Philosophy of Religion

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Arguments from Religious Experience

So far we have looked at:
  • The Ontological Argument
  • The Cosmological Argument
  • The Teleological Argument
  • The Moral Argument
These are interesting arguments and have been the subject of discussion among philosophers for centuries. However, most religious people do not defend their beliefs using any philosophical rhetoric at all. Most religious people will defend their belief based upon their experience.

Types of Religious Experience

Religious experiences appear to fall into two categories:

  1. An experience in a religious context e.g. an act of worship, a religious building
  2. An experience of some power or presence beyond oneself
  • Religious experiences tend to be of something ‘out of the ordinary’.
  • There is often a problem in trying to explain the experience in everyday language.
  • Despite there being experience which are experienced by everyone (e.g. hunger, cold, tired…etc.) religious experiences tend to be unique and limited to a few.
  • It is difficult to verify a religious experience.
  • Religious experiences provide insight into something other than the everyday, material world.
  • Religious experiences are said to be ‘God given’ compared to ordinary experiences which are available to anyone.

Richard Swinburne

Richard Swinburne (1934 - ) has identified five different types of religious experience in which people claim to experience God:

  • 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 someway despite lack of material evidence
  • Perceiving a perfectly normal phenomenon (e.g. a sunset)
  • Perceiving a very unusual public object (e.g. the resurrection)

William James

William James (1842-1910) was a pioneering American psychologist and philosopher. He wrote influential books on the young science of psychology, psychology of religious experience and mysticism, and the philosophy of pragmatism.

James identified four hallmarks of mystical experiences:

  1. Ineffable
  2. Noetic
  3. Transient
  4. Passive
  • Ineffable means it is unutterable or too great for words. The experience a mystic has cannot be easily articulated. It is not easily understood by anyone else who has not experienced it.

  • Noetic means purely intellectual. Mystic experiences are not just emotional although they may become emotional. They provide new insight to religious truths. These ‘truths’ have universal or eternal significance i.e. they are not trival.

  • Transient means momentary, only lasting a short duration. The mystical experience cannot be sustained for any length of time. Studies have shown that the average duration of a mystical experience is about an hour. Over time the recipient is left with a greater sense of importance about what has been revealed.

  • Passive means that the recipiant cannot initiate or control the mystical experience. It is seen as a gift from God. There is a sense of powerlessness. Sometimes it is accompanied by ‘spiritual gifts’ e.g. speaking in tongues or prophetic speech.

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