. There are two examples of group or corporate experiences;Toronto Blessing & Fatima.

Strong Verification - The strong verification principle as proposed by the Vienna Circle suggests that only those statements / events that can be experienced or observed are meaningful. William James would argue that religious experience would fit within their criteria. If a person has a vision of God or another divine being then they have observable evidence.Therefore, if a person has a religious experience then surely this is the strongest form of empirical.

Many would also argue that religious experiences can be verified if we apply Ayer’s weak verification principle: Direct verification – Bernadette had in total 18 visions of the Virgin Mary. The vision spoke to Bernadette and gave her instructions that she was to take back to her local priest..

Indirect verification – 150 years on from the events in Lourdes the town has now become a popular Catholic shrine. It attracts around five million people each year and sixty seven miracles have been confirmed in Lourdes. 

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