Donovan paragraphs 55,61 and 66-67

(iii) ‘Experience of’ is not in itself knowledge
Suppose it were indisputable that God is genuinely experienced in some form of first-hand awareness. It does not follow that such first-hand experience or encounter, on its own, would count as knowledge at all. The point can be put this way. We generally think that someone who has experienced something for themselves is in a better position to know the truth about it than someone who has not. Yet why should that be so? What does first-hand experience add, that all available second-hand knowledge cannot supply?

The objection is a sound one. If there are encounters between God and people they may be chiefly for those non-intellectual interpersonal reasons, and not for the sake of acquiring knowledge. It is only if a claim to know is based on experiences taken as encounters with God, and on them alone, that the philosophical difficulties considered above apply. And the fact is that believers often do try to argue that they have knowledge of God purely on the strength of such experiences. The effect of the philosophical criticisms has been simply to show how inadequate that kind of argument is.

The chief point of the philosophical criticisms of ‘knowing God by experience’ amounts to this. Where popular religious reasoning falls down is not in taking the sense of God too seriously, but in trying to treat it as a form of knowledge, of a self-certifying kind, immediately available to those who have it. Knowledge, the philosophers point out, is just not like that—whether it is knowledge of God or of anything else. The sense of knowing is never on its own a sufficient sign of knowledge.

But if the sense of God fails, in the end, to count as knowledge of God, what is to be said about it? Is it of no further philosophical interest and to be discarded, like a pricked balloon, as being simply a great illusion?

a) Examine the argument or interpretation in the passage. [30]

This is almost the end of Donovan’s exploration of the value of religious experience. This is his overall argument: that an experience taken by an experient to be proof of the existence of God may indeed be ‘indisputable‘ to the believer but cannot in Donovan’s view be taken ‘on its own’ merit. He argues that the problem with believers is that they tend to think the experience is sufficient and others should accept their word when they say what they have learned from it, what he calls ‘self-certifying knowledge.’ Although he doesn’t say it here he has already said that accepting and acting on such claims to ‘just know’ has led to many ‘misguided‘ actions by ‘tyrants and dictators.’ The problem for him lies with the argument from religious experience. While this is generally taken to be the argument ‘from experiences of God to the existence of God’ he does not think it is so simple and certainly not indisputable. Indeed he alludes to the possibility that the ‘sense of encounter may be mistaken’ and therefore that the interpretation of an experience religiously can be erroneous. [1,4,5]

{Here you could spend some time recounting and explaining some of the religious experiences which may have alternative explanations and say why accepting them at face value, is

Even though William James defines the major common features of religious experience as ‘noetic, transient, ineffable and passive’ and as such we should accept the reality of these experiences as experiences of God, Donovan cites Bertrand Russell’s idea that ‘deception is constantly practiced with success’ as support for the idea that no matter how convinced we may be that we are right ‘feeling certain and being right’ are not the same thing nor always connected. In fact he would probably agree with Ayer that we humans are quite good at self-deception! [1,2,3,4,5,6]

{Here give examples of deception, self-deception and feeling certain and being right not being the same!}

He has just completed his exploration of the difference between ‘knowledge about and experience of‘ in which he cited Martin Buber’s ‘I-It and I-Thou’ binary theory on knowledge and relationships. While Buber was keen to point out the superiority of ‘experience of’ over ‘knowledge about’ on the basis that e.g. in today’s on-line society getting to know someone in a chat room is most definitely not as illuminating as meeting them personally, similarly knowing everything there is to know about life at the South Pole is clearly an order of magnitude different from actually going there and experiencing it for oneself.

Knowledge about’ is objective, factual, verifiable but ‘second-hand’, ‘experience-of’ is subjective, experiential and subject to personal interpretation i.e. ‘first-hand’, thus they are quite different kinds of knowledge, in fact the latter is commonly regarded as ‘intuitive‘ and while Donovan is not dismissing this as a valid kind or source of knowledge he is keen to highlight its limitations and that caution should be exercised when claiming any knowledge gained in this way because it is not necessarily correct. [2,3,5]

{Here more examples of’ knowledge about and experience of’, could go into detail on the doctor and the pregnancy analogy of Donovan’s… and when knowledge or conclusions drawn from experience-of has gone wrong or proved to be false.}

Donovan ends with the question, is this kind of experience and knowledge ‘of no further interest’ and simply ‘a great illusion?’ Which he answers in the next paragraph by saying ‘nothing that has been said here can lead to that conclusion.’ So his own answer to his overall question ‘Can we know God by experience’ is ‘yes…BUT!’ And this is a huge qualified BUT!

b) Do you agree? Justify your point of view and explain the implications for understanding religion and human experience.[20]

Unless you have a fundamentalist view or a literal view of religion and holy writings it is likely that your view is similar to Donovan’s. Of course Richard Dawkins, who actually feels that this is the most convincing of all of the arguments for the existence of God, would dismiss the validity of conclusions about the existence of God drawn from these rather dodgy experiences If you’ve had such an experience, you may well find yourself believing firmly that it was real. But don’t expect the rest of us to take your word for it’
but few are quite as dogmatic as he is even today. Although a recent atheist myself, I cannot deny that to some people [including my own father] these experiences are utterly convincing. I personally believe that they are being misinterpreted and find it difficult to agree with Swinburne that ‘a loving creator would surely seek to interact with his creation’ on the basis that if there is a God he doesn’t seem to be really loving!

However I cannot deny that something seems to have happened in these people’s lives to show up in some quite extreme acts: of self-denial [Mother Theresa], self-sacrifice [ St Paul], outright heroism [Gladys Aylward], fanatical patience [Nelson Mandela], or creativity [Van Gogh’s Last Supper, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel… to name but a few.]

And I agree that Donovan is right that we need to treat the claims of these people with caution and interrogate them as far as possible with rationality, for alternative explanations, misinterpretations or downright wrongness.

It is also quite difficult even for sociologists and psychologists to convincingly explain away the phenomenon and global appeal and spread of religion although Voltaire would have had us believe that if there wasn’t a God we would have to invent him. However it could be argued that an alien doing a comparison of the number of people who attend church on a Sunday morning and the number who attend football games on the same day might come to the conclusion that football was a religion! Is religion merely something which enables society to survive and through it the majority of us as Durkheim would argue? Or does religion merely satisfy psychological needs and a desire to return to the safety of the womb recreating the ‘oceanic feeling’ via the collective feeling experienced during worship as Freud would suggest?

Many humans would like to think there is some other realm than that of the phenomenon, to quote Otto, and that there are mysteries yet to be discovered but the possibility that religious experiences do in fact suggest the existence of God is potentially ‘wish-fulfilment’ as Feuerbach called it or ‘sorceries of the imagination that satisfy the heart.’

On the other hand as John Hick put it ‘absence of knowledge is not that same as knowledge of absence’ so I would be among the first to admit that we don’t yet know.

However the most important part of what Donovan is saying is that we shouldn’t take claims like this at face value. His early assertion that tyrannical things have been said and done in the name of ‘I just
know’ is valid. Human history is littered with examples of wars and battles to assert supremacy of: a religion: the Crusades; an ideology: Hitler’s purge of the Jews and others; an unpalatable scientific truth: Galileo’s proof that the earth was not at the centre of the universe and his imprisonment by the church for 20 years; the persecution of so-called witches in medieval Europe; even The Yorkshire Ripper’s claim that God told him to kill prostitutes…
all of these atrocities were committed in the firm belief that the perpetrator and the justifications were ‘right.’

Here I am firmly on Dawkins’ and even Marx’s side in that I feel that religion has too long been used to justify terrible acts and also the perpetuation of the status quo. Religion holds human development back and claims to ‘just know’ should be subject to the fullest scrutiny.


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