“Although it is reasonable to believe in God on the basis of a religious experience you yourself have had, it is wrong to believe on the basis of other peoples’ reports.” Critically evaluate this statement. [40]

This statement largely reflects the conclusion William James came to in his “Varieties of Religious Experience” (1902).  James argued that the people who have a religious experience are perfectly justified in believing in the object of that experience, but maintained that reports of other peoples’ religious experiences could not justify belief in anything more than “a higher power.”  On the basis of James’ conclusion and WK Clifford’s famous 1877 essay “The Ethics of Belief” it  would be fair to say that believing in the God of religion on the basis of others’ reported experiences is wrong because

“it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence.”

As Clifford pointed out, belief is not a private matter because belief affects how we act.  He gave the example of a ship owner sending an un-seaworthy vessel to sea on the basis of a belief that the hull was sound.  If the belief is not supported by sufficient evidence and not properly justified, it is morally wrong of the ship owner to hold that belief.  In the case of the title statement, a person who believed in anything more than “a higher power” on the basis of other peoples’ religious experiences would be morally wrong to do so because this belief affects their actions.  For example, a Christian who believed in the Christian God on the basis of the religious experiences described in the Bible would be morally wrong to do so because that belief would direct them to look down on non-Christian religion and make efforts to convert Muslims, Jews and Hindus on the grounds that St Paul reported a vision of the risen Jesus who directed him (via Ananias) to be baptized.  The reported vision in Acts 22 would be insufficient justification for the belief of the Christian today and the Christian would be wrong to believe in more than the existence of a “higher power” on the strength of such reports.  By this analysis, the title statement is correct.

In William James’ Gifford lectures, given between 1901 and 1902, James explored the topic of Religious Experience in detail, considering conversion experiences and mystical experiences in particular depth, before evaluating the extent to which these experiences could be used as evidence to support belief in God.  In Lecture I James challenged the dominant medical materialism, arguing that it is reductive and fails to do justice the the richness of human experience.  He later built on this theme in Lecture III pointing out the naivety discounting any claimed experience of anything which cannot be sensibly perceived because indeed all sense-experiences are mediated through the mind and its categories, none of which can themselves be perceived through the senses. In Lecture II James went on to limit the scope of his inquiry to address only

“the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine” p.32

His inquiry did not, therefore, address corporate religious experiences despite the fact that most previous work had focused on what Durkheim called

“an effervescent group phenomenon”

This was because corporate experiences are more plausibly explained in terms of mass hysteria.  After exploring the important place of religious experience in religiosity and outlining the common features of conversion experiences and mystical experiences, James concluded that there are religious experiences that are not easily reduced to medical or psychological phenomena.  In these cases, James argued, the people who have a religious experience are perfectly justified in believing in the object of that experience.  In fact, they can do no other.  Nevertheless, this left open the question of whether other people would be justified in believing in God on the strength of what recipients of mystical experiences report.  In Lecture XVIII James began to consider this question, discounting the efforts of Philosophers of Religion in proving God’s existence through reason and then pointing out that religious experiences neither support belief in the classical attributes of God nor evidence standard theological doctrines.  For James, then, belief in God as the object of Religion lay beyond rational proof and beyond what can be justified through religious experience either.  Nevertheless, as James concluded in Lecture XX, Religious Experience can and does justify belief in something other and larger than our conscious selves.  As James wrote in his Postscript,

“the practical needs and experiences of religion seem to me sufficiently met by the belief that… there exists a larger power… both other and larger than our conscious selves. Anything larger will do… It need not be infinite, it need not be solitary. It might conceivably even be only a larger and more godlike self…. … my only aim at present is to keep the testimony of religious experience clearly within its proper bounds.”

It is clear, then that James would have accepted the title statement insofar as “God” refers to the God of any specific religion.  There is no sense that others’ reports of religious experiences justify belief in anything beyond some larger power; certainly not being a Christian or defining God in terms of the classical attributes.  It follows that the title statement is correct insofar as others’ reports of religious experiences could not justify belief in God and so would render such a belief wrong by Clifford’s argument.

James’ argument that the human phenomenon of religious experience only justifies belief in a higher power and not the God of religion  is persuasive.  Firstly because Rudolph Otto in his The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational (1917) argued that all genuine religious experiences are encounters with “the numinous” rather than either of what Pascal famously called “the God of the Philosophers” or “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”.  While Otto’s description of the marks or characteristics of genuine religious experiences seems more tightly drawn than James’, his argument supports James’ conclusion that the phenomenon that some people experience for themselves and which others hear or read about points towards a more abstract “higher power” rather than the God of any particular religion.  Secondly because Walter Stace in The Teachings of the Mystics (1960) argued that:

“the central characteristic in which all fully developed mystical experiences agree… is that they involve the apprehension of an ultimate non-sensuous unity in all things, a oneness or a One to which neither the senses nor the reason can penetrate. In other words, it entirely transcends our sensory-intellectual consciousness.” p14-15

Stace’s description of mystical experiences as an encounter with larger reality supports James’ conclusion that religious experiences justify the belief that:

“there exists a larger power… both other and larger than our conscious selves. Anything larger will do… It need not be infinite, it need not be solitary.” Varieties of Religious Experience, Postscript, p.515-6

In this way James, Otto and Stace all support the title statement and agree that other peoples’ religious experiences could not justify belief in the “God” of any particular religion.  It follows that the title statement is correct insofar as others’ reports of religious experiences could not justify belief in the God of Religion and so would render exclusive Religious belief on the basis of reports of others’ experiences wrong by Clifford’s argument.

Clearly, Richard Swinburne would take issue with this conclusion.  In “The Existence of God” (1979) Chapter 13, Swinburne agreed with James that it is reasonable to believe in God on the basis of one’s own experience.  He pointed out that in the absence of any reason to disbelieve it, one should accept what appears to be true and called this the “Principle of Credulity”.  On this basis, Swinburne would disagree with Richard Dawkins who claimed in “The Blind Watchmaker”(1986) that if he saw a marble statue waving at him across a museum, he would sooner check into his local psychiatric hospital than believe his own eyes.   Swinburne also agreed with James’ broader critique of medical materialism, pointing out that accepting his arguments depends on “prior probability” and that those who have already excluded anything supernatural on ideological grounds will remain unconvinced by any evidence for God.  Nevertheless, Swinburne was more open than James to trusting the testimony of others as evidence for the existence of not only a higher power but more specifically the God of Religion.  Swinburne claimed that with the absence of any reason to disbelieve them, one should accept that believers are telling the truth when they testify about religious experiences.  On the basis of this “Principle of Testimony” Swinburne argued that the common occurrence of those Religious Experiences which conform to his broad, five-fold classification makes the existence of a single “God” (with at least the classical attributes of omnipotence and omnibenevolence) more probable than any alternative explanation of the universe.  For Swinburne, believing that God is single is a simpler, more elegant explanation than believing in multiple higher powers.  In this way (by the commonly accepted principle of Ockham’s razor) he reasons that whatever caused and designed the universe and whatever people encounter through religious experiences is more likely to be one God than several.  Further, by calling on the evidence of the Cosmological and Teleological arguments for God alongside Religious Experience, Swinburne reasons that the single God must be both the cause of everything and so be all-powerful and responsible for the order and purpose evident in the universe and so be omnibenevolent.  Swinburne would, therefore, disagree with the title statement and argue that Religious Experiences justify belief in a single all-powerful, all-good “God”, whether you have had one yourself or not.

Nevertheless, Swinburne’s argument is open to a number of criticisms.  Firstly, his cumulative approach was rejected by Anthony Flew, who compared it with “ten leaky buckets”.  A lot of bad arguments, each of which fails to justify belief in God in itself, are together not significantly better than one bad argument and so fail to justify religious belief.  Although JP Moreland attempted to defend Swinburne, pointing out that:

‘clearly if you jam ten leaky buckets together in such a way as the holes in the bottom of each bucket are squashed close to the solid parts of neighbouring buckets, you will get a container that holds water.

That is pushing the analogy too far.  Flew’s point that Swinburne’s cumulative approach fails to provide sufficient justification for believing in God still stands.  As Carl Sagan and later Christopher Hitchens pointed out, “exceptional claims demand exceptional evidence“.  The existence of the God of religion is certainly an exceptional claim and the evidence provided by Swinburne’s list of inductive arguments in the Existence of God fails to provide sufficient justification for anything beyond being open to a higher power as James, Stace and Otto argued.  Secondly, as David Hume and much later Richard Dawkins have pointed out, when people claim to have experienced something exceptional it is always more likely that they have made a mistake than that they are telling the truth.  While Swinburne criticizes this argument as bad science, it is reasonable for a scientist to explore whether statistical anomalies might be explained as mistakes first, before exploring other possibilities.  In the case of those people reporting religious experiences, there are established and credible physiological or psychological conditions which could explain the experiences without reference to a higher power, let alone a “God”.  This is why James rightly rejects the attempt to use other peoples’ Religious Experiences as proof for God.  Alternative explanations for the experiences can never be excluded, not least because experiences are ineffable, so descriptions of them are imprecise and can’t bear the weight of being used as evidence to justify belief in the God of Religion.  It follows that the title statement is indeed correct insofar as others’ reports of religious experiences could not justify belief in the God of Religion and so would render exclusive Religious belief on the basis of reports of others’ experiences wrong by Clifford’s argument.

In addition, while Swinburne’s reasoning that the “higher power” is more probably single than plural seems sensible, his claim that the higher power must have the attributes of omnipotence and/or omnibenevolence is not.  Firstly, Swinburne accepts that neither the Cosmological nor the Teleological Argument justifies belief in the existence of God in itself.  How then can he rely on the reasoning of the Cosmological argument to support that element of his conclusion which relates to God’s omnipotence or on the reasoning of the Teleological argument to support that element of his conclusion which relates to God’s omnibenevolence?  If an argument can’t justify belief in God’s existence why should it justify belief in God’s omnipotence or omnibenevolence?  Secondly, there is specific evidence against God’s power and goodness.  If God really was all-powerful, why would he need to break the laws of nature periodically to reveal His existence and His will or correct a sequence of events?  Further, if God really was all-good then why would he be so selective and arguably arbitrary in how, when, where and to whom he grants religious experiences?Why would he make eternal salvation dependent on that which only some people have the opportunity to demonstrate, namely having faith that goes beyond the evidence?  Swinburne argues that in the absence of a reason to believe otherwise we accept what we experience and what others report about their own experiences, but surely the fact that these experience point to what is inconsistent and incoherent should count as such a reason to believe otherwise.  It follows that the title statement is indeed correct insofar as others’ reports of religious experiences could not justify belief in the God of Religion and so would render exclusive Religious belief on the basis of reports of others’ experiences wrong by Clifford’s argument.

In conclusion, the title statement “although it is reasonable to believe in God on the basis of a religious experience you yourself have had, it is wrong to believe on the basis of other peoples’ reports” is correct.  In terms of believing an experience you yourself have had, both James and Swinburne suggest that it would be unreasonable to disbelieve the evidence of your own experience.  As William Alston wrote:

“It is clear that if I have directly experienced a personal deity… I have the strongest possible basis for believing that such a being exists; just as I have the strongest possible basis for believing that yaks exist if I really have seen one”

Richard Dawkins skepticism on this point seems at odds with the scientific reliance on personal experience and the fact that the whole of science depends on the cosmological principle, that things are the way they appear to be.  In terms of believing on the strength of others’ reported experiences, the reasoning of James, Otto and Stace that the most other peoples’ experiences can justify is being open to a “higher power” is more persuasive than that of Swinburne, that others’ religious experiences could justify belief in a single, all-powerful, all-good God.  Swinburne’s argument does appeal to common sense.  In normal circumstances it is fair to assume the Principle of Testimony because as Dean Inge pointed out:

“If a dozen honest men tell me that they have climbed the Matterhorn, it is reasonable to believe that the summit of that mountain is accessible, although I am not likely to get there myself.” 

Yet, as Sagan and Hitchens suggest, the exceptional nature of the claims people make about religious experiences mean that a higher standard of evidence is demanded.  By Clifford’s argument, it is wrong to base belief in the God of any specific religion on other peoples’ reports of religious experiences.  It is impossible to exclude a psychological or physiological explanation, people could have made a mistake, be wishful-thinking or outright lying however honest they may appear.  When religious beliefs dictate actions which can harm or even kill other people, it is wrong to hold them on such a basis.

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