Religious experience

A summary handout by Jo Lynch of California Polytechnic explains the principle arguments for and against religious experience.

I.   Religious Experience is defined as an experience in which one senses the immediate presence of the divine.

A.      Experience could be of otherness or of unity.

B.      Sensing divine presence is distinct from believing in divine presence.
C.      Definition excludes religious experiences that are not of the divine (e.g., a sense of sin, etc.)
D.      Definition excludes experiences of the divine that are not known to experiences of divine.
E.      ‘Divine’ may or may not be theistic.
F.      To say that someone has had a religious experience does not imply the experience is veridical.

II.   Non-mystical Religious Experiences and the Principle of Credulity

A.      Visual and auditory experiences understood as experiences of the divine.

B.      Principle of Credulity: if a person has what seems to be an experience of x, unless there is some reason to think otherwise, it is justified to think that x exists.

1.       There are no reasons to think that the claim ‘x exists’ is false.
2.       There are no reasons to think the experience insufficient to infer that x exists.
3.       Note: the principle is that cognitions or perceptions are presumptively valid. A principle like this must be accepted if any perceptions are to be held reliable (to avoid circular reasoning).

C.      Problems with the Principle of Credulity (more on this later).

1.       How do we tell whether we have defeating reasons with respect to religious experience (since presumably the experiences are private)?
2.       Conflicting religious experiences.


III.   Mystical Religious Experiences

Extroverted or Introverted (see Rowe 64-65). Are they a product of personality type?
Unanimity Thesis (Stace, Huxley, James): mystics have generally the same sort of experiences; one must distinguish the experience itself from the interpretation of the experience.


1.  Russell: they are delusory: some eat little and see heaven; others drink much and see snakes. Rowe objects that Russell assumes that bodily and mental functions that interfere with ordinary perceptions must also interfere with perceptions of a spiritual world.

2.  Broad: they are veridical – provable to be true (Pojman calls this the ‘strong justification thesis’):

[1] there is considerable agreement among mystics concerning the reality they have experienced.
[2] When there is such agreement, it is reasonable to conclude the experience is veridical unless there is a positive reason to think they are delusive.
[3] There is no positive reason to think they are delusive.
[4] It is reasonable to conclude that mystical experiences are veridical.

3.  Gutting defends Broad and the Strong Justification Thesis by claiming that a veridical religious experience must have the following features:

a.       Experiences must be repeatable.
b.       Experiences must have been had by many.
c.       Experiences must result in better moral lives.

4.  James: experiences are veridical (provable true) for the mystic but not necessarily authoritative for non-mystics – this is what Pojman calls the weak justification thesis.

5.  Pojman’s criticism of the Strong Justification Thesis

a.       Too much variety of religious experience.
b.       Experiences tend to be circular.
c.       Lack of confirmation – experiences are private.


Alston’s defence (a practice of forming certain kinds of beliefs under certain sorts of conditions where the content of the beliefs is a function of those conditions e.g. memory and sense perception.)

A.  Doxastic (belief) or Perceptual Practices (Alston and Wainwright): these are practices of forming certain kinds of beliefs under certain sorts of conditions where the content of the beliefs is a function of those conditions (e.g. sense experience and memory).
B.  Doxastic (belief) practices include procedures for determining which are true and which are not. E.g., we have ways of distinguish reliable from nonreliable sense experiences.

C.  Doxastic (belief) practices are basic when they provide primary access to the subject matter. They cannot be justified by other practices without circularity (e.g. sense experience again).

D.  Why trust basic doxastic (belief) practices as we do memory or sense experience?

1.       The practice is internally consistent (ie our perceptual beliefs tend to agree with one another).
2.       Its outputs are consistent with outputs of other doxastic practices (sense experience, memory, inferential beliefs tend to be consistent).
3.       The practice is socially established.
4.       The practice is self-supporting ( it has the features you’d expect to have if it were reliable).

Alston concludes that religious experience is on a par with sense experience or other common perceptual practices.


1.  Dissimilarities with Sense Perception :
a. Problem: incorrigibility distinguish ‘I see the hat on the table’ from ‘I seem to be seeing a hat on the table.’ [‘Corrigible’ refers to statements about which one can be mistaken, while ‘incorrigible’ refers to statements about which one cannot be mistaken.] Perceptual claims differ from first person reports. The former make public statements about objective reality, while the latter are only reports of one’s psychological states. Since mystic reports are more like first person reports and are thought by the mystics to be incorrigible, they thus tell us nothing about an alleged spiritual reality.
b. Reply: Mystic claims are not taken to be incorrigible. Religious traditions have various tests for the validity of religious experiences (e.g., consistency with revelation, promotion of humility and charity, consistency with paradigmatic religious experiences, etc.). While the test procedures differ for religious experience than for sense experience, this is to be expected given the differences between the objects experienced.

2.  The Absence of Independent Justification:

a.  Problem: Sense experience allows for independent justification (e.g. a toothache points to a decayed tooth; the bad tooth can be discovered by a dentist independently of feeling any pain). But there is no independent justification for religious experience.
b.  Reply: Mystical religious experiences are basic (see II F 1 above). Basic experiences, if valid this means they can’t be externally justified. Remember: this is also true for sense experience generally! Every test for establishing the existence or presence of physical objects appeals directly or indirectly to sense experience (even a pragmatic justification is circular). But there is a test of unreliability. Experiences of various sorts can be unreliable if:

1.       there are reasons for thinking the object to which it provides access does not really exist.
2.       conclusions based on it conflict with other equally well-entrenched bases for belief.
3.       Experiences are produced by causes that suggest they are unreliable.
4.       Claims based on the mode of experience are inconsistent with one another.

IV. Natural Explanations for Religious Experience

a.       Problems:


1.       Religious experiences are produced by natural causes. Thus these experiences are unreliable. An experience of x is veridical (true, valid) only if x is one of its causes.  For example the experience of a miracle is valid only if it can be established the miracle actually happened.
2.       If there’s a scientific explanation for religious experience, appealing to spiritual entities as a cause is superfluous.  It adds nothing to the truth or falsity of the claim.
3.       In order to be true an experience must be caused in the right way. E.g., suppose a blind person has a glass of beer in front of her. Her brain is wired in such a way that when her researcher friend notices the beer, he causes her brain to produce a beer image. Though the actual beer is a cause of the blind person’s experience, she does not see the beer. So, if God is the cause of everything, all experiences are God-caused, but if there’s a scientific explanation of religious experience, it would show that the experience was not caused in the right way.

b.  Replies:

1.       Religious experiences may well be compatible with scientific explanation.
2.       Appealing to a spiritual reality would be explanatorily superfluous only if there’s no reason to think such a reality exists.
3.       An experience of God could be true if [a] God intention to reveal himself through such an experience is one of its causes and [b] the faculties of the person having the experience are functioning as they should. A scientific explanation would be irrelevant to these conditions.
4.        Conflicting Religious Truth-Claims: each person’s religious experience is as justified as another’s (compare James).  So if they conflict, there is a contradition.  For example, one person claims, at the same communion service, to experience the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine, and the person next to them disagrees.  This seems to imply the claim is subjective.


V.   Basic epistemic (knowledge) argument in favor of mystical experience: given the Principle of Credulity.

The experiences should be accepted unless it can be shown that [1] there is no God (or other supernatural entities), [2] the experiences are caused by natural mechanisms which are known to cause false beliefs and delusive experiences, and [3] there are good reasons for thinking that the perceptual claims are inconsistent. Critics have not been able to do this.


VI.   Rowe’s argument

Mystical experience provides little grounds for belief in the theistic God. Even for mystics, the experience by itself provides little grounds for theistic belief, since theism would require an interpretative element. Thus, an independent argument for the theistic world-view would be required.


Alston, William P. “Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience.” Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1991

Gutting G.  1982 “Religious Belief and Religious Scepticism”

Pojman, Louis and Rea, Michael  2007. “Philosophy of Religion: An anthology.” Wadsworth

Rowe, William 2000. “Philosophy of Religion, an introduction”







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