Can we know God by experience?

It is in his first two paragraphs that Donovan states his case which he then goes on to explain.

His argument is his worry that people who have religious experiences claim a superior kind of knowledge and unquestioning ‘rightness’ on the basis of it. He says these people are convinced they are right but his concern is that in history others have been equally convinced of the ‘rightness’ of their beliefs to the detriment of others. (He calls these people tyrants and dictators.)

The problem he suggests arise from those who do not allow any questioning of their positions: ‘I know I am right; don’t confuse me with arguments.’ This leads to abuse. The trouble is that these people claim their ‘intuition’ is the source of their ‘inner conviction.’

Ordinary intuition is one thing (and he gives several examples) but he wonders whether having a religious conviction is good enough reason to refuse to answer questions.

He then goes on to discuss the nature of intuition and to define what kind of knowledge is gained through it, concluding that intuition of the reality of God is not the product of reasoning neither is the faith which is the natural response to the experience.

However he argues that although intuition may be the first way that God is known nevertheless it is important that any experience is understood in a context. Not all experiences come to believers but it is through them that he is known on a personal level; a kind of knowledge which can only come directly to the experient and which according to the bible is a natural way for God to interact with his creation. It is this knowledge which, Donovan quotes HP Owen as saying, needs ‘no further argument or support.’

However Donovan and others still disagree. These argue that the fatal weakness’ is in relying on intuition as a special case for exemption in the case of religious faith. These make the distinction between psychological and rational certainty. The concept of ‘certainty’ causes much dispute but Donovan suggests it is the difference between ‘feeling certain’ and ‘being right.’

We can easily understand the difference and we know that the one doesn’t make the other! He continues that intuition is not reliable enough; we can be convinced (as he uses Bertrand Russell’s idea) that someone loves us but that doesn’t make it true! and concludes that sadly the intellect is far more reliable. In addition to argue from religious experience to the conclusion that it was of God is to assume that there is a God to experience and that is precisely what hasn’t been proven. Just because we accept certain types of intuitive knowledge about the existence of other human beings doesn’t mean that we can assume it of God.

Donovan does admit that this isn’t all Owen and others are saying but basically they are arguing for the prime importance of an intuitive, not-argued-for knowledge of God and acceptance of his existence. There are still too many ‘ifs’.

These same theologians remind us that we have two different types of relationships with people and things – I / It and I / You. The former is objective; the latter is personal, direct. Only the latter is truly human the former is more like a robot trying and failing to be fully human. Belief in is better than belief about but for this faith is needed. It is the ‘leap’ needed. You can know about Bob Geldof or God but can only truly know them if you have direct experience of them. Even so it is rare for us to experience each other on that deep level.

There are three problems even in these relationships: the first is that we may be mistaken (we never really know another person); the second presupposes we already know about the other as in an I / It way (Christians for example are highly unlikely to have an experience of Allah or Brahman!); and thirdly even in the depths of that experience-of we still don’t know! Donovan concludes that the problem is that believers often claim to ‘know’ purely on the basis of the experience and this is insufficient he suggests. Therefore the criticisms do not prove the ‘knowledge of God’ is not real but do mean that we still do not have ‘good reason’ to believe in God.

He finishes off by explaining that these personal experiences have kept belief in God alive; the philosophical criticisms have not removed the possible validity of these experiences but have opened up the arena to discuss them rationally, all the more so if one is a philosopher and believer too! And even if one were to conclude that these intuitive experiences do not count as ‘knowledge of God’ it doesn’t mean it isn’t a valid discussion to have.

Questions and answers on Donovan paragraphs 1 and 2

Is religious experience the ultimate argument for the existence of God?

It is regarded by theists as the ultimate argument because it is so personal and convincing that it gives experients an utter conviction that what they have experienced is real and that it is of God therefore there is no doubt that God exists for them.


Why is it regarded as so important? Think of it in comparison with other arguments.

It is regarded as so because rather than being cognitive, rational and a priori it is affective, a posteriori and a direct appeal to the emotions. Anyone who has one of these experiences will be utterly convinced and no amount of persuasion will convince them otherwise. As Swinburne said ‘a personal God will be expected to interact with his creatures’ therefore we should expect these experiences.


What does religious experience actually succeed in doing?

Religious experience succeeds in convincing the individual experient and imparting a very special form of knowledge but in no way is any of this verifiable.


What kind of knowledge does it impart?

The kind of knowledge it imparts is a deeply personal insight into God’s nature; experients ‘just know’ that what they have experienced is God. It is knowledge of rather than knowledge about.


What is an inner conviction? What is it distinct from?

An inner conviction is an emotional commitment or total faith in the correctness of whatever it is that is believed. It is distinct from knowledge based on factual observation


Why is ‘just knowing’ a risky business?

Just knowing is a risky business if it is not founded on fact because it can lead to evil or misguided actions.


What kinds of things do we just know? Are we justified?

Some claim to just know that ghosts exist, UFOs or aliens are real, in psychic powers, in the existence of the soul, in reincarnation, NDEs and lots more (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle believed in fairies and in the spirit realm!)


What is the problem with ‘just knowing’? Examples…

Peter Sutcliffe (The Yorkshire Ripper) believed God told him to kill prostitutes. Suicide bombers believe that they are right and have God on their side. Bush believed God told him to go to war on Iraq in 2003. Hitler just knew Jews were an inferior race. Muslim martyrs believe they will be rewarded in Paradise with 72 virgins… enugh said!


Do you agree with his suggestion that to have ‘no doubts at all’ may not be ‘sound thinking’?

Yes! Even Dawkins on his scale of 1-7 didn’t think people could claim to be total atheists but equally couldn’t claim to ‘know’ God exists beyond dispute!


Why do believers think they are a special case? Are they?

You need to think of an answer here; post in the comments with your own answer!