Argument from religious experience
Outline logical structure
Its logical structure is essentially as follows:
- There are compelling reasons for believing that claims for having religious experiences point to and validate spiritual realities that exist in a way that transcends any material manifestations.
- According to Materialism, nothing exists in a way that transcends its material manifestations.
- According to Classical Theism in general, and to many theistic faiths, God endows Humans with the ability to have spiritual experiences and to perceive, albeit imperfectly, such spiritual realities. There are innumerable references in both the Old testament, from Adam talking with God in Genesis onwards, and in the New Testament of which the Transfiguration and St Paul's comments in 1 Corinthians about spiritual gifts and "seeing through a glass darkly" (i.e. through a poor mirror, imperfectly) may stand as two examples and these spiritual realities exist in a way that transcends any material manifestations.
- Therefore, to the extent that premise (1) is accepted, Theism is more plausible than Materialism.
Points 2, 3 and 4 are relatively un-controversial, and the argument is formally valid, so discussion focuses on the premise (1).
Suggested reason for accepting the premise
The principal arguments for the premise are: Very substantial numbers of ordinary people report having had such experiences, though this isn't to say that religious believers aren't ordinary. Such experiences are reported in almost all known cultures.
These experiences often have very significant effects on people's lives, frequently inducing in them acts of extreme self-sacrifice well beyond what could be expected from evolutionary arguments.
These experiences often seem very real to the people involved, and are quite often reported as being shared by a number of people. Although mass delusions are not inconceivable, one needs compelling reasons for invoking this as an explanation.
Swinburne suggests that, as two basic principles of rationality, we ought to believe that things are as they seem unless and until we have evidence that they are mistaken (principle of credulity), and that those who do not have an experience of a certain type ought to believe others who say that they do in the absence of evidence of deceit or delusion (principle of testimony) and thus, although if you have a strong reason to disbelieve in the existence of God you will discount these experiences, in other cases such evidence should count towards the existence of God.
Suggested reasons for disputing the premise
- These might be mis-firings of evolved mechanisms selected for very different reasons.
- Religious texts such as the Bible that speak of revelations are of disputable historical accuracy.
- It is conceivable that some claimed religious experiences are lies, possibly done for attention or acceptance.
- Argument from Inconsistent Revelations: Different people have had, or believed to have had, religious experiences pointing to the existence of different religions. Not all of these can be correct.
- It has been argued that religious experiences are little more than hallucinations aimed at fulfilling basic psychological desires of immortality, purpose, etc. Sigmund Freud, for example, considered God to be simply a psychological "illusion" created by the mind, instead of an actual existing entity. This argument can be based upon the fact that since we know about some believers for whom this argument is correct (their reports for religious experiences are nothing more than illusions), we assume that perhaps all such reports may be illusions.
Notes and references
- Polkinghorne Belief in God in an Age of Science' "the surveys conducted by the distinguished biologist Alister Hardy"Swinburne references David Hay Religious Experience Today (1990) chapters 5, 6 and Appendix
- For example the New Testament speaks of Jesus, after his resurrection, appearing to 10 or more people at once (see e.g. 1 Corinthians 15:6, Luke 24, Mt 28, Jn 16, Acts 1).
- Swinburne, Is there a God? p 133–136
- This is broadly Dawkins' line in The God Delusion
- Walker, Cliff. "Is The Bible Historically Accurate?". Positive Atheism. Retrieved 11 May 2010.
- Freud, Sigmund, The Future of an Illusion, W. W. Norton & Company, ISBN 0-393-00831-2
- Ian Barbour Religion and Science SCM 1998 ISBN 0-334-02721-7
- Caroline Franks Davis discusses The Evidential Force of Religious Experience in her book of that name, OUP 2004 ISBN 0-19-825001-0.
- Joseph Hinman The Trace of God: A Rational Warrant for Belief ISBN 978-0-9824087-3-5.
- Richard Dawkins who in The God Delusion dismisses the Argument from religious experience, without formally stating it.
- William James wrote the classic account of The Varieties of Religious Experience
- Kai-man Kwan "The Argument from Religious Experience" in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology
- John Polkinghorne See e.g. his The faith of a scientist and Belief in an Age of Science
- Richard Swinburne esp The Existence of God OUP 2nd Edition 2004 ISBN 0-19-927168-2 and Is there a God? OUP 1996 ISBN 0-19-823545-3
- Tom Wright who regards religious experience as one of the four main pointers to belief in God — see esp. his Simply Christian SPCK 2006, Ch 2 "The hidden spring"
- Yandell, Ketih E. (1994), The Epistemology of Religious Experience, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-47741-3