- Argument from religious experience
The Argument from religious experience is an
argumentfor the existence of God, as against materialism.
Outline logical structure
Its logical structure is essentially as follows:
# There are compelling reasons for considering at least some religious experiences to point to and validate spiritual realities that exist in a way that transcends any material manifestations.
# According to Materialism, nothing exists in a way that transcends its material manifestations.
# According to Classical Theism in general, and
Christianityin particular, God endows Humans with the ability to have spiritual experiences and to perceive, albeit imperfectly, such spiritual realities [There are innumerable references in both the Old testament, from Adam talking with God in Genesis onwards, and in the New Testamentof which the Transfiguration and St Paul's comments in 1 Corinthians about spiritual gifts and "seeing through a glass darkly" (i.e. through a poor mirror, imperfectly) may stand as two examples] and these spiritual realities exist in a way that transcends any material manifestations.
# Therefore, to the extent that premise (1) is accepted, Theism is more plausible than Materialism.
Points 2, 3 and 4 are relatively un-controversial, and the argument is formally valid, so discussion focuses on the premise (1).
uggested reasons for accepting the premise
The principal arguments for the premise are:
# Very substantial numbers of "ordinary" people report having had such experiences, though this isn't to say that religious believers aren't ordinary [Polkinghorne "Belief in God in an Age of Science" p119 referencing "the surveys conducted by the distinguished biologist
Alister Hardy"] [Swinburne references David Hay "Religious Experience Today" (1990) chapters 5, 6 and Appendix] . Such experiences are reported in almost all known cultures. Although such reported experiences may not all correspond to an objective reality, they are strong enough prima facie evidence that very compelling arguments to the contrary would be needed to cancel them out.
# These experiences often have very significant effects on people's lives, frequently inducing in them acts of extreme self-sacrifice well beyond what could be expected from evolutionary arguments. It is hard to imagine an evolutionary benefit in having these experiences if they are all, or mostly, false.
# These experiences often seem very real to the people involved, and are quite often reported as being shared by a number of people [ For example the
New Testamentspeaks of Jesus, after his resurrection, appearing to 10 or more people at once (see eg 1 Corinthians 15:6, Luke 24, Mt 28, Jn 16, Acts 1).] . Although mass delusions are not inconceivable, one needs compelling reasons for invoking this as an explanation.
Swinburne suggests that, as two basic principles of rationality, we ought to believe that things are as they seem unless and until we have evidence that they are mistaken (principle of credulity), and that those who do not have an experience of a certain type ought to believe others who say that they do in the absence of evidence of deceit or delusion (principle of testimony) and thus, although if you have a "strong" reason to disbelieve in the existence of God you will discount these experiences, in other cases such evidence should count towards the existence of God. [ Swinburne, "Is there a God?" p 133–136]
uggested reasons for disputing the premise
# There is little doubt that some reports of religious experience have naturalistic and/or psychological explanations and are thus mistaken. If some reports are mistaken, perhaps all such reports may be.
# These might be mis-firings of evolutionary mechanisms selected for very different reasons [This is broadly Dawkins' line in
The God Delusion] .
# It is conceivable that some claimed religious experiences are lies, possibly done for attention or acceptance.
# Different people have had, or believed to have had, religious experiences pointing to the existence of different religions. Not all of these can be correct. (For more information see the
Argument from Inconsistent Revelations).
# Some have argued that the experiences are hallucinations which stem from "wanting" to believe in God (In a way relating to Pascal's Wager) that the person converts into a vivid hallucination that they try to convince themselves was "real", but they know aren't in the back of their mind(s). Some have compared them to insane people who have the same type of hallucination, but they obviously aren't taken as seriously.
Notes & References
Relevant authors and sources include:
John PolkinghorneSee eg his "The faith of a scientist" and "Belief in an Age of Science"
* Tom Wright who regards religious experience as one of the four main pointers to belief in God — see esp. his "Simply Christian" SPCK 2006, Ch 2 "The hidden spring"
Richard Dawkinswho in The God Delusiondismisses the Argument from religious experience, without formally stating it.
Richard Swinburneesp "The Existence of God" OUP 2nd Edition 2004 ISBN 0199271682 and "Is there a God?" OUP 1996 ISBN 0198235453
Ian Barbour"Religion and Science" SCM 1998 ISBN 0 334 02721 7
William Jameswrote the classic account of "Varieties of Religious Experience"
* Caroline Franks Davis discusses "The Evidential Force of Religious Experience" in her book of that name, OUP 2004 ISBN 0198250010.
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