The Argument from Religious Experience


2nd in a short series on the argument from religious experience.

The argument from religious experience is fairly simple; the difficult part lies in understanding the experiences themselves (what they are, what they aren’t, etc.), and as that preliminary work has been taken care of, I should be able to keep this relatively short and sweet. The argument is, however, slightly strange. It’s different to most of the other arguments for God in that, rather than offering empirical evidence or universally applicable logic as proof of His existence, it seeks to convince us that we should believe in the words of a few select individuals. In this sense, it is an inductive argument, as it goes from the specific (there are some people who claim to have experienced God or some other form of divinity) to the general (the divine exists). Inductive arguments are notoriously unreliable, but considering the fact that science is inductive I wouldn’t say that this one feature makes the argument void. I’ll focus on supporting arguments in this post, and follow-up with a post containing the various counter arguments and a potential conclusion.

I’ve outlined the gist of the argument already. It goes as follows: “as there are people who have directly experienced divinity in one form or another, it seems likely that there is in fact some God or Ultimate Reality in existence”. You could add an “if-clause” in there, I’d say; “if these people are reliable and we choose to believe that their experiences are genuinely divine in nature”, or something to that effect. This is where the debate lies, after all: in order for the argument to work, we need to establish whether these religious experiences actually do happen. Otherwise, the argument’s main premise has no real basis. This debate has actually become fairly broad over the years, but I intend to narrow it down to a few concise points. As said, I’ll start with those that support the argument.

It is, of course, Swinburne who has provided a few of the main philosophical arguments for religious experience (note: the discussion is now regarding whether religious experiences exists and not whether God exists – this can become confusing). The two primary arguments he has developed are known as the principle of credulity and the principle of testimony. The principle of credulity states that when a person believes that they have been exposed to a particular object, it is very likely that that object exists. For instance, if I see someone pass me on a pink bicycle decorated with skulls, it is very likely that a pink bicycle decorated with skulls exists. I’m sure you can see the weakness of this argument; I might’ve been hallucinating when the bike passed me, or perhaps the skulls were actually butterflies and I just couldn’t see them properly because I didn’t have my glasses on at the time. To tackle this issue, Swinburne has jotted up four defeating conditions (special conditions that would damage the credulity of the experiencer or “witness”). It should be noted that these conditions deal with the credulity of general “eye-witness accounts”, rather than addressing religious ones specifically.

These defeating conditions are, briefly: the witness is or was known to be unreliable (he or she is known to be a liar or an alcoholic, for example); the witness had the experience under conditions that have produced similar experiences (ones with naturalistic explanations) in the past (an example being St Elmo’s fire)*; the witness claims to have seen a particular object when we have been informed by another, perhaps more reliable or substantial source that the object in question couldn’t possibly have been where the witness says it was when the witness says it was there; or that it is probable, based on certain evidence, that the thing the witness claims to have experienced wasn’t really caused by that same thing (the textbook example being that of an actor dressed up as someone else).

The principle of testimony is similar, stating that if we have no reasonable cause to disbelieve a person’s claims (i.e. if there are no “defeating conditions”), than we should accept that they are being truthful when they say that they have had a religious experience. It is worth noting here that the aforementioned “defeating conditions” don’t usually apply to religious experiences. People who have religious experiences are usually the sort of people one would consider to be reliable, after all, and a genuine  experience of God is generally so unique and intense that it is unlikely that it will have been caused by some naturalistic phenomenon that has occurred in the past. Furthermore, as God is often considered to be omnipresent and immaterial, the third point is moot, and considering the fact that God is by definition inimitable, the fourth defeating condition doesn’t seem to apply either. Therefore, one might say that religious experiences have a high level of credulity.

*I’m not actually completely sure of this. I’d say I’m about 99% sure, but I’ve been having trouble with this particular point. Anyway, my explanation of it does seem to make sense.


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