Notes from the A2 conference – Religious Experience

Strength – if you had a personal experience it would be absolutely convincing

Weakness – it cannot be quantified on rational grounds.

2 basic groups – direct and indirect

Types – numinous – holiness of God [Isaiah]; interpretive [prayers answered]; conversion [St Paul]; revelation, vision, enlightenment [Buddha / St Teresa / Moses]; mystical from meditation sense of ultimate reality.

William James – 4 characteristics of mystical experiences:

  • Ineffability
  • Noetic (universal truths)
  • Transient
  • Passive

Swinburne’s Principles of Credulity (we should believe them) and testimony (what people usually say is the truth)

Conclusion – it only needs one experience to be true to prove God exists.

N Smart – a ‘perception of the invisible world.’

Other explanations – reliability

Pre-existing beliefs

RM Hare’s bliks a particular view of the world

Swinburne ‘must…be taken as tipping the balance in favour of the existence of God’

There’s always a reason why a believer will believe even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary

Dawkins will not accept you’ve had a religious experience because he understands the way the brain works.



A posteriori -Centuries of exp and testimony

Cannot be verified by obj testing


Lying and wishful thinking

Inductive – testimonies of 1000s of individuals

Other causes, external factors, interps

Loving God…

Religious believers unreliable


A good introduction e.g. for questions on religious experience


Religious experiences are by their very nature beyond empirical investigation or explanation. Yet they may produce feelings of awe and a sense of oneness with the universe such that they convince a believer that they have had an encounter with Someone Other or as Otto calls it the ‘wholly other’ or the ‘numinous.’ However it is perhaps only logical that scholars are in doubt about their validity when even the experients claim an inability to describe the very experience which they consider to be proof of the existence of God.

[Use quote to round off this bit e.g. St Teresa of Avila or some such.]


Or this:

A religious experience is an encounter with the divine. It is defined by Rudolph Otto as ‘the wholly other’ and by Schleiermacher as ‘a sense of absolute dependence’ it may happen suddenly and unbidden like CS Lewis who …. Or St Paul who… or they may come after deep meditation such as St Teresa of Avila.

They all inspire a feeling of what Otto called the ‘mysterium tremendum et fascinans’ However they also have many common features…..


You can then go on to:

As an argument for the existence of God it is a posteriori and inductive meaning that it is based on evidence and on a logical conclusion to the premises e.g.

P1    I have had an unusual experience in which I felt as if I was meeting some ultimate spirit, I felt a oneness with the universe and awed by the whole experience.

P2    I have heard that this is what a religious experience is like

Conclusion: therefore it was one.


Despite this the actual existence of God is not proven by these experiences however convincing they may be and the existence of God is therefore only probable rather than definite.


And a conclusion:

Religious experiences are persuasive but not convincing evidence for the existence of God. Yet for the individuals who have had them they may be convinced beyond any doubt with no further need for more rational argument they thus become convincing if subjective proof. As Dawkins said ‘you
may well be convinced but don’t expect the rest of us to take your word for it.’

However Swinburne suggested 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.

Ayer argues that religious experiences are only valuable from a psychological viewpoint because they give insight into the mind of the believer. Critics have also argued that they only happen in emotional circumstances and neurologists like Michael Persinger have managed to stimulate the temporal lobe of the brain under laboratory conditions and ’cause’ religious like experiences. On the other hand Francis Collins leader of the Human Genome Project, ‘It wouldn’t trouble me to discover that my temporal lobe was lit up. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have some genuine spiritual significance. [atheists] with the presumption that there is nothing outside the natural world will look at this data and say ‘Ya see?’ Whereas those who come with the presumption that we are spiritual creatures will go ‘cool! There is a natural correlate to this mystical experience! How about that!’



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