Corporate religious experiences occur where two or more people have an experience at the same time such as the Miracle of the Sun at Fatima in 1917, the visions at Medjugorje in and after 1981 or the Toronto Blessing in and after 1994. Because these experiences are easily dismissed as what Durkheim called an “effervescent group phenomenon” and explained in naturalistic terms as the result of mass hysteria, William James chose to define religious experience as “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”,so it is fair to say that corporate religious experiences are less reliable than individual religious experiences.
Firstly, corporate religious experiences include a group of people witnessing a miracle, as occurred at Fatima in 1917. Such experiences lack credibility in themselves and so should not be considered reliable as evidence for the existence of God. In “On Miracles” from “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding” (1758), David Hume warned against relying on witness-evidence in such cases, pointing out that it is always more likely that someone is lying or has made a mistake than that the report is reliable. The fact that claims are more common in “ignorant and barbarous nations” and that witnesses often have vested interests and bias undermines the credibility of reports. Today, most social scientists would agree with Hume. Using the standard RAVEN criteria for evaluating evidence, witnesses to corporate experiences have a poor reputation, vested interest, lack expertise and neutrality. Take the visions at Medjugorje; the 6 children were aged 10-16 years old and so not obviously trustworthy as witnesses. They benefitted from their claims, becoming local and then international celebrities, which shows they had a vested interest. They were not trained in science or theology, so were not in a position to know whether there were alternative explanations of what they saw, or whether their visions were consistent with Christian doctrine. They were Christians from a highly religious rural community, so arguably biased and hardly neutral witnesses. Of course, there are counter-examples whereby corporate experiences include people who are more credible. For example, at Fatima descriptions of the events were collected by Father John De Marchi, an Italian Catholic Priest and researcher. De Marchi spent seven years in Fátima, from 1943 to 1950, conducting research and interviewing the principals at length. In The Immaculate Heart (1952), De Marchi reported that “[t]heir ranks included believers and non-believers, pious old ladies and scoffing young men. Hundreds, from these mixed categories, have given formal testimony. Reports do vary; impressions are in minor details confused, but none to our knowledge has directly denied the visible prodigy of the sun.” This suggests that some witnesses to the miracle of the sun were sceptics, and yet the research was conducted by a Priest, who cannot be said to be neutral or without bias or vested interests, so these few counter-examples do not invalidate Hume’s argument that witnesses’ claims about miracles, which are corporate experiences, lack credibility.
Secondly, corporate experiences are less reliable than individual religious experiences because witnesses rarely agree on the details of the experience, which undermines their evidence. For example, if a group of people all claimed to witness a robbery, but each of them described the robber differently, this would undermine their evidence in court. While scholars like De Marchi will disagree with this, pointing out that some variety in witness-reports is to be expected and that so long as the reports concur on central points such as the “visible prodigy of the sun” at Fatima, the evidence can still be seen as reliable. They also argue that where witnesses do agree precisely, this is suspicious because it suggests that they have collaborated and are not giving an independent account. However, this illustrates the difficulty in establishing that any corporate experience is reliable. If witnesses give differing accounts of what they experienced, it will undermine their evidence, but if they give very similar accounts of what they experienced it will also undermine their evidence. At least with individual experiences this is not a factor; the credibility of the report depends only on the reputation, ability to see, vested interests, expertise and neutrality of one person and not on the same for multiple witnesses and the extent to which several peoples’ reports are consistent. This shows that corporate religious experiences are less reliable than individual religious experiences.
Thirdly, William James’ argument that research should focus on individual religious experiences or “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” is persuasive. James chooses to ignore experiences associated with institutional religion altogether, because all religions claim these while also being exclusivist, and because Anthropologists including James Frazer have shown the power of institutional religions to manipulate groups of people. For James, it is pragmatic for researchers to focus on individual mystical experiences (which have the “four marks” of being noetic, ineffable, transient and passive) and individual conversion experiences (particularly those where the subject was previously constitutionally and intellectually opposed to faith). In “The Varieties of Religious Experience” Lectures XVI and XVII on Mysticism, James suggests that while individual mystical experiences can be explained in terms of “suggested and imitated hypnoid states, on an intellectual basis of superstition, and a corporeal one of degeneration and hysteria…” this “tells us nothing about the value for knowledge of the consciousness which they induce. To pass a spiritual judgment upon these states, we must not content ourselves with superficial medical talk, but inquire into their fruits for life.” For James, the fact that many mystical experiences change their subjects radically suggests that they are reliable. Further, in Lectures IX and X on Conversion Experiences, James dismisses the arguments of Professors Starbuck and Leuba which suggest that all conversion experiences are unreliable because they can be explained in terms of an adolescent or moral crisis. He pointed out that some experiences are undoubtably adolescent and “imitative” and that others may well be accounted for in terms of a moral crisis, but he rejects the idea that all conversion experiences can be reduced to these psychological explanations. Again, some conversion experiences result in a life being turned around completely and permanently in a way that resists any reductionist, materialist explanation. It follows that these specific individual experiences are the most credible examples to research. Rudolf Otto, Paul Tillich, Walter Stace and FC Happold would all agree with James that individual mystical experiences are the most or even the only credible experiences, choosing to ignore institutional religion and corporate experiences in their research. Taken together, the weight of scholarly opinion is in favour of focusing on individual experiences and this shows that corporate religious experiences are less reliable than individual religious experiences.
Finally, the corporate nature of corporate experiences shows them to be less reliable than individual experiences. As Otto, Tillich and Stace suggest, credible religious experiences are numinal; they must have as their object something supernatural, beyond space and time, and so impossible to describe in ordinary language. While he avoided describing the object of credible religious experiences, James agreed that a mark of a credible mystical experience is ineffability or the inability to describe it in ordinary language. Corporate religious experiences like that at Fatima or those at Medjugorje are neither numinal nor ineffable because they occur where a group of people see something together and the act of seeing suggests that what is seen is a phenomenon, an occurrence within time and space, in the way of other phenomena which our language can describe. James considers whether “sensory automatisms” are features of credible experiences, “hallucinatory or pseudo-hallucinatory luminous phenomena, photisms, to use the term of the psychologists.” He points out that “Saint Paul’s blinding heavenly vision seems to have been a phenomenon of this sort; so does Constantine’s cross in the sky…” and suggests that these are common features of otherwise credible religious experiences. The fact that there are psychological explanations for such hallucinations does not, James argues, preclude the possibility that they have been caused by God and that the experience is genuine, especially when the experience otherwise carries the marks of a credible conversion or mystical experience and when it causes lasting “fruit”. Could the miracle of the sun or the visions of “Gospa” at Medjugorje be described in these terms? In practice, no. The photograph of the sun at Fatima does not suggest that the object was a photism or hallucinatory luminous phenomenon. While the initial sighting of “a shimmering silhouette of a young woman bathed in light” at Medjugorje might have been a photism, the childrens’ later description of “…a young woman about twenty years old… with blue eyes, black hair, and a crown of stars around Her head; She wore a white veil and bluish-grey robe…” seems as if the object they all saw was very real and not a sensory automatism. In this way, corporate religious experiences are less reliable because they are often sensory, having apparently spatio-temporal phenomena as their object, and because they resist being described in psychological terms.
On the other hand, both Richard Swinburne and Caroline Franks-Davis include corporate experiences in their broad five and six-fold definitions of religious experience. Both point out the importance of corporate experiences in supporting religious doctrines, such as the resurrection experiences of Jesus and the gifts of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Nevertheless, neither Swinburne nor Franks-Davis suggests that all the experiences that fall within their definition are equally reliable, let alone that corporate experiences are more reliable than individual experiences. Further, just because religions rely on corporate religious experiences does not make them reliable and nor does it make them as, let alone more, reliable than individual experiences. William James might have accepted that “the fruits” of the corporate experience on Pentecost, combined with its undoubted passivity, transiency, ineffability and noetic character, make it a credible example of a mystical experience – despite it being corporate and associated with “institutional” religion – but the same would not apply to the resurrection appearances, which have less clear “fruit” and which arguably are not ineffable or noetic in character. Rudolf Otto would go further, pointing out while Pentecost could be seen as numinal and in terms of both “mysterium tremendum” and “mysterium fascinans”, the resurrection experiences were not obviously numinal nor were they characterised by “mysterium tremendum”. Walter Stace would agree, pointing out that the resurrection experiences were not “non-sensuous” nor did they demonstrate “unity in all things”. Further, while much of the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection depends on the reliability of corporate religious experiences and while St Paul admitted, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins…” 1 Corinthians 15:17 the corporate resurrection appearances are not reliable evidence for the resurrection. As Hume argued, it is just more likely that witnesses were lying or mistaken, not least because the disciples were from an “ignorant and barbarous nation”, were lacking education and neutrality and possessed of bias and vested interests. While John Hick disagreed with Hume, arguing that it is bad science to disregard counter-instances to the laws of nature, Anthony Flew was correct to point out that counter-instances should provoke further scientific research rather than hasty resort to supernatural explanations! In addition, if the corporate resurrection experiences were reliable evidence for the resurrection, this would undermine our ability to have faith in the resurrection. John 20:29 states “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed…” and Hebrews 11:1 states that “faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” If the resurrection appearances were reliable evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, would it be possible to have true faith in Jesus, which many Christians see as the necessary means of salvation. It follows that corporate religious experiences are less reliable than individual religious experiences, even from a Christian point of view and despite the important role that they have in the Bible.
In conclusion, corporate religious experiences are less reliable than individual religious experiences. This is because such experiences lack credibility in themselves – not least because witnesses rarely agree on the details of the experience – because James’ argument that research should focus on individual religious experiences is persuasive and because the corporate nature of corporate experiences shows them to be less reliable than individual experiences. Although Swinburne and Franks-Davis include corporate experiences in their broad definitions of religious experience, and so consider them alongside individual experiences as possible evidence for the existence of God, neither suggests that all the experiences that fall within their definition are equally reliable, let alone that corporate experiences are more reliable than individual experiences. Despite the importance of corporate experiences such as the resurrection experiences in supporting Christian faith, these experiences remain relatively unreliable… and indeed, they must be so, or else there would be no room for faith.