The Nature of Religious Experience


Types of religious experience


Visions have 3 catergories: (said by St. Augustine)

1. Corporeal - Visions that come through the physical sense of sight. e.g. Bernadette of Lourdes seeing Mary.

2. Imaginative - Visions seen in the mind, often through the medium of a dream. e.g. Joseph's dream where he was told that Mary was pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit.

3. Intellectual - Visions where there is no visual image; the experience illuminates the soul. e.g. Teresa of Ávila.

Key Quote:

"I was in a prayer one day... when I saw Christ close by me, or to speak more correctly, felt Him; for I saw nothing with the eyes of the body, nothing with the eyes of the soul" - St. Teresa of Ávila.

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Types of religious experience

Numinous experiences


  • It is an experience that is the basis of all genuine religion.
  • It is unique and outside of our everyday experience.
  • It refers to a prescence that cannot be understood with the senses or intellect.

Holy: an adj. meaning 'other than/separate from' that expresses the distinctness of God from the universe.

Mysterium - refers to something far removed from humanity that it can be experienced but not understood.

Tremendum - refers to the fearsome experience of God's overwhelming majesty and energy.

Fascinans - the compulsive and attractive nature of the experience creates the desire for a relationship with this Being.

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Types of religious experience

Mystical Experiences

William James - a religion sympathiser even though he wasn't a part of a religious organisation.

  • Had four criteria for assessing the genuine nature of a mystical experience.
  • 1. Ineffability - something that cannot be described.
  • 2. Noetic quality - the communication of genuine sights.
  • 3. Transciency - the short-lived nature of an experience.
  • 4. Passivity - where the experiencer is controlled by the experience and cannot direct what happens.

Walter Stace - said that God is either a mystery or nothing at all so there's no point in trying to find rational proofs of him.

  • Had two types of mystical experience:
  • 1.Introvertive -  those in which sense experience is totally suppressed and there is no sense of 'I' as it has been replaced by 'the One'.
  • 2. Extrovertive - those in which sense experience is still active, though objects are transfigured by the 'unity that shines through'.
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Verifying religious experiences

Challenges from philosphy and theology 

  • We have only the word of the experiencer that the experience took place.
  • Response - some are group experiences and surely their efforts to change their lives after show their genuineness.
  • The experiences are subjective and perosnal so are not objectively real.
  • Response - people who have had religious experiences will claim that they are objectively real.
  • The inability to describe mystical experiences suggest that they are not real.
  • Response - ineffability is a key aspect of mystical experiences in all religions and doesn't mean it's false.
  • Religious experience is so alien to the experience of most people that it cannot be believed.
  • Response - many people in all walks of life have reported having some kind of 'religious' experience.
  • Mystical experience are elitist. Only a few have an intimate relationship with God.
  • Response - Mysticism is a gift that is open to all. However, few are prepared to engage with the discipline and effort required.
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Verifying religious experiences

Challenges form psychology and medical science

  • Freud claimed visions were just illusions created by subconscious fears/desires (insanity and immaturity).
  • Response - Jung argued that the visions of sane people were not necessarily delusions and they have beneficial results.
  • The experiences can be explained psychologically or medically.
  • Response - this does not mean that they are not real.
  • Neurotheology uses neuroscience to show that religious experiences can be simulated through devices like the God Helmet (drugs).
  • Response - God choosing to speak to someone has to be processed through the brain so the evidence of neurotheology and drugs does not mean that religious experiences are no more than states of the brain.
  • Temporal lobe epilepsy has been suggested for Paul's vision on the road to Damascus.
  • Response - God may work through people's conditions.
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Swinburne's principles of credulity and testimony

Principle of credulity

  • In th abscence of special considerations, how things seem to a person is how they really are.

Principle of testimony

  • In the abscence of special considerations, we should believe what people tell us.

Special considerations

  • If the person claiming the experience before is a known liar. (Testimony)
  • Rejection - just because they have lied in the past doesn't mean they are lying now.
  • If the claim seems beyond the realms of possibility.
  • Rejection - just because one claim is false doesn't mean all other claims are false.
  • It is very difficult to show that God was present.
  • Rejection - If God is everywhere, this shouldn't matter.
  • There are other ways of accounting for the experience.
  • Rejection - If God underpins all processes, he could work through people's conditions.
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Swinburne's principles of credulity and testimony

Strengths and weaknesses


  • Transformation in lifestyle is a powerful argument for the genuineness of religious experience.
  • Other people's claims to such experiences combined with transformed lives give further support.
  • The argument for the existence of God from religious experience both strengthens and is strengthened by the inductive arguments of God's existence.


  • It is a huge leap to go from saying that normal observable sense experiences are reliable to claiming the same for religious experiences, which are metaphysical.
  • Others can confirm claims about ordinary sense experiences, whereas religious experiences are privae and incapable of scienctific investigation.
  • Even if every experiencer was convinced that it was an experience of God, that doesn't mean that God is the right answer.
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