Evaluating religious experience – Jonathan Rowe


by Jonathan Rowe

  1. If a person experiences something, then it exists
  2. People experience God
  3. Therefore God exists

This would seem to be a convincing a posteriori argument, but it is easy to criticise the premises.

First of all, is it really clear that things always exist if people experience them? We know that there are drugs and mental conditions that can give people very convincing experiences of things that don’t really exist. More subtly, the world is full of mirages, optical illusions and opportunities for misinterpretation. For example, the “Electric Brae” in Ayrshire, Scotland is a road that appears to run uphill, but in fact slopes down, so that cars left with the brakes off will appear to roll “uphill”. The fact that a person experiences something would seem to be a good reason to investigate whether it exists, but not a reason for assuming it does.

The second premise is more interesting and forms the subject of this A2 topic. Can people really experience God?

Experiencing God (Directly)

In the Bible and down through the centuries, religious believers have done more than claim to DEDUCE or INDUCE the existence of God. They have claimed to EXPERIENCE the presence of God. These claims fall into two types:

  1. Claims to experience God DIRECTLY
  2. Claims to experience God at certain moments through aspects of ORDINARY, EVERYDAY experience

Most of the story of the Old Testament concerns encounters between certain individuals and God. In the early parts of the Old Testament, these individuals are the patriarchs who encounter God directly; in the later part they are the prophets who encounter God more indirectly and speak to the people of Israel on His behalf. The most dramatic encounter between man and God is experienced by Moses in the Book of Exodus.

This sort of manifestation of God in the presence of human beings is called a THEOPHANY. In the New Testament, there is a shift in the understanding of how God communicates with people.

  • “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at various times and in many ways, but in these last days He has spoken to us through His Son.” Hebrews, 1:1-2

Christians came to view the life and teachings of Jesus as the final revelation of God to man; the ultimate theophany. Nonetheless, people have continued to claim to have direct experiences of God in various ways and the Church has tended to view these with suspicion. There have been a number of heretical Christian sects who were rejected by the mainstream Church because of their claims to receive direct communication from God. In ancient times. The Montanists were such a sect. In the 18th C, the Quakers were treated this way.

The idea of directly experiencing God raises all sorts of philosophical problems, but let’s just look at one. This is the problem of CULTURAL DIFFERENCES. It seems pretty clear that direct experiences of the divine tend to take forms that are culturally specific. For example, in Christian Europe it is not unusual for religious experiences to involve visions of the Virgin Mary, but in Hindu India an experience of the divine might involve Ganesh the elephant-god. What are we to make of these differences?

  1. Both experiences of the divine are OBJECTIVELY TRUE
  2. One experience of the divine is OBJECTIVELY TRUE but the others are OBJECTIVELY FALSE
  3. All experiences of the divine are SUBJECTIVELY TRUE but none are OBJECTIVELY TRUE

It is possible that all these religious experiences are objectively true. This means that, in Christian Europe, there really is a Virgin Mary and Christians really do encounter her, but in India there really is a Ganesh and Hindus really do encounter him. This raises countless problems. For one thing, it denies the truth-claims of all the major religions, because it makes their divinities purely local. In this set-up, the Christian God’s authority doesn’t extend to India, much less to Japan. Moreover, the ultimate NECESSARY being proposed by the ontological and cosmological arguments has disappeared. Even the Demiurge suggested by the design argument is impossible, because the world seems to be shared by several gods all of whom claim to have created it.

A view taken by the Church Fathers (early Christian writers who formalised Christian teachings) was that the Christian God is objectively true and faithful Christians really do encounter Him, but the gods of other religions are just demons in disguise. This is the view described by John Milton in “Paradise Lost”: in his epic poem, Satan and his devils are behind all the non-Christian religions. It is a view held by some Christian fundamentalists today. This means that even if a devout Hindu thinks he is experiencing the presence of Ganesh, really this is a demon tricking him. The problem with this view is that it is an invitation to total doubt. If demons can imitate religious experiences in a completely convincing way, how is anybody to know whether they have encountered God or not? Maybe Ganesh is real and the Christian religious experiences are all created by demons? Or maybe it’s the other way round? How could you possibly tell?

The final view is the most complex and we will treat it more fully later. It suggests that the real nature of God TRANSCENDS cultural ideas and local images, but that people make sense of it in ways that are meaningful to them. Therefore, a devout Christian and a devout Hindu might both have the same religious experience, but one will perceive (subjectively) the Virgin Mary, whereas the other will see it as Ganesh. The religious philosopher John Hick came to this view, called the PLURALISTIC HYPOTHESIS , and suggested an interesting Islamic fable to illustrate it:

  • Three blind men were touching an elephant. The first blind man was holding the elephant’s leg. He said, “I think an elephant is like the truck of a great tree.” The second blind man disagreed. While holding the elephant’s trunk he said, “I believe an elephant is like a large snake.” The third blind man believed they were both wrong. “An elephant is like a great wall,” he exclaimed. He was touching the elephant’s side. Each blind man was convinced he was right and others were wrong without ever realising they were all touching the same elephant. Some believe the blind men in this parable represent the major religions of the world, each in contact with the same “elephant” without knowing it. (Adapted from God & the Universe of Faiths, 1973)

If the pluralistic hypothesis is true, then nobody really has a direct experience of the divine (Hick calls this “the Real”), not even Moses. Everyone “clothes” the divine in symbols, images and forms that are personally or culturally meaningful to them. This raises the most interesting philosophical question of them all: is there anything “behind” these perceptions of the divine? Or, to put it another way, when people have a religious experience, are they experiencing an external “Something” or is it purely an event going on in their own heads?

Indirect Religious Experiences

There are many examples in the Bible of people having encounters with God. These claims are also central to the MYSTICAL TRADITIONS of all the major religions. Intense experiences of this kind often lead to deepening religious faith or a dramatic life conversion.

Less dramatically, other people claim to experience the divine within ordinary experiences – in moments of joy or grief, in love or [through] the beauty of nature. Sometimes this is compared to the ability to appreciate art or music and is thought to depend on a special faculty of apprehension (like art depends on the AESTHETIC faculties). This type of religious experience was explored by the Protestant religious philosopher FDE Schleiermacher (1768-1834) . Schleiermacher claimed that, if they stop to think about it, everyone experiences a feeling of total contingency, what he calls “a sense of absolute dependence”. This is a sort of INTUITION that lies deeper than ordinary rational thinking and it is something we can all develop. This intuition gives us an awareness of the reality of God and the truth of religion. Schleiermacher’s ideas are important to understand because:

  • He is discussed by Merold Westphal in the Anthology
  • Although Schleiermacher is not named, his ideas of religious intuition are central to Peter Donovan‘s Anthology essay and are criticised by AJ Ayer
  • The “sense of absolute dependence” links to the idea of CONTINGENCY in the cosmological arguments and the ontological argument

Many people have pointed out that Schleiermacher’s “sense of absolute dependence” is not a specifically religious feeling. It’s an awareness of contingency, which will have a religious meaning if felt by a Christian or Muslim but not by an atheist. In other words, the feeling is RELIGIOUSLY AMBIGUOUS.

A more specific type of intuition – and a more specifically religious one – is discussed by Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) in The Idea of the Holy (1923). Otto argues, like Schleiermacher, that religion is based on personal experience. This is an experience of what Otto calls “the Numinous“. Numinous experiences are mysterious and produce reactions of AWE and WONDER. Otto’s idea of the Numinous is very clearly explained by CS Lewis:

“Suppose you were told that there was a tiger in the next room: you would know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told ‘There is a ghost in the next room’, and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind. It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is ‘uncanny’ rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread. With the Uncanny one has reached the fringes of the Numinous. Now suppose that you were told simply ‘There is a mighty spirit in the room’ and believed it. Your feelings would then be even less like the mere fear of danger: but the disturbance would be profound. You would feel wonder and a certain shrinking – described as awe, and the object which excites it is the Numinous.”  – The Problem of Pain (1940)

Another excellent account of someone experiencing the Numinous comes in (odd though it may seem) the central chapter of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, called “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn“, when the Rat and the Mole meet the god Pan.

“‘Rat!’ he [Mole] found breath to whisper, shaking. ‘Are you afraid?’ ‘Afraid?’ murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. ‘Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet – and yet – O, Mole, I am afraid!'” – The Wind in the Willows (1908)

Experiencing the numinous produces attraction and repulsion at the same time. It’s not a RATIONAL experience but, argues Otto, experiencing something as numinous leads to the conclusion it is holy and this, says Otto, is at the core of all religions. Otto’s ideas about the numinous are important for this course because:

  • In the Anthology, although he does not name Otto, the person AJ Ayer refers to as “the Mystic” would seem to be someone claiming to have experienced the Numinous as Otto defines it
  • Also in the Anthology, Peter Donovon’s discussion of religious intuitions includes numinous experiences, though he also does not name Otto explicitly

Religious philosophers have responded to Otto’s ideas in different ways. David Hay in Religious Experience Today (1990) finds Otto’s idea of the Numinous too ambiguous and gives his own definition to the term, using numinous to describe a more specific experience of God, rather than just anything which is “mysterious, terrible and fascinating”. Hay describes a sense of “merging” with the rest of reality and suggests that this is the basis of mystical experiences. JCA Gaskin inThe Quest for Eternity (1984) takes a different approach, making a distinction between a NUMINOUS RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE (which is what Hay is describing) and a more general type of numinous experience.

This general type of experience can by illustrated by a quote from Albert Einstein:

“The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious … a knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate … it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude.”

Einstein’s idea of “the mysterious” actually sounds closer to Schleiermacher’s idea of “a sense of absolute dependence” or an awareness of contingency. Gaskin points out that these PEAK EXPERIENCES are felt by all sorts of people and don’t have to be interpreted as religious. In fact, they are often found in poetry. You might enjoy an example like Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3rd, 1802 by William Wordsworth, where an early morning view of the city of London produces in the poet (and in some readers) what must surely be a numinous experience of some sort. Gaskin uses the term NUMINOUS AGNOSTIC for these sort of intense but religiously ambiguous intuitions.

In conclusion, it’s not clear whether Otto’s idea of encountering the Numinous is a direct or an indirect experience. Hay’s redefinition seems to be a direct experience, but Gaskin seems to be saying that numinous experiences are indirect, since they can be interpreted non-religiously. One of the key features of a direct experience of God ought to be (surely) its unmistakeability!

Conversion Experiences

One of the most dramatic conversion experiences is described in the New Testament, when Saul (later Paul) of Tarsus has an encounter with the Risen Christ that changes his life.

The writer William James describes these sort of experiences as follows:

“To be converted, to be regenerated, to receive grace, to experience religion, to gain an assurance, are so many phrases which denote the process, gradual or sudden, by which a self, hitherto divided, and consciously wrong, inferior and unhappy, becomes united and consciously right, superior and happy, in consequence of its firmer hold upon religious realities.” – The Varieties of Religious Experience (1901)

Paul fits James’ description in some ways: he became a changed man, even changing his name, and dedicated his life to founding the Christian faith. In one respect Paul is unusual: he was already religious, a devout Jew, when he had the experience. It’s important to remember that Paul is a historical figure and his conversion a historical fact, but what caused it?

William James seems to suggest a PSYCHOLOGICAL explanation, involving the conscious and unconscious mind coming into some sort of harmony. This is reinforced by Paul’s later description of the same event, where the Risen Christ says to Paul “It is hard for you to kick against the goads”. This expression (the modern version is “kick against the pricks”) refers to wounding yourself by kicking against a sharp cattle prod. The implication is that Paul was at war with himself until his conversion experience brought him inner peace. This theory was put forward by the great psychologist Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) who argued that Paul’s hatred of Christianity was something he felt ashamed of but couldn’t admit to himself. On the road to Damascus, Paul was so overwhelmed by guilt and self-hatred he was affected both emotionally and physically (he fell to the ground and went blind). Only then could this personal crisis be resolved. A very different explanation was offered by D Landsborough in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry (1987) in which he argued that Paul’s experience, with the bright light, loss of normal bodily posture, a message of strong religious content, and his subsequent blindness, suggested “an attack of temporal lobe epilepsy, perhaps ending in a convulsion … The blindness which followed may have been post-ictal.” In other words, there might be a biological explanation, involving an epileptic seizure.

Both of these theories are just speculation and both offer a NATURAL explanation for what Paul would have experienced as a supernatural encounter. However, they don’t rule out religious interpretations. God might work through natural processes, and personal crises or epileptic seizures might be tools that God uses to communicate with us.

Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne suggests a different way of looking at this. Swinburne argues for the PRINCIPLE OF CREDULITY, which means that the person who has had the religious experience is in the best position to interpret it:

“Religious perceptual claims deserve to be taken as seriously as perceptual claims of any other kind.” – Is There a God? (1996)

In other words, Swinburne is warning us against a REDUCTIVE interpretation of conversion experiences. A reductive explanation “reduces” the event to a merely psychological or medical complaint. Reductionism like this is central to most atheist interpretations of religious experiences.

But is Swinburne’s Principle of Credulity the best way to examine claims of religious experiences? Surely sometimes the person who has had the religious experience is not in the best position to interpret it. For example, in 1981, Peter Sutcliffe was convicted of murdering 13 women over the previous decade. The Press dubbed him “The Yorkshire Ripper” but, in his defence, Sutcliffe claimed that, while he was working as a gravedigger, the voice of God came from a gravestone and told him to kill these women because they were prostitutes. Instead of taking his claims at face value (which would seem to be what Swinburne is recommending) the court diagnosed him as suffering from PARANOID SCHIZOPHRENIA. Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness where the sufferer loses contact with reality and the most common symptom is “hearing voices”.

To help you come to your own view, try some of these links:

  • Augustine of Hippo famously converted to Christianity and became one of its greatest thinkers and saints. His experience, which he described in his Confessions, is an interesting one and mirrors his hero, St Paul.
  • John Wesley, who went on to found the Methodist Church, was converted from a conventionally earnest brand of Christianity to something more powerfully emotional.
  • CS Lewis experienced a more intellectual conversion from atheism to Christianity, though he claimed the experience left him “dejected” rather than joyful.
  • American heiress Patty Hearst was kidnapped by a gang called the Symbionese Liberation Army. In captivity, she enthusiastically joined her captors and converted to their ideology. Psychologists call this phenomenon “Stockholm Syndrome“.
  • In contrast, atheist writer Christopher Hitchens dies from cancer but insisted there was no way he would convert to a belief in God or the Afterlife and urged viewers to disbelieve any rumours about this. He suggested that, if he were to convert, it would be because he’d lost his mind in the advanced stages of the illness.

Mystical Experiences

  • “Human language is unable to express the sense of mystical union with God.” – St John of the Cross (1542-1591), Spanish mystic, priest and Catholic saint
  • “The soul which becomes one with God who gives Himself in love, cannot but give itself to others in love.” – St Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), Spanish mystic, nun and Catholic saint
  • “God may be loved but not thought.” – from the Cloud Of Unknowing, anonymous author of a 14th C book on contemplative prayer
  • “The vision is not of God, Person or Spirit, but of oneness.” – Meister Eckhart (1260-1327), medieval German intellectual and mystical thinker

MYSTICISM is the experience of oneness or union with the divine. “Mystical” comes from the Greek meaning “to close”, meaning the lips and eyes closed in contemplation. It is not unique to Christianity: there are Jewish mystics, Islamic mystics and religions like Buddhism lay a very great emphasis on mystical experience. Nor is it restricted to great saints, prophets or spiritual teachers. The Second Vatican Council (1962) declared that mysticism was part of the general call to holiness and is a grace (in principle) available to all believers.

The Catholic theologian Hans Kung explains that mysticism is characterised by closing the senses to the outside world and a “dissolving” of the self. Kung believes that mysticism is a reaction against organised religion, because organised religion emphasises things that are EXTERNAL like rituals and formal prayers, whereas mysticism emphasises the INTERNAL and personal side of religion. Although the Catholic Church puts a strong emphasis on communal worship and ritual, over the centuries it has produced a very high proportion of mystics.

St Bonaventure (1221-1274) was the teacher of Thomas Aquinas and a great proponent of mystical Catholicism. He argued that mystical experiences go through three stages:

  1. The PURGATIVE stage where the mystic is purified by prayer and self-discipline (asceticism, or denying the body its pleasures; for example fasting)
  2. The ILLUMINATIVE stage where the mystic enjoys an experience which is emotionally fulfilling and brings spiritual insights
  3. The UNITIVE stage where the mystic enjoys oneness with God; this last stage always defies any sort of explanation in words (it is INEFFABLE)

In Christianity, the mystical tradition dates back to Dionysius the Areopagite (c. 500), one of the first great Christian mystics. Dionysius was influenced by the philosophy of neoplatonism, which regarded the material world as a shadowy illusion and the ultimate reality being the Form of the Good (which Christians regarded as God). Dionysius regarded the true destiny of the soul as union with God and the way towards this was through a life of virtue and asceticism.

  • You should reflect on how the mystical ideas of Dionysius and Bonaventure are represented in Aquinas’ conception of the Beatific Vision.

One of the greatest modern writers about mysticism was William James, who noted that the accounts of the mystics were more like music than conceptual speech. Frequently they use paradoxes, such as “whispering silence”, “dazzling obscurity” or “teeming desert”. James believed that mystical experiences were “windows” into a wider, more inclusive world. For James, mystical states have four characteristics:

  1. They are INEFFABLE – words cannot describe what they are like
  2. They are NOETIC – they are states of knowledge rather than just emotional experiences and they bring new insights beyond what the rational intellect could come up with
  3. They are TRANSIENT – usually short-lived and cannot be sustained for long periods
  4. Throughout the experience the mystic is PASSIVE – he or she is overwhelmed by the experience and not in control of what is happening
  • “The Mystic” is a character in AJ Ayer’s essay as part of the Anthology. Ayer argues that mystical experiences are in fact purely emotional experiences and do not represent any sort of knowledge. In fact, he claims they are “meaningless”.

Evaluating Religious Experiences: Positive

William James (1842-1910) was open-minded about religious experiences. He recognised that the claims made by people who had had religious experiences were highly SUBJECTIVE and couldn’t carry any authority with people who hadn’t shared the experience. However, he also thought that, in its purest form, religious experience was beneficial for individuals and for society. He was impressed by the link between mysticism and SAINTLINESS. According to James, saints are concerned with rooting out selfishness and loving others. This leads them to happy, healthy lives and provides a great role model for other people. This is an important point: religious experiences might be psychologically or socially valuable even if they are purely subjective.

A similar point was made by the psychologist Carl Jung (1958). Jung was impressed by the “healing” effects of religious experiences, saying “Those who have it possess a great treasure, a source of life, meaning and beauty which gives a new splendour to the world. It is overwhelming and healing and therefore of great validity.”

Not everyone has agreed with this. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) took the opposite view from William James, regarding the saints as being “sick” and a life of selflessness being a sort of dishonest slave-morality. Jung’s old mentor Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) thought that religious experiences were psychological illusions and that it was childish and self-destructive to hold on to them: they needed to be outgrown.

Evaluating Religious Experiences: Critical Views

There are two sorts of problems created by religious experiences: theological and philosophical.

Theologically, the official Church has never been enthusiastic about individuals having personal access to God outside the official channels of worship, prayer and reading Scripture. The Church has tended to regard the definitive revelation of God coming through Jesus Christ, and the Church is the custodian of that revelation. This is why mystics have never achieved more than cautious approval from the Church authorities. From the Church’s viewpoint, wherever there are claims of people having special inner experiences, there is the danger of delusion and fanaticism.

A good example of this tendency is the Christian experience of SPEAKING IN TONGUES (or “glossolalia“). This powerful religious experience is recorded at the birth of the Christian Church, described in Acts 2: 1-4 , and is recorded many times throughout the New Testament. The phenomenon seemed to die out in the established Church but re-emerged again with the Pentecostal Churches at the start of the 20th C (the famous “Azusa Street Revival“). Nevertheless, Church leaders have always felt uneasy with the phenomenon, which seems very close to hysteria. In the New Testament, St Paul writes to the Christians in Corinth who were experiencing a great outpouring of these spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12: 1-10 ). The problem was that those members who didn’t have intense religious experiences were being treated as inferior or inauthentic Christians. Paul writes that, although no one speaks in tongues more than him, religious experiences by themselves don’t mean anything. This is the context for his famous “Love is …” speech – that living a life of loving kindness is ultimately more important than religious experiences and spiritual gifts.

The theological objections to religious experiences are essentially practical and concerned with “keeping a lid on” potentially chaotic and divisive behaviours. The philosophical objections go deeper than this and are wittily summed up by Bertrand Russell:

“From a scientific point of view we can make no distinction between the man who eats little and sees heaven and the man who drinks much and sees snakes.”

The key word in Russell’s quip is “scientific”, and he is referring to the fact that starvation and intoxication can both bring on hallucinations (remember, fasting is part of the ascetic discipline that leads to mystical experiences). Is there a difference between an OBJECTIVE experience of the divine and a SUBJECTIVE delusion? If there is a difference, how can we tell one from the other? The same question was raised by Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) who asked whether there was any difference between saying (1) “God spoke to me in a dream” and (2) “I dreamed that God spoke to me”. The grammar of the sentences makes (1) sound like an objective experience of an external God and (2) sound like a subjective experience of an imaginary God, but does the distinction go any deeper than words?

This linguistic approach formed the basis for a 20th C assault on religious experience, led by AJ Ayer, who argued:

“In describing his vision, the mystic does not give us any information about the external world; he merely gives us indirect information about the condition of his own mind.”

Ayer’s position is that of the LOGICAL POSITIVISTS. This 20th C school of philosophy argued that only scientific methods produce genuine knowledge of the external world, only these sort of statements could be “true” or “false”. Any statements not based on empirical evidence were either “meaningless” or else merely recorded the mental states of the speaker.

In the final analysis, people who have religious experiences CLAIM they are encountering the divine, but it is always possible they are deluding themselves and, philosophically, it is hard to work out which to believe without buying into a very reductionist outlook like logical positivism. William James, as a great pragmatist, was prepared to argue for “whatever works” – effectively saying, it’s more important that religious experiences HELP people rather than understanding where they come from, particularly if being sceptical about where they come from ends up snuffing out the religious experiences themselves. John Bowker in The Sense of God (1973) takes a different approach. He suggests that EMPIRICAL VERIFICATION (such as the Logical Positivists want) is completely the wrong way to approach religious experiences. Instead he recommends a principle of SINCERITY. In other words, the honesty of the person is the best clue to the truth of their claim to have had a religious experience. Taking this view, many of the claims of the mystics must carry great weight, since they are clearly honest, authentic and moral people in every other respect.

© Jonathan Rowe, Spalding Grammar School (used with permission); http://sgsphilosophy.webs.com/experienceofgoda2.htm







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