Religious Experience

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1st in a short series on the argument from religious experience.

The argument from religious experience is one of many philosophical arguments that seek to prove the existence of God. In order for this argument to be contemplated and discussed properly, it’s important to first establish a firm understanding of what, exactly, a “religious experience” is. What I would like to do now is to go over a few of the main defining features of such experiences, as laid out by the various philosophers, psychologists and general busybodies who have commented on the subject in the past. Please keep in mind that I’m learning about this as I go along; any corrections would be much appreciated. I can assure you, however, that there will be no overly egregious errors here. Think of me as you would of Wikipedia (or as most teachers would like you to think of Wikipedia).

So, what in the name of all that’s concrete is a religious experience? I can tell you right off the bat that it is not in any way something concrete. Religious experiences are subjective, broadly defined as any perception that an individual relates to a higher power or reality (such as “heaven” or “nirvana”). In the world of philosophy, however, a few definite criteria have been laid down over the years. The two main figures that people discuss in relation to the topic are Richard Swinburne (a contemporary philosopher who’s still alive and kicking) and William James (a late 19th century philosopher and psychologist). The former has dealt with defining ordinary religious experiences whilst the latter has dealt specifically with mystical religious experiences (more on that in a sec).

I’ll start with Swinburne. Now, the first thing that Swinburne took care of before he  started working on defining religious experiences was to establish the difference between what he called “public” and “private” perceptions. The difference is quite simple, really. Imagine you have a group of people (about a dozen or so), who are all in full possession of their senses and are all completely sober. If the entire group then perceives a car moving down the road towards them, this would count as a public perception. If only one or two members of the group see the car, it is a private perception. Religious experience are, generally, private.

Swinburne then went on to outline the five different forms of religious experience he thought that people were capable of having. He said that one might be exposed to a normal, commonplace object and have an experience of some sort of divinity as a result, or that one might be exposed to a very unusual object with a similar outcome. He also said that one might have an experience that one judges to be religious in nature, but that can be described using ordinary language, or that one might experience something that can’t be described through ordinary language. Finally, he said that one might have an experience which, in a sense, goes beyond the empirical, where a sense of a darkness or a void is interpreted as an experience of God. The primary criticism of these is that, while they do offer descriptions of some religious experiences, there may well be other kinds. In other words, the list might not be exhaustive, though Swinburne seems to treat it as such.

Now, onto mystical religious experiences and William James: a mystical religious experience is a religious experience where the perceiver claims to have achieved a sort of unity with God. Terms such as “Oneness” are often used. A mystic is a person practicing a particular form of spirituality who spends a substantial amount of time trying to induce experiences of this nature. Generally, this is accomplished through attempts at “purifying” the mind and body. This is done through such things as asceticism and celibacy, and often requires a supreme level of discipline in the mystic. Examples of famous mystics would include St Teresa.

How, then, can we establish whether a mystical religious experience truly is what it purports to be? Thanks to James, we have a selection of defining criteria which we can use. These are ineffability, meaning that the experience must be one that can’t be explained with words; transiency, meaning that the experience must be brief and fleeting (note that James does agree that these experiences might occasionally last for a longer time – he is speaking generally here); passivity, meaning that the person having the experience must be in a passive rather than an active state – in other words, that he or she does not control what is happening to them; and that the experience must have a noetic quality, meaning that the experiencer must derive some sort of enlightenment from it.

Neither of these two illustrious men are the ultimate authority on religious experiences (I believe that would be God), and their views have been criticized. One of the big issues with defining religious experiences (besides their subjectivity) is that they are often paradoxical. They may be described as empty and full, painful and pleasurable, fragmented and whole. Naturally, this creates certain issues when one tries to describe them accurately. Nevertheless, James and Swinburne do allow us to have a better understanding of them, and perhaps that is enough for now.

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3 responses »

  1. Pingback: the rebirth of God « JRFibonacci's blog: partnering with reality

  2. Pingback: the creation of “reality” « power of language blog: partnering with reality by JR Fibonacci

  3. Pingback: The Supremacy of language, heaven, god, and society « power of language blog: partnering with reality by JR Fibonacci

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