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Examine the argument from religious experience for the existence of God. To what extent does it support the probability of God?
Richard Swinburne summarises religious experience for many by saying, ‘…experience of God or some other supernatural thing’. Others would state that it is simply an experience of something beyond themselves. On the other hand, William James’s focus is on the individual, taking the route of a psychologist to determine the validity of an experience. However it is defined, the topic of religious experience has been under scrutiny for centuries, with records of experiences dating back to before ‘Christ’; for example the burning bush in the Bible. However the evidence in place from those times appears to be on the same level as it is today. So are religious experiences real, and do they support the idea of God?
The two main types of religious experience are special revelation and general revelation. Special being when people think/feel that God has made Himself known to them directly, perhaps through visions, dreams, prayer, miraculous healing, conversion or charismatic phenomena. General revelation is where people think/feel that God is revealing Himself indirectly to them. This is normally through the beauty of nature, although it could also be through things like religious writings and moreover in other people. This is basically seeing God through God’s creations, such as you can see the wonder of an artist through his fine artwork.
Reports of religious experiences have tended to exhibit similar characteristics. For example many who have undergone near death experiences claim to have ‘seen their lives flashing before their eyes’ before ‘seeing a bright white light’. In fact these scenes are so common; they have become the stereotype for film depictions of near death experiences. Many would argue that if so many people have experienced comparable sightings, then is there some truth to be found in this? Psychologists may argue that since one or two have announced this, others may have simply conjured a similar image from their brain as they believe that that is what the experience should appear as.
There are four classifications of religious experience, which were formulated by William James in 1902. The first of these is Ineffability; which is a state of experience that is difficult to describe as it is unlike any other. The second being Noetic Quality; which is said to be where the experience reveals insights that are beyond the scope of normal human reason. The third classification is Transciency. This is said to not last very long, and are vaguely remembered. The final classification is Passivity, which is described as the person having a profound sense of being ‘taken over’. Also, whilst undergoing the experience they are said to lose control to a more powerful being, namely God. This experience can also be described as being beyond human control.
When he formulated these classifications, James was trying to create a classic description of religious experience, and identified the four key features that they tended to have. However, there are faults with each classification. The fault with ineffability is that if an experience is ineffable, then it is hard to examine because you wouldn’t know what you were examining. The problem with the second classification is if it is Noetic then any truth gained from the experience cannot be subjected to reason, as you can’t verify it (apart from by other people who have had one). Thirdly, if an experience is transcient then it cannot be tested. With the forth classification, James has jumped to an assumption, because even if passivity may indicate the presence of another being it does not have to be God.
As just explained religious experiences tend to be out of the ordinary as people describe being in the presence of an awesome power. Religious experiences more often have positive feedback, encouraging people to better themselves as they’ve had an awakening past the realms of our material world. Being a very individual and personal experience which seems to be somewhat unique for everyone, it is difficult for the individual to explain the experience. This leads to difficulties in checking the validity of the experience.
With these ideas in mind we can now discuss the argument that religious experiences can be used as evidence for the existence of God. This topic has been debated for centuries, gathering attention from many philosophers whose views I will be using to support both sides of this argument.
Supporters of this argument include Brian Davies and Richard Swinburne. Davies approaches this argument very open mindedly, with the view that “the claim might be correct”, so “it is at least possible”. Swinburne’s approach is very much more one sided, “should accept… unless one has some reason to question”.
Like the majority of ethical theories, there are more objectors than supporters. Some of these being C.R. Davies and, from a different perspective, Feuerbach, Freud and Marx. C.R. Davies says that people who claim to have had a religious experience may be unreliable, and on the basis that they may be either lying or were hallucinating due to drugs or alcohol.
Freud believes that supposed “religious experiences” are just wishful thinking brought about by personal beliefs, normally as a way to deal with fears or desires. Feuerbach and Marx also take a psychological approach. My personal opinion, tends to side with Feuerbach when he says, “It fails to make a distinction between ‘feeling that I am right’ and actually being right’. There is most probably a psychological explanation for what the person has experienced, and as there is no conclusive evidence that the experience did in fact happen, one should not make blind leaps into falsities.
The argument from religious experience has been criticised on many grounds, such as that the “proof” it is based on (religious experiences) is not actually valid evidence. One of the top issues is that there so many different religious around the world, each of which claims to have religious experiences of their particular deity. The fact that the being revealed is almost always the God of the believed faith seems to be stigmata. However, a response to this is that yes, even if the God that is revealing itself to them is claimed to be a different one through the different religions, it doesn’t make the experience less real to the person. Examples of this are Buddha’s enlightenment, Saul on the road to Damascus and Guru Nanali’s experience of God.
Another criticism that people have is that religious experiences are too vague; they are experiences from which inferences are made and assumptions that it was ‘God’. In turn, this raises questions about the source of the experience. The response to this is simply “then what kind of experiences can we trust?” This links us back to transciency, experiences do not last long and are imperfectly remembered, which is a problem when it comes to validating experiences; leading us to believe that we cannot trust any experiences, as we have no way of testing them empirically.
Furthermore, psychologists have raised questions by examining the mental explanations to experiencing revelations, etc. The human mind is so powerful that it is possible that one could simply conjure a vision or revelation, and with the knowledge about the human mind increasing all the time, this view is becoming more popular with scientists.
Freud shares this view as he feels that religious experiences are illusions associated with repressed sexual memories and interest in religion is a psychological obsession. Whereas Feuerbach feels that people invent religion as a crutch as they are dissatisfied with their actual lives. He also influenced Marx, who had the view that religion is used by the capitalist class to control people and maintain the status quo. He also believes that religious experiences are a person’s conscious or unconscious choice that reflects the person’s needs or desires.
After studying both the strengths and weaknesses of this argument, I have come to the conclusion that “religious experiences” fail to convince me. As previously stated, they are unable to produce empirical evidence, some are vague, even in classification, and they are unreliable to be tested as they oppose all the rules of nature. The fact that there are more weaknesses than strengths means we cannot reliably validate religious experiences, and therefore they cannot be given as solid valid evidence for the existence of God.
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