Skip to content

Religious Experience

November 7, 2011

Religious experiences of one description or another are often used as justification for belief in the existence of God. Personal experience, powerful, immediate and direct, convinces individuals easily; we are prone to trust in the reliability of our senses and feelings. However, there is a more important question to be asked then whether experience is used to provide some form of justification for belief in God. Does religious experience provide epistemic justification? Can we form true beliefs on the basis of an experience of God? We know that our senses are capable of deceiving us – do they do so in the case of religious experiences?

In this essay I will briefly examine some of the recent history of the discussion on religious experience, before discussing problems with the use of religious experience to provide epistemic justification. In particular, I will examine an argument put forward by Zangwill that undermines a fundamental premise of the argument from religious experience.

What do we mean by religious experience? For the purposes of this essay I will define a religious experience to be an experience which we take to have theological meaning, an experience that is claimed to be of a particular God with a particular nature. This is a general definition that attempts to capture the wide variety of experiences that are used to provide everyday justification for belief. By the argument from religious experience, I will mean the use of a religious experience to attempt to justify belief in God. Throughout, “God” will be taken to be described in the traditional theistic interpretation of the Abrahamic religions.

Religious experiences are notoriously difficult to describe in detail. A thorough definition of what exactly it is that is entailed by a religious experience is hard to come by. William James describes the ineffability of religious experience thus:

The subject of it [the experience] immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words… No one can make clear to another who has never had a certain feeling, in what the quality or worth of it consists. One must have musical ears to understand the value of a symphony… (James: 267)

Indeed, given this, we are confronted with the first major objection to the argument from religious experience. There seems to be no way that I, without having had a religious experience, can fully understand the vocabulary that you are using when you describe yours. Even if I have had a religious experience, it may defy my own ability to articulate just what it was that I experienced or felt during the experience. We just don’t have a vocabulary sufficient for the task.

Why then should I be convinced by an argument from religious experience? When we experience the wind on our face, we are experiencing something repeatable, something that anyone can (and presumably does) experience. We can describe what we are feeling and know what to expect when we are about to experience it. Most importantly, we can describe a set of conditions under which someone who doesn’t understand what we are talking about can share the experience. There are no such parallels with religious experience.

This lack of parallels allows Alston to argue that it is not in fact a problem that we lack a vocabulary (Alston, 1991: Chapter 1). It is not a recreatable experience, and it is just this fact that means that we do not possess language to describe it. If God is taken as a personal being, a personal reality, then it should not be expected that we can treat God as some form of empirical reality that we can reduce to a common language and talk about in everyday, mechanical terms. This may not be intellectually satisfying, but Alston believed it got him off the hook.

Despite these difficulties, religious experience plays an important part in the philosophical literature, as well as in the everyday lives of believers. Swinburne credits religious experience with “considerable evidential force”. He even suggests that it should count as more than just personal evidence:

One who has not himself had an experience apparently of God is not in as strong a position as those who have. He will have less evidence for the existence of God; but not very much less, for he will have testimony of many who have had such experience. (Swinburne: 274)

It would appear that the problem caused by the ineffability of religious experience is not considered insurmountable. Indeed, the Christian tradition has a well-developed vocabulary for describing such experiences in more everyday terms, which whilst not understandable to many outsiders seems to go some way to bridging the divide between the experience and the subject.

There is a much more fundamental problem than our inability to describe religious experiences. These experiences are used to justify belief in more than just a generic “something”. We load our experiences with theistic interpretation. If I experience something that I label “God”, it is traditionally described as more than just a vague sense of presence:

These various kinds of experience … are essentially personal: you feel the voice or presence or whatever as a second person, a “you”; and you experience the Other purely in relation to yourself, as comforting, benevolent, malignant or whatever… (Beardsworth: 129)

Beardsworth in fact concludes by calling these experiences “meetings” (Beardsworth: 135), suggesting much more than just a feeling of awe and wonder. After an experience I may label it a loving presence, a powerful presence, a knowing presence. I may go so far as to label what I experienced “God”. It is a religious experience. Through the argument from religious experience I attempt to justify a theistic belief system via an experience of that particular theistic God. But what if I simply cannot directly experience a God who is (following the traditional interpretation of the monotheistic Abrahamic God) omnipresent, omniscient or omnipotent? What if the conclusions I reach are wholly dependent on my background beliefs about the thing which I am experiencing (or believe I am experiencing)? In this case I cannot justify a theistic belief on the basis of religious experience. I merely have an experience that I layer my interpretation onto.

If this is the case then there isn’t actually anything that we can correctly call a religious experience with theological content. There are just experiences that we interpret in a religious way in order to arrive at the theistic conclusions that are often drawn. This argument has been put forward recently by Nick Zangwill. His paper The Myth of Religious Experience was written in response to arguments such as those of Swinburne and in particular Alston, pointing out that critics of these arguments often fail to address this central question. They assume that religious experiences with theological content can occur.

Some authors have acknowledged potential problems; for example Martin asks us how we would know that God has spoken to us. How would we know that an “all omni” creature has spoken to us?

You claim that it seems to you God spoke to you. But how could you tell from only the voice that being you heard was omnipotent, omniscient and completely free? How could you distinguish the voice from that of an enormously powerful but finite being…? How could you tell by just the voice it was not an infinitely powerful but evil being? (Martin: 89)

However he does not, as Zangwill does, consider the full implications of the difficulties faced in experiencing such a being.

There have as yet been no replies to Zangwill. Before he died Alston was preparing a reply, but this was never published (private email exchange with Zangwill). After discussing Zangwill’s argument, I will propose possible objections and examine them to see if the conclusion that Zangwill reaches can be still be regarded as valid.

Zangwill starts his discussion of religious experience with a simple statement:

If the experiences are perceptual experiences with theological content, then they have evidential weight with respect to the belief in God. (Zangwill: 2)

By “theological content”, we mean that the experiences in question “represent theological objects, events or states of affairs” (Zangwill: 2). It is an uncontroversial claim that such experiences, should they exist, would provide support for theistic beliefs. However Zangwill sensibly asks us to be sceptical, given the vastly different category of “things we can experience” into which God, and God alone, is placed. Are experiences perceptual and theistic?

The emotions felt during a religious experience derive from beliefs, and therefore offer no support for those beliefs themselves. For instance, fear of God derives from a particular belief about God, but doesn’t lend weight to the argument from religious experience if this fear is felt during the experience. So, the perceptual nature of an experience must be separated for its emotional nature. Without a perceptual element we cannot draw conclusions – we must perceive God.

In terms of theistic content, Zangwill argues that we must “perceive God as God” (Zangwill: 8). This is a crucial point. It is conceded that as Alston and Swinburne believe “we can in principle perceive God in what we can call the purely ‘objectual’ sense” (Zangwill: 8); that is, we could possibly have a perceptual experience of a thing that it turned out was God. However this does not provide evidential weight for belief in God. Consider when I see my friend Bob wearing a convincing disguise. In normal circumstances I would have little difficulty perceiving Bob as Bob; I am familiar with his looks, his voice, his wardrobe, the fact that I arranged to meet him. In this case however I cannot tell that it is Bob I am seeing, yet I certainly perceive him. I would not be justified in belief that it was Bob in front of me without some additional perception. I would need to experience Bob as Bob, with the perception of the state of affairs that Bob finds himself in, namely that of being disguised. In terms of religious experience, “[w]e need the perception of a divine state of affairs, not merely a divine object” (Zangwill: 8).

By considering several possible natures of a religious experience, Zangwill argues that one or other of these criteria must fail. We start with the uncontentious statement that a perceptual experience must be via one of our senses, but in order to avoid question-begging it is conceded that it may not be one of our five “regular” senses; we may have some “special sixth religious sense modality” (Zangwill: 7).

If we experience God through one of our five senses then a spatial relationship must hold between us and the object that we sense. This, according to Zangwill, is undeniable. Consider sight, hearing and touch; “such a spatial requirement obviously holds” (Zangwill: 7). Smell and taste require even less consideration but even if they presented problems, what would it mean to taste God or smell God? So if we perceive God in this manner, He must have spatial properties of some form.

Zangwill presents some metaphysical objections to this idea. The first is that standard Christian arguments would strongly deny the idea that God is part of the universe, not a thing at all. He could not have spatial properties. The second is that if He was spatial in some way he could not be all-powerful:

…everything in space as some causal powers, and if God is just another spatial thing, His power has to compete with theirs. (Zangwill: 8)

This is not an insurmountable problem for the theist, so Zangwill instead concentrates on epistemological objections to a spatial God. He points out that God could be spatial in one of two ways. Either he is locally extended (that is, God is just a part of the universe) or God is globally extended (that is, God is the universe). Each of these causes problems with our perception of God as God.

Consider a locally extended God. We may well be able to perceive the physical object that is the “incarnation” of God, but:

[i]n order to perceive a physical thing as God, we would need to have a perceptual experience with the representational content ‘That physical thing is the incarnation of God’. But this is surely problematic because … the incarnation relation between that thing and God is not a physical relation that we can be sensitive to with our ordinary sensory faculties. (Zangwill: 9)

This takes us back to the example of my perceiving Bob in disguise. Without the ability to perceive the relationship between the person I see and the fact that they are in disguise, I cannot perceive Bob as Bob. Similarly, I cannot perceive an incarnation of God as God. I may perceive God, but the perception has no theological content.

Suppose instead that God is globally extended over the whole universe. This again does not preclude us from perceiving God. Indeed, any perception of a thing would be a perception of God. But, Zangwill argues, “we could not perceive that the thing is part of Him” (Zangwill: 10). We would instead need to perceive “God as a globally extended God” (Zangwill: 10). But this is impossible; it may be possible to conceive the whole universe, but it certainly isn’t possible for us to perceive it. We cannot for example “perceive our very act of perceiving” (Zangwill: 10). Without this ability, we again cannot perceive God as God.

This rules out perception of God using our five senses. So what if we have some religious sixth sense that allows us, in some unknown way, to perceive God? This sense could be free of the requirement for a spatial relationship between object and person, and therefore free from the objections given above. But we must still take into account time.

If God is not in time, it seems bizarre to think that we perceive Him. What does it mean to perceive something that is in neither space nor time? “There is nothing separating such ‘perception’ from a priori intuition. We might as well say that God is like a Platonic abstract object and thus inaccessible to perception.’ (Zangwill: 13) Hence for a perception of God via this religious sixth sense, God must be considered to exist in time.

The epistemological objections to this are different from earlier. Now, we consider what it would mean to perceive the properties of God, for surely, if a perception is to have theological content in keeping with the Abrahamic tradition, we must perceive God as omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent.

Consider omniscience. We cannot perceive all of the objects of Gods knowledge, nor the totality of His beliefs. How could we perceive that a being knows everything, and nothing less? We would have to perceive that God has no other beliefs. Surely this is impossible. We may be able to conceive all of His beliefs, and the absence of any others, but not perceive it.

Similarly with omnipotence. In order to perceive this in God we would have to be capable of perceiving either a manifestation of infinite power, in which case Zangwill holds that it is impossible to perceive this as infinite, or we would have to perceive the “intrinsic basis” for omnipotence (Zangwill: 18). The latter is not possible because it would require us to perceive that there is nothing that God cannot do, which is not possible.

Zangwill sums up this argument of a religious sixth sense by saying:

Imagine a wanted poster: ‘Wanted: an all-knowing, all powerful, and all-good entity.’ How could a sixth sense detect, not something that fits that description, but that something fits that description? (Zangwill: 16)

A religious sixth sense therefore doesn’t help us, and without it we have nowhere left to go. We cannot perceive a non-temporal God as God, just as we cannot experience a spatial God as God. We cannot have perceptual experiences with theological content.

If this argument holds, then religious experience cannot be used to provide epistemic justification for belief in a traditional theistic God, even on a personal level. If we return to Swinburne, he tells us that

[A person] has an experience of God if and only if its seeming to him that God is present is in fact caused by God being present. (Swinburne 247-248)

Under Zangwill’s argument, it can never seem to us that God is present without our own interpretation being given to the experience. The whole concept of religious experience as used by Swinburne is thus radically undermined, as beliefs are used to justify the experiences on which beliefs are formed, preventing their being used themselves in belief formation. It is therefore vitally important for proponents of religious experience to find flaws in Zangwill’s thesis. What might these be?

Alston was famous for having a few stock objections to arguments that he brought out to deal with the vast majority of criticisms of his work on religious experience. Chief amongst these was the accusation of question-begging. This could well be applicable at several stages in Zangwill’s argument.

Zangwill argues that God’s knowledge is like human knowledge, just taken too an infinite level. He gives us the image of God’s knowledge standing in relation to objects in a way analogous to human knowledge. But surely this is question begging! We know that infinite knowledge of this form is impossible to perceive, for the very reasons Zangwill raises, so to give this attribute to God is to assume that he cannot be perceived as omniscient. Could God’s knowledge not take some other form, not analogous to human knowledge? Why should it be taken to be this comprehensible? If God is indeed outside of space and time, to attempt to argue that knowledge requires the relationship given by Zangwill may be unnecessary. We could try to construct an argument following the Thomist position that God’s knowledge is of things, not statements about things (see, for example, Hughes The Nature of God).

The reply to this is simply that, in the absence of the ability to perceive that God knows everything, the structure that knowledge takes is relatively unimportant. God’s knowledge may be non-temporal, but we are firmly rooted in time. How could we ever perceive that God knows everything about what to us is the future? It may be possible to argue philosophically that this is possible, but this is different from my ability to perceive it. A successful counterargument would have to say why it is possible for this perception to occur, not just that a particular model of knowledge has mischaracterised God.

It could also be suggested that the claim that we cannot perceive that a thing is a part of God, made during the discussion of the possibility of a globally extended God, is question-begging. I can perceive a table leg, and be aware that it is a part of a table. Why cannot a similar relation hold between a perception of a thing in the universe and God?

The reply from Zangwill (or his ally) is simple; this objection is itself to beg the question! The perception of a table leg and a table occur separately, and it is the very perception of both that allows me to form the identity relation between the two. The religious model of identification is to perceive the table leg, assume the identity relation between table leg and table, and then claim that the table is being perceived. It is to claim that we can perceive the table leg as part of the table because we perceive the table leg as part of the table. By getting into such circularity we invalidate any conclusions that we reach, no matter if in fact we are perceiving a table. The analogous argument with a local object being identified with a global God is similarly invalid.

In the above case it was the background belief system that was the source of the theological meaning given to an experience. In the absence of such belief systems the meaning is entirely removed; we do not have a perception with theological content. In a similar fashion we can reply to the argument that it is possible to perceive a locally extended God as God, for example in the person of Jesus (were we to perceive such an incarnation). Absent a belief system that identifies Jesus with God and then claims we perceive God, we are stuck in the position that whilst we may perceive God, we have no way of knowing that this is the case.

Is there a way to get around the central pillar of Zangwill’s argument, the notion that we have to have an actual perceptual experience of God as God? Mawson gives us an example of Joe and Jim, who both look out of a window and see a tree. However, Jim has seen the actual tree whilst Joe has not; when he looked out of the window a perfect painting of the view from the window had been placed in front of it, with no way for Joe to tell the difference between this painting and reality. We would agree that both Joe and Jim are capable of forming a true belief that there is a tree outside the window. However, only one has directly perceived the tree to form this opinion. The other has perceived the tree indirectly, via the painter and painting (Mawson: 105-106).

We could try to construct an argument along the lines that it is not in fact necessary to have a direct perceptual experience of God as God. Perhaps there is some aspect of religious experience that can provide an intermediary perceptual stage analogous to the painting in Mawson’s example. Religious experience therefore would provide a means to form true beliefs even if the experience was not of God as God. The argument presented above would then completely fail.

The weakness of such an argument would be that it opens the door to all sorts of potentially weak belief generating perceptions. If I allow a form of indirect perception to justify my beliefs, what are the mechanisms by which I check firstly, that the final object of my perception is in fact God, and secondly, that the intermediary stage of the perceptual process is not in any way distorting the beliefs that I am able to draw? Surely at the very least we would require a mechanism to check that perception of God as God is at least possible? In the example of the tree outside the window, we know that we are capable of perceiving trees that are outside a window; this can be verified by other means that tell us that yes, there is in fact a tree there. No such verification process is possible in the case of indirectly perceiving God as God. It may therefore not even be possible to have such an experience.

It would thus appear that the argument put forward by Zangwill is strong. If it works, it wholly undermines the argument from religious experience. It would show that religious perceptual experiences are not of God as God. Any religious experience would therefore, even if it was in fact of God, not have theological content. Any theological meaning that we give to the experience would rely solely on our interpretation, our prior beliefs. Religious experience could not act as a convincing pointer to the existence of God as commonly conceived.


W. Alston, Perceiving God (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1991)

Timothy Beardsworth, A Sense of Presence (Oxford: Religious Experience Research Unit, 1977)

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (Oxford: Routledge, 2008)

Michael Martin, ‘The Principle of Credulity and Religious Experience’, Religious Studies, 22 (1986), 79-93

T.J. Mawson, ‘How can I know I’ve perceived God?’, International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 57 (2005), 105-121

Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1991)

Nick Zangwill, ‘The Myth of Religious Experience’, Religious Studies, 40 (2004), 1-22

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: