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Religious Experience

October 11, 2010

Having been rather busy in Germany last week I didn’t have time for the lengthy post I wanted to put together on the argument from religious experience. However, a spare bit of time now so will see what I can do!

According to a recent survey (to which, alas, I can’t find a link in a rush), 30-45% of people have had what could be termed a “religious experience” – the feeling that there is something or someone “more”, whatever that may mean. This number seems to hold across just about every subset of the population, believer or not.

These experiences have been used to justify a particular belief. Think for instance of Martin Luther, or St Theresa of Avila. Or of my friend who justifies on-going belief in God using the religious experience of God talking to her. There is a major problem here though. Skipping the problems of definition, how do we go from the statement “it seemed that God was speaking to me” to “God was speaking to me”? An even bigger problem is that religious experience is a personal justification for belief; is it possible to justify the religious belief of the many based upon the religious experiences of the few?

I will define the argument from religious experience as:

I had an experience that I claim was caused by or in the presence of God. Therefore God exists.

Richard Swinburne is touted by some as providing the most convincing modern argument for the existence of God (see recent posts by Jerry Coyne on Why Evolution is True). This argument is the Cumulative Case argument. It runs as follows (summed up rather than in detail):

  1. Principle of Credulity – If a person perceives that object x exists, then it is rational to belief that object x does in fact exist.
  2. Principle of Testimony – If a person claims that they experience y then we should believe that they have in fact experienced y.
  3. If a person experiences the existence of God, it is therefore probable that God exists if (Bayes Theorem!) the prior probability of Gods existence is not significantly less than the prior probability of his non-existence.
  4. The cumulative case made by the arguments for God (cosmological, ontological, moral etc.), weighed against the arguments against (problem of evil, divine hiddeness, Euthyphro etc.) is good. Swinburne (I believe, yet to read his book The Existence of God) puts it at around 50/50.
  5. It is therefore probable that God exists.

This argument serves to illustrate at least one important point – the question is one of prior probabilities. If I believe God exists I will certainly be likely to attribute a religious experience to God. If I don’t believe then chances are I will look for some other explanation. It has been argued (by Alston?) that this problem in itself means that religious experience can only be used to justify belief within a religious community, and therefore that to accept the argument from religious experience is to accept an anti-realist (or epistemic idealist) view.

Swinburne’s argument is, in my opinion, crap. I take issue with just about every step.

  1. If I watch a scary film late at night and alone in my flat I may “experience” the presence of someone else in the flat, lurking just around the dark corner intent on harming me. There’s nothing rational about believing someone is actually there.
  2. A person my claim to have experienced y, but there may be a layer of unconscious interpretation taking place before they get round to saying what the experience y is. If someone claims to have heard a voice I believe that they think they heard a voice but not for a minute that the voice wasn’t in fact a product of their mind.
  3. Ah, prior probability. I don’t think Swinburne really gives due weight to the arguments against the existence of God. Plus all the existing arguments for existence are poor. A lot of poor arguments don’t make a good argument (the leaky bucket analogy could be inserted here if you want).

All things considered I think this is a pretty poor effort at an argument. Once I’ve read his book I’ll hopefully not have to retract anything I’ve said here, the articles and summaries I’ve read seem pretty conclusive. We shall see!

Other problems with arguments from religious experience… What differentiates the experience of a Catholic “experiencing” the Virgin Mary and a Hindu “experiencing” Vishnu? How can a Catholic hold one to be true and the other false? If they are in fact just the same experience interpreted differently, what about them makes them the same? How do they justify any particular belief structure? How do I know whether a particular experience is “divine” rather than caused by a much more earthly explanation, be it psychological or otherwise? Do I first have to reject every other possible explanation, or simply belief that the experience is genuine? If so, how do I convince others that I’m not mad?

The take-home message is that a successful argument from religious experience usually has to rely on prior belief, or at least on no prior disbelief. It is hard for it to be convincing to someone outside your particular belief community.

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