Religious experience as proof of God’s existence

Dr Guy Williams of Wellington College explains the arguments from religious experience.

ARGUMENTS FOR GOD’S EXISTENCE

Before we start to examine the argument from religious experience in detail, it is important to look at the different types of arguments that people use to try to show that God exists.

Deductive arguments

A deductive argument is one that uses logic to arrive at a conclusion. If the premises of the argument are correct, then the conclusion necessarily follows: in other words, it cannot not be true. An example of a deductive argument is as follows:

  • Premise 1: All men are mortal.
  • Premise 2: Socrates is a man.
  • Conclusion: Socrates is mortal.

If we agree with premises 1 and 2, we cannot deny the conclusion; it would be illogical of us to do this. One famous argument for the existence of God uses this technique. It is called the Ontological Argument and it goes like this:

  • Premise 1: God is a being than which no greater can be conceived.
  • Premise 2: Even the atheist has an idea of God in his head.
  • Premise 3: It is greater for something to exist in the reality and the mind than it is to exist in the mind alone.
  • Premise 4: If God exists in the mind alone, this contradicts our definition of God, because it would be possible for something greater than God to exist.
  • Conclusion: a being called God must exist.

This argument uses logic alone, with no reference to experience to come to its conclusion. Many mathematical arguments are deductive for example, 1 + 1 = 2. The way to disagree with arguments of this kind, is to try to show that one or more of the premises is false. In the case of the Ontological Argument, people have tried to show that the first premise is false: in other words, they disagree with the definition of God used in the argument. Once this is done, the argument ceases to work. Deductive arguments are also sometimes known as a priori and analytic arguments.

Inductive arguments

Inductive arguments are different to deductive arguments. Here is an example:

  • Premise 1: All men are mortal.
  • Premise 2: Socrates is mortal.
  • Conclusion: Socrates is a man.

There is one very important difference between this argument and its inductive counterpart: premise 2 introduces doubt into the argument and means that the conclusion is now no longer necessary, it is simply probable. The reason for this, is that Socrates might not be a man; Socrates could be a badger or a weasel. In order to verify that the conclusion is correct, we have to use sense experience by going to have a look at Socrates to check whether or not he is indeed human. Inductive arguments rely upon our verifying them through sense experience. Inductive arguments are also sometimes known as a posteriori and synthetic arguments. Arguments from religious experience are often thought to be inductive, because they rely upon our senses to verify whether or not we have indeed experienced God.

Direct awareness arguments

The two types of argument above rely either on our senses or on logic to tell us whether or not something is true. There is another type of argument, not highly regarded by philosophers, called the direct awareness argument. Direct awareness arguments suggest that God is a being that can be directly perceived by humans and there are lots of examples of people who seem to just know that the being they are communicating with is God and that their awareness of God is direct and not based upon reason or thought:

“I remember the night, and almost the very spot on the hill-top, where my soul opened out, as it were, into the Infinite, and there was a rushing together of the two worlds, the inner and the outer. It was a calling unto deep – the deep that my own struggle had opened up within being answered by the unfathomable deep without, reaching beyond the stars. I stood alone with Him who made me, and all the beauty of the world, and love, and sorrow, and even temptation. I did not seek Him, but felt the perfect unison of my spirit with His … I could not any more have doubted that He was there than I was … Having once felt the presence of God’s spirit, I have never lost it again for long. My most assuring evidence of his existence is deeply rooted in that hour of vision, in the memory of that supreme experience.”

Some people argue that experience of God is a “foundational belief”. A foundational belief is one that is not based on other beliefs; it is true in and of itself. For example, I could know that Manchester has a cathedral because I know that for a town to become a city in Britain, it must have a cathedral. My belief that Manchester has a cathedral is based upon another belief, therefore it is not foundational. However, if I know that I am in pain, I know that this is true, because I am in pain, not because someone else has told me: this knowledge or belief is therefore foundational.

Some philosophers (eg William Alston) have criticised this view. They argue that we only “know” that it is God because we try to explain our experience of awe and wonder in terms of other things that we know about. The man who recorded his religious experience above, it could be argued, tried to explain an extraordinary psychological feeling in terms of his knowledge about God and religion. If this is true, religious experiences are not foundational.

The argument from religious experience

Many people have, obviously, used their experience of what they believe to be God to argue that God exists. Take this example from Exodus: quite clearly if Moses believed this experience to be genuine, the existence of God must be beyond doubt:

“Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, ‘I will go over and see this strange sight-why the bush does not burn up.’

“When the LORD saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, ‘Moses! Moses!’ 
And Moses said, ‘Here I am.’ ‘Do not come any closer,’ God said. ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.’ Then he said, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.’ At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.”

The argument from religious experience goes something like this:

  • Premise 1: If an entity is experienced, then it must exist.
  • Premise 2: God is the sort of being that it is possible to experience or encounter directly.
  • Premise 3: People claim to have experienced God directly.
  • Conclusion: God exists.

We will look at some specific examples of how people claim that this has happened later on, but first of all, we need to examine this argument in some detail.

There are two main ways that this argument may be challenged on philosophical grounds: premises 2 and 3.

We may challenge premise 2 by simply arguing that God is not the sort of being that may be experienced. If I have an experience of something like the wind, a table or a squirrel, unless my senses have been impaired I know that I have experienced it. Many philosophers such as Kant, Aquinas and Maimonides (also known as Ram Bam), have argued that God is simply beyond our experience; so much so that for Aquinas and Maimonides our ability just to speak of God is strictly limited. However, this did not lead them to claim that God does not exist: all three believed in God even though Aquinas argued that in this life, it is not possible to have direct acquaintance with God, because God is ultimately beyond the world in which we live: God is transcendent. Aquinas argued that we could only become acquainted with the products of God’s existence ie the universe and its contents. This is known as general revelation.

However, if we admit that the existence of God is possible, we should also admit that it could be possible to have some experience of God. If we argue, as Brian Davies has done in An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion that it is reasonable to believe that God          exists, then we must logically accept that it is reasonable to believe that God may be experienced, or that some of his nature or attributes may be experienced, such as goodness or power, either directly (such as witnessing God’s power in a miracle) or indirectly (such as witnessing God’s goodness through the work of someone inspired by God to help the homeless).

It is only when we deny the existence of God using atheist arguments, that we can deny the possibility of experiencing God in any way.

Tackling premise 3 is a more popular way of arguing against religious experience; the main reason for this is that human experience is something that we have knowledge of and can criticise. The nature of God is more open to doubt and speculation. If we argue that the only way that we can prove God’s existence is through the testimony of others who believe that they have experienced God, all we have to do to cast doubt upon this argument is to call the testimony of others into question. The following are all arguments against relying on the testimony of others:

  • People claiming to have experienced God may simply be mistaken. If God is as wholly other from things in the universe, how can a person be sure that they have experienced God? They have nothing to compare this experience to.
  • People claiming to have experienced God may simply be having a perfectly natural psychological experience which they attribute to God: a version of the “God of the gaps” argument.
  • People claiming to have experienced God may be insane or under the influence of mind altering drugs. Aldous Huxley wrote about the profound experiences he had when taking the hallucinogen mescalin in The Doors of Perception.
  • People claiming to have experienced God may be under the influence of pressure from a religious group, where experiencing the work of God is seen as a part of belonging to the group (especially charismatic Christian worship).
  • People claiming to have experienced God may simply be lying.

Philosophers have attempted to strengthen our ability to rely upon the claims or testimony of others. Richard Swinburne has suggested the principles of credulity and testimony to add support to believing in other people’s stories of religious experience.

The principle of credulity states: “if (in the absence of special considerations) it seems to a subject that x is present, then probably x is present. And similarly I suggest that … if it seems to a subject that in the past he perceived something or did something then (in the absence of special considerations) probably he did.” In other words, if it seems to a person that they have experienced something (including God) then they probably did.

What does Swinburne mean by special considerations? In short, he means the kind of circumstances that would render someone’s reliability suspect. He suggests five of them:

  • The person claiming to have experienced God has a generally faulty perception, or their perception is generally faulty when taking something like LSD.
  • The person claiming to have experienced God cannot reproduce his claim in similar circumstances. For example, they claim to have read normal sized print at 100 metres, yet in all other circumstances where they try to read normal print at 100 metres, they fail.
  • The person claiming to have experienced God has not had the type of experience necessary to show that they know what they are talking about. For example, someone who claims to be tasting tea who has never tasted tea before, might be argued to be making false testimony: how could they possibly know what tea is?
  • The object the person claims to have perceived, based on other evidence, probably wasn’t present.
  • Although the person claiming to have experienced God believed that God was there, God was probably not the cause of the experience: eg I may believe that I see my friend under the clock at Waterloo station, but in fact, the event was caused by an actor dressed up to look like my friend.

It could be argued that Swinburne’s principle of credulity does not overcome the problem that even though we might think that we are experiencing God, we are in fact having another type of experience and claiming that it is God: the arguments from psychology you will look at later can be used here. Also, Swinburne uses our experience of everyday objects such as tables and chairs and people to argue that if something seems to be there, it probably is. That said, it is one thing to move from testimonies about things that we have regular interaction with in the physical world to testimonies about beings possibly beyond it. I know that if my wife claims there is a table in the room, that she is sane and is basing her testimony upon regular experiences of tables from an early age. If she claimed to have experienced God, I would wonder how she could do that, given that she may have had little or no direct experience of God at all in her life and even so, would have precious little to verify her experience against, apart from the teachings of religion.

To strengthen his case, Swinburne has also developed the principle of testimony. This is the principle that “… (in the absence of special considerations) the experiences of others are (probably) as they report them”. In other words, when people tell us that something happened, it probably did. With the principles of credulity and testimony, Swinburne is arguing that the two variables within a report of an event: the person telling us the story and the events that make up that story are both, probably, reliable.

Swinburne suggests that a good way of backing up the truthfulness of someone’s claim to have had a religious experience, is to look at whether or not there are changes in that person’s life. If someone claims to have witnessed or experienced God, you would think that this would change their life in quite a dramatic way. For example, when Saul encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus, he became a devout follower of Jesus. William James supported this idea in The Varieties of Religious Experience when he wrote:

“The real witness of the spirit to the second birth [conversion] is to be found only in the disposition of the genuine child of God. The permanently patient heart, the love of self eradicated.”

To summarise, the argument to the existence of God from religious experience is an unusual one and is very different from other arguments for the existence of God. Most arguments for the existence of God depend upon something that we can all see or at least understand: the teleological and cosmological arguments begin with either the existence of the universe, or something about the universe that can be observed. The argument from religious experience however, ultimately depends upon us accepting that when people claim to have experienced God, they are either telling the truth or they are interpreting an amazing experience correctly. It also boils down to whether or not you accept that God is the type of thing that can be experienced.

The rest of this handout looks at some specific types of religious experience and examines arguments for and against religious experience from a variety of sources.

Conversion

“I was converted in my own bedroom in my father’s rectory house at precisely three o’clock in the afternoon of a hot July day (July 13, 1886). I was in perfect health, having been off from the drink for nearly a month. I was in no way troubled about my soul. In fact God was not in my thoughts that day. It was here that God met me face to face, and I shall never forget the meeting. ‘He that hath the Son hath life eternal he that hath not the Son hath not life.’ I had read this scores of times before, but this made all the difference. I was now in God’s presence and my attention was absolutely ‘soldered’ on to this verse, and I was not allowed to proceed with the book till I had fairly considered what these words really involved. Only then was I allowed to proceed, feeling all the while that there was another being in my bedroom, though not seen by me. The stillness was very marvellous, and I felt supremely happy. It was most unquestioningly shown in me, in one second of time, that I had never touched the Eternal: and that if I died then, I must inevitably be lost. I was undone. I knew it as well as I now know I am saved.’ (Cole, Chapter 4)

“Oh, help me, help me! Cried I, thou Redeemer of souls, and save me or I am gone forever; thou canst this night, if thou pleasest, with one drop of thy blood atone for my sins, and appease the wrath of an angry God. At that instant of time when I gave all up to him to do with me as he pleased, and was willing that God should rule over me at his pleasure, redeeming love broke into my soul with repeated scriptures, with such power that my whole soul seemed to be melted down with love; the burden of guilt and condemnation was gone, darkness was expelled, my heart humbled and filled with gratitude, and my whole soul, that was a few minutes ago groaning under mountains of death, and crying to an unknown God for help, was now filled with immortal love, soaring on the wings of faith, freed from the chains of death and darkness, and crying out, My Lord and my God; thou art my rock and my fortress.”

“Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. 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 travelling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul 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.”

Conversion is a form of religious experience where someone’s life takes a dramatic spiritual turn. A person may be converted from no religion to religious belief (such as above), from one religion to another (for example the folk singer Cat Stevens, who became Yusuf Islam) or from religious belief to atheism or agnosticism.

It is helpful to think of conversion rather like a set of scales that are in a state of imbalance. If you read the quotes above, the three people who were the subjects of conversion were in a state of imbalance: they were unhappy or were leading unfulfilled lives; then an experience took place which balanced the scales out, which gave them a sense of emotional and spiritual balance in their lives. You could also describe it as “the straw that broke the camel’s back”: that one experience which enabled the person to feel spiritually complete.

There are several ways that conversion could be understood:

  • God directly intervenes in someone’s life to direct them to religious belief: Saul’s conversion is an excellent example of this.
  • A long period of emotional disturbance comes to an end and a person associates the lifting of “clouds” with religious belief.
  • A person on a long spiritual journey finally achieves what they have been searching for – “when the fruit is ripe, a touch will make it fall”.
  • A person finds previously unexperienced acceptance within a religious community.

In short, conversion could be understood as the work of God revealing himself through nature, or directly to a person which leads them to adopt religious belief or, conversion could be understood psychologically as a troubled or searching mind finally achieving the answers that it has been searching for. The question is whether this experience originates outside the person (ie with God) or inside the person (ie in their mind).

William James devoted three chapters of his book The Varieties of Religious Experience to the topic of conversion. The first of these chapters deals with “the divided self and the process of its unification”. This sounds a lot more complicated than it actually is. You will no doubt have seen countless films in which one of the characters begins the film fairly happy, then a disaster occurs and this character spends the rest of the film trying to get revenge or come to terms with this. At the end of the film, as you wipe away the tears, the character appears to be complete as a human being. In the early Star Wars films (episodes IV-VI) we follow the character of Luke Skywalker as he becomes a Jedi knight and tries to rid the universe of the influence of the evil Emperor. When we meet Skywalker, he lives a simple life with his adoptive parents salvaging and repairing robots. Then his adoptive parents are killed and Luke begins a journey of discovery which ends in The Return of the Jedi with Luke being an intergalactic hero and Jedi guru with a deep spiritual side nurtured in him by his mentors Obe-Wan Kenobe and Yoda. When Luke’s parents are killed, his self becomes divided: there is a gap between who he is and who he wants to be. Through becoming a Jedi knight and defeating the evil Empire, Luke’s self becomes united: who he is and who he wants to be become one. Other characters in the film undergo similar transformations: Han Solo goes from being an unscrupulous pirate to being a virtuous soldier; C3PO goes from being deeply neurotic to being slightly less neurotic.

What does this have to do with conversion? Most people who are converted speak of a deep and lasting sense of happiness and a sense that their life has meaning. As a psychologist, William James was interested in this, as psychologists spend time trying to find cures for people with unhappiness. James argued that in religious conversion, the person converted experiences a unification of the self; a sense that their life is complete and finally has meaning. This is an idea that we can all sympathise with. Many people learn musical instruments. In the early stages of learning to play that instrument, when they aren’t very good at it, you could say that the person has a divided self: there is a difference between their ability and how they want to be able to play the instrument. Then, there comes a moment when it just “clicks”; it is the same with learning to drive a car or ride a bike. Once that moment of it “just clicking” has happened, it is never forgotten and changes you for good: it is the same with conversion.

William James argued that there are two basic types of conversion: the volitional type and the type by self-surrender. The volitional type, is where the person decides that they wish to make spiritual changes in their life and they go about doing the things necessary to bring this about. For example, a person may choose to become a Muslim, so they begin to study the Qur’an, they pray five times a day and follow the other Four Pillars and then, perhaps when they are on the Hajj for the first time in their life with millions of other Muslims, they have a profound experience where their religious beliefs suddenly all make sense and they feel a deep sense of spiritual connection with God: their religious training has become complete, just as the pianist who loses himself in a piece of music for the first time.

The self-surrender type of conversion, is where a person feels that they have done all they can to develop their religious beliefs and they get to the point where they just say “God, I have done all that I can, I leave it all up to you.” William James argued that in this case, there are two things in the mind of the candidate for conversion: first, the wrongness or sinfulness of their life and secondly the ideal form of life which they long to achieve (ie living life as a religious person). In the second example of conversion above, you can see this quite clearly, the person completely gives himself up to God in a moment of crisis. James argues that conversion is not something that we can strive after, it is something that just happens, almost as if it is given to us as a gift. James likens this situation to those moments when you are trying desperately to remember the name of someone, perhaps an actor in a film and you know it’s going to keep you awake. The mind seems “jammed” in these situations and it’s not until later on, when we’ve forgotten our search for the name, that it seems to miraculously pop into our head. James argues that there are two ways of understanding this process: either as the work of God, or as the work of the subconscious mind: “Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity” versus “Let one do all in one’s power, and one’s nervous system will do the rest.”

James argues that there are several features of a conversion experience:

  • A loss of worry: the certainty of God’s activity in a person’s life and a feeling of overwhelming harmony and completeness.
  • Perceiving truths not known before: the mysteries of life become lucid and clear.
  • The world appears to go through a change: “an appearance of newness beautifies every object”.
  • Ecstasy of happiness: “No words can express the wonderful love that was shed abroad in my heart. I wept aloud with joy and love.”
  • Saintliness: living a life of moral goodness.

The question that remains is whether these feelings are caused by God, or by psychological processes that take place in the brain. James comes up with no clear answer on this, as neuroscience (the study of the workings of the brain) was very much in its infancy at the time. However, experiments conducted since James wrote his book have suggested possible “naturalistic” explanations for conversion (and other) religious experiences (a naturalistic explanation is one that uses nature as opposed to God or other spiritual explanations). We will look at these ideas in the contributions from psychology later on.

One of the key features of conversion that points to the reality of these experiences, is saintliness: when a person’s life is completely changed by the experience that they have had. This is also often referred to as the ‘fruits’ of the experience. It is common for people who have had conversion experiences, either sudden like Saul, or more gradual to bring about serious changes to their life: they devote themselves more fully to religious practice and live more moral lives. This is very strong evidence that the people who have conversion experiences see what they have experienced as real: if they were in any doubt, they might not have made the significant changes to their lives that for most people require real efforts of the will. This idea is similar to the dedicated smoker who says that they will never give up, or indeed, the smoker who tries over and over again to give up, but can’t and keeps relapsing: when they develop cancer or heart disease, very often they stop smoking and never smoke again: it is a form of conversion experience.

Mystical experiences

A mystical religious experience is one where the experiencer believes that they have achieved some kind of union with the divine. This quotation from Teresa of Avila, one of the most famous of the Christian mystics, illustrates what many people feel when they have a mystical experience:

“Thus does God, when he raises a soul to union with himself, suspend the natural action of all her faculties. She neither sees, hears nor understands so long as she is united with God. But this time is always short, and it seems even shorter than it is. God establishes himself in the interior of this soul in such a way, that when she returns to herself, it is wholly impossible for her to doubt that she has been in God and God in her.”

This quotation reveals some of the distinctive features of mystical experiences: they are short, the experiencer loses a sense that they are an individual self and they feel dissolved in God, they lose a sense of time, they are passive and the experience is not felt by the senses: there is some kind of “direct awareness” at work.

William James argued that there are four “marks” of mystical religious experience:

  • Ineffability: that the experiencer finds it very difficult to put their experience into words. In many accounts of mystical experiences, we read the words “I cannot express what took place”.
  • Noetic (= understood by reason) quality: that when the mystic unites with God, they become aware of truths not previously known.
  • Transiency: the experience is over quickly.
  • Passivity: the experiencer has no control over the experience, it happens to them and they are unable to stop it.

There is a long tradition of mysticism in many of the world’s religions. Teresa of Avila is just one of the great Spanish mystics in Christianity, in Islam, there is the tradition of Sufism and in Buddhism and Hinduism there are monks who devote their lives to discovering mystical truths.

Mystics are generally people who devote their lives to union with the divine. Teresa of Avila practised prayer for 27 years and over the course of this time, her experiences got more and more profound, until she was regularly receiving visions (photisms), voices (locutions), levitating and even seems to have been responsible for miracles (hence her sainthood). In the mystical tradition, there is a set process that the mystic goes through to achieve union with the divine, and generally speaking, it takes years of dedicated discipline. It begins with the via purgativa; the attempt to rid oneself of attachments to worldly things such as possessions, vanity and sexual desires, largely because it is believed that we cannot experience the divine if we are distracted by the things of this world:

“I led a very wretched life, for as I prayed I gained a clearer knowledge of my faults. On one side God called me, and on the other I followed the world. All divine things gave me great pleasure; yet those of the world held me prisoner. I seem to have wanted to reconcile two opposites as completely hostile, one to the other, as the spiritual life and the joys, pleasures, and pastimes of the senses. I found great difficulty in praying, for the spirit was not the master but the slave.”

It is not until the disciple of mysticism has managed to overcome the desires of the senses that their prayer and meditation can reach the levels necessary so that they can achieve unity with the divine. In fact, for many mystics, to return to the ordinariness of life can be quite painful. The Sufi mystic al-Ghazzali felt his life pointless after his unity with the divine, and St Teresa wrote this:

“Oh, how it pains a soul which has been in this state to return to the business of the world, to look at the disorderly farce of this life, to waste time attending to such bodily needs as those of eating and sleeping!”

It is not unusual for a mystic to develop a sense of dualism: that there are two worlds: the physical and the spiritual, which do not exist in harmony. Many mystics, including Teresa, come to resent the things of this world.

When the unity with the divine comes it is extremely powerful, but short-lived, as this example from Teresa shows:

“Beside me, on the left hand, appeared an angel in bodily form, such as I am not in the habit of seeing, except very rarely. Though I often have visions of angels, I do not see them. He was not tall but short, and very beautiful; and his face was so aflame that he appeared to be one of the very highest rank of angels … In his hands I saw a great golden spear, and at the iron tip there appeared to be a point of fire. This he plunged into my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he pulled it out, I felt that he took them with it, and left me utterly consumed by the great love of God. The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease, nor is one’s soul then content with anything but God.”

William James quotes the following example of this:

“Irresistibly it took possession of my mind and will, lasted what seemed an eternity, and disappeared in a series of rapid sensations which resembled the awakening from an anaesthetic influence. It consisted in a gradual but swiftly progressive obliteration of space, time, sensation and the multitudinous factors of experience which we are pleased to call our Self. At last, nothing remained but pure, absolute, abstract Self. The universe became without form and void of content.”

However, not all mystical experiences are the result of years of dedication. Some people report spontaneously having mystical experiences where they feel a sense of the underlying unity of all things, or they feel the self dissolve into the seamless flow of the universe. Often people experience this when in nature, or contemplating a piece of art or when being still for prolonged periods.

What also seems to be common to the mystic, is a sense that the experience is one that heals them in some way and obviously, to be healed, one needs to be suffering from some sort of illness. Teresa is a very good example of a person who was clearly deeply troubled and suffered from dark depressions and some very serious physical ailments. However, when she experienced God, she felt complete:

“When my soul reached this state where God granted it this great mercy, my troubles ceased; His majesty gave me strength to escape from them. Meeting with occasions for sin, and even meeting with those people who had formerly distracted me now did me no more harm than if they had never been. Indeed, what once harmed me now helped me. Everything was a means of increasing my knowledge of God and my love for Him. Everything made me realise how much I owed Him, and grieve for what I had been.”

It could be argued that the path of the mystic is one which forces the subject to dwell on their personality faults, real, imposed or imagined and that it is only through years of disciplined prayer and meditation that this damage can be healed, and that because the damage is so profound, the sense of healing is overwhelming.

Mystical experiences are fascinating because they are so wholly different from our everyday experiences and people who have had these types of mystical experiences seem to be profoundly changed by them. What is intriguing is that across the range of mystical experiences, of those that come from religious backgrounds or none, people report very similar features of their experiences: what is often referred to as the common core of mystical experiences. This is very important, as it suggests the following possibilities:

  • That mystical experiences are caused by the same thing as the effects of this cause are similar. This indicates that either:
    • Mystical experiences are similar because they occur in the same part of the brain, which is common to all mystics and therefore there is a naturalistic explanation or;
    • Mystical experiences are similar because they are caused by God, the objectively existing cause of all things in the universe.

We will discuss whether or not it is possible to verify these experiences as evidence of the existence of God below.

Corporate or group experiences

Obviously, if an individual claims to have experienced God, unless you accept Swinburne’s principles of credulity and testimony, it is possible just to doubt that what they claim to have experienced is true. However, if more than one person claims to have had the same experience, or many people witness the experience, it becomes more difficult to doubt it. There are two examples of group or corporate experiences which could strengthen the argument from religious experience.

In 1916, in the small village of Fatima in Portugal, a group of three children aged 10, 8 and 7 started seeing visions of a being that claimed to be an angel of God. Then, on 13 May 1917, the children saw a vision of who they believed to be the Virgin Mary. She told them to return on the same day each month. The children told other people and on the 13th of each month, large crowds started to gather at the spot where Mary had first appeared to the children.

On 13th October 1917, about 70,000 people gathered to see the vision of the Virgin Mary. Mary appeared only to the children, but a miracle is reported to have happened on the same day, which was apparently witnessed by many:

“… one could see the immense multitude turn towards the sun, which appeared free from clouds and at its zenith. It looked like a plaque of dull silver and it was possible to look at it without the least discomfort. It might have been an eclipse which was taking place. But at that moment a great shout went up and one could hear the spectators nearest at hand shouting: ‘A miracle! A miracle!’ Before the astonished eyes of the crowd, whose aspect was biblical as they stood bareheaded, eagerly searching the sky, the sun trembled, made sudden incredible movements outside all cosmic laws – the sun ‘danced’ according to the typical expression of the people … ‘People then began to ask each other what they had seen. The great majority admitted to having seen the trembling and dancing of the sun; others affirmed that they saw the face of the Blessed Virgin; others, again, swore that the sun whirled on itself like a giant Catherine wheel and that it lowered itself to the earth as if to burn it with its rays. Some said they saw it change colours successively …'”

Another form of corporate religious experience happens every Sunday in churches across the world. Charismatic worship is a form of Christian worship that takes its name from the word “charis” or gift of the spirit. Inspired by the events of Pentecost 19, where the Holy Spirit visited the 11 remaining disciples and gave them the “gift of tongues” where they could speak any language in order to spread the message of the life of Jesus to the world.

Charismatic worship, also known as Pentecostalism or the Toronto Blessing, really became famous in 1994, when at the Toronto Airport Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Toronto, Canada, people reported being given the gift of tongues – “glossolalia” – and passing out in spiritual bliss after the laying on of hands. The following is taken from a Wikipedia article on the Toronto Blessing:

“At TACF Revival services, worshippers have exhibited unusual behaviours that they attribute to an encounter with God and the ‘fire of the Holy Spirit’. The most common described behaviours include hysterical laughter (or ‘holy laughter’), physical spasms or jerks, falling to the floor under the Holy Spirit’s power (aka ‘slain in the Spirit’) and speaking in tongues. Other less common behaviours include manifestations that resembled roaring like lions and barking like dogs. At one time the TACF website described it thus: ‘The Toronto Blessing is a transferable anointing. In its most visible form it overcomes worshippers with outbreaks of laughter, weeping, groaning, shaking, falling, drunkenness, and even behaviours that have been described as a cross between a jungle and a farmyard.’ The UK magazine Christianity wrote an article on the subject, also noting, ‘In one meeting in Dudley a woman in the congregation kept making loud cuckoo clock noises during the notices and sermon. Eventually John invited her to come to the front. It turned out that he knew her from a visit to Scotland and trusted her as a secure Christian through whom God had been working.'”

Because of the large numbers of witnesses to these religious experiences, there is a large body of evidence that confirms that they took place. The Roman Catholic Church has declared the events at Fatima a miracle and hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people have reported speaking in tongues.

However, there are sceptics. Richard Dawkins has applied one of David Hume’s criticisms of miracles to the events at Fatima and he argues that we have to balance the probabilities to work out if it is true or not. On the one hand, we have a mass con-trick involving 70,000 people, or at least, a very large number of people who made a mistake. The other possibility is that the sun really did move. Dawkins argues that if that were the case, why did no-one else in the same hemisphere as Portugal see it happen? The sun is not private after all. Secondly, if the sun had moved about like it did, the solar system would have come to an end: the universe would have been destroyed.

It is more probable, according to Dawkins, that some form of mass hysteria grabbed hold of the witnesses as Fatima, and they all, desperate to be part of the fun, reported having seen the sun move. Of course, Dawkins doesn’t accept the possibility that God can suspend the laws of physics momentarily in order to make the sun move, but then he wouldn’t – would he?

As far as charismatic worship goes, it is beyond doubt that the people present at those services experience profound emotional and spiritual moments. However, we must bear certain things in mind. Many of the congregations where these events take place see these experiences almost as necessary to be a member of the group: if you go every week and still haven’t fainted when the pastor lays his hands on, you’re going to feel very left out, aren’t you? It is possible that many people feel pressured into having these kinds of experiences, simply to fit in. Furthermore, many of the pastors who lead these services are extremely charismatic and use powerful readings from the Bible promising hellfire for sinners and rapture for the righteous. When in a group, people often get carried away by the emotions of the people around them: just look at football matches or protest marches that turn into riots. If the pastor is whipping people up into a frenzy, it is not surprising that there are extreme and hysterical reactions.

The contributions from psychology

Psychology is the study of how the human mind works and how it affects our behaviour and it has made some very important contributions to how we understand religious experiences. The key question that faces us is: are religious experiences caused by an external spiritual reality (God) or are they produced by a part of our mind?

Obviously, if they are produced by the mind, we should expect certain things of religious experiences:

  • All humans should be able to have them, because we all have a mind.
  • Religious experiences should be similar in nature because all humans have similar minds.
  • Once we work out what it is that causes religious experiences to happen (ie the chemicals or areas of the brain which are active in causing the experience) we should be able to reproduce those experiences in others.

It is important to remember certain things about the human mind and body: Firstly, the mind is probably the product of electrical impulses and chemical reactions in the brain. For example, when a person feels a profound feeling of love and passion for another human being, it is a chemical in the brain called oxytocin which causes this: it is a chemical released by the brain to stimulate a desire to bond.

Secondly, the mind and the body are not separate entities pulling in different directions as philosophers such as Plato suggested. The mind and the body work in harmony: take our somatosensory system for example: this is the network of sensors and nerves in the body that tell our mind that we are hungry, tired, ill etc. Thirdly, all humans share the basic building blocks of the mind: a human body and a human brain. Obviously, they all work in slightly different ways, but I can be sure that when I talk about hunger to another human being, they will know exactly what I am talking about, because they will also have experienced it. Finally, our tendency towards happiness or depression is partly genetic. Some people are depressives and others are not: there are things that we can do to make life easier, but in general these basic personality traits cannot be changed.

William James did much of the early important work in exploring how our psychology affects our understanding of religious experiences. One of the key arguments that he suggested, rests on the difference between what he called the “healthy minded” and the “sick soul”. A person who is healthy minded is basically one of life’s optimists: if something goes wrong for them they take active steps to address those problems. Life consists of pluses and minuses and in order to achieve happiness, we must simply live more on the plus side of things. The person with the sick soul, is basically one of life’s pessimists. Life consists of a constant struggle and he may feel as if he has a “divided self”: the person may not feel worthy of being loved or of achieving success because they feel like a sinner who is constantly fighting to keep on top of sinful urges. James gives the example of St Augustine to illustrate the sick soul:

“The new will which I have begun to have was not yet strong enough to overcome that other will strengthened by long indulgence. So these two wills, one old, one new, one carnal, the other spiritual, contended with each other and disturbed my soul.”

Many accounts of religious experience are recorded by people who were depressive, had a very low sense of self-esteem, felt themselves unworthy of anything and who saw life as a constant struggle to overcome sin. Then, an experience or series of experiences led to them discovering a new sense of balance in their emotional life and these earlier feelings of the divided self were overcome (although in some cases, such as the writer Tolstoy, these feelings of unhappiness returned). Another example of this profound unhappiness is found in the writings of Teresa of Avila:

“I have often reflected with amazement on God’s great goodness, and my soul has rejoiced in the thought of His magnificence and His mercy. May he be blessed for all of this, for as I clearly see, He has never failed to reward me, even in this life, for any good desire. Poor and imperfect as my works have been, this Lord of mine has improved and perfected them and has increased their value. As for my wickedness and sins, He has immediately hidden them away. He has even allowed the eyes of those who have seen them to be blind to them, and has expunged them from their memory. He gilds my faults and makes some virtue shine that he himself has given me, almost compelling me to possess it.”

Much of Teresa’s autobiography is filled with the listing of her own faults and sinfulness and praise for God for bringing good things into her life. Teresa took no credit for her own achievements, fearing the sin of vanity: all was done by God. It took Teresa over 20 years of discipline and prayer to achieve union with God, and all through those 20 years she was plagued with self-doubt, depression, neurosis and physical illness. She is a classic case of a sick soul and a divided self.

James argued that mystical experiences mostly happen to sick souls who need to be “twice-born” in order to achieve happiness and unite the divided self. By this he means that for many people, happiness is the general feature of their lives: they are content for most of the time and their religious beliefs simply enhance this happiness. For others however, they are generally unhappy and some sort of radical transformation must take place in their life for them to achieve happiness. For a number of religious people, this has been a mystical experience: the mystical experience is their “second birth” into a new life of happiness.

James did make it clear however, that conversion or mystical experiences are just examples of the many ways that unity can be reached:

“… the process of remedying inner incompleteness and inner discord is a general psychological process, which may take place with any sort of mental material, and need not necessarily assume the religious form.”

This is a very important point and is something we see more generally in psychology and psychiatry. The psychologist Carl Gustav Jung wrote about the goal of life being the unification of a divided self and he developed a type of therapy to do this. Viktor Frankl, another psychologist who survived the Holocaust, wrote a book called Man’s Search for Meaning in which he argued that the way to overcome unhappiness is to find what your own personal meaning of life should be: he too developed a system of therapy designed to achieve this. It may be that religious experience is one of the many ways that the human mind repairs itself after a period of unhappiness. In other words, by performing certain tasks such as prayer, meditation, helping others and all the other aspects of religious devotion, our mind may respond by releasing certain chemicals, or stimulating activity in different parts of the brain which we then interpret as the work of God.

Robert Charles Zaehner, a former MI6 agent and taker of psychoactive drugs, argued that there is a difference between theistic mysticism and non-theistic mysticism. The former is where the mystic returns to the ground of his being, God. The latter is where the mystic simply unites with their own self: in other words, they achieve the unity of the divided self, not union with God.

This does not mean however, that we can dismiss religious experiences as false or fake: it just means that we might have to understand them in a different way.

Other research work in psychology has yielded interesting results.

William James recorded a number of examples of people who experienced mystical states after having consumed anaesthetic drugs such as ether. Many of the experiences that the people had sounded similar to experiences of God had by people who had spent years meditating or in deep states of prayer. Here is one example:

“After the choking and stifling had passed away, I seemed at first in a state of utter blankness; then came flashes of intense light, alternating with blackness, and with a keen vision of what was going on in the room around me, but no sensation of touch. I thought that I was near death; when, suddenly, my soul became aware of God, who was manifestly dealing with me, handling me, so to speak, in an intense personal present reality. I felt him streaming in like light upon me … I cannot describe the ecstasy I felt.”

Here is what the writer Aldous Huxley wrote after having experimented with the hallucinogenic drug mescalin in 1953:

“But as I looked, this purely aesthetic Cubist’s-eye view gave way to what I can only describe as the sacramental vision of reality. I was back where I had been when I was looking at the flowers – back in a world where everything shone with the Inner Light, and was infinite in its significance. The legs, for example, of that chair – how miraculous their tubularity, how supernatural their polished smoothness! I spent several minutes – or was it several centuries? – not merely gazing at those bamboo legs, but actually being them – or rather being myself in them; or to be still more accurate, being my Not-self in the Not-self which was the chair.”

In 1962, Walter Pahnke brought 20 students into a room below the Boston University Chapel on Good Friday. He gave 10 of the students vitamin B5 which creates feelings of tingles and flushing on the skin. He gave the other 10 students psilocybin, which is the active ingredient found in magic mushrooms. Neither group knew which of the two they were taking. The students then sat down and listened to the Good Friday service through speakers. Many of the students who took the psilocybin recorded feelings of unity with the universe, transcendence of time and space, joy, a difficulty putting the feeling into words and a feeling of having been changed for the better. Many of the students described this experience as one of the most important of their lives.

Abraham Maslow went further: he wanted to show that spiritual experiences were just a fact of the human mind: this is the naturalistic explanation mentioned earlier. Maslow described something called “peak experience” and he collected examples from a wide range of different areas of life. Maslow argued that peak experiences can be experienced in any culture and at any time and that they have common features such as a feeling of transcending the universe, loss of sense of space and time and the person is flooded with feelings of awe, wonder, joy, love and gratitude. For Maslow, these feelings were generated by the mind and were then interpreted as spiritual by the person having them or by the society around them.

These ideas are important, as they force us to question whether the experiences people claim to be religious are experiences of God or not. If these experiences are simply something produced by the human mind, it becomes more difficult to use these experiences as evidence for the existence of God. It is important to note however, that it is not the experience that is doubted, it is the source that is called into question. In God’s defence, it could be argued that God has structured evolution to provide humans with the mental faculties which cause religious experiences and subsequently make us profoundly believe that God exists.

Can religious experience be verified?

The title of this section really comes in two parts:

  • Is the experience had by the experiencer real?
  • Does the experience prove the existence of God?

It is very important to distinguish between these two ideas. If religious experiences are “all in the mind” they are still real experiences, just as if I feel pain, the pain is real, but those experiences might not necessarily point to anything: just as there is not always a physical cause of pain. In other words, I might feel as if I have had an experience of God, but God might not exist and the experience might be all in the mind.

Let’s deal with the first question: “is the experience had by the experiencer real?”

There are several main ways of trying to check that the experience is real:

  • If it results in the person’s life changing for the better.
  • Whether or not our experiences are normally reliable.
  • Whether or not the religious experience is similar to other experiences we know to be religious in nature.

Interestingly, the majority of philosophers do not doubt that religious experiences are, in the main, genuine. Obviously, there are some cases that we can discount: Richard Swinburne tells us that people who are known liars, or who are under the influence of drink or drugs can have their testimony discounted. Also, Teresa of Avila, William James and John Mackie tell us that the religious nature of the experience can be verified by how the person who has had the experience lives their life. If the “fruits” of the experience do not conform to religious teachings, we can probably argue that the experience is not genuinely religious. For example,          Charles Manson and Peter Sutcliffe both committed murder claiming to have been spoken to by God. William Alston points out that religious communities have systems of checks that they can use to verify whether or not an experience is religious and that these consist of whether or not the experience conforms to religious teachings or contributes to spiritual development. We can argue that the experience is genuine and genuinely good if it leads to a person changing their life for the better:

“Realization of conversion was very vivid, like a ton’s weight being lifted from my heart; a strange light which seemed to light up the whole room (for it was dark); a conscious supreme bliss which caused me to repeat ‘Glory to God’ for a long time. Decided to be God’s child for life, and to give up my pet ambition, wealth and social position. My former habits of life hindered my growth somewhat, but I set about overcoming these systematically, and in one year my whole nature was changed, i.e. my ambitions were of a different order.”

The fruits of the experience are one way of verifying that it is genuine. Another way that philosophers argue that the experience has genuinely taken place, is that “beliefs formed on the basis of experience possess an initial credibility by virtue of their origin”. In other words, when we believe we have experienced something, we are usually right about that belief. If I believe that I am sitting at a desk, typing on my laptop and being pestered by my cat, I am probably right about that, because I have been right about those things in the past. Also, life would be come very difficult for me if I were unable to correctly interpret my experiences: if when crossing the road, I believed that instead of a bus coming towards me, it was in fact a big fluffy bunny rabbit coming to cuddle me, I wouldn’t last very long.

William James argues this very point in his Varieties of Religious Experience. He makes a very strong claim that mystical states are absolutely authoritative over the people who have them.

“… so long as we deal with the cosmic and the general, we deal only with the symbols of reality, but as soon as we deal with private and personal phenomena as such, we deal with realities in the completest sense of the term.”

Alston argues, similarly to James, that unless I can prove otherwise, experiences are generally accurate.

“… unless we accord a prima facie credibility to experiential reports, we can have no sufficient reason to trust any experiential source of beliefs.”

Another way that we could verify the truth claims of religious experiences, is to see if they fit in with other, similar types of experience. As we have already seen, William James argued that there are four “marks” of mystical experience. In the closing chapter of The Varieties of Religious Experience he offers the following description of religious experiences into which he believes all religious experiences fit:

“It seems to me that all the phenomena are describable in these very simple general terms. They allow for the divided self and the struggle; they involve the change of personal centre and the surrender of the lower self; they express the appearance of exteriority of the helping power and yet account for our sense of union with it; and they fully justify our feelings of security and joy. There is probably no autobiographic document, among all those which I have quoted, to which the description will not well apply.”

Other contributions to classifying religious experiences come from Walter Stace, who suggested eight features of religious experience such as a sense of timelessness and a feeling that all is well with the world, and Andrew Greeley, who surveyed nearly 1,500 Americans and came up with 17 “descriptors” of the types of feelings typically felt when undergoing a religious experience. If an experience fits in with other things we believe to be true, then it is more likely to be true. This is called the coherence theory of truth: things are true if they fit in or “cohere” with other things we know are true.

We must now look at the second question: “does the experience prove the existence of God?”

There are several ways of trying to check that the experience of an object corresponds to something that objectively exists:

  • We can use witnesses to verify that the thing experienced is actually there.
  • We can try to trace the cause of the experience.
  • We can check that the experiencer is correctly interpreting the experience.

In order to answer “yes” to the above question, we must show that the experiencer is experiencing something that objectively exists. It is all very well to argue that the experience is genuine, but “to experience” is a transitive verb: there is a subject (the experiencer) and an object (what is being experienced). Most people who claim to have had religious experiences say that they experienced God through some sort of “direct awareness” in other words, they did not use their senses. Consider this example from Teresa of Avila:

“One day while I was at prayer – it was the feast day of the glorious St Peter – I saw Christ at my side – or, to put it better, I was conscious of Him, for I saw nothing with the eyes of the body or the eyes of the soul. He seemed quite close to me, and I saw that it was He. As I thought, he was speaking to me. Being completely ignorant that such visions were possible, I was very much afraid at first, and could do nothing but weep, though as soon as He spoke His first word of assurance to me, I regained my usual calm, and became cheerful and free from fear. All the time Jesus Christ seemed to be at my side, but as this was not an imaginary vision I could not see in what form. But I most clearly felt that He was all the time on my right and witness of everything that I was doing.”

During this experience, Teresa’s senses are not involved in perceiving Jesus: her senses are somehow bypassed. The major problem with this is, that if I see a table with “the eyes of my body” I can call upon witnesses to use “the eyes of their bodies” to verify what I have seen. It is not possible for a witness to check that the object of perception (eg Jesus for Teresa) is actually there. It is very difficult to show that what is being experienced exists objectively, like a table or a giant, hug-obsessed bunny rabbit. The only two ways that we can accept that a religious experience relates to something real causing it is if we trust the person describing the experience and trust that they have interpreted their experience accurately, or that we accept the “fruits” of the experience as evidence that something external has caused it.

William James, in the concluding chapter of The Varieties of Religious Experience suggests that the cause of religious experiences lies in a deep and as yet not understood part of the subconscious mind:

“… it is one of the peculiarities of invasions from the subconscious region to take on objective appearances and to suggest to the Subject an external control … it is primarily the higher faculties of our own hidden mind which are controlling, the sense of union with the power beyond us is a sense of something, not merely apparently, but literally true.”

John Mackie argues that people who claim that God is the cause of their religious experiences are mistaken about the cause. He initially suggests that experiences can have an “intentional object”: it is not what caused the experience that matters, it is the experience itself. He suggests the examples of pain and dreams to illustrate this: they both have causes, but they have no existence apart from our experience of them.

Mackie then goes on to argue, using the example of Peter Sutcliffe, the “Yorkshire Ripper”, that it is not easy to decide whether a religious experience is caused by God or by the devil. Mackie points out that since many modern religious people do not believe in a separately existing devil, religious experiences thought to come from the devil are blamed on the subconscious mind: in fact, the mental hospitals of Jerusalem are full of people claiming to be the second coming of Jesus, in the past they would have been burned at the stake as agents of Satan. Mackie then ingeniously argues that if we find it difficult to distinguish between God-caused experiences and Devil-caused experiences, and we are willing to blame Devil-caused experiences on the subconscious mind, why can’t we do the same with supposedly God-caused experiences?

Mackie’s next argument against religious experience being caused by God, is to argue that we interpret experiences in the light of “cultural conditioning”. In other words, we believe that something is what we have been taught to believe it is. One of the key problems in religious experience, is that people in “Christian countries” tend to experience God/Jesus/the Virgin Mary and people in “Hindu countries” tend to experience Brahman/Vishnu/Shiva etc. Either these different gods are appearing to people, or one spiritual reality is appearing and the experiencer is interpreting their experience through what they have been taught, or the spiritual reality helpfully takes account of what the person already knows and appears to them in that form, rather like the person in the call centre in India speaking in English to the customer in Bristol because they know they will understand that, rather than Hindi. Mackie writes:

“When the Christian says ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’, we must reply ‘No, you don’t: certainly not if you mean, by my redeemer, Jesus as distinct from Osiris or Ashtaroth or Dionysus or Baldur or Vishnu or Amida’. But equally the response may be coming from no god other than the experiencer’s own unconscious mind.”

In the light of all this, it is very difficult to argue conclusively that the object of a religious experience is an objectively existing supernatural power that many people call God. However, we must take James’ point that religious experiences are absolutely authoritative for the subject seriously. For people who claim to have had religious, spiritual or mystical experiences, whether the result of prayer, discipline or psychoactive drugs, these people very often believe the experiences to be life changing and for many, their lives do permanently change for the better; and as St Francis of Assisi said “for every tree is known by its fruits”.


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