Religious Experience


William James

James was a philosopher and a psychologist who claimed that religious experiences occur in different religions and have similar features. People who have and try to have religious experiences are often called ‘Mystics’ and their experiences are intense and totally immersive. Their experiences are called ‘Mystical’.

James’ four criteria which characterise all mystical religious experiences:

  • Ineffable – the experience is beyond language and cannot be put into words to accurately described.
  • Noetic – some sort of knowledge or insight is gained
  • Transient – the experience is temporary
  • Passive – the experience happens to a person; the person doesn’t make the experience happen.

James’ argument is that there must be some objective explanation of the cross-cultural similarity of religious experiences being defined by these four criteria, since it is astronomically improbable that it is due to chance. James’ explanation is that religious experiences are the core of religion, whereas religious teachings and practices were ‘second hand’ religion, i.e not what religion is really about. This makes James a pluralist, meaning he thinks all religions are true in that they point to a higher spiritual reality. All religious experiences have similar features no matter the religion of the experiencer. The ‘differences’ between religions are more superficial cultural additions onto that core.

James’ Pragmatism. James was most interested in the effects religious experiences had on people’s lives and argued that the validity of the experience depended upon those effects. This is because James was a Pragmatist – a philosophical view on epistemology which states that if something is good for us, that is evidence of its truth. James pointed to the case study of an Alcoholic who was unable to give up alcohol but then had a religious experience, after which he was able to give up the alcohol. They were unable to give up the alcohol before the experience, implying they lacked the power. After the experience, they had gained that power they lacked before. Where did it come from? James would argue that this is evidence for the validity of the experience, meaning it was probably ‘true’. Though again, James would only think this was evidence for the validity of ‘the spiritual’, not necessarily whichever God that alcoholic happened to believe in.

Alternative explanation: Cross-cultural similarity of the features of religious experiences could have a naturalistic explanation, however. It could be that all human brains hallucinate similarly because they evolved similarly.

James argues that religious experiences cannot be mere hallucinations, however, because of their life-changing effects (pragmatism).

Counter to pragmatism: Although it’s not that not all hallucinations are life-changing, that doesn’t mean some aren’t. If a hallucination happens to fit with certain beliefs a person might have then it might be life-changing even though it isn’t real. Furthermore, arguably the alcoholic happened to hallucinate Jesus because his mind’s preconceptions made that more likely. If an Atheist hallucinates a person walking down a road, that won’t change their life, however if a theist hallucinates an angel, it might be life changing but only because of their beliefs about its significance which their own mind is supplying, it’s not coming from some higher spiritual reality, it’s just a hallucination.

Rudolf Otto

Otto defined religious experiences as “numinous”; feelings of awe and wonder in the presence of an all-powerful being. Otto described the numinous experience as follows:

It is an experience of something ‘Wholly other’ – completely different to anything human.

The revelation of God is felt emotionally, not rationally.

Mysterium – the utter inexplicable indescribable mystery of the experience

Tremendum – the awe and fear of being in the presence of an overwhelmingly superior being

            Fascinans – despite that fear, being strangely drawn to the experience

Otto claims Numinous experiences are the core of any religion ‘worthy of the name’. For Otto, it is fundamental to true religion that individuals should have a sense of a personal encounter with the divine. This means that Numinous religious experiences are the true core of religion, whereas the teachings and holy books and so on are not the true core of a religion.

Otto was a protestant who clearly advanced religious experiences as a direct line to God in opposition to the Catholic view that the church was a necessary intermediary between common people and God. Otto tried to identify what made an experience religious rather than just an experience.

Otto thought too much focus had been placed on the idea that God could be known through logical argument or sensory experiences.

Persinger was a neuroscientist who created a machine dubbed the ‘God helmet’ which physiologically manipulated people’s brain waves and often caused them to have a religious experience where they felt the presence of unseen beings. If this is the case, arguably religious experiences originate from the brain, not God. Religious experiences are just an unusual state of the brain. Regular religious experiences are just examples of that.

Criticism of Persinger: However, maybe that brain manipulation is simply the mechanism by which God creates religious experience. Also, we know we can cause hallucinations by manipulating the brain with drugs like LSD. This shouldn’t necessarily count against the validity of religious experiences that occur without such manipulations.

Defence of Persinger: Arguably Persinger at least demonstrates that religious experiences could have a naturalistic explanation. Therefore, supernatural explanations are unnecessary.

Criticism of Otto #2: It also seems difficult for Otto to rule out alternative naturalistic explanations of religious experience such as Mental illness, Epilepsy, random brain hallucinations, drugs, alcohol, fasting, sleep deprivation, etc.

Swinburne on credulity and testimony

Swinburne argued that religious experiences are evidence for God. His argument involves the principles of testimony and credulity. The principle of credulity argues that you should believe what you experience unless you have a reason not to. The principle of testimony argues that you should believe what others tell you they have experienced, unless you have a reason not to. Swinburne is an empiricist who argues that an experience of God should count as evidence towards belief in God, although it doesn’t constitute complete proof.

Swinburne argued that whenever we gain some new evidence, we can’t dismiss it for no reason – that would be irrational. It is only if we have other better-established evidence which contradicts that new evidence that we may rationally dismiss it. This is the rationale behind the principles of testimony and credulity. If we see a tree, that is evidence that the tree exists. Unless we have some other evidence suggesting the tree doesn’t exist, we would be irrational for dismissing the evidence of our experience. So too is it with God. Experiencing God is evidence for God, unless we have some other evidence to justify dismissing that experience.

Naturalistic explanations are always a reason not to believe. Any religious experience could be explained by mental illness, epilepsy, random brain hallucinations, fasting, drugs, alcohol, lack of sleep, etc. So we will always have a reason not to believe any religious experience.

Defence of Swinburne: We could defend Swinburne by pointing out that we could check for the presence of physiological and psychological causes of hallucinations. If none are present in a particular case, then we have no reason not to believe the experience in that case. In such cases, we cannot rule out random brain hallucinations or unknown medical causes of religious experiences, but we have no evidence for those explanations and therefore must accept such cases as evidence for God.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence: However, is a mere experience of God sufficient evidence to justify belief in God? Arguably the existence of God is an extraordinary claim which therefore might require extraordinary evidence.

Freud’s critique of religious experience

Freud called religion an ‘obsessional neurosis’ and said it ultimately derived from two main psychological forces. The first is the fear of death. We have an instinctual animalistic fear of death which we can’t control but we can control our human thoughts and cognitions. While animals only have their fear of death triggered when in a dangerous situation, humans are the only animal that constantly are aware that they are going to die. We have the animalistic part of ourselves, but have since developed cognitive processes, which then unfortunately constantly trigger the fear of death on our animalistic side. So the solution is to manipulate those to believe that death is not the end. Also, Freud argued that the reason Christians call God ‘father’ is because they have a desire to be a child forever. It’s a desire for eternal innocence in the face of the painful reality of the world. Freud thought these psychological forces were so strong that they resulted in delusions which could explain religious experience.

Freud’s account of religion is unscientific, overgeneralised and overly-reductive. There seem to be plenty of non-neurotic religious people. The problem with psychological arguments is that while they could be true for many maybe even the majority, it’s hard to argue they are true for all and even if they don’t work for one person, that’s one person they can’t explain.

Freud is currently regarded by psychologists as being too unempirical in his methods for his theories to count as real science. He studied a small sample size which was not representative of society and had no method of experiment. Popper argued that Freud’s method was unfalsifiable.

Freud’s analysis seems to ignore mystical religious experience and its sense of unity with something infinite and unbounded. These seem to go far beyond the wish-fulfilling hallucinations of a neurotic. Arguably it is these ecstatic immersive experiences which are the foundation of religious belief, not wish fulfilment.

Freud admitted that this challenge was a difficulty for his theory. His response was to argue that intense mystical experiences are actually reliving of childhood experiences before the ego or ‘self’ had formed. This explains the dissolving of the sense of self and resultant unity with everything in mystical experiences. Freud argued that reliving experiences of selflessness is simply a feature of the mind and only later came to be arbitrarily associate with religion, but in essence has nothing to do with it.

Conversion experiences from one religion to another can’t be explained away as wishful thinking or a fear of death. The person having the experience already believed in a God and an afterlife, so whatever wishful thinking for an afterlife they might have had would already have been satisfied by the religious beliefs of the religion they were already in. E.g. St Paul on the road to Damascus saw Jesus and was converted from a Jewish persecutor of Christianity to a Christian.

Criticism of the case of St Paul: However arguably it could still be explained by mental illness. Much of Paul’s description of his experience – eg seeing a bright light, falling to the floor, being paralysed, are symptoms of epileptic siezures.

Defence of conversion experiences: It is hard to diagnose people based on writings from thousands of years ago though. Conversion could also be explained away by wishful thinking if the person’s previous belief was somehow unsatisfying. However it’s hard to argue this is the case with Paul, unless his killings were startling to weigh on his conscience.. but perhaps they were.

Corporate religious experiences

Corporate religious experience is when multiple people share the same experience. E.g Toronto Blessing or speaking in tongues (Pentecostalism). In the Toronto blessing, the congregation felt unusual emotions, some falling around crying, others laughing hysterically. They attributed this to the presence of the holy spirt, which they claimed to feel. The strengths of corporate experiences is that they can’t be explained by criticisms that could only apply to individuals – like mental illness, drugs, alcohol, fasting, or attention seeking.

Psychological group dynamics: there are peculiar psychological dynamics to crowds or groups of people such as mob mentality, mass hysteria and social compliance. In the middle ages, an entire village would form an angry mob who were all convinced they had seen a witch cast a spell, and would then execute some poor woman. We could even say the same of today regarding groups of people who think they have seen Aliens. So clearly group delusion is possible. This could then be claimed to be the case in corporate religious experience.

The multiple claims issue

Hume’s multiple claims argument. Any belief in the action or intervention of a God, such as a miracle or a religious experience, has the problem that similar claims are made by other religions. Most religions involve the claims that their particular God(s) intervene in the world and in human experience. Hume argued this means their claims ‘cancel each other out’. All religions cannot be true. At most, one could be true and the rest false, or none of them could be true. So, any religious person’s claim that divine intervention happened could be false.

One could reply with pluralism – the view that all religions are just different cultural manifestations of the divine, therefore all are true. This view is held by William James and Hick. James thinks that mystical religious experience occurring in all religions shows that they are all true. Hick argues that the different religions of the world are like blind men each touching a different part of an elephant. They each report they are feeling something different, yet that is because they are just too blind to see how they are really part of the same thing.

Hick argued that faith is a way of interpreting reality in a religious experience or “experiencing-as”. Hick thinks perceiving God is neither a “reasoned conclusion or an unreasoned hunch”. Hick was influenced by Kant to think that we only perceive a particular interpretation of reality. So experiencing God It is an interpretation of our experience just like anything else we see.