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Richard Swinburne's Type Of Religious Experience

Ordinary experiences:

When a person interprets a natural event as having religious significance. E.g. the beauty of nature

Extraordinary experiences

  • Experience that seems to violate the normal laws of nature.
  • E.g. Jesus turning water into wine (John 2)

    Private experiences

     Describable in ordinary language:

    • E.g. dreams

    Non describable experiences:

    • Direct experiences of God in which God/the divine is revealed to people. They go beyond human description.
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further richard swinbourne

Non-specific experiences:

  • Includes things like looking at the world from a religious perspective.

Vision experiences:

  • In which God or the divine is 'seen' or 'observed'.
  • Information may be revealed, so dreams are described as theologians as 'noetic'
  • E.g. Teresa of Avila said she "saw Christ by my side" 


  • More than an audible voice, but the communication of knowledge.
  • Voice is usually linked to God.
  • Usually communicates a message.
  • E.g. God's voice declares Jesus is his son at the baptism - "I am your father"
  • Three noticeable features: disembodied voice, message is noetic (reveals something of God), voice is authoritative - "You are my son; with you I am well pleased" Mark 1
  • Problem: How do you know the voice is from God?
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Religious experience

Mystical experience:

  • When God reveals himself directly to the person, not chosen or willed by the person
  • God is experienced or observed in some way

Numinous experience:

  • Experience of awe and wonder in the presence of God
  • Can be regular and in day to day life
  • E.g. breathtaking view of being on top of mount Snowdon 

Corporate experience:

  • Religious experiences that happen to a number of people at once, in the same location
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William James' Argument From Religious Experience

James was interested in exploring the wide variety of religious experiences; he was particularly interested in this area because he assumed that religious experiences were the source of religious institutions such as Churches. Churches, for James, were secondary to religious experiences. 

He defined religious experiences as events which were 'solitary' and in which an individual experiences the divine or God - the religion they belong to is unimportant. 

Religious experiences often have great authority for the person, and can have a marked effect e.g. Saul to Paul 

He noted, whether sudden or gradual, conversion experiences are characterised by religious beliefs becoming central to a persons life, and this effects their behaviour. 

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William James' Argument From Religious Experience

James came up with four criteria that were prominent in mystical experiences of God:

  • Ineffable - Indescribable
  • Noetic - Knowledge of God is brought about e.g. Bernadette
  • Transient - Momentary, only last a short amount of time
  • Passive - Uncontrollable, powerless e.g. speaking in tongues

The main way to tell if it's from God, according to James, is 'a good disposition' being the result of the experience. 

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Swinburne's principle of credulity

Are Religious Experiences Veridical?
What is meant by this is, can we actually demonstrate that the religious experiences of people are what they seem to be, i.e. experiences of God, rather than delusions, products of the mind or drug induced?
Swinburne's principle of credulity  

  • Generally we have good reason to believe what a person tells us is correct
  • Generally if someone tells us an experience they've had, we believe them, even if we haven't seen the event, or if only one person has seen the event
  • "we ought to believe things are as they seem to be"
  • There are 3 reasons why we ought not to believe someone:
    - If there may be reason to believe the person's mistaken e.g. if they're on drugs
    - If we have strong reason to believe God doesn't exist
    - There may be evidence that an event wasn't caused by God - Swinburne's example: If there are two twins in an arcade, you think you saw John and later discover it was his identical twin brother 

    "Religious perceptual claims deserve to be taken as seriously as perceptual claims of any other kind" - Swinburne 

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Swinburne's principle of testimony

Swinburne's principle of testimony

  • We find that people usually tell the truth
  • Less often, they are mistaken, only joking or deliberately deceitful
  • In most cases we believe what we are told
  • Therefore we should go with the balance of probability when we are told and we should accept someone's account of their personal religious experience
  • The fact that not everyone has a religious experience is no reason to reject them
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William Alston

William Alston considered whether it's logical to talk about a person experiencing God and gaining knowledge from the experience, as he pointed out that in normal life the evidence of something is what you gather from the experience, e.g. if you say 'there's a red car' you are saying this as you have seen one before.
     You are not doubted for saying this as other people have seen one before. If many people have had a religious experience, is it right to immediately doubt their observation when we wouldn't do this in other situations? 
     He then goes on to say, if our sense perceptions are generally reliable, then why should we not believe them when concerning a religious experience?

In addition, Alston rejected the argument that religious experiences are unverifiable or uncheckable as he said the way you check anything is using sense observations, thus, other peoples religious experiences are also sense observations. 

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Challenges To Religious Experience Arguments - phi

Physiological challenges

  • One argument against religious experiences is that they have a physiological cause (i.e. they are the product of physical changes in the body). E.g. did Paul have epilepsy? This could explain his experience of bright light.
  • Equally it's known that damage to the brain can cause hallucinations, delusions as can brain tumours.
  • A weakness of this challenge is that there's no evidence that every person who had a religious experience was suffering from an illness that can cause side effects such as hallucinations, visions and delusions in its victims.
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Challenges To Religious Experience Arguments - Psy

Psychological challenges 

  • William James proposed that religious experiences could in some way relate to the human subconscious (though this didn't disprove God).
  • Freud linked religion with neurosis because he noticed that many patients at a mental hospital who suffered from mental illness displayed obsessive behaviour. He observed that the patterns of behaviour that had to be followed were similar to some religious practices like worship and formal prayer. 
         Freud argued that religion is an illusion as it expresses peoples desires, what they want to believe. It meets peoples psychological needs – making it similar to wishful thinking. 
         Religion originates from a childlike desire for a God that resembles a father figure.
  • A problem with this is that scientists today still understand relatively little of the relationship between the mind and body, and the conscious and unconscious mind
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Sociological challenges 

  • The origins of religion and religious experiences are to be found in society.
  • A religious experience reflects the society in which you live and grow up in - this explains why Catholics experience Mary, and Hindus experience Shiva - it reflects their upbringing.
  • Karl MarxAlienation - religion is about a myth that distracted people from their own reality in the physical world. "The opium of the people" - religion stopped people seeing reality (like a drug).
  • Religion is a form of oppression.
  • The church is a form of social control.
    Replies to Marx:
    • He didn't accept that for many people, religion is like a comfort, not a drug. Religious people say their faith is a relationship with God and he is real, not a product of society
    • In many situations religion has been a force for social change, not controlling an oppressing people
    • Religion is important to people in difficult times and can provide strength, hope and comfort
    • When Marx's ideas have been put into practice, they brought suffering
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lack of evidence

Lack of evidence

  • There's lack of evidence in religious experiences, beyond what a person says.
  • They may lead to a change in a persons life but this only shows they have changed and gives no evidence.

Conflicting claims

  • There are many different religions around the world, and therefore many different descriptions of the experiences e.g. Christians see Jesus, whilst Hindus see Shiva.
         However this can be explained in different ways:
  • Religious experiences are ineffable so each person will attempt to describe it using their own culture and upbringing.
  • Religious experiences are a product of human pyschology - the fact Hindus see Shiva and Christians see Jesus just reflects the beliefs and values of that person. Hume's argument that conflicting claims of miracles in different traditions cancel each other out can be applied to religious experiences. 
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  • Swinburne: Religious experiences make it more likely that there is a God 
  • James: The authority of a religious experience doesn't extend beyond the person that experiences it.
  • William Alston: If you believe in God then it's rational to believe people have experiences of him.
  • Swinburne: An account of a direct religious experience should be taken for what it is unless there's a reason for otherwise.
  • Ockhams Razor: From among competing hypothesis', select the one that makes the fewest new assumptions, this usually provides the correct one - the simplest will be the most possible unless proven otherwise 
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  • The Toronto Blessing: People got affected by the holy spirit - holy laughing, people acting like animals 
  • Medjugorje: 6 people had visions of Mary - one sees her even now, Mary gives her messages - message for the whole world on the 25th of every month

Rudolph Otto - The Numinous

  • 'Numinous' came from the latin word 'numen' - Otto used it to describe the power/presence of a divinity
  • Mysterium Tremendum: Tendency to provoke fear and trembling
  • Mysterium Fascinas: Tendency to attract, fascinate and compel
  • The above are qualities of the numinous
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