The Argument from Religious Experience: Counters


3rd and final in a short series on the argument from religious experience.

The points for have been considered; it’s now time for the points against. First of all, there is one very pertinent argument against Swinburne’s principle of credulity, namely the negative principle of credulity. Developed by Michael Martin (please excuse all these names; their important for the IB exams), the negative principle of credulity is essentially the opposite of the principle of credulity – let’s call this the “positive” principle of credulity – stating that if a person who we have no reason to distrust (the defeating conditions again) claims that they have not perceived a particular object, then it is very likely that said object is not present. As many people claim that they have never had an experience of God, it then seems logical to assume that God does not exist. It uses the same rational as the principle of credulity, so if we accept the former we must accept the latter.

Another, fairly substantial argument against the validity of religious experience is the argument from inconsistent revelations (sometimes referred to as the “avoiding the wrong hell problem”). Now, this is a general argument against the existence of God, and a fairly common one at that, but it is particularly relevant to the argument from religious experience as it speaks of what we might call “religious testimonies”. The argument posits that, as there are so many conflicting and at times incompatible views on the divine and people belonging to different faiths have experiences involving different gods, it seems unlikely that there actually is a God. Antony Flew spoke of this issue, taking it further by pointing out the fact that people often have the sort of religious experience that they would expect to have. Buddhist monks don’t generally have visions of Jesus Christ, and devout Muslims rarely find themselves in the presence of Shiva. This seems to suggest that the expectation in the individual of having an experience of God is what causes the experience, rather than an actual God being the source.

These are compelling arguments, but they are not entirely conclusive. The latter can be adressed through an examination of God’s supposed nature, for instance. God, after all, is considered to be very different from normal “objects” – He is enigmatic and we only have a very vague idea of His true nature. It is also quite possible that He has decided that it should be very difficult for people to achieve any direct experience of Him. These points would account for all the differences that exist between the religions and the religious experiences of people belonging to different cultural groups. They may all be variants of one genuine Ultimate Reality, conflicting perhaps because they have been influenced to some extent by external factors and human psychology.

The earlier argument, the negative principle of credulity, might not be quite so sound either. Let’s consider the analogy I made when I first presented the positive principle of credulity: if I see someone pass me on a pink bike decorated with skulls it seems very likely that such a bike does exist. This makes perfect sense; if the premise (I saw a pink bike with skulls on it) is true, then the conclusion (such a bike exists) must also be true. But, surely, if I were to say that I have never seen a pink bicycle with skulls on it and tried to use this fact to say that there are no such bikes in existence, you would be very much justified in calling me an ass. The argument seems to use the same logic as the principle of credulity, but in reality it doesn’t.

So what can one conclude from all of this? Well, it’s certainly true that the argument from religious experience is an important one in the debate regarding God’s existence. Does it have merit? Perhaps so; there are plenty of arguments for it, though there are also many lined up against it. Ultimately, though, the argument is inductive and uses subjective human experiences as its main basis – it will never provide any conclusive proof for God’s existence, only make it more or less likely.


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