Religious Experience Recap September 05

  • Experience? Valid or not?
  • What else might we think we experience?
  • What kinds of verification could we do?
  • Objectivity and subjectivity
  • How reliable are our senses?
  • How different is religious experience from other types?
  • Often based in culture, history and memory
  • 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

  • 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’!
  • William James said they had four basic features:
  • ineffable
  • noetic
  • transient
  • passive
  • Others think more:
  • feeling of unity
  • detached from time and space
  • sense that it is real
  • joy
  • appreciation of the holy
  • paradoxical – normal rules do not apply (Mohammed’s translation from Mecca to Jerusalem on the Night of Power or Isaiah’s feeling of uncleanness in the presence of the sinless God)
  • ineffability – inability to explain.
  • unimportance of the self.


Another problem is that those who have them will usually have them in the form they are brought up in i.e. Christian in a Christian context, Muslim in an Islamic context.

Some non-religious people will have a religious experience and move towards a tradition that they feel culturally at ease with; rarely a person will have a religious experience and move towards a different tradition altogether (e.g.St Paul / Cat Stevens)


What does this say about the validity of religious experience or even about the existence of God?


Where, when, to whom and how do they tend to happen?

  1. peace and quiet
  2. linked to traditional religious upbringing
  3. more often able to use the right hemisphere of the brain – Einstein …
  4. leaves a sense of altruism
  5. often feel ecstasy or feeling of unity with creation.



What does it mean? To convert from a disunified state to a unified one!! Can be gradual, as understanding deepens, or sudden.


Q Do we have a religious gene? (read the article from New Scientist 2001). Is religiousness a defect in our genes? Or isn’t it logical that a god would wish to communicate with his creation and therefore would programme in a method of doing so?


The psychologist Immanuel Kant‘s division of life into two aspects: the phenomenon and the numenon was taken further by Rudolf Otto 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.


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


Comes down to Swinburne‘s principles of Credulity and Testimony again.

Peter Vardy though said that we are entitled to be more sceptical of claims about religion but Swinburne argues in a godless world the experiences would not happen!


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