2007 Essay

Analyse the key concepts of religious experience as an argument for the existence of God and evaluate the view that this argument supports the probability of the existence of God.    [40]

The argument from religious experience is the argument from experiences of God to the existence of God. There are two forms of the argument of which the strong asserts that these experiences prove God exists and the weak form suggests that they are evidence for the existence of God.

Kant had asserted that there were two realms of experience the phenomenon and the numenon and it was in this latter that Rudolph Otto described an encounter with the ‘wholly other’ identified as God while William James identified four common features in religious experiences: noetic revelation, the ineffability of the experience, its transience and the fact that the experient is usually a passive observer in it.

People who claim to have had religious experiences generally claim also to have felt a total unity with creation, an absolute feeling of the undeniable presence of a higher being -God (as Scleiermacher put it ‘a sense of absolute dependence’), and other shared features include: a feeling of joy, a sense of unworthiness of God which causes a feeling of humility.


Experients claim a variety of sources for their experiences from reading scripture, through meditation to blinding revelation. Indeed St Paul (who met God…etc etc) ….. and even CS Lewis who (blah blah etc)… neither of them were looking to meet God yet their experiences changed their lives. So one of the strengths of this argument is that it is a posteriori i.e. based on evidence and inductive because it doesn’t rely on fixed definitions of these experiences.

However opponents would say that that it relies on accepting the nature of the evidence and that it needs overwhelmingly good reasons for accepting the conclusion that God exists is the most likely because the evidence could be interpreted in other ways to form other conclusions.


In addition detractors would suggest a variety of alternative explanations for these experiences and would argue that their very subjectivity invalidates them from being evidence for the existence of God. The major obstacles as far as atheists are concerned include the lack of objective evidence and the very nature of them as solo experiences though there are singular exceptions for example in the Toronto Blessing.


For instance VS Ramachandran has discovered that some experiences trigger the temporal lobe of the brain which causes overwhelming sensory feelings but that it is merely a neurological reaction to stimuli and even occurs in non religious people. Against this Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project and a believer, argues that it is ‘Cool’ that the experiences may have a neurological basis but that that doesn’t disqualify them from being religious!


Early in the 20th century Bertrand Russell made the observation that to his mind there is ‘no distinction between a man who eats too little and sees God and one who drinks too much and sees snakes.’ And certainly a good proportion of those who purportedly saw visions in the past have been subsequently diagnosed with epilepsy, a condition which is now known to trigger activity in the temporal lobe of the brain.


Hume also argued, as he had done for miracles, that the testimony of the experients was unlikely to be true; that these experiences occur in all religions, they cannot all be true and therefore they cancel each other out; and that they tend to occur in backward societies. Swinburne however would disagree citing his ‘principle of credulity’ which suggests that people generally tell the truth so why should we disbelieve merely because they are telling of a religious experience? Also people continue to have religious experiences even today and in fact if God does exist we should naturally expect Him to interact with his creation and thus expect these experiences.


Others object to religious experience counting as evidence for the existence of God because these experiences are not ordinary and should therefore not be treated as such. Even Peter Vardy suggested we are entitled to be more sceptical of claims about religion.


AJ Ayer of the Logical Positivists did not believe in any kind of supernatural realm; everything in his opinion should be subject to the test of our five senses and anything else was invalid. Religious experiences are unverifiable and therefore it is impossible to use them to verify the existence of God.


On the other hand CF Davies argues quite rightly that just because we can’t verify something doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t exist it just means we cant know that it exists! Stephen Hawking for years postulated the idea of black holes; his theory fitted the data but the actual proof of their existence has only recently been discovered. (The Higgs Boson also fits in here; the LHC at Cern is actively looking for this particle which hasn’t actually existed since a billionth of a second after the Big Bang but whose existence makes theories of the early universe work.)


The question is why do theists regard these experiences as evidence for the existence of God? The answer has to be to do with the way they make people feel. If they were just ordinary their effects would be only temporary and they would soon be forgotten. However clearly they aren’t and indeed not only do they usually have a permanent effect on the experient (like St Paul) but they can also be the inspiration for someone else’s belief in the existence of God.


The problem lies in this argument’s claim to be ‘proof’ of the existence of God. ‘Proof’ implies some concrete method of verification using criteria in experiments which can be repeated. Science may be subject to proof but religion by its very nature cannot be. However it must be remembered that even in science many theories remain exactly that for decades even centuries before proof is finally forthcoming (evolutionary theory, the Big Bang, even Einstein’s theory of relativity) yet are accepted and promoted on the basis of the probability of them being true.


In conclusion, while it can be argued that some religious experiences can be explained by natural factors whether neurological or self-induced, they cannot all be. And since in a study it was discovered that over 1/3 of the population believe they have had some sort of religious experience it would seem a little heavy handed to dismiss all these as aberrations. So while it would not be justified to regard them as ‘proof’ of the existence of God perhaps it is valid to suggest that they may lend credence to the probability of the existence of God. After all as Swinburne pointed out, if the balance of evidence and probability were able to prove there was no god it would have done so, since it has not the ‘overwhelming testimony of so many millions of people to occasional experiences of God must be taken as tipping the balance in favour of the existence of God.’


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