Critically compare the logical and evidential aspects of the problem of evil as challenges to belief. [40]

The problem of evil presents such a severe challenge to Christian belief that Hans Kung referred to it as “the rock of atheism.”  On one level, the problem of evil can be presented as a logical puzzle.  As John Hick noted “As a challenge to theism, the problem of evil has traditionally been posed in the form of a dilemma; if God is perfectly loving, He must wish to abolish evil; and if He is all-powerful, He must be able to abolish evil. But evil exists; therefore God cannot be both omnipotent and perfectly loving.”  As such, the logical problem of evil demands Theodicies or logical defences of God against charges of creating or allowing evil. On another level, the problem of evil can be presented as conclusive evidence that God cannot exist – at least in any form that would be worthy of worship – rendering any attempt at Theodicy… and religious faith… nigh-on impossible.  For example, Dostoevsky’s character Ivan Karamazov presented an evidential challenge to the simple faith of his brother Alyosha, rendering him speechless and certainly not rushing to God’s defence.  In the end, the evidential aspect of the problem of evil is a greater challenge to belief than the logical aspect. 

So challenging is the evidential aspect of the problem of evil to faith that it was presented as an argument for atheism by William Rowe in “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism” (1979) Rowe focuses on a particular kind of evil that is found in our world in abundance: “intense human and animal suffering” which is, Rowe argues, intrinsically evil…meaning that it is bad in and of itself, even though it sometimes is part of, or leads to, some good state of affairs (p.335)  He uses this kind of evil as the basis for a DEDUCTIVE disproof of God, which is clearly VALID.

P1: There exist instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.

P2: An omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.

C: There does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being.

If there are rational grounds for accepting its premises, to that extent there are rational grounds for accepting the conclusion, atheism.  Rowe gives two powerful examples to support his first, factual premise; the fawn and Sue.  While Stephen Wykstra tries to reject this premise, arguing that “if we think carefully about the sort of being theism proposes for our belief, it is entirely expectable – given what we know of our cognitive limits – that the goods by virtue of which this Being allows known suffering should very often be beyond our ken” (1984: 91) playing the “mystery card” in this way will only ever persuade those with deep and unfalsifiable faith to the point of being what RM Hare called a BLIK.  The author of the Biblical book of Job tried what became known as Wykstra’s CORNEA argument centuries before Christ and it hardly reduced the force of the evidential challenge to belief.  Attempted defences of Wykstra from Alston, Hick and Swinburne do no more than restate the claim that human beings are in no position to judge why an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God would allow the fawn and Sue to suffer.  They do not make this claim any more persuasive in the face of the agonies that Rowe describes.  Rowe sees his second, theological premise, as self-evidently true.  While advocates of OPENNESS THEOLOGY disagree, suggesting that God’s existence as everlasting-in-time rather than eternal outside time places logical constraints on God’s power and knowledge so that God may not prevent instances of intense suffering that come about as a result of human free-will.  They argue that “the theistic worldview is not only compatible with, but requires or demands, the possibility that there is gratuitous evil” [Nick Trakakis IEP article on Evidential Problem of Evil] because it hinges on the existence of genuine free will.  Nevertheless, this fails to answer the question posed by JL Mackie in relation to his presentation of the logical problem of evil; why could not an omnipotent God create free beings who always choose what is right?  In practice, advocates of Openness Theology are advocates for a limited, anthropomorphic God for whom there is no credible evidence at all.  It follows that Rowe’s first and second premises are true, making his deductive disproof of an omnipotent, omniscient and wholly good being is sound, making his evidential argument the biggest possible challenge to belief.   

This conclusion is further supported by Gregory S Paul in “Theodicy’s Problem” (2007).  Where Rowe begins with very specific examples of dysteleological suffering, Paul widens the scope of the evidential argument by citing  “THE HOLOCAUST OF CHILDREN” as proof that there cannot exist any omnipotent, omnibenevolent God.  Like Rowe, Paul fine-tunes his argument to evade classical theodicies, but he also improves on Rowe’s argument because it is much harder to suggest that God could have an unknown purpose for designing the whole world to create maximum suffering than it is to suggest that he has an unknown purpose for allowing specific instances of animal or child suffering. As Paul writes, “The full extent of the anguish and death suffered by immature humans is scientifically and statistically documented… Probably hundreds of billions of human conceptions and at least fifty billion children have died, the great majority from nonhuman causes, before reaching the age of mature consent. Adults who have heard the word of Christ number in the lower billions. If immature deceased humans are allowed into heaven, then the latter is inhabited predominantly by automatons. Because the Holocaust of the Children bars an enormous portion of humans from making a decision about their eternal fate while maximizing the suffering of children, the classic Christian “free will” and “best of all possible worlds” hypotheses are falsified.”  He goes on, “The situation could not have been much worse than it actually is. If prenatal and juvenile mortality and disability were significantly higher than they actually are, then the population would not be able to grow, and would be at high risk of crashing, leading to human extinction. The level of natural evil has been about as severe as is practically possible.” p.132 Continuing… “If a creator exists, then it has chosen to fashion a habitat that has maximized the level of suffering and death among young humans that are due to factors beyond the control of humans over most of their history.”  It is very difficult to respond to Paul’s challenge as a believer.  Just as Darwin, Mill and Dawkins found, when faced with the “pitiless indifference” of nature laid bare, it becomes impossible – even ridiculous – to maintain a faith position.  This shows that the evidential aspect of the problem of evil presents the greatest possible challenge to belief.   

Of course, the logical problem of evil is still a significant challenge to belief.  JL Mackie (in his essay “Evil and Omnipotence” (1955)) pointed out that Christians usually believe that

P1.  God exists and is omnipotent

P2.  God exists and is omnibenevolent

P3.  Evil exists

Mackie went further than Hume, who had called this an “inconsistent triad” of beliefs, stating that holding these three propositions as co-beliefs is “positively irrational”.  In this way, the logical problem of evil seems to force Christians to choose between God’s omnipotence and His omnibenevolence, or else deny the existence of evil. Yet it has been the attempt to show that faith is (possibly) rational that presents a greater challenge to belief than the logical problem itself.  If only theologians had been content to admit that faith is irrational, or to choose which of Mackie’s propositions to drop!  The effect of doing so on belief would have been far less dramatic than the logical gymnastics of St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas have been.  Firstly, both thinkers demanded that Christians believe that evil is “privatio boni” making God less responsible for its effects. Aquinas used the analogy of silent pauses which add sweetness to the chant!  Yet, as Rowe and Paul have shown, it is difficult to categorise evil as a simple lack of good when the whole of nature seems designed to inflict maximum suffering.  Can the suffering out of which evolution is fashioned really be explained in terms of silent pauses making the totality of nature better?   This Theodicy only serves to highlight how out of touch Christian theology is and this to challenge peoples’ belief.  Secondly, St Augustine claimed that human beings deserve the effects of both moral and natural evil because as a species they misused their free will.  Again, this fails to account for the suffering of animals, which is hardly to be dismissed as an illusion.  It also fails to account for the suffering of innocent children, documented in such detail by Rowe and Paul, without appealing to “Original Sin”, a concept as incredible and abhorrent as it has become necessary to mainstream Christian doctrine.  These examples show how it is the logical gymnastics resorted to by Christian theologians in their blind attempt to defend their position against the logical aspect of the problem of evil that has twisted and distorted the position they sought to defend and presented an enormous challenge to belief, not the logical problem in itself.  As Marilyn McCord Adams noted, to a large extent philosophical reflection on the problem of evil makes the suffering worse.  She wrote ”There is a time to drop philosophical reflection, to forget about questions of meaning… in order to act to get the suffering to stop…”  

In conclusion, the evidential aspect of the problem of evil presents the biggest possible challenge to belief, closely followed by Christian responses to the logical aspect of the problem.  The logical aspect of the problem in itself is not so much of a challenge; believing that God has the all three attributes of omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence and as defined by Mackie is not really demanded by the Bible or by Religious Experience or by the rational arguments for God’s existence, Cosmological, Teleological, Moral or Aesthetic.   

“It is more likely that the universe was the result of chance than that it was designed.” Discuss [40]

The teleological argument is the oldest and probably the most persuasive argument for the existence of God.  Starting with observations of order and/or purpose in the universe, it reasons that these qualities cannot arise naturally and must have been caused by an intelligent designer… God.  Aquinas’ version of the argument, his Fifth Way, drew on Aristotle’s worldview and likened natural object fulfilling their telos to arrows hitting a target; just as an arrow doesn’t strike true without an archer to let it loose, so natural objects can’t fulfil their telos by chance and their doing so makes the existence of an intelligent designer “which everybody calls God” necessary.  Of course Darwin’s discovery of evolution through natural selection provides a compelling natural explanation for the existence of what appears to be order and purpose without the need to hypothesise an intelligent designer-God, but Paley’s development of the argument in Natural Theology shows that even this did not undermine the attempt to use design to argue for God.  This is because many people misunderstood Darwin’s theory, assuming that the end-point of human consciousness was fixed and that evolution operates through chance, both of which made design seem more probable than natural processes as an explanation.  The fact that these misunderstandings persist is demonstrated by Tennant’s use of them in his teleological arguments in 1930 and more recently by the glut of modern fine-tuning and intelligent design arguments, mostly presented at the behest of the Discovery Institute and via fellows of its Center for Science and Culture.  It follows that despite the persistence of design arguments for God, it is far more likely that the universe results from chance – or at least from the “designs” of natural processes – than that it was designed by an intelligent-designer-God.

In modern times it was David Hume who first identified the flaw in the design argument through his character Philo in “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion” (1779).  In Part VIII Philo draws on the thinking of Epicurus to ask why the appearance of order and purpose in nature could not be the result of chance in an infinite universe.  He points out…“the universe goes on for many ages in a continuous series of states of chaos and disorder. But couldn’t it happen that it eventually settles down, not so as to lose its motion and active force (for we are assuming that that is inherent in it), but so as to preserve a uniformity of appearance through all the hubbub of its moving parts?” This suggests that if the universe is truly infinite, meaning that all possibilities have been realised, then the possibility of part of the universe being ordered and purposeful would have been realised as a result of chance and not design.  Of course the Big Bang Theory seems to falsify Hume’s assumption that the Universe is infinite in the sense that all possibilities have been realised.  The Standard Model of Physics posits a hard beginning to time and space only 13.7 billion years ago, meaning that only some possibilities have been realised, although others will continue to be realised until the universe collapses.  Given this, it seems less likely that we inhabit a patch of order and purpose that has been generated by chance.  Nevertheless, this underestimates the scale of the universe, which is truly infinite… despite having a hard beginning, an edge and shape and continuing to expand.  It also applies a dated Newtonian worldview to a Universe that we now know resists such a characterisation.  Nobel Prize winning Physicist Steven Weinberg has cast doubt on the Cosmological Principle on which the Standard Model depends and which assumes that the part of the universe we see is a fair sample, whose laws and characteristics reflect laws and characteristics everywhere.  This supports Hume’s point that the design argument relies on the Fallacy of Composition and that conclusions about this part of the universe cannot automatically be extrapolated to the whole universe.  Hume’s character Philo asked “can it be proper to argue from parts to the whole? Doesn’t the great disproportion ·between part and whole· bar all comparison and inference? From observing the growth of a hair, can we learn anything about how men come into being? Would the way a leaf blows—even if we knew this perfectly—teach us anything about how a tree grows?”  And it seems that our 21st century appreciation of the scale and character of the universe only makes his questions more apposite.  So, Hume’s suggestion that the order and purpose we see in our part of the universe is not typical and the result of chance in an infinite universe rather than design has survived the advent of modern Cosmology.  Thus it follows that despite the persistence of design arguments for God, it is far more likely that the universe results from chance than that it was designed.

In Part II of “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion” Hume’s character Philo went on to ask how we can hope to pronounce about the characteristics of the whole universe from our own, still very limited, experience.  He pointed out how “A very small part of this great system of the universe, during a very short time, is very imperfectly revealed to us” asking “Do we then pronounce confidently about the origin of the whole?” Philo also asks whether the appearance of order and purpose might not be a property of how we see things, rather than how they really are, not least because of the many examples of disorder and chaos in nature, later documented by Darwin and JS Mill as reasons why they cannot agree that nature suggests an intelligent designer-God.  These observations of Hume’s are again supported by modern scientific developments.  Psychology has documented how the human mind is predisposed to see patterns (order) and faces (purpose) even where they do not exist; the phenomenon is called pareidolia and so common is it that the famous Rorschach inkblot tests rely on it.  Further, psychology has documented how we are subject to Confirmation Bias, being more likely to see, notice and remember experiences which confirm our existing beliefs than those which challenge them.  Given these tendencies, Hume’s suggestion that our impression of order and purpose existing everywhere and confirming our existing belief in a supernatural deity seems very plausible.  Of course, accepting Hume’s point has wider consequences than undermining the design argument for God’s existence.  If we accept that the process of spotting patterns and extrapolating from them “universal natural laws” leads to flawed conclusions, then the whole scientific method is in jeopardy.  The fact that this same method has yielded technological advances and results such as the laptop on which I am typing this essay does suggest that Hume’s point is unreasonably sceptical and that his character Cleanthes was onto something when he called Philo’s reasoning “the most perverse and obstinate metaphysics.”  Yet there is an important difference between science and religion when it comes to the use of inductive reasoning; whereas scientific laws are always falsifiable and produce useful results, God is not a falsifiable hypothesis and the results of believing in him are mixed at best in terms of their usefulness.  As Richard Dawkins has pointed out, religion “teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world…” so that “faith is a cop-out.”  It follows that fear of the effects of Hume’s point on science is not a good reason to reject Hume’s point, so it is more likely that the universe results from chance than that it was designed.

Of course, recent arguments from Intelligent Design argue that it is more likely that the universe was designed than that it occurred by chance.  For example, William Dembski argues that any natural structure whose existence passes the (somewhat arbitrary) “Universal Probability Bound” of 1 in 10150  is more likely to have been designed than to have occurred naturally “by chance”.  He uses examples of structures such as amino-acids and DNA which exhibit Specified Complexity, being both finely tuned and extremely complex, whose existence he suggests strains the credibility of naturalistic explanations.  Michael Behe agrees, suggesting that there are irreducibly complex biochemical structures which resist standard evolutionary explanations and are suggestive of an intelligent designer.  Nevertheless, statisticians and biochemists have united in their criticism of Behe and Dembski, arguing that they have made basic errors in their science.  In particular, Behe ignores the possibility that structures can evolve out of as well as into existence, making “irreducibly complex” structures explainable through standard evolutionary theory.  Further, it is wrong to suggest that evolution itself operates entirely randomly; in fact it has a “design” of its own although not an intelligent one, in seeking to replicate genes.  Given this the result; a universe saturated with dysteleological suffering, makes sense.    As Dawkins wrote “The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation… The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” [River Out of Eden]  This suggests that despite the persistence of design arguments for God, it is far more likely that the universe results from the pitiless “design” of evolution than that it was designed by any intelligent-designer God.

On a wider scale, recent fine-tuning arguments argue that the precise conditions necessary for the Big Bang to produce a life-sustaining planet like ours are so improbable that they are more likely to have been designed than to have occurred by chance. For example, Alister McGrath focuses on the fine-tuning of carbon, writing “[The entire biological] evolutionary process depends upon the unusual chemistry of carbon, which allows it to bond to itself, as well as other elements, creating highly complex molecules that are stable over prevailing terrestrial temperatures, and are capable of conveying genetic information (especially DNA). […] Whereas it might be argued that nature creates its own fine-tuning, this can only be done if the primordial constituents of the universe are such that an evolutionary process can be initiated. The unique chemistry of carbon is the ultimate foundation of the capacity of nature to tune itself” [A fine-tuned universe] In 1989 John Gribbin and Martin Rees wrote a detailed defence of the fine-tuning argument in their book Cosmic Coincidences. They argued: “The conditions in our Universe really do seem to be uniquely suitable for life forms like ourselves, and perhaps even for any form of organic complexity. But the question remains – is the Universe tailor-made for man?”  yet Richard Dawkins has rejected this line of argument, pointing out that the improbabilities attached to naturalistic explanations assume that a life-sustaining planet like ours was always bound to happen.  If we embrace the possibility that it was far more likely that no such planet would ever exist, we will really begin to appreciate that “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?” [Unweaving the Rainbow] So, wouldn’t design be more probable than this degree of “luck”?  For Dawkins, absolutely not!  To hypothesise the existence of a supernatural, intelligent designer God, let alone one with the many attributes of the Christian God, only multiplies the improbabilities. Who would have designed and fine-tuned this God after all?  Suggesting a whole new category of “necessary existence” without supporting evidence to solve this question makes God far more improbable than any alternative and. as Ockham’s razor suggests, the simplest solution of science is the best, even when that solution is not very simple!

In conclusion, despite the persistence of design arguments for God, it is far more likely that the universe results from chance – or at least from the “designs” of natural processes – than that it was designed by an intelligent-designer-God. The continuing popularity of design arguments for God despite their obvious flaws stems from our reluctance to accept let alone confront the precarity of the human condition.

Secularists who say that Christianity is a source of unhappiness are wrong. Discuss [40]

Many secularists claim that Christianity is a source of unhappiness, both to individuals and to societies.  For examples, Freud claimed that religion is an “individual obsessional neurosis” which has the potential to cause great unhappiness, causing people to repress their feelings and urges in an unhealthy way.  Dawkins and Hitchens claimed that religion is at what Dawkins called “the root of all evil” in the world, causing conflict between individuals, groups and even whole countries, leading to death and destruction.  Nevertheless, Christian apologists and social scientists have defended religion, claiming that – on balance – it is a source of happiness and not unhappiness.  Feuerbach pointed out how religion makes people and societies happier, being a form of wish-fulfillment.  History has shown that irreligious societies are even more subject to social unrest and conflict than religious ones; take communist Russia and China as examples of that.  Further, Pascal and James argued that faith provides hope and benefits in this life sufficient to make it worth being religious without evidence of the object of faith.  Recent social surveys agree, suggesting that faith adds years to healthy life-expectancy, while also lowering one’s chances of divorce and other misery-inducing experiences.  It follows that it is fair to say that secularists who say that Christianity is a source of unhappiness are wrong. 

Firstly, Freud did argue that religion is an “individual obsessional neurosis” which has the potential to cause great unhappiness, causing people to repress their feelings and urges – and particularly their sexuality – in an unhealthy way.  Yet even Freud acknowledged that religion can be positive for individuals, helping to develop their conscience so that they can function in society, and for societies as a whole in ensuring that people work together and observe rules which can’t be enforced.   In The Future of an Illusion (1927) Freud referred to religion as “perhaps the most important item in the psychical inventory of a civilization”, arguing that Religion provides a defence against “the crushingly superior force of nature”  Later, in Civilization and its Discontents (1930) Freud develops Feuerbach’s argument, suggesting that religion could be explained by the subconscious fulfilling the human desire for “a sensation of ‘eternity’, a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded…” which stems from a childish fear of the unknown and things ending. This shows that even for Freud, a secularist, religions like Christianity perform a valuable function for individuals and societies in helping people to cope with the human condition.  While Freud concludes The Future of an Illusion by stating that all religious beliefs are “illusions and insusceptible of proof…”  he examines the issue of whether, without religion, people will feel “exempt from all obligation to obey the precepts of civilization”. He notes that “civilization has little to fear from educated people and brain-workers” in whom secular motives for morality replace religious ones; but he acknowledges the existence of “the great mass of the uneducated and oppressed” who must be “held down most severely” unless “the relationship between civilization and religion” undergoes “a fundamental revision”.  This suggests that religions like Christianity also increase social happiness in avoiding the need for punitive law-enforcement and subjugation of the working classes.  As Marx had suggested, “Religion is the opium of the masses” but for Freud, drugging the masses and using their addiction to religion as something that makes them happy (albeit temporarily and at a price) to manipulate them may well be kinder than the alternative!  It seems that Freud did argue that Religion causes some individuals great unhappiness, but acknowledged that on balance most individuals and societies benefit from it.  Further, Freud’s methodology has been widely rejected as pseudo-scientific, meaning that his claims and theories carry little weight today in any case.  Therefore, secularists who rely on Freud in saying that Christianity is a source of unhappiness are wrong. 

Secondly, Dawkins did claim that religion is at “the root of all evil” in the world, causing conflict between individuals, groups and even whole countries, leading to death and destruction.  He also claimed that it is religion’s tendency to encourage people to accept authority and ignore reason which makes it dangerous.  The fact that it is “anti-intellectual leads young people to grow up with an “impoverished world-view” and “false-hope” while also making them susceptible to being radicalised and manipulated by unscrupulous leaders. Nevertheless, Dawkins is guilty of building up a “straw man” in his presentation of Christianity, in order to make his task in attacking it easier.  Few Christians are, as Dawkins suggests, Biblical Literalists, Young Earth Creationists or deniers of evolution… most embrace reason and deny Dawkins claims about their world-view being in any way impoverished.  For John Polkinghorne, it is Dawkins’ world-view that is impoverished, given that he closes his mind to all aspects of reality that can’t be measured through the empirical senses.  As Terry Eagleton pointed out in 2006 “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology”  He continued, criticising Dawkins for relying on “vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince” and claiming that “Dawkins has an enormous amount in common with Ian Paisley and American TV evangelists. Both parties agree pretty much on what religion is… Dawkins rejects it while Oral Roberts and his unctuous tribe grow fat on it.”  Eagleton points out that Dawkins makes a series of unevidenced assumptions, such as: “Dawkins considers that all faith is blind faith, and that Christian and Muslim children are brought up to believe unquestioningly.” Also, as Alister McGrath pointed out in “The Dawkins Delusion” (2008) “either half my colleagues are enormously stupid, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs.”  It seems that Dawkins’ claims and theories about religion are no more credible than those of Freud, so those who rely on his arguments in saying that Christianity is a source of unhappiness are wrong. 

Of course there are more credible arguments to support the claim that religions like Christianity are a source of unhappiness.  For example, the Secularization Hypothesis, which suggested that the less religious a society becomes, the more socially liberal and economically developed it becomes, was supported by a wide range of sociologists and their research through the 20th century.  In 1994 Jose Casanova wrote ‘The secularization theory may be the only theory which was able to attain a truly paradigmatic status within the modern social sciences… ‘ which goes some way to explain why countries such as Turkey embraced Programmatic Secularism as a means of developing their economies and so increasing social happiness.  Nevertheless, more recent studies suggest that societies lose-out when they abandon religion.  Charles Taylor in “A Secular Age” (2007) points out that secular belief effectively closes off whole areas of human experience so that “The door is barred against further discovery…” (p. 769) agreeing with John Polkinghorne that the spirit of scientific enquiry should lead people to be open to all sources of information, not only the five empirical senses.  Taylor also argued that “our age is very far from settling into a comfortable unbelief” because “The secular age is schizophrenic, or better, deeply cross-pressured.” (p. 727) Against the freedom from “unreasoning fears” there is a feeling of malaise, of something lost. Heroism is lost in the leveling down of aspiration through the adoption of shallow utilitarianism and there is no room for death.  In 2010 Jurgen Habermas agreed, in his essay “An Awareness of what is Missing”.  Habermas also described the effects of secularism as “a world flattened out by empiricism and rendered normatively mute” (p134) For Habermas, people in secular societies endure a particular form of anxiety, an “awareness of what is missing” which has a significant effect on their individual and social happiness. This anxiety manifests itself in being unable to deal with death; our lack of belief in an afterlife makes us easy to manipulate.  We act in the short-term and for immediate gain, feeling that what we do and are doesn’t really matter. We struggle with loyalty and commitment and to be unable to feel in solidarity with other human beings outside our immediate group. This makes acting together for the common good, such as to promote human rights or tackle climate change, increasingly difficult.  The arguments of Taylor and Habermas show that religions like Christianity are more a source of happiness than unhappiness. 

In conclusion, secularists who say that Christianity is a source of unhappiness are wrong.  Neither the old arguments of Freud nor the newer arguments of Dawkins stand up to scrutiny and even the secularization hypothesis, which once suggested that societies would be made happier – at least in narrow economic terms – by the decline of religion, is beginning to crumble.  A Taylor and Habermas observe, religions like Christianity are crucial components in both individual and social happiness, so that if they decline we quickly gain “an awareness of what is missing.”

Conversion Experiences do not provide a basis for belief in God. Discuss. (40)

William James discusses conversion experiences in his “Varieties of Religious Experience” Lectures IX and X.  Many people might assume that a conversion experience must take somebody from one faith or no faith to a new faith, such as happened to St Paul on the road to Damascus according to Acts Chapter 9 and Chapter 22.   Yet, James defines conversion in broader terms, writing… “To be converted, to be regenerated, to receive grace, to experience religion, to gain an assurance, are so many phrases which denote the process, gradual or sudden, by which a self – hitherto divided, and consciously wrong inferior and unhappy – becomes unified and consciously right superior and happy, in consequence of its firmer hold upon religious realities…” p.186 In this way, a conversion experience is one in which a person gains a new and unified purpose in faith and so includes the famous conversion of St Augustine, described in his Confessions, in which he “converted” from having a purely academic interest in Christianity to having an all-consuming faith after hearing a voice commanding “tole, lege.”  James argues that conversion experiences, like mystical experiences, have four common features, including

  1. “The loss of all the worry, the sense that all is ultimately well with one, the peace, the harmony, the willingness to be…
  2. the sense of perceiving truths not known before….
  3. the objective change which the world often appears to undergo. “An appearance of newness beautifies every object,”
  4. the ecstasy of happiness produced.” James p245-249

As James rightly argues, while not all claimed-conversion experiences are credible, there are some which share all four of these common features, which are amongst the most credible and research-worthy religious experiences, and which serve to demonstrate the inadequacy of narrow medical materialism and provide a pointer to the existence of God. Conversion experiences provide a sound basis for belief in God for those who have them… in practice they cannot not believe after having had one… but someone else’s conversion experience is not a sufficient basis for someone else to believe in God. 

Firstly, James considers the medical explanation of conversion experiences offered by his contemporary Professor Starbuck and rightly rejects it as a complete explanation for this type of experience, while acknowledging that some claimed conversions might be accounted for in this way.  Starbuck attempted to explain away conversion experiences as a natural psychological phenomenon of later adolescence, being accompanied by “a sense of incompleteness and imperfection; brooding, depression, morbid introspection, and sense of sin; anxiety about the hereafter; distress over doubts, and the like.” p.195 and resulting in:  “a happy relief and objectivity, as the confidence in self gets greater through the adjustment of the faculties to the wider outlook” p.195  James rightly accepts that many adolescents do have such experiences, but notes that these might be ”imitative” and that there are sporadic adult examples of conversion which might be the “originals” and which are worthy of further study.  An example of such an “original” might be the conversion of St Augustine.  While Augustine was certainly filled with a sense of incompleteness and what he called “soul sickness” prior to the conversion, and while his conversion did lead to a sort of resolution of these feelings, St Augustine was 30 and so no adolescent at the time of his conversion. Further, the fruits of Augustine’s conversion demonstrate that it was not an adolescent phase or a flash-in-the-pan… it changed Christianity and so changed the world!  St Augustine was never affected by any doubt or backsliding, as one might expect if the experience had been the result of an adolescent psychological crisis. In this way, James was correct to reject Starbuck’s adolescent crisis explanation as a full explanation for conversion experiences and correct to consider some “original” examples of conversion experience – such as that of St Augustine – as worthy of further study and as a pointer to the existence of God if not any kind of proof.  It follows that conversion experiences point towards the existence of God but fall short of being a good basis for believing in God for those who have not had one.

Secondly, James considers the medical explanation of conversion experiences offered by his contemporary Professor Leuba and rightly rejects it as a complete explanation for this type of experience, while acknowledging that some claimed conversions might be accounted for in this way.  For Leuba, conversion experiences emerge out of a deep sense of moral imperfection and sin.  James acknowledges that some experiences do follow this pattern, and this is fair.  Perhaps St Paul’s conversion is the most obvious example to support James’ point.  Might St Paul have been brooding subconsciously on his own role in persecuting Christians, even holding the coats during the stoning of St Stephen?  Could this sense of moral imperfection – bearing in mind Paul’s Pharisaic training and beliefs – have prompted him to have a moral crisis to facilitate regeneration, doing a 180 degree turn in terms of his behaviour to cope with past guilt?  In this way we might compare St Paul with the gangsters who become saints on death row; facing judgement they can only cope by being habitually reborn and utterly changing as a person.  Yet again James argues that Leuba is seeking to explain away all conversion experiences based on a few.  He wrote “in spite of the importance of this type of regeneration, with little or no intellectual readjustment, this writer [Leuba] surely makes it too exclusive” p. 200 This is convincing because no two conversion experiences and no two individuals are alike. As James wrote, “there are distinct elements in conversion, and their relations to individual lives deserve to be discriminated” p.200   Further, even if Leuba was right and the conversion did result from a moral crisis, there is no way to know that the conversion is not God’s answer to the crisis.  God could be working through the brain’s capacities to effect change within the subject, just as God might work through the sun at Fatima or through the waters of the Red Sea when it parted.  How else, after all, could God act on his creation than through his creation?  Nevertheless, James was right to argue that it would be wrong for a third party to believe in God on the strength of somebody else’s claimed conversion experience – however credible it might seem – because (as Hume pointed out in his essay “On Miracles”) it is always possible that that person has been lying, is deluded or ill.  While Dean Inge and William Alston would disagree, claiming that we should believe people unless we have a good reason not to, as Carl Sagan pointed out “exceptional claims demand exceptional evidence” and the fact that the testimony relates to something we cannot verify and can explain in ways that we can, however unlikely, means that we cannot see such testimony as sufficient basis for belief in God.  However, James was also right to point out that a conversion experience is sufficient basis for belief for the person who has been converted.   A characteristic of the conversion experience is that the world seems to change objectively, so that it becomes impossible for the subject not to believe what they have experienced.  As James wrote: “A small man’s salvation will always be a great salvation and the greatest of all facts for him” p.235 and “the sense of renovation, safety, cleanness, rightness, can be so marvellous and jubilant as well to warrant one’s belief in a radically new substantial nature…” p224 It follows that a conversion experience is a good basis for belief in God for those people who have had one.

Further, “original” examples of conversion experience conform to the marks of genuine religious experience proposed by scholars including Otto, Stace and Tillich. For Otto, as he explains in “The idea of the Holy” every genuine experience is characterised by “mysterium tremendum et fascinans.” He described how the experience should include a sense of “piercing acuteness… accompanied by the most uncompromising judgment of self-depreciation, a judgment passed, not upon his character because of individual ‘profane’ actions but upon his very existence as creature before that which is supreme above all creatures.”  As James noted, this sense of utter inadequacy, awe and dread is a hallmark of the first stage of a conversion experience, as a person confronts their soul-sickness and inadequacy in the face of God. For Stace, a genuine experience must be of a non-sensuous unity in all things, similar to what Tillich referred to as “the ground of our being”.  A genuine experience is not a sensory experience of something external that we can sense through eyes or ears in any literal way, but something inward.  In this way, conversion experiences have more claim on being genuine experiences than corporate experiences – which are often of something seen, heard or felt – or of many mystical experiences, which might take the form of visions or voices.  St Augustine’s conversion was not the voice saying “tole, lege”… that might well have been the child in the garden… it was only prompted by the voice, the experience was  profoundly inward and non-sensuous.  In this way, conversion experiences have a good claim to being credible religious experiences by the definitions of scholars other than James.  Also, in their ineffable and non-sensuous nature, conversion experiences are not sectarian and are not undermined by the classic criticism of Hume that they exist in all religious traditions and therefore somehow cancel each other out.  On the contrary, conversion experiences point to the unity that underpins all religious traditions, a God whose nature and attributes are consistent with the other arguments for God’s existence and not, as is the case for other forms of religious experience, a God whose nature and attributes seem at odds with reason. 

In conclusion, as James rightly argued, conversion experiences provide sufficient basis for belief in God for those who have had one.  Indeed, it is impossible for the recipient of a genuine conversion experience not to believe.  However, conversion experiences do not provide sufficient basis in themselves for people in general, who have not had a conversion experience themselves, to believe in God.  It is always possible that individual experiences are, as Starbuck and Leuba suggested, the psychological result of an adolescent or a moral crisis.  It is always possible, as Hume suggested, that the subject is lying, deluded or ill.  Nevertheless, it is equally possible that God works through the brain, responding to adolescent or moral crises in a way whose power and goodness is demonstrated by its effects in the life of the subject and in the lives of those they touch.  Rather than basing belief on a single piece of evidence such as conversion experience, it makes more sense to base it on a cumulative case as Richard Swinburne outlines in his “The Existence of God” (2004)  Once the “prior probability” of God’s existence has been established then it becomes reasonable both to believe what we ourselves experience (Principle of Credulity) and to believe what others tell us (Principle of Testimony) so that we can amass a bank of examples of credible religious experiences, including “original” conversion experiences like those of St Augustine and St Paul, which may tip the balance in favour of believing in God, making God’s existence more probable than His non-existence.  While skeptics like Flew and Dawkins will surely disagree, arguing that “ten leaky buckets are no better than one”, in practice it is just as reasonable to believe in God on the strength of a strong abductive case as it is to convict somebody in a court of law on the strength of a strong abductive case. 

There is no such thing as a soul. Discuss [40]

Materialists would agree that there is no such thing as a soul, arguing that we are our bodies, and the sensation of consciousness can be explained solely by the operation of our physical brains.  Dualists would disagree, arguing that “I” am separate from my body and exist primarily as a soul or mind, which might even be separable from my body, surviving death.  Overall, given developments within neuroscience, materialism is the more persuasive position, so it is fair to say that there is no such thing as a soul.

Firstly, Aristotle argued that the soul is the formal cause of the body.  It makes us human and gives us our individual personality, but it can’t be separated from the body.  He used the example of a wax-seal to make his point.  Just as the shape of the seal can’t exist without the wax, so the soul cannot exist separately from the body.  Nevertheless, Aristotle did believe that the soul is a separate substance, sufficiently as to have three parts.  He even speculated that part of the rational soul, the intellect, might survive death.  In this way, Aristotle was not a straightforward materialist.  Yet Aristotle worked millennia before science gave us an understanding of the brain.  By the 1940s Gilbert Ryle was able to refine Aristotle’s model of the soul, suggesting that the “official doctrine” of dualism was based on a category mistake and that there is no separate “soul” substance.  For Ryle, just as the foreigner watching cricket makes a mistake to ask to see the “team spirit” as if it was another player or piece of equipment, so the philosopher who identifies the soul as something with separate, let alone separable, existence is making an error rooted in our misuse of language.  Today, Susan Blackmore would agree.  While she still sees the hard problem of consciousness as unsolved, she rejects dualism as unscientific.  Daniel Dennett agrees, saying that dualism is “giving up” on the future ability of neuroscience to explain why we feel conscious and separate from our bodies but are in fact only our bodies.  In these ways, it is fair to say that there is no such thing as a soul. 

Secondly, classic arguments for dualism are flawed, so that there is no evidence for a soul beyond that most people feel they have one and, as Brian Davies pointed out, “just because I feel sober doesn’t mean that I am!” 

  • Plato’s arguments for substance dualism are archaic and unconvincing.  In the Phaedo Socrates appeals to the prevalence of opposites or dualisms in nature, to our affinity with the world of forms, to recollection and to the simplicity of the soul to support Plato’s claim that we are primarily an immortal soul.  Yet what modern Philosopher will be convinced to believe that something exists because lots of things seem to have a pair… light has darkness, day has night… so of course the body must have a soul.  What modern Philosopher would accept that our soul must be indestructible because it is simple and simple because it seems not to change as our body changes.  Not very persuasive!  Also, what modern Philosopher would accept that we must be primarily an immaterial soul because we have an intuitive grasp of mathematics or logic or an “affinity” with immaterial ideas in a speculative “world of forms”?  There is no evidence for past lives, no evidence for a world of forms and no evidence for an immaterial soul.  Plato’s argument is nothing more than assertion… I think therefore “I” must be made of thought. 
  • The same goes for Descartes, the other leading substance dualist.  His argument for the soul begins with his “foundational belief” that “I think therefore I am” from which he extrapolates that “I” am primarily what thinks… being a mind and not a brain.  Norman Malcolm identified the weakness of Descartes position when he wrote “If it were valid to argue ‘I can doubt that my body exists but not that I exist, ergo I am not my body’, it would be equally valid to argue ‘I can doubt that there exists a being whose essential nature is to think, but I cannot doubt that I exist, ergo I am not a being whose essential nature is to think’. Descartes is hoist with his own petard.” Further, even Descartes suggested that the brain must contain a seat of the soul, where the mind joins the body.  His suggestion that this was the Pineal Gland, just because it is shaped like a third inner eye, betrays the unscientific nature of his argument.  Although Popper and Eccles presented a modern version of Descartes substance dualism in Critical Dualism, suggesting that the seat of the soul is in the frontal lobes of the brain and not the pineal gland, their position still fails to attract scientific support.  As Dennett said, dualism smacks of mysticism and magic and amounts to “giving up” on science. 

In these ways also, it is fair to say that there is no such thing as a soul. 

On the other hand, Popper also suggested that World Three amounts to empirical evidence for the existence of World Two – the human mind.  The fact that great works of art, literature, architecture exist is material proof of the existence of the minds that gave them shape.  It may be that the mind is not separate or separable from the brain or body, but that does not mean that it does not exist when its products are evident all around us, including on this page.  Further, HH Price and Peter Vardy argue that the existence of the soul could make sense of the full human experience, which includes dreams and paranormal experiences.  Surely it is unscientific to dismiss all those aspects of the human experience which can’t be adequately explained without a separate soul, just because they point to the existence of a soul which can’t otherwise be evidenced?  Nevertheless, neither of these arguments for a soul are credible.  Popper’s World Three could just as well serve as evidence that human brains have amazing computational power.  When a computer generates complex, unique products like Bitcoins, nobody speculates that the products are evidence that there is something in the computer that might survive if it was unplugged and disassembled!  As Ryle would have said, this is like the myth of the “ghost in the machine” – better evidence for lazy thinking and superstition than it is for the soul.  Further, dreams and paranormal experiences have been investigated by Blackmore and can be explained in terms of (ab)normal brain activity, mistakenly interpreted, or as fakes.  The fact that even when there are credible scientific explanations of such phenomena people still want to believe in the existence of a soul, and that belief in a soul remains so “sticky”, supports Dawkins suggestion that it is a meme or virus of the mind.  We find it easier to believe in a soul than to accept that we are “blind robot vehicles for those selfish molecules known as genes.”  Yet wishful thinking is no basis to believe that something exists, so there is no such thing as the soul. 

In conclusion, there is no such thing as a soul.  Ryle, Blackmore and Dawkins were correct when they identified the origins of belief in the soul as a “category mistake”, a metaphor and a meme.  What we feel when we think, the sense that “I” am not my body and the “me” that seems to stay the same as I age… these sensations are the products of the material operations of the brain, just as works of art and architecture are.

[40 minutes, A Level notes]

Assess the view that the Ontological Argument depends on logical fallacies that cannot be overcome.

The Ontological Argument was first proposed by St Anselm in 1078. In the Proslogion he tried to demonstrate the existence of God from reason alone, first by defining God as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived of”… as existence “in re” rather than only “in intellectu” makes something greater, God must therefore exist, and then by claiming that necessary existence is greater than contingent existence and so must be a property of God. The Ontological Argument soon attracted criticism, first from Gaunilo of Marmoutiers whose “on behalf of the fool” suggested that it seems like a joke to suggest that something must exist just because it is perfect, and then from Aquinas, who pointed out that “because we do not know the nature of God, His existence is not self-evident to us.” Nevertheless, while most people are sceptical of Anselm’s argument, as Bertrand Russell pointed out “it is easier to feel convinced that it must be fallacious than it is to find out precisely where the fallacy lies.” As it happens, the argument – while containing some logical fallacies – does not depend on these so that they cannot be overcome. It is a valid argument… the question of its soundness depends on one’s worldview.

Firstly, it could be said that both versions of Anselm’s argument depend upon the logical fallacy of bare assertion, as in they assert that “God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived of” without proper argument. Nevertheless, all a priori arguments start with a priori premises, definitions which depend on a priori knowledge (reason alone) and often cannot be argued for using evidence. For example, if I argued that as bachelors are unmarried men and Simon is unmarried, that Simon must be a bachelor, it is not reasonable for you to demand that I demonstrate that bachelors are unmarried men from observations before proceeding. Similarly, if I argued that 2+2 = 4, I must begin with a priori knowledge of the numbers 2 and 4 and the concept of addition. It is not reasonable to ask for an argument that 2=2 and 4=4 before accepting that 2+2 = 4… because any sane person knows what 2 and 4 refer to and what the concept of addition entails. Anselm pointed out that anyone who claims that God is not “that than which nothing greater can be conceived” must be a fool. How can anyone think that there could be something greater than God… if they do, then they have fundamentally misunderstood the concept of God. In this way, while Anselm does assert his premises, he is justified in doing so and this “logical fallacy” is not a serious criticism of the ontological argument. Similarly, Anselm’s argument could be accused of begging the question, meaning that his conclusion of God’s necessary existence is contained within the premises. Yet surely this is the whole point of a deductive argument! Nobody criticises the argument 2+2 = 4 because the concept of 4 contains the concept of 2 twice. What Anselm is trying to do is to clarify that our concept of God includes His necessary existence, so it is unreasonable to expect Anselm’s conclusion not to contain his premises. In both these ways, Anselm’s Ontological Argument does not depend on any logical fallacies that cannot be overcome.

Secondly, it could be said that Anselm’s argument is guilty of being ad hominem and of appealing to authority. Anselm certainly attacks atheists as fools and quotes from Psalm 14:1 as part of his argument. Nevertheless, neither Anselm’s colourful language nor his Biblical allusion are part of his reasoning, so his argument could be stated without either quite easily. More seriously, addition, Anselm could be accused of asking a loaded question of atheists. Is God “that than which nothing greater can be conceived of”? The atheist is railroaded into answering yes, in which case they have already admitted the conclusion, or no, in which case they are a fool… Yet as Bertrand Russell pointed out, asking a question about the properties of a non-existent object is meaningless. If I asked you “is the present King of France bald?” I feel bound to give a yes or no answer, when in fact I can’t give either because there is no present King of France. Similarly, in asking atheists to answer the question “is God that than which nothing greater can be conceived of”, Anselm could be bamboozling the atheist into answering yes or no, when either option would mean that they cede their point. This seems a lot like the either-or fallacy as well, with Anselm excluding options other than yes or no. However, it is clear that everybody, atheists included, have a concept of God as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived of” in their minds, meaning that He undoubtedly exists “in intellectu” in a way that the present King of France, perfect islands etc. do not. As Anselm pointed out in his “Responsio” to Gaunilo, there is a difference between islands and God, in that islands can only exist contingently whereas God exists, if he exists at all, necessarily. This means that Russell’s point about the present King of France is not relevant to the Ontological Argument, as when Anselm asks “is God greater than that which can be conceived of”, he is justified in assuming that the knowledge of God exists a priori in intellectu, when the knowledge of contingent things – whether Kings or Islands – can only be a posteriori and synthetic. Kant is right to say “Whatever, therefore, our concept of an object may contain, we must always step outside it, in order to attribute to it existence…” when it comes to any and all contingently existing things, but as Anselm pointed out, God is not like other things, so the ontological argument could only ever apply to God. It seems that Anselm’s argument survives the accusation of depending on these logical fallacies as well.

On the other hand, Kant argued that Anselm creates the whole category of “necessary existence” to get around Gaunilo’s obvious criticism that what applies to perfect Gods should apply equally to perfect islands, unicorns and such. In this way, Anselm’s argument would depend on special pleading. Kant argued that existence involves having the potential to be and not be, so necessary existence is a contradictory concept like a square circle and so impossible. He reasoned that because existence must include having the potential to be and not be, existence cannot be used as an essential predicate of anything. Later in 1948 JN Findlay went further, claiming that “it was indeed an ill day for Anselm when he hit upon his famous proof. For on that day he not only laid bare something that is of the essence of an adequate religious object, but also something that entails its necessary non-existence.” For Findlay, if there are three options – God is impossible, God may or may not exist or God necessarily exists, then the Ontological Argument serves to show that God must be impossible and necessarily not exist, because if God may or may not exist He wouldn’t be God and necessary existence is impossible. Nevertheless, Hartshorne rejected this, arguing that if Findlay says that necessary existence is impossible, so must be necessary non-existence. Further, Kant’s definition of existence applies to contingent existence only, as does his claim that existence cannot be an essential predicate, necessary existence does not include the potential to exist and not exist by definition and so it could be an essential predicate of God. For Hartshorne, there is nothing impossible about necessary existence. We can conceive of God necessarily existing in much the same way as we can conceive of a three-sided triangle, when we cannot conceive of a square circle. As Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig have pointed out, if God’s necessary existence is even possible – in the way that a unicorn or a Gruffalo is possible but a five-sided triangle is not – then God exists necessarily in every possible world. Of course, Kant would reject this, pointing out that we have no experience of “necessary existence”, making it a “cupola of judgement”, being outside our possible existence and entirely speculative. Nevertheless, although Kant’s criticisms are coherent with and conclusively destroy the Ontological Argument within his worldview, Kant’s worldview has been criticised by Quine for depending on dogmas and is not shared by everybody. As Norman Malcolm pointed out, it is clear that “necessary existence” is possible and not contradictory within some “forms of life” and their language games. This suggests that at least within these forms of life, necessary existence is not an impossible or invented category of existence, so Anselm’s argument does not depend on special pleading.

Further, other critics suggest that Anselm’s argument takes advantage of the useful ambiguity in the word “necessary”, thus depending on the fallacy of equivocation. The word necessary can mean de re necessary, in the sense it is used in Aquinas’ third way, meaning that God is self-explaining, doesn’t depend on anything, fully actual. The word necessary can also mean de dicto necessary, in the sense that it means that God’s existence is part of the concept of God so God’s non-existence cannot be asserted without contradiction. For example, saying “this triangle has five angles” would be to assert a contradiction, because the word tri-angle necessarily and by definition entails having only three angles. Could it be that the word “necessary” means two different things and that Anselm shifts from one meaning to the other to bamboozle us with a what Schopenhauer called a “sleight of hand trick?” While the concept of necessary existence is confusing and while the word “necessary” is used in both senses in the argument, the argument does not depend on ambiguity or equivocation because there is what Hegel called a “unity of thought and of existence in the infinite.” While there are two meanings to the word “necessary” these are related in that de dicto necessity refers to concepts and the rules of logic that originate in and depend on God’s de re necessity. Of course, Aquinas’ criticism of the attempt to demonstrate God’s existence from reason alone is apt here. Given that most – if not all – people struggle to “conceive of” God’s nature, how can we analyse that nature to find necessary existence – another almost inconceivable idea – within it? Aquinas as right that while God’s existence may be self-evident, it is not self-evident to us, and therefore that it is better to demonstrate His existence from what is known, observations. Nevertheless, the question asks whether the Ontological Argument depends on logical fallacies that cannot be overcome and the answer to that must be that it does not. There is no equivocation or fundamental ambiguity on which the argument depends.

In conclusion, Russell was right to say that “it is easier to feel convinced that it must be fallacious than it is to find out precisely where the fallacy lies.” The Ontological Argument does not depend on logical fallacies that cannot be overcome. It is a valid argument, but depends for its soundness on the particular worldview or form of life within which it is advanced.

“Gaunilo shows that atheists are not fools!” Discuss

In his Proslogium Chapter II St Anselm quoted Psalm 14:1 “the fool says in his heart there is no God” and then attempted to demonstrate that atheists are indeed fools in asserting a straight contradiction – that God (who necessarily exists by definition) does not exist.  Gaunilo responded in his wittily titled “On behalf of the Fool”, using his famous “perfect island” analogy to reduce St Anselm’s argument to absurdity as part of a more sophisticated multi-pronged attack.  Despite the fact that St Anselm attempted to refute Gaunilo’s points in his ResponsioGaunilo succeeded in showing that Atheists are not in fact fools. 

Firstly, Gaunilo reduced Anselm’s argument in Proslogium II to absurdity, pointing out that “if a man should try to prove to me by such reasoning that this island truly exists… either I should believe that he was jesting, or I know not which I ought to regard as the greater fool: myself supposing I should allow him this proof or him, if he should suppose that he had established with any certainly the existence of this island…”  Anselm was right to object, noting how God is not like an island or any other thing in time and space, so that while God is capable of necessarily existing, the island is not.  “I promise confidently that if any man shall devise anything existing either in reality of in concept alone (except that than which nothing greater can be conceived) to which he can adapt the sequence of my reasoning, I will discover that thing, and will give him his island, not to be lost again…” However, in practice Gaunilo’s point still stands because asserting God’s necessary existence cannot take us beyond the world of words and ideas. As Kant (in his Critique of Pure Reason 1787) and later Russell pointed out, existence is not a predicate and adds nothing to the concept of an object to make it more perfect and therefore a necessary property of God as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived of”.  Kant wrote “Being is evidently not a real predicate, or a concept of something that can be added to the concept of a thing. It is merely the admission of a thing, and of certain determinations in it. Logically, it is merely the copula of a judgment.” Further, to exist means to exist within – or at least to have an effect within – time and space.  As Kant later pointed out, contingency is of the essence of existence – having the capability to exist or not exist, to exist here and not there or now and not then.  To use Kant’s words, all existential claims must be synthetic; he wrote “If, then, I try to conceive a being, as the highest reality (without any defect), the question still remains, whether it exists or not. For though in my concept there may be wanting nothing of the possible real content of a thing in general, something is wanting in its relation to my whole state of thinking, namely, that the knowledge of that object should be possible a posteriori also…”  While Kant’s criticism has been rejected by both Hegel and Quine for being “dogmatic” and based on assertion rather than proper argument, and while Norman Malcolm also rejected Kant’s claim writing  “In those complex systems of thought, those “language games”, God has the status of a necessary being.  Who can doubt that?  I believe that we can rightly take the existence of those religious systems of thought in which God features as a necessary being as disproof of the dogma affirmed by Hume (and Kant of course) that no existential proposition may be necessary…”, in practice Kant’s criticism appeals to common sense, as Gaunilo’s did.  It is unreasonable to claim that something exists when there is no way to see hear, touch, smell or taste it and when its effects are not observable on things that we can hear, touch, see, smell or taste either.  It may be true that the meaning of words depends on how they are used rather than on what they refer to in some cases, but not when it comes to existence!  Whatever people understand by the word gravity within a form of life will not change the fact that if you jump off a cliff you will fall to your death.  Similarly, you can’t define something into existence; as Gaunilo rightly pointed out, to suggest otherwise can only be construed as “a charming joke” (Schopenhauer dismissed the Ontological argument for being such) or plain foolish.  In this way, Gaunilo succeeded in showing that atheists are not in fact fools, but that advocates of the Ontological Argument might well be.  

Secondly, Gaunilo is right to point out that Anselm’s claim that Atheists are fools because they hold a contradictory idea in their minds is mistaken.  While Anselm suggests that the atheist conceives of God – who necessarily exists – not existing in much the same way as a fool might conceive of a five-sided triangle, through simply not understanding anything, Gaunilo points out that people can conceive of lots of non-existing things without being in the slightest foolish.  Take the Gruffalo for one example… many people have an idea of this frightening creature in their mind, while also knowing that there is no such creature outside the pages of a storybook.  He wrote “in my understanding, as I still think, could be all sorts of things whose existence is uncertain, or which do not exist at all…”  Aquinas agreed with Gaunilo, writing “the opposite of the proposition “God exists” can be mentally admitted.” Summa Theologica 1:2:1 and much later, Kant also agreed that it is perfectly possible to conceive of God while rejecting any claim that God exists, writing “If then, I try to conceive a being, as the highest reality (without any defect), the question still remains, whether it exists or not. For though in my concept there may be wanting nothing of the possible real content of a thing in general, something is wanting in its relation to my whole state of thinking, namely, that the knowledge of that object should be possible a posteriori also…” Anselm tries in this as well to distinguish between God and other things, writing “if that thing can be conceived at all, it must exist” because God alone, as that than which nothing greater can be conceived of, must necessarily exist.  Later, Charles Hartshorne agreed with Anselm, pointing out that either God is impossible, or that he exists contingently or that he exists necessarily.  The Ontological Argument shows that God cannot exist contingently – or He would not be worthy of worship or “that than which nothing greater can be conceived of” and Hartshorne argues that God’s existence is not impossible, leaving only the possibility that God exists necessarily.  Nevertheless, Gaunilo points out that Anselm is mistaken in claiming that because we can only conceive of God necessarily existing, he necessarily exists.  This is not how we conceive of things; the artist conceives of an object before they put brush to canvas, so the idea exists “in intellectubefore and prior it it being “in re” – the idea of an object and the object are two separate and separable things in all cases, including God.  I could conceive of God as a necessarily existing being, but my conception of him would be something separate from his actual existence as what I have conceived of, leaving open the possibility that He could be only an idea in the mind, however apparently contradictory that might be. Again, as Kant wrote, “Whatever, therefore, our concept of an object may contain, we must always step outside it, in order to attribute to it existence..” In this way as well, therefore, Gaunilo shows that atheists are not fools.  

Thirdly, Gaunilo argues that some atheists could recognise the word “God” without having an idea of what God is sufficiently for it to contain a contradiction, which is convincing.  I might recognize the word “squircle” – and even begin to appreciate what concept it might refer to – while still unable to conceive of a square-circle properly.  The squircle is therefore not “in intellectu”, let alone “in re” despite my accepting the definition of a squircle as a square circle.  As Russell later pointed out, if I say “the present King of France is bald” it seems like I am making a sensible proposition that is capable of being true or false, but actually because there is no present King of France, the proposition is not capable of being either true or false and is therefore meaningless.  Is it not possible that when the Atheist accepts that “God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived of” they do no more than you might in momentarily wondering if the present King of France is bald? On reflection they then conclude that there is no present King of France, so the question is meaningless.  In relation to Anselm’s argument, the Atheist then reflects on the concept of necessary existence and concludes that it is impossible, so the concept of God is impossible and the Ontological argument meaningless.  Here as well, Gaunilo showed that the Atheist is not a fool, but rather a person too sophisticated to be taken in by what Schopenhauer called Anselm’s “sleight of hand trick“.  

Finally, Gaunilo points out that nobody can have a complete conception of the nature of God, because God’s nature is to be mysterious, unlike any other thing and greater than that which can be conceived of. It follows that – Atheist or not – without a clear idea of God it is impossible to analyse that idea and find existence or necessary existence within it.  He explained “I do not know that reality itself which God is, nor can I form a conjecture of that reality from some other like reality.  For you yourself assert that reality is such that there can be nothing else like it…” Later, Aquinas agreed, writing “because we do not know the nature of God, the existence of God is not self-evident” Summa 1.2.1 Although Anselm defends against this criticism vigorously, writing “It is evident to any rational mind, that by ascending from the lesser good to the greater, we can form a considerable notion of a being than which a greater is inconceivable” and “If he denies that a notion may be formed from other objects of a being than which a greater is inconceivable… let him remember that the invisible things of God, from the creation of the world are clearly seen…” Gaunilo’s point stands because Anselm’s reasoning reduces God to being the greatest of things, rather than that than which nothing greater can be conceived of.  By Anselm’s own reasoning in Proslogion III God’s nature is not like the nature of other things and God’s greatness is not like the greatness of other things.  While other things exist contingently, God exists necessarily, so it is not possible to “ascend from the lesser good to the greater” or to build an understanding of God’s nature from an understanding of created things.  Further, in 1948 JN Findlay argued that “it was indeed an ill day for Anselm when he hit upon his famous proof.  For on that day, he not only laid bare something that is of the essence of an adequate religious object, but also something that entails its necessary non-existence.”  If Anselm is serious in Proslogion III that necessary existence is a necessary property of God as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived of” then in addition to making it impossible for anybody to have sufficient grasp of the concept of God to analyse it and find existence within it, it also makes God’s existence impossible.  As Findlay reasoned, a contingent being would not deserve worship & wouldn’t really be God, but a necessary being is a logical absurdity, meaning that Anselm’s argument proves that God’s existence is impossible.  In this way as well, therefore, Gaunilo shows that atheists are not fools… but JN Findlay showed that Anselm was! 

In conclusion, Gaunilo shows that atheists are not fools.  While Anselm easily heads off his “perfect island” criticism by pointing towards the more developed version of the argument he already presented in Proslogium III in his Responsio, Gaunilo’s full critique demonstrates that Anselm’s reasoning is unsound.  While Anselm’s a priori definition of God as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived” is reasonable, Gaunilo showed that he is wrong to assume that accepting this definition entails having a clear enough idea of God to analyse and find necessary existence within.  Gaunilo also showed that Anselm was wrong to ignore the existence of two separate stages in conceiving of any object, that of having an idea “in intellectu” and that of appreciating that the idea exists “in re.”  As Kant later agreed, it is perfectly possible to have an idea of a necessarily-existing being (God) while appreciating that there is no instance of such a being, however contradictory that might seem, because the world of ideas and the world of existence are separate and separable and it is not possible to define something into existence or prove God’s necessary existence from reason alone.   

Sequencing A Level Religious Studies

Ever since A Level Religious Studies was “reformed” in 2015 the question of how to sequence the content has been a recurring one.

  • Whereas the A Level used to be made up of four papers (usually two Philosophy of Religion and two Ethics) and lent itself to being split between two teachers, the new A Level was made up of three papers (usually Philosophy of Religion, Ethics and Christianity). Splitting the teaching between three teachers is often impractical, and it is a lot to teach solo, so how to divide three papers worth of material in two?
  • Also, the content of the new A Level is massive and the assessment bar higher than it used to be, so it is important to take advantage of any opportunity to save time and/or consolidate understanding. Careful sequencing of the content enables teachers to “tell a story” and spell out synoptic links, so how to do this most effectively?
  • Further, OfSTED scrutiny of our “learning journeys” and the need for teachers – and students – to be able to answer questions about why they are studying this topic now and how it connects with prior knowledge, makes the question of how to sequence the content of A Level Religious Studies one that really need to be answered now.

I have been working on sequencing since the draft specifications first came out in Autumn 2014. I ran a successful campaign, bringing together more than 100 departments to produce alternative proposals which influenced the design of the new A Level through the consultation process. I ran residential CPD events helping teachers to prepare for the new specifications in 2015 and other events in the following years. This is an example of one of my blog-posts about sequencing from 2017…

So, what is my current thinking about how to sequence the content of A Level Religious Studies?

I reviewed all the specifications when they first came out and concluded that OCR H573 was the best of the bunch. Although it isn’t perfect I haven’t changed my view on this, so these thoughts are based on the OCR content…

If you choose to divide the OCR course between two teachers, take advantage of the fact that the Developments in Christian Thought course was originally designed to be split, with topics feathered into the Philosophy of Religion and Ethics schemes.

  1. Ancient Philosophical Influences
  2. Soul, Mind & Body
  3. Knowledge of God’s Existence (as seen in the Order of Creation)
  4. Arguments from Observation (Cosmological then Teleological)
  5. Evil & Suffering
  6. Augustine on Human Nature
  7. Knowledge of God’s Existence (Revealed through faith & grace)
  8. Religious Experience
  9. Person of Jesus
  10. Knowledge of God’s Existence (innate human sense of the divine)
  11. Ontological Argument
  12. Nature of God (plus revision of Arguments, Evil & Rel. Exp)
  13. Religious Language (Negative & Analogical, then 20th Century Perspectives, then Symbol)
  14. Marx & Liberation Theology
  15. The Challenge of Secularism

  1. Utilitarianism
  2. Kantian Ethics
  3. Business Ethics
  4. Christian Moral Principles
  5. Natural Law
  6. Situation Ethics
  7. Euthanasia
  8. Death & Afterlife
  9. Conscience
  10. Christian Moral Action (plus revision & extension on Kantian Ethics, CMP & Situation Ethics)
  11. Sexual Ethics (plus revision of ethical theories & conscience)
  12. Gender & Society
  13. Gender & Theology
  14. Pluralism & Theology
  15. Pluralism & Society
  16. Meta-Ethics (plus revision of Ethical Theories & conscience)


If you look closely, the links between the two teachers’ courses are as thought-out as the sequencing of each teacher’s courses.

  • NB: I don’t teach as discrete bullet-points, but frequently blur the lines between the topics where it is useful. For example, teaching there is a lovely segue from criticisms of the Teleological Argument from Hume, Mill & Darwin into the Problem of Evil. I start with Mackie’s statement of the logical problem and Adams & Adams typology of responses to it, before doing Hick’s Irenaean Theodicy and setting things up for the other teacher to do Death & the Afterlife and Pluralism & Theology. I then do Augustine, combining his Theodicy into his wider teaching on Human Nature from DCT and again setting up the other teacher’s later work on exclusivism. I then round things off by evaluating responses to the Logical Problem of Evil and doing the Evidential Problem – I show the film “God on Trial” here which helps to segue into revelation as a source of knowledge about God and Religious experience…

There are, of course, many ways to skin a cat… and even more ways to sequence these topics, but this is my current thinking, informed by my experience since 2016.

In terms of assessment, the OCR essay questions rarely test a discrete topic and the number of possible questions is enormous, making it impossible for students to rely on pre-prepared answers, so it is important to get students used to thinking laterally when choosing essay questions from early in the course. A carefully worded essay-question does wonders in provoking retrieval practice and all the consolidation of knowledge and understanding that comes with that. I would suggest plotting out your assessments in advance, after sequencing but before developing your detailed scheme of work, with a view to ensuring that each essay does more than generate data!

Critically evaluate William James’ definition of religious experience. 

William James defined religious experience for the purposes of his Gifford Lectures, later published as “The Varieties of Religious Experience” (1902).  He began by limiting the scope of his enquiry, focusing on “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  In this way, James suggested that corporate experiences like those at Fatima, Medjugorje and Toronto are less credible than individual experiences.  James was influenced by Durkheim’s dismissal of religious experience as “an effervescent group phenomenon” more likely to be caused by mass hysteria than by God’s actions, so chose to concentrate on individual experiences despite the difficulty of proving such.   James went on to outline “four marks which, when an experience has them, may justify us in calling it mystical…” namely passivity, transiency, ineffability and being noetic, and this definition has been important in shaping subsequent research into religious experience.  Nevertheless, James’ definition has been criticised both for being too broad and conversely, for being too limited.  Yet, despite these criticisms, James’ definition remains the best to use when researching this topic.   

Importantly, James’ four marks define mystical experiences, which are just one type of individual religious experience.  James spends two lectures and two chapters of “The Varieties of Religious Experience” discussing mystical experiences, but these fall towards the end of a much longer project.  James begins Lecture II “Circumscription of the Topic” by warning of the dangers of rigid definitions.  He wrote: “The theorizing mind tends always to the oversimplification of its materials. This is the root of all that absolutism and one-sided dogmatism by which both philosophy and religion have been infested.” p.24  This explains why James calls his criteria the four “marks”, suggesting that these are pointers to the credibility of an experience rather than necessary pe-conditions for discussing an experience.  Given that it is made up of “marks” or indicators of an experience being genuine, James’ definition is a useful one because it helps the student to analyse experiences and identify areas in which the experience is more, or less, likely to be controversial.  For example, the experiences of Julian of Norwich were certainly noetic, containing knowledge she did not have before, and they were also arguably transient and ineffable, despite the facts that she experienced a series of night-long experiences and described them at length in common English.  While Julian was not experimenting with drugs or sensory-deprivation in order to provoke an experience, the fact that the experiences all occurred when she was gravely ill might suggest they were not passive; it is easy to imagine that they could have had a physiological and/or psychological cause, even if Julian was not aware of it.  Of course, James’ marks raise questions about some important experiences, like those of St Teresa of Avila, which were neither passive nor really transient.  Yet this does not take away from the usefulness of the marks unless one misinterprets the marks and uses them as a rigid definition.  James suggests that conversion experiences have their own four characteristics – loss of worry, perceiving new truths, perceiving a sense of newness in all things and the ecstasy of happiness produced – and this shows that James did not intend his “definition” to be used as a benchmark but rather as a working definition as part of research.  In this way, James’ definition remains the best to use when researching this topic.   

An early critic of James’ definition was Rudolf Otto, whose “The Idea of the Holy” was published in 1917.  Like James, Otto defined religious experience in terms of solitary encounters with what subjects consider to be the divine and like James Otto argues that genuine experiences are ineffable – in order to signify this, Otto resorts to using Latin terminology such as “mysterium tremendum et fascinans” when describing their characteristics.  Nevertheless, Otto criticised James for not specifying that genuine religious experiences must be non-rational.  He wrote “William James has collected a great number of [examples of religious experience] without, however, noticing the non-rational element which thrills in them…” p37-8 While they disagreed with Otto in other aspects of their definitions, Walter Stace and Paul Tillich would both agree with his point about the necessary non-rational nature of religious experiences.  Despite this, James’ broader definition is more useful when it comes to researching religious experience because insisting that religious experiences are non-rational tends to exclude revelatory experiences, upon which religions depend, from consideration when it is these that there is a real need to study.  For example, Moses’ experience at the burning bush in Exodus 3 is one in which Otto’s “mysterium tremendum et fascinans” (the tendency to invoke fear and be compelling simultaneously) is evident, and in which Moses’ reason is shown inadequate by God’s revelation that He is “I am that I am”, and yet to dismiss the other element of Moses’ experience in which God instructs Moses to return to Egypt and explains why as a creative means of expressing something ineffable and non-rational would be to undermine the belief that Moses received and recorded God’s words faithfully.  This would be devastating to the three world religions that take the books Moses wrote as their Scriptures.  For another example, the Prophet Muhammad’s experience on the Night of Power could be described as numinal and ineffable, but it is difficult to describe it as non-rational in the way that Otto demands.  Also, Otto’s definition is very narrow in suggesting that the object of all genuine experiences is the same – the numen – and in suggesting that genuine experiences must invoke fear “mysterium tremendum”.  James’ broader definition makes no such claim and would include reassuring experiences and those associated with a sense of love and unity.  Other scholars, including Stace, Tillich and FC Happold argue that there is no need for genuine religious experiences to invoke fear of any kind.  For these reason James’ broader definition of religious experience is of more use when researching this topic than Otto’s. 

A more recent critic of James’ working definition has been Richard Swinburne.  For Swinburne, James’ four marks are useful in defining a particular type of religious experience, namely solitary mystical experiences, but these represent only one type of religious experience so a much broader definition is necessary when studying the whole topic.  Swinburne proposed a five-fold definition of religious experience as part of his “Existence of God” (1994), arguing that an experience which can be described using everyday language (e.g. a dream), an experience which cannot be described using everyday language (e.g. a mystical experience), a conviction that God has been experienced in some way despite lack of material evidence, perceiving a perfectly normal phenomenon (e.g. a sunset) or perceiving a very unusual public object (e.g. the resurrection) might all be genuine religious experiences.  Importantly, Swinburne’s definition includes corporate experiences, which James chooses to exclude from his discussion for not being “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude”, and Swinburne’s definition also includes witnessing miracles, which may not conform with James’ mark of ineffability.  Caroline Franks Davis supported Swinburne’s broad approach to defining Religious Experiences in her “The Evidential Force of Religious Experience” (1989).  However, by being so broad, Swinburne’s five-fold definition drags less credible and subjective experiences into the discussion in a way that is not helpful when studying religious experience as a stand-alone topic or as evidence for the existence of God.  David Hume warned against relying on anybody who reports seeing a miracle in “Of Miracles” (1748), pointing out that it is impossible to know that the “miracle” is such (who can know the laws of nature sufficiently to know that an event breaks them, let alone that they have been broken “by particular volition of the deity or other invisible agent”?)  Further, says Hume, these witnesses lack credibility, being most often from “ignorant and barbarous nations” so having no relevant expertise and having plenty of bias and vested interests.  Take the miracle of the sun at Fatima in 1917; Hume would dismiss the many witness-reports as more likely to be based on the mistakes or lies of gullible or greedy people than genuine experiences of God.  While Swinburne rejects Hume’s argument using his Principles of Credulity and Testimony, both depend on our assessment of “prior probability”, which Swinburne suggests should be in favour of God existing and miracles possibly being genuine… because Religious Experiences are so common.  To be clear, Swinburne adopted his broad five-fold definition of Religious Experience in order to cast his net widely and include the experiences of as many people as possible, something that he needed to in the context of his wider probability argument for God’s existence which used the prevalence of religious experience to establish that it is more reasonable to assume that their object exists than not or what Swinburne calls “prior probability”.  At the same time, he rejected Hume’s warning against relying on reports of miracles because given our assessment of “prior probability”, the Principles of Credulity and Testimony dictate that we should believe both what we experience ourselves and what others tell us in terms of miracles and religious experiences in the absence of good reason not to.  There is a circularity here; Swinburne uses the prevalence of religious experiences in order to establish “prior probability” which he needs in order to establish the prevalence of religious experiences…  In this way, Swinburne’s broader definition is less useful than James’ narrower working definition because it includes less credible experiences which undermine religious experience as a topic and as possible evidence for God’s existence.   

In conclusion, James’ working definition of religious experience is the most useful for research into this topic.  James understood the pitfalls inherent in proposing any rigid definitions in this field and accepted that his working definition was not perfect.  He wrote: “The field of religion being as wide as this, it is manifestly impossible that I should pretend to cover it. My lectures must be limited to a fraction of the subject. And, although it would indeed be foolish to set up an abstract definition of religion’s essence, and then proceed to defend that definition against all comers, yet this need not prevent me from taking my own narrow view of what religion shall consist in for the purpose of these lectures…” p30  In this way, James’ four marks should be understood and used as indicators and tools to analyse experiences and not as necessary criteria. 

“Corporate religious experiences are less reliable than individual religious experiences.” Discuss

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.