A2 Religious Experience Notes

  • History and definition

After David Hume’s rational debunking of religion in the 18th Century Schleiermacher concluded in the 20th that the central feature of faith was in fundamental human experience.

The psychologist Immanuel Kant‘s division of life into two aspects: the phenomenon and the numenon was taken further by Rudolf Otto (1917) with his ‘wholly other’ the holy, and Schliermacher believed that we all have a ‘sense of absolute dependence’ a deep intuition which is an ability to perceive and appreciate the numinous like our ability to appreciate music, art or poetry; it is an intuition of God and is different from our rational minds.

  • What makes religious experience different?
  • Religion assumes a deity:
    • Uses myths to explain things to us
    • Has rituals to put us in the right frame of mind
    • Has certain doctrines or truths we are taught to believe
    • Codes of accepted behaviour – ethics
    • Has a social impact (strives to govern society by principles of justice etc)
    • Has as experiential aspect such that ‘true believers’ are said to feel God’s presence, commune with him and feel left out if they don’t.

These are identified by Ninian Smart as the Six Dimensions of Religion


  • Features: William James described religious experiences as having these 4 common features:

Ineffability – inexpressibility

Noetic revelation – glimpse of a universal truth




But others added:

Sense of union

Dependence on god

Transcendence of time (above)

Joy and well-being

Separateness – Isaiah


Sense that it is real


  • Examples:

Mystical – Mother Julian of Norwich

Conversion – St Paul

Visions – Bernadette

Voices – St Joan of Arc


  • How experience can come: Through –
  • meditation
  • Prayer
  • Miracle
  • Scripture
  • revelation ie sudden blinding insight

Experience then is the awareness of external stimuli, absorbing of thoughts and feelings and reaction to them. This can be cognitive (thinking) and affective (feeling) but both are mental activities.

Over 1/3rd of the population claims to have had some sort of religious experience varying from intense to mild.

But they are difficult to communicate onwards. So how can we be sure?

One problem with religious experiences is that they can be induced by being in the religious community and ‘wanting it’!


  • Problems with:
  • could be self-delusion; fasting or drug taking affect the mind (Jesus in the wilderness?)
  • if prayer worked God would be manipulable – whose side would he be on?
  • to whose benefit / detriment?
  • interpretation? Literal or critical? Look at fundamentalist Christians or Muslims.
  • cannot be exclusive – God must be God of all peoples!
  • culture, memory and history could mean a predisposition to interpret religiously.


  • An answer to prayer can be asked for but quite often religious experiences are unbidden (Saul / Isaiah / Jeremiah…)

So for many religious experience is the most convincing argument for the existence of God BUT is it?

  • People do experience the presence of other things which do not exist (imaginary friends / Conan Doyle’s fairies…)
  • People can delude themselves
  • Can label the experience wrongly


So how real is anything we experience?

Rene Descartes said ‘Cogito ergo sum’ I think therefore I am – but are we? Could this all be a dream?

(Our eyes / rods and cones / upside down / brain interprets…)

(Furniture made up of atoms space between them…)

We have a certain mind set / conditioning to interpret things in certain ways e.g. that time goes forwards



  • What purpose?

To teach about the nature of God / to give a mission or purpose


  • Psychological explanation

Freud – oceanic feeling – the idea that insecure personalities try to recreate the feeling of those first few months of life.

Insecure societies and certainly primitive ones have a key role for religious experience which might explain why large scale experiences rarely seem to happen in modern life!




  • Swinburne – two types of experience and two arguments:

A    premise 1    I have had an experience which I am certain is of God

         2    I have no reason to doubt this experience

Conclusion     Therefore God exists

this is based on the principle of credulity


B    premise 1    I have heard sincere reports from others of experiences of god

         2    I have no reason to doubt them

    Conclusion    Therefore God exists

This is based on the principle of testimony


Both are built on a posteriori premises


  • But these are not ordinary experiences – can we treat them the same way as w e would someone who tells us something ordinary? (e.g. I failed Maths O level!!)


  • Criticisms:

Bertrand Russell: there’s n o distinction between a man who eats too little and sees God and a man who drinks too much and sees snakes!


  • Do we have a religious gene?
  • Marx: religion the opium of the people.

VS Ramachandran at uni of California discovered that heightened activity in the temporal lobe of the brain floods all senses with over whelming emotional experience similar to the account by believers of numinous experiences – a neurological reaction.


However such explanation can still not account for them all.

Also, just because one ‘prepares for’ a mystical experience doesn’t mean they’re all false.


Sometimes we are mistaken about ordinary experience but even if we are it doesn’t mean we must necessarily always be wrong about religious ones.


Peter Vardy though said that we are entitled to be more sceptical of claims about religion.


  • How can we know if it is God?

The difficulty lies in defining God. Aquinas argued that we can never really understand God.

The answer has got to be what do we learn? How does it change us? Many who do experience God report a feeling of unworthiness therefore because we feel humbled rather than exalted (superior) it is possible to regard the experience as valid since human nature is such that we don’t normally brag about experiences which make us seem unimportant in the story!


AJ Ayer said it is impossible to verify the existence of God; because religious experiences are unverifiable then it is unreasonable to believe in them.


But CF Davies argues that just because we cant’ verify something doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t exist it just means that we can’t know it exists!! (Think about theories in physics E=MC2 / black holes / the big bang etc)


John Hick says we’ll get verification when we die – eschatological verification! (See also Paschal‘s wager)


  • Finally:

An important point to note is that what they have in common is what Otto described as ‘mysterium tremendum et fascinans‘ a terrifying and compelling mystery, so despite the differences in detail believers all feel overwhelmed with feelings of humbling awe and fear accompanied by love and peace. Perhaps the differences are just ways of looking at the same thing or cultural expectations.


Swinburne argues in a godless world the experiences would not happen.


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