Religious experience, whether that is the general experience of living a religious life or specific, direct experiences of the divine, is very commonly cited as the basis for religious faith. Nevertheless, William James and William Alston have both argued that although Religious Experiences are reasonably authoritative for the people who have them – and for those people may serve as more than a pointer to the existence of God – because of plausible non-religious explanations there can be no duty on other people to accept the authenticity of religious experiences or see them as pointers to anything supernatural. Richard Swinburne went further, noting that whether one accepts religious experiences as a good pointer to the existence of God will depend on one’s assessment of prior probability. Responses to the claim “Religious experience is a good pointer to the existence of God!” depend to some extent on one’s own relationship with religious experience(s), whether one has had a direct experience or must rely on others’ reports, but depend mostly on one’s world-view. Atheists and materialists are unlikely to accept the claim, even if they have had an experience that might otherwise be categorized as religious, whereas those who are open to the existence of God on other grounds are more likely to accept the claim, even on the strength of anecdote.
Direct religious experiences are notoriously difficult to define or categorise. William James identified four marks that most experiences seem to have – transiency, a noetic quality, ineffability and passivity – and yet there are well-known experiences which do not have these marks. Thomas Merton had relatively regular experiences over a long period. Teresa of Avila’s experiences were sustained and seemingly the result of practices designed to provoke them. Further the Religious canon is packed with descriptions of religious experience. Other scholars have defined religious experiences in different ways. Scholar of mysticism Rudolph Otto took a more general approach, saying only that authentic religious experiences are those of mysterium tremendum et fascinans. In some ways Otto’s definition accords with Martin Buber’s description of religious experiences as I-thou encounters. Walter Stace excluded classic visions and voices altogether and argued that genuine religious experiences are non-sensuous and mystical in character. Richard Swinburne, on the other hand, listed five different types of religious experience in two categories, public and private, in an attempt to be inclusive. The difficulty in defining religious experiences is a seemingly insuperable obstacle to using them as the basis for an inductive argument for the existence of God.
Direct religious experiences are also open to alternative, non-religious explanations. Ludwig Feuerbach and Sigmund Freud both noted how religious belief tends towards wish-fulfilment. Some religious experiences fit in most conveniently with the wants and needs of the person who has them and could be explained as creations of the subconscious mind. For example, Joan of Arc’s experiences fit in with the French nationalistic mood of the time and provided Joan with a credibility that she could never otherwise have had. Might she have invented the experiences – or have interpreted them creatively – for her own (side’s) political advantage? The Emperor Constantine’s vision before the battle of Milvian Bridge and the visions leading to the discovery of the True Cross on the First Crusade could be seen in similar terms. Alternatively, other religious experiences might be explained in physiological terms. It is more common for those experiencing extreme physical stress or hormonal change to claim religious experiences – could the physiological changes associated with puberty or the suffering involved in a life-threatening illness be causing out-of-body sensations that are later interpreted as religious? Julian of Norwich experienced visions while close to death, St Paul seems to have been an epileptic subject to grand-mal seizures and many other visionaries and mystics have exhibited physiological symptoms which might account for their altered state. Of course it is difficult to disprove religious experiences in these ways – not least because an account of HOW the experience might have happened does not rule out God as the reason WHY it happened. Nevertheless, the existence of non-religious explanations for religious experiences does undermine their status as a good pointer to the existence of God, both individually and otherwise.
Although Swinburne incorporated an argument from Religious Experience into his cumulative case for God, set out in “The Existence of God” (1991), he accepted that unlike accepting the natural observations that other inductive arguments start with, accepting religious experiences as even a pointer to the existence of God depends on prior probability. People who already accept the possibility of God’s existence will accept that religious experiences are a feature of the world which require explanation while those with an atheistic world-view will reject religious experiences as delusions or at least claim that psychology and/or physiology explain away the phenomenon without any need to suggest a supernatural cause. It is fair to say that religious people, or at least those who are open-minded, will be more likely to accept that Religious experience is a good pointer to the existence of God than those who are committed to an atheist or materialist world-view and this suggests that there will always be disagreement on whether Religious Experiences constitute a good pointer to the existence of God that is little to do with the experiences themselves or what causes them.
Swinburne went on to argue that it is reasonable to accept reports of religious experiences – defined very broadly so as to include both public and private experiences – and to take them as pointers to the existence of God because of the principles of credulity and testimony. In everyday life we believe what we see or experience ourselves and believe other people unless we have a good reason not to. Why should these principles not apply to religious experiences? Given the large number of people who claim to have had experiences that might be classed as religious experiences – around 1 in 3 people according to Alister Hardy Centre research – they need to be explained. What reasonable grounds are there for dismissing either the occurrence of these experiences or the explanation proffered by those who have had them when we have no clear reason to doubt? Nevertheless, Swinburne’s principles do little to advance his argument beyond prior probability. Those with an atheistic or materialist world view are likely to respond to Swinburne by arguing that the very fact that somebody claims to have had a religious experience is evidence of their irrationality and good reason to be suspicious of their testimony. As Carl Sagan said “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” – by their nature religious experiences are out of the ordinary and demand more rather than less evidence both to support their authenticity and their interpretation.
In conclusion, the claim “Religious experiences are good pointers to the existence of God” will only be accepted by those who are open to the existence of God on other grounds and is unlikely to persuade non-religious people of God’s existence. As Anthony Flew wrote in God and Philosophy (1966), responses to religious experiences… ‘seems to depend on the interests, background and expectations of those who have them rather than on anything separate and autonomous…” Take AJ Ayer’s conversion experience. Even the medically documented experience of a committed atheist and expert Philosopher is explained away in physiological and psychological terms by those who see it as impossible. Ayer eventually denied his own experiences, attributing them to the effects of cerebral anoxia or shock, rather than change his prior assessment of probability. In “The Blind Watchmaker” Richard Dawkins wrote that if he witnessed a marble statue waving its hand at him he would prefer to check himself into the nearest psychiatric hospital than accept that he had witnessed a miracle. What better demonstration can there be of the effects of prior probability on the likelihood of people accepting religious experiences as a good pointer to the existence of God?
Richard Gale on Swinburne’s Argument from Religious Experience