Religious Experience Revision 2009

What kind of argument is it? What is good about it? Why should it be considered as an argument?

  • A posteriori – concludes that God manifests himself in direct ways.
  • Encounter with something – the wholly other. (Otto)
  • The other arguments aim to prove that the existence of the universe can lead to conclusions about the existence of God – they are indirect – from the universe to God – here from God to God.
  • Schleiermacher defined religious experiences
    • Sense of the ultimate
    • Wholeness
    • Consciousness of infiniteness
    • Dependence
  • Hume had demolished the rational arguments for God’s existence but here was an area which could not be so easily dismissed.
  • Numinous – Otto
  • Psychology has helped to both empirically root and undermine the value of religious experiences
  • William James categorised experiences into types e.g. conversion – St Paul
  • He realised that they had common emotional experiences – but that it was the effect on the life of the experient which gave it validity.
  • In 20th century the Logical Positivists had a negative effect on this aspect but in last 50 years its importance has been seen again especially since research shows that over 50% of people believe that they have had some kind of mystical exp.


Is it proof?

  • Swinburne: ‘an omnipotent God will seek to interact with his creatures.
  • Swinburne‘s Principles of Credulity– we should believe – and Testimony – most people tell the truth. ‘If it seems to a subject that x is present then probably x is present.
  • Doesn’t use empirical evidence gained through the five senses but non-empirical evidence gained through use of a religious sense.
  • We do and can trust our senses even if on occasion we are wrong. [see The story of the explorers in the jungle… (p 59 of the big book!)]
  • Of course sometimes these experiences are not valid e.g drugs, hallucinations; deliberate lies; or arising out of illness. BUT even these may not necessarily invalidate them …
  • On the other hand Bertrand Russellwhat is the difference between a man who drinks and sees snakes and one who fasts and sees God?’
  • Also inductive knowledge is inherently unreliable since it is not certain but subject to interpretation.


Arguments against

  • Wittgenstein – seeing as – individual perceptions, beauty, ugliness, the ink blots…
  • RM Hare – bliks – the student and the dons… nothing will convince him …
  • If no God then no experiences
  • If everyday experiences deceptive then so much more so ones of God!!
  • Testimony of religious believers especially unreliable – pre-existing belief so evidence not unbiased.
  • Psychological crutch!
  • Biological and neurological explanations [see Francis Collins.]


  • No proof of the non-existence of God; God may be simpler explanation than alternative!
  • Religious experience claims are not always invalid. What about the effect on the life?
  • Religious believers are more likely to have and describe one but then they know what they are looking at! Whereas someone else might need it explaining! (see Samuel in the temple p 62 or 1 Sam 3)
  • Just because religious experience may satisfy deep psychological needs doesn’t make it necessarily the only explanation!



SwinburneI suggest that the overwhelming testimony of so many people to occasional experiences of God, must, in the absence of counter-evidence, be taken as tipping the balance decisively in favour of the existence of God.’





Sees god as Holy in the Temple and himself as unclean



Burning Bush and mission to Free God’s People



Great Storm and the still small voice



The Road To Damascus; the blinding light and the voice of Jesus

Saul / St Paul


Gang Leader in New York

Nicky Cruz [p 86]


‘Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.’

Blaise Pascal


‘Mysterium tremendum et fascinans’



A feeling of ultimate concern



‘And they were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues.’

Disciples at Pentecost

Mystical and Corporate

At the 11:15 a.m. service…there was a tremendous awe and sense of the presence of God…whole groups of the congregation fell down without anyone being near them…’

The Toronto Blessing




Topics for consideration

How can this be used as an argument for the existence of God?

What are its drawbacks and advantages?

Is it still valid in this day and age?

To what extent do the criticisms invalidate its claims?

Whose experiences can you use in support? Details!