Religious experience


The nature of religious experience


Sensory visions are sensory experiences; religious experiences that appear to be sensed through the senses such as vision and sound. They are experienced in the same way as you would experience any natural object like a tree or an animal. Seen with the eye of the body, or other sense organs.

St Bernadette experiences visions of a small young lady claiming to be the virgin Mary. The visions led to the discovery of a spring of water which became the site of miracles (Lourdes).

Dreams/Imaginative visions are seen in the mind, such as in a dream or in the imagination. They are ‘seen’ with the eye of the mind.

Joseph’s dream. An Angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, warning him of King Herod’s attempt to find and kill Jesus and telling Joseph to run away with Jesus and Mary to Egypt. They do so until Herod dies.

Intellectual visions are seen with the ‘eye of reason’. There is no image; there is an intellectual grasping of knowledge or understanding.

St Theresa of Avila had a vision of Christ but not with the eye of the body or mind/soul. Theresa says she ‘felt’ Jesus at her right hand, being a witness to all her actions. She claimed to that such an experience ‘illuminates the understanding’ and that, in her case, Jesus made himself ‘present to the soul’.

Conversion – individual/communal; sudden/gradual

Mysticism – transcendent, ecstatic and unitive

Prayer – types and stages of prayer according to Teresa of Avila

St Theresa of Avila was a mystic, meaning she had and sought mystical experiences.

Theresa created a metaphor – the soul is a castle made of a single diamond – the outer walls of the castle representing the body and outside the walls are venomous creatures representing the temptation of sin which the soul tries to resist.

Theresa claimed that God is immanent within the innermost level of the soul. The mission of a mystic is thus to go on a kind of spiritual journey in the mind through prayer in order to become united with God in this life in preparation for the completion of the journey in the beatific vision in heaven. This spiritual journey is characterised by ‘mansions’ which refer to the levels or stages that prayer can progress through – unification with God being the seventh and final mansion.

The first mansion. Self-knowledge and humility must be developed by meditating on our own sinfulness and God’s goodness.

The second mansion. Meditation develops into the practice of prayer, learning how to concentrate the mind inward towards God through sensory deprivation. Purging imperfections, growing in charity. The devil attempts to tempt with sin.

The third mansion. Spending hours in prayer, avoiding venial (minor) sins. Their souls still governed by reason, preventing it from being governed by love by fully surrendering their will to God.

The fourth  mansion. Transition from the purgative to the active phase of the journey. The first stages involves active recollection – the soul making an effort in prayer. Now begins the prayer of passive recollection and of Quiet. Prayer begins passively – without choice – because of God’s action upon the soul. All external things and sense begin to lose their effect on the person. The prayer of quiet is a passively gained deep peace gifted from God to those who are humble and detached.

The fifth mansion. The prayer of union. The soul “falls asleep to the things of this world”, becoming united to God. The person appears unconscious. Having experienced the “riches and delights” of this mansion, the soul now desires total marriage to God.

The sixth mansion. The soul has fallen deeply in love with God and is ready for betrothal to God. The soul must suffer difficulties and tests before entering the seventh mansion. Mystical phenomena, visions and ecstasies begin to occur. Humility must be maintained since there is a danger for the soul to think too highly of itself having achieved this level of development.

The seventh mansion. Spiritual marriage with God. The soul is brought into this mansion through intellectual vision – the holy trinity revealing itself and communicating with the soul.

Theresa points to St Paul as an example of transformation by Christ. “Christ lives in me” (Galatians).

A person becomes ready to suffer for God and has no negative feelings towards those who mistreat them. Detachment from everything, defined only by an inner love for God.

The impact of religious experiences upon religious belief and practice

Whether different types of religious experience can be accepted as equally valid in communicating religious teachings and beliefs

Mystical experience

William James on mystical experiences

William 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.

James says that the most useful descriptor of a mystical experience is that it is a negative one – that it is ‘ineffable’

“The handiest of the marks by which I classify a state of mind as mystical is negative. The subject of it immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words. It follows from this that its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others. In this peculiarity mystical states are more like states of feeling than like states of intellect. No one can make clear to another who has never had a certain feeling, in what the quality or worth of it consists. One must have musical ears to know the value of a symphony; one must have been in love one’s self to understand a lover’s state of mind. Lacking the heart or ear, we cannot interpret the musician or the lover justly, and are even likely to consider him weak-minded or absurd. The mystic finds that most of us accord to his experiences an equally incompetent treatment.”

  • Noetic – some sort of knowledge or insight is gained

“Although so similar to states of feeling, mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge. They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for after-time.”

  • Transient – the experience is temporary

“Transiency. — Mystical states cannot be sustained for long. Except in rare instances, half an hour, or at most an hour or two, seems to be the limit beyond which they fade into the light of common day. Often, when faded, their quality can but imperfectly be reproduced in memory; but when they recur it is recognized; and from one recurrence to another it is susceptible of continuous development in what is felt as inner richness and importance.”

  • Passive – the experience happens to a person; the person doesn’t make the experience happen.

“Passivity. — Although the oncoming of mystical states may be facilitated by preliminary voluntary operations, as by fixing the attention, or going through certain bodily performances, or in other ways which manuals of mysticism prescribe; yet when the characteristic sort of consciousness once has set in, the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he were grasped and held by a superior power. This latter peculiarity connects mystical states with certain definite phenomena of secondary or alternative personality, such as prophetic speech, automatic writing, or the mediumistic trance. When these latter conditions are well pronounced, however, there may be no recollection whatever of the phenomenon, and it may have no significance for the subject’s usual inner life, to which, as it were, it makes a mere interruption. Mystical states, strictly so-called, are never merely interruptive. Some memory of their content always remains, and a profound sense of their importance. They modify the inner life of the subject between the times of their recurrence. Sharp divisions in this region are, however, difficult to make, and we find all sorts of gradations and mixtures.”

The adequacy of James’ criteria

Transient. There are people who claim to constantly experience God and therefore those religious experiences are not transient.

Ecstasy is left out.

Rudolf Otto on numinous experiences

Rudolf 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 put on the idea that God could be known through logical argument or sensory experiences.

The adequacy of Otto’s

Challenges to the objectivity and authenticity of religious experience

Caroline Franks Davis

Davis gave three challenges to the objectivity and authenticity of religious experience.

Davis draws on the principle of testimony from Swinburne:

“it is a principle of rationality that (in the absence of special considera tions) if it seems (epistemically) to a subject that χ is present, then probably χ is present; what one seems to perceive is probably so” – Swinburne.

The principle of testimony claims that we should accept people’s experiences as evidence for the truth of what they have experienced, unless we have other better evidence which goes against their description and thus provides us with a rational basis to not accept their experience as evidence.

Swinburne and Davis argue that this applies to religious experience too. Davis indicates three types of challenge to the testimony of religious experience:

Description-related challenges attempt to undermine that it really seemed to a subject that they were experiencing what they claimed to experience.

Subject-related challenges attempt to undermine that it seeming to a subject that they had an experience should be taken as evidence for the truth of that thing

Object-related challenges attempt to undermine that the thing experienced really occurred.

Description-related challenges

When assessing religious experiences, we are typically using descriptions of them. Davis says that descriptions “are our ‘data’, our primary means of access to the experiences themselves”.

Description-related challenges are those which attempt to undermine the description of the religious experience itself in order to provide us with a reason to rationally reject it as evidence.

They include:

  • Internal inconsistencies or logical incoherence in the description.
  • “Inconsistencies … between the description and something else we consider true”
  • Disconnect between the subject’s behavior and what you would expect from their behavior given the experience they describe.
  • Unreliability of memory
  • The description seeming highly interpreted/exaggerated

“description-related challenges are not generally successful … the theist has enough information about the way things seem to be to subjects of religious experiences to begin constructing an argument from religious experience.”

Subject-related challenges

The subject is the person who had the experience that is claimed to be evidence for God. Subject-related challenges attempt to undermine the reliability of the subject of religious experiences.

“Subject-related challenges charge that some factor or set of factors associated with an individual subject or class of subjects makes it likely that the described experience was unveridical.” Unveridical means a false perception.

  • Dreams, visions and hallucinations are generally considered unreliable. In cases like that, we have a clear reason not to believe the experience.
  • Mental illness
  • Conflicting claims between those who share a religious experience.
  • Physiological conditions like fever, lack of sleep, hallucinogenic drugs
  • psychological influences like hyper-suggestibility or strong desires and expectations.

Evaluation of description & subject related challenges

The validity of a challenge removes the default evidential force that the principle of testimony would grant them. This does not mean that the experience wasn’t true, just that the evidence against its truth outweighs the evidence it has according to the principle of testimony. In such cases, Davis accepts that those religious experiences cannot be used as evidence. However, Davis claims that most religious experiences are not affected by any of the challenges.

If a credible subject gives a credible description of their experience, then we have no basis not to accept their experience as evidence for the truth of what they experienced.

Object-related challenges

The ‘object’ is the thing experienced. Object-related challenges claim that the object of experience probably was not present. They attempt to show that we have reason to believe that all religious experiences are false for reasons independent of the credibility of the description or the subject.

  • The evidence of evil in the world (evidential problem of evil) making God improbably.
  • The evidence for reductionist challenges, physiological or psychological
  • The multiple claims challenge

Regarding the problem of evil, Davis responds that the debate over theodicy shows that whether evil is excessive or justifiable ‘remains sufficiently open to prevent the problem of evil from showing God’s existence to be highly improbable’. The theodicies provide a sufficient defence of religious belief against the problem of evil such that the existence of evil cannot count as enough evidence to discount the evidence of religious experiences.

The multiple claims argument

This is an object-related challenge because it suggests that religious experiences in a religion have the evidence against them of religious experiences of other religions.

Since religious experiences in different religions disagree with each other, the experiences must be ‘generally unreliable’.

Whatever. evidence might be attributed to a religious experience, at least the same amount of evidence must be granted to the religious experiences of other religions. However, different religions cannot all be true because they make incompatible claims about which supernatural being(s) exist. So, evidence for one religion must be taken as evidence against all the others. Therefore, claiming that a religious experience is evidence for the supernatural beings of a particular religion must make it evidence against the beings of all other religions. Any principle that identifies a religious experience as evidence, inevitably also brings far greater evidence against it.

C. F. Davis responds that the multiple claims issue does show that religious experiences cannot justify belief in a particular religion in all its detail. However, Davis argues that there is a ‘common core’ set of features in religious experiences in different religions that does not conflict with other experiences and therefore is justified. It includes:

    • Non-physical aspects to reality exist
    • Our everyday sense of self is superficial
    • Ultimate reality is more valuable and real than anything else
    • There is a higher power experienced as loving, personal and good
    • Union with the ultimate reality is the summum bonum of human existence

Davis argues that this common core justifies ‘broad theism’. This means the general view that there is some higher spiritual/divine ultimate reality.

Pluralism can respond to the multiple claims argument. Pluralism is the view that all religions are true. This view is held by William James and Hick. James thinks that mystical religious experience occurring in all religions and being life-changing shows that they are all true (in a pragmatist sense). 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. For Hick, differences between religions are just part of the cultural ‘lens’ through which we see the world.

Reductionist challenges

Reductionist challenges involve evidence for a general psychological/sociological theory of religion which provides evidence that the object of religious experience did not occur. It is the claim that scientific explanations are possible and thus make supernatural explanations unnecessary.

Reductionist critiques (Davis references Freud, Marx & Durkheim) attempt to provide a scientific explanation of religious experiences. If a reductionist theory succeeds then it can be taken as evidence against the experience being true.

Since the descriptive content of a religious experience tends to be correlated with a subject’s particular religious beliefs/traditions, reductionist accounts are better explanations than the supernatural.

Davis responds that such reductionist theories are only hypotheses about the psychological and sociological causes of religious experience, so they are not conclusive. Nor are they complete, since there is such a wealth and diversity of religious experiences which seem difficult to explain by one theory.

However, reductionist critiques do not need to be conclusive in the sense of being absolutely certain. To combat the principle of testimony and credulity, they only need to be valid evidence against the attribution of a supernatural cause to religious experiences.

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.