Religious experience C/B grade summary notes


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William James’ pluralism argument for mystical individual experiences

  • James argued that religious experiences are evidence of union with a higher power (not necessarily the christian God)
  • James studied religious experiences from across the world from different cultures.
  • He found that mystical experiences were present in all cultures. 
  • Mystical experiences are full-blown out of body transcendent experiences – not just seeing an angel flying around.
  • James said mystical experience have 4 criteria in common:
  • Ineffable – beyond description – beyond language
  • Noetic – provides knowledge/insight
  • Transient – happens in limited amount of time
  • Passive – it happens to you, you don’t make it happen.
  • James’ pluralism argument is that because these mystical experiences are found in all religions and have these 4 criteria in common – this can’t be by chance – there must really be a higher spiritual reality behind all religious experiences – so all religions are valid and true.


  • Maybe mystical experiences are the same in different religions because human beings all hallucinate in a similar way.
  • So, these experiences could just be hallucinations.

Conversion experiences & William James

  • W. James thought conversion experiences were especially convincing because of their life-changing effects.
  • James thought religious experiences could not just be hallucinations. 
  • He pointed out that, unlike hallucinations, religious experiences can have positive and profound life-changing effects, which we can observe.
  • James on conversion experiences. Conversion experiences are clearly a strong example of James’ point about the life-changing impact of religious experiences. 
  • For example – St Paul – he was called ‘saul’ and was a Jew who hated Christians but then saw Jesus who said ‘why are you persecuting me?’. 
  • Saul changed his name to Paul and become Christian and ended up writing a lot of the Bible.


  • Hallucinations actually can be life-changing, in rare cases.
  • If a Christian hallucinated an angel, then that might have a life-changing effect on them, even though it was just a hallucination.
  • Plus – St Paul probably had epilepsy which causes hallucinations/visions.

Freud’s psychological explanation – religious exp are just in the mind 

  • Freud says that religious experiences are just illusions/delusions caused by people’s fear of death and fear of being an adult. So, they delude themselves that they have seen a God who is like father figure and will provide them with an afterlife.
  • This is like a mirage – if people are lost in a desert, they will hallucinate water – their minds are so desperate for water, that they hallucinate it. It’s similar with God – people are so desperate for death to not be the end that they hallucinate God.


  • Freud was not a real scientist – he didn’t do any actual experiments, he studied a small sample size of people who were a poor cross-section of society. He’s overgeneralising – maybe he’s right about some religious people, but he’s not right about all of them.

Swinburne on witness (credulity) & testimony

  • Swinburne argues that witness and testimony are the basis for showing religious experiences to be valid.
  • Swinburne thinks all types of religious experience are equally valid, so long as there’s no reason not to accept them.
  • Swinburne says that if you see something, or someone tells you they’ve seen something, that is evidence that it exists. 
  • So, if you see God (Credulity) or someone tells you they’ve seen God (testimony) then that is evidence that God exists.
  • You can’t dismiss evidence for no reason – you can only dismiss it if you have other, better evidence that goes against it.
  • If you know someone is a liar or on drugs, then you could dismiss their experience.
  • Swinburne’s point is that there are many religious experiences where we have no evidence that someone has any such physiological or psychological influence.
  • In those cases, we have to accept them as evidence for God.


  • Even if Swinburne is right that religious experiences are evidence for God – that doesn’t mean they are enough evidence to justify believing in God. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. We need more than just religious experience to justify belief in God.

Corporate experiences

  • Some argue Corporate experiences are the most convincing because there are multiple people who can testify to them.
  • When multiple people share a religious experience.
  • Toronto blessing – church in canada, everyone suddenly felt the presence of the holy spirit – some started laughing, some crying, some rolling around on the floor.
  • You can’t explain corporate experiences by things like mental illness or drugs – because there’s no way everyone would hallucinate the same thing.

Evaluation of corporate experiences

  • Groups of people can share delusions. If you go to a village in america the people there might say ‘we all saw the alien spaceship come down, they took our dog away, etc.’ Similarly with a village in medieval europe – they might all say ‘we all saw this person cast a spell – they are a witch’. 
  • Unless there really are aliens and witches running around, groups of people can clearly share delusion – and that could explain corporate religious experiences.