Religious experience


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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 says that the most useful descriptor of a mystical experience is that it “defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words”. It is ineffable. It has to be directly experienced to be appreciated. It’s like music or love in that regard. If someone has never felt love or heard music, they might find a musician or lover weak-minded or absurd, but that’s just because they lack the required experience. James saying this is true of those who dismiss religious experience too.

James’ pluralist argument for religious experience

James’ argument is that there must be an explanation of why these four criteria are found in mystical religious experiences in different cultures across the world. This is an interesting point that comes out of James’ observations. It clearly can’t be chance.

James’ explanation is that religious experiences really are coming from a higher spiritual reality. Writers such as W. Stace developed this argument much more explicitly, claiming that the universality of certain features of religious experiences is good evidence that they are real.

James concludes that mystical experiences are the core of religion, whereas teachings and practices were ‘second hand’ religion, i.e not what religion is really about. This makes James a pluralist, the view that all religions are true.

Paul Knitter is a pluralist who makes a similar argument about religious experiences. He points to a classic metaphor. Each religion is a well. If you get to the bottom a well (through mystical experience) you get down to the underground water that you then realise is also sourcing all the other wells, i.e. all the other religions.

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. It also could be that religious experiences serve a universal psychological or sociological function (e.g. Durkheim or Jung). So, we can explain the cross-cultural similarities of religious experiences without needing the therefore unnecessary explanation of a higher spiritual reality.

James’ pragmatism argument, including conversion experiences

James was not satisfied with the attempt to dismiss religious experiences as mere hallucinations. He pointed out that, unlike hallucinations, religious experiences can have positive and profound life-changing effects, which we can observe. This is a reason to think religious experiences are not just hallucinations.

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 or works, then 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. After the experience, they had gained power which they lacked before. James would argue that this is evidence for the validity of the experience, that it really came from a higher spiritual reality.

James on conversion experiences. Conversion experiences are clearly a strong example of James’ point about the life-changing impact of religious experiences. He viewed conversion experiences as a transformation from an unhappy divided or imperfect self with a guilty conscience to a more unified happy state.

Counter to James’ pragmatism argument: James might be right about most hallucinations, but sometimes they actually can be life changing. 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. If an Atheist hallucinates a person walking down a road, that won’t change their life, but if a theist hallucinates an angel, it might be life changing. Yet, it would still be a hallucination. The reason for it being life-changing would only be 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. This does seem like a simpler explanation.

This could easily explain conversion experiences too. So, it looks like a religious experience involving life-changing conversion does not add any special validity to it.

Swinburne’s principles of credulity and testimony

Swinburne takes an evidence-analysis based approach to religious experience. Religious experience can be evidence for God that justifies belief in God, so long as it survives standard empirical testing. Swinburne doesn’t favour any particular type of religious experience. Any type could be valid evidence for God, so long as there is no reason to not believe it.

His argument starts from a very simple account of what evidence is. If we experience something or someone tells us they have experienced something, then that is evidence for that thing probably being true:

“it is a principle of rationality that (in the absence of special considerations) 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.

Applying this to religious experience, if it seems to someone that they experienced God, or if we hear from someone who says they seemed to experience God, then that is evidence for God. Of course, this doesn’t prove God, but it is evidence that by itself does give a rational reason to believe in God.

Swinburne accepts that the evidence of religious experience must then be subject to scrutiny and testing just like any other evidence for anything else would be. If we have other better-established evidence which contradicts the evidence of a religious experience, then we are rationally justified in dismissing it and not regarding it as evidence for God. Without such counter-evidence, however, it is irrational to dismiss a religious experience.

From this reasoning Swinburne develops 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.

The consequence of Swinburne’s theory is it would actually reject a lot of religious experiences. There are many religious experiences that we have evidence are caused by someone being a known liar, or by psychological/physiological influences. If we do have evidence for a naturalistic cause of a religious experience, such as that someone was fasting, on drugs or mentally ill etc, then we have evidence against their experience counting as evidence for God. In such cases we do have a reason to believe, and so we should not consider it evidence for God.

Swinburne concludes that all the other religious experiences that we have no evidence against are evidence for God. If someone dismisses those experiences, when there is no reason to not believe them, then they are irrational because they are dismissing evidence without reason.

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 psychological challenge to religious experience

Freud as a scientific psychological challenge to 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.

A person lost in a desert can be so desperate for water that they hallucinate it. This is called a mirage. Similarly, humans can be so desperately afraid of death and the difficulties of life that they can delude themselves that there is a God who will take care of them and an afterlife.

Religious response: Freud’s analysis fails to explain mystical religious experience because of its sense of unity with something infinite and unbounded. These seem to go far beyond the wish-fulfilling hallucinations of a neurotic. Freud’s theory might work well against mere visions, which we know can be created by the brain due to desperate wish-fulfilment such as in the mirage case. Mystical experiences are ecstatic, immersive, and totally unlike any ordinary sensory experience, however, making them harder to dismiss as hallucinations caused by delusory wishful thinking.

Evaluation: 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.

Counter-evaluation: 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 most 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 theories were unfalsifiable.

Persinger’s physiological challenge to religious experience

Persinger poses a scientific challenge to religious experience through his discovery of a physiological explanation of them. Persinger is a neuroscientist who created a machine dubbed the ‘God helmet’ which physiologically manipulated people’s brain waves and sometimes caused them to have a religious experience where they felt the presence of unseen beings.

This seems to show that religious experiences originate from the brain, not anything supernatural like a God. Religious experiences are just an unusual state of the brain. Regular religious experiences could just be examples of that caused by some unknown brain process(es) that can happen without a machine.

Religious response: 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.

Evaluation: Arguably Persinger at least demonstrates that religious experiences could have a naturalistic explanation. Therefore, supernatural explanations are unnecessary. His God helmet cannot rule out the possibility of supernatural causes for regular religious experiences, but it can show that they could have a naturalistic cause. In cases like this where we have naturalistic and supernatural explanations competing, we can use Ockham’s razor. The naturalistic explanation is the simpler option. If we can explain religious experiences naturalistically, we have no reason to suppose that they have a supernatural cause.

Conversion experiences

Conversion experiences are those which influence a person to join a religion. Any type of religious experience could also be a conversion experience. They could be individual or corporate. They could be full-blown mystical experiences, or merely visions.

One of the most famous conversion experiences is that of St Paul’s. He was a Jew called Saul who persecuted Christians. Yet, on the road to Damascus, he had an experience which converted him to Christianity. He changed his name to Paul and became an Apsotle, spreading the Christian faith. His theology and teachings found in his letters to different Christian Churches became a very significant portion of the New Testament.

“As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Paul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.” – Acts 9:3-9.

Freud’s psychological critique applied to conversion experiences.

Defence of conversion experiences from Freud: 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.

Corporate religious experiences

Corporate experiences are when multiple people all have same religious experience together. There is what seems to be a case of apostles having a corporate religious experience mentioned in the book of Acts:

“All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues” – Acts 2:3

This has inspired a Christian denomination called Pentacostalism which focuses on intense shared worship, often including speaking in ‘tongues’. These form of worship called be considered corporate religious experience.

The Toronto Blessing is another example. The congregation of a Toronto church 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 physiological or psychological causes that could only apply to individuals – like mental illness, drugs, alcohol, fasting

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 is clearly the simplest explanation in the case of corporate religious experience.

The multiple claims issue

Religious experiences have evidence against them – the religious experiences of other religions. Since different religions cannot all be true, religious experiences about different religions conflict with each other. If all religions have religious experiences and yet most religions cannot be true, then they 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. Claiming that a religious experience is as evidence for a particular religious belief only creates more evidence against it.

Pluralism can respond to the multiple claims issue. 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.

Possible exam questions for Religious Experience

Are religious experiences just illusions?
‘religious experience justifies belief in God’ – How far do you agree?

Are religious experiences evidence of God?
‘Religious experiences are union with a greater power’ – Discuss.
Do religious experiences prove God’s existence?
Assess whether testimony and witness is sufficient to validate religious experiences
‘Mystical experiences are of God’ – how far do you agree?
Assess whether religious experiences are the product of a physiological effect

Are corporate religious experiences more reliable than individual experiences?
How successful are the views and main conclusions of William James?
Does the influence religious experiences have show they have a supernatural source?
‘Conversion experiences are more reliable than mystical experiences’ – How far do you agree?

Quick links

Year 12 philosophy topics:
Plato & Aristotle. Soul, Mind & Body.
Design/Teleological argument. Cosmological argument. Ontological argument.
Religious experience. Problem of evil.

Year 13 philosophy topics:
 Nature & Attributes of God. Religious language. 20th Century philosophy of language.

OCR Ethics
OCR Christianity
OCR essay structure
OCR list of possible exam questions