1. Examine the strengths and weaknesses of the argument for the existence of God based on religious experience. (18) 2. ‘The argument merely indicates the probability of God and this is of little value to a religious believer.’ Discuss. (12)
In contrast to the classical arguments for the existence of God, namely the ontological, cosmological and teleological arguments, the argument from religious experience doesn’t just entail a set logical of points arriving at a conclusion on a piece of paper, rather it also necessitates sense-based experience, tangible to the individual who experiences the divine.
First and foremost, we must classify the argument from religious experience.
In general, philosophical arguments usually take one of two forms: either they are deductive arguments, moving from general principles to unfolding the logical implications (e.g. the ontological argument); or they are inductive arguments, proposing the best explanation for a set of observations (e.g. the cosmological argument [“God is first cause”] and the teleological argument [“God is the final cause”]).
Inductive arguments therefore lead to conclusions that are probabilities, which may require empirical verification. The argument from religious experience can be described as an inductive argument. And the inductive argument, reduced to a logical form, can be described as:
P1: If an entity is directly experienced, it must exist; P2: God is the sort of being that can be directly experienced; P3: People have claimed, in fact, to have experienced God directly; C: Therefore God exists.
... that it doesn’t fit in with the traditional religious view of God who keeps his covenant with his people and sends ... conclude, I feel that Boethius was successful in his argument that God rewards and punishes us justly however in doing so moves ... as he can’t see how a temporal God can judge someone if he experiences time himself. On the other hand Boethius ...
The argument from religious experience also takes the form of an appeal to intuition (direct, immediate knowledge).
In this regard, it is more of an assertion than a sophisticated, effable argument. Peter Donovan argues that we can essentially know God by religious experience, implying that experiencing God is a superior way of knowing him (intuitively) than our Reason (man’s mental capacity).
In the terminology of the later philosophers, this is an a posteriori argument (dependent on observation or sense perception).
Further classified, the argument from religious experience arrives at a synthetic proposition – namely that God exists. Synthetic statements are those that are true or false depending upon the circumstances, such as “All bachelors are sad,” as opposed to analytic statements which are true or false by definition,” such as “All bachelors are unmarried.” An a posteriori argument for a synthetic proposition means that, interestingly, philosophers working in both the Rationalist and Empiricist traditions could potentially accept this argument. Strictly speaking, the former believe that our mind shapes our experiences (like Kant) and the latter believe that our experiences shape our minds (like Hume).
Having outlined the form of the argument, we must ask: what do we exactly mean by the phrase “religious experience” and what qualifies as religious experience?
The term “religious experience” can conjure up a wide and diverse series of images. There could be trigger factors or contexts to having such an experience, for example, near death experiences, conversion (to another religion or better set of values), individual or collective worship and the sheer beauty of the universe.
The most common way of defining religious experience is that it is “an encounter with the divine.” It could also be “an experience of religion”, or merely reduced to a “spiritual feeling” or “mysticism”. The pragmatic philosopher, William James describes religious experience as an experience where God is revealed and there is an experience with the divine. Those who insist on human spirituality (religious or a-religious) would argue the best way to know the supernatural is to experience it. However, such experiences are difficult to define collectively and remain individualistic.
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This is why the pragmatic philosopher, William James, in his Varieties of Religious Experience sees it necessary to characterise religious experience, otherwise anything and everything could be considered an “experience of religion”. James lists four qualifiers of mystical experiences: ineffability (a state that defies description), noetic quality (revelations of universal and eternal truths), transiency (a brief but profoundly important experience) and passivity (a feeling of being taken over by a superior authority).
The father of liberal theology, Schleiermacher, made “passivity” the most important qualifier. He took the concept a step further and proposed that the “essence of religion is the feeling of absolute dependence” and this approach was supported by scholars such as Rudolf Otto, who defined religious experience as “wholly other”.
For Schleiermacher, in particular, and, additionally, the Islamic mystic Al-Ghazali, true religion was completely experiential and it should therefore be felt rather than thought. He believed that logic destroys religious experience because religious experience is a matter of intuitive knowledge, not processed knowledge. Intuition is belief, where as logic creates doubts. In many spiritual systems (religious or independent of religion) the human instinct is held in high regard. It was for this reason that Iqbal, the late Islamic philosopher of the modern era, disagreed with Al-Ghazali.
Religious experience is a very important concept for those who believe that way to know God is to experience Him. There is a spiritual, mystical dimension to all the world religions – in fact, the Eastern religions rely heavily on sense-based knowledge. The Western religions are not devoid of this either. We have discussed Schleiermacher and his views are on par with Eastern Christianity. Al-Ghazali’s methodology is pertinent as it marks a time in Islamic thought where Sufism, or mysticism, became considered an orthodox practice. Al-Ghazali himself was given the alias “Proof of Islam” (Hujjat al-Islam).
... to America the choice to partake in any religious experiences or to deny them at one's own ... idea for "under God" exists as a more early patriotic fashion blended with a sense of religion. During the early ... school. They furthered their point by arguing the idea of religious tolerance. They were trying to teach ... no real argument. The fact that he was arguing for the rights and safety of his daughter ...
Religious experience is therefore seen as an important argument, if not concept within faith.
Is it really the case that God can be experienced directly; granted that people have what they call “religious experiences”, how can we verify that their cause is God and not some other cause; do the weaknesses of this argument necessarily entail the rejection of the conclusion?
Firstly we can discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the argument in terms of its premises. P1 states that “If an entity is directly experienced, it exists”. Arguably, the proof we rely on most of all in the twenty-first century is our own experience. If we have seen, heard or experienced something, we accept the “truth” of whatever it may be. For those philosophers working in the Empiricist tradition (Hume, Bertrand Russell, Dawkins), this is appealing. The premise is an analytic statement – it is generally true by definition -, and therefore would be accepted by Logical Positivists and their Verificationism.
P2 states that “God is the sort of being that can be experienced”. In the Classical Theism espoused by the three Abrahamic faiths, God is omnipotent, omnibenevolent and omniscient. He is also transcendent and immanent, personal and impersonal. With these major attributes, God is thought be able to be experienced, by default. Quranic injunctions, such as, “If you remember Him, He will remember you,” (2:152), and the concept of Ihsan – the Prophet Muhammad is recorded to have said, “Ihsan is to worship God as if you see him, and if you can’t do that then know that he is seeing You,” (Hadith of Gabriel in Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim) – forms the basis of an experience-based God in Islam. However, is the Prophet Muhammad saying that one may “see” or “feel” God literally? The Ashari theologians of Sunni Islam argued that certain attributes of God which are seemingly anthromorphic should not be taken literally, so, when God mentions His “Hand” (Arabic: Yad) in the Quran, it is representative of his Power.
Similarly, when we say God is “experienced”, what does this really mean? Despite being considered an orthodox theologian of Christianity, Thomas Aquinas argued that God cannot be experienced in the way that human beings experience things. This is because God is transcendent and above mortal senses of observation, smell, taste, hearing, touch and the sixth sense – often described as “intuition” and is vital to the processing of religious experience. Similarly, Kant argues that given our human senses are finite and limited, it is impossible to ‘experience’ an infinite and unlimited God.
... simply divine property and supporters came up with ridiculous arguments involving religion to protect it. By using Biblical references, they ... labor system of employer-employee relationships. Supporters of slavery argued God recognized the relation between a slave and his master; ... why the supporters of slavery used legal, religious, and economic-2-arguments to defend the institution, they were simply ...
P3 states that “People have claimed to experience God directly.” This premise is probably the most problematic, from various perspectives. It is said that up to 28% of the human race have religious experiences in the sense that they have, at some point in their life, had an experience of being aware of the presence of God.
Such experiences must be deconstructed. Hume, a Sceptic and Empiricist, argued that people who experience God are in fact lying or mentally ill. He also argued that different religious experience (and by extension miracles) from different religions cancel each other out. Take the example of Schleiermacher who uses religious experience to prove the superiority of Christianity, or Al-Ghazali who uses religious experience to prove the superiority of the Prophetic Way and Islam. The Prophet Muhammad’s religious experience (revelation) in the Cave of Hira in Mecca brought him the message of the One and Only God, on the other hand Guru Nanak’s experience opened the gateway to a more pantheistic God. A critical thinker may find discrepancy here, and conclude that all religions can’t be true, so their respective religious experiences can’t be true either.
By reverse, someone pragmatic about religious experience may argue that what is important in religious experience is not necessarily the varying religions but God and the experience itself. This forms the basis of Perennial or Syncretistic mysticism, espoused by Sufi thinkers in the West like Fritjof Schuon and writers like William Dalrymple (he talks about the history of Religious Syncretism in India to promote pluralism).
The reasoning behind this is: since all religions have developed a sense-based, mystical dimension, the truth lies in the experiences, not the religion, and so the experiences are to be extracted to alone which leads us to a supernatural being.
For the Logical Positivists, such claims of religious experiences should be essentially verified to be proven as true. A. J. Ayer who promoted this school of philosophy presented harsher ideas in his book “Language, Truth and Logic”. He said that any talk of God is essentially “nonsense” and “meaningless”. Similar to some religious theologians who believe God is above our logic, Ayer, despite being a de facto atheist, took it one step further and concluded that since God is above logic, we cannot talk about Him. Perhaps this is the reason for the ineffability of such experiences. But in some ways, this does not really contribute to whether the argument is true or not and acts as a barrier to discourse. Perhaps the harsh stance of the Logical Positivists does not produce any answers to our continuous questions.
... still people that question the existence of God. A survey done among 1000 people showed that 65 percent of Americans believe that religion ... should be separated, there are more people that feel religion should be allowed in schools. If religion were allowed in schools, the ... America would have a better understanding of religion and of God. Also, the future of religion in America would be more secure. ...
Freud, a materialist thinker and a renowned psychologist provided a natural explanation for such claimed religious experiences. He believed people were completely material beings. In other words, if we understood everything about the biological/physical side of life, we would fully understand human beings. Religious experiences for Freud were just illusions and were the result of a psychological need – for example, the desire to project a father image on to the universe having recognised their own fathers as fallible, human and finite. More particularly, he believed that they were projections of the ultimate, oldest and most profound ideas that people had.
Dawkins, similarly, dismisses religious experience as “hallucinations”. He mentions the case of the “Yorkshire Ripper” who heard the voice of Jesus telling him to kill women. Even religious believers said accepted this as a hallucination. Why? Because of the belief that Jesus would never preach something “wrong”.
A question to religious believers may be, that, if the “Yorkshire Ripper” had heard Jesus telling him to “love” and not “kill”, would it still be a hallucination? If the Yorkshire Ripper was clearly prone to having hallucinations, then at a medical and scientific level, this would still be a hallucination. If religious believers consider this false, then it shows a lack of objectivity.
William James, presented a unique counterargument. He accepted that religious experiences are psychological phenomena: that they occur within the brain and are cognitive. However, for James, this is not a flaw. Rather, these psychological experiences do not just have a physical justification, but also a supernatural one. The four qualities that James lists of religious experience are telling us that there are realities beyond this world.
... just hallucinations, or an illness? There is no evidence to prove religious experiences are convincing. Freud also believed that religious experiences were ... peace with the world and God, rather than distressed, then they were religious experiences and if explained in this ... is lying about their experience with god? Anthony Flew claims that the character of religious experience “seem to depend on ...
Another question then arises, beyond psychological disorder, are we experiencing God, or have we misunderstood? Is it not possible that a more rational thinking and modern person would sit and recollect their thoughts after such an experience? Perhaps it was not God that the person experienced, but just an energy part and parcel of the universe. If we take the example of a converted mosque in a British city and compare it to a beautifully designed mosque of Ottoman Turkey, a person is likely to “feel” the presence of God in the Ottoman mosque, than the mosque in Britain, despite the prayers being exactly the same. A natural explanation would be the architecture. Therefore, surroundings may play an important part in religious experiences. In Dawkins’ book, “The Magic of Reality”, he is keen to make the reader realise that there is a sort of natural, not supernatural, “magic” in the universe and things that humans create.
We also forget the idea of atheistic mystical experience. Again, it may not be that one has experienced God. Many members of the New Age Spiritual Movement were non-believers. In fact, some forms of classical Hinduism and Buddhism do not necessarily require belief in a Creator, and no one can deny the importance of mysticism in the Eastern religion.
Swinburne, on the other hand, argues that we should not be so cynical and regulatory of people’s own experiences. He proposes the “Principle of Credulity” and the “Principle of Testimony” which state that we ought to believe things are the way they seem to us in the absence of counter evidence.
The final conclusion of the argument from religious experience is the synthetic proposition that “God exists”. Has there been a leap in conclusion? Can this synthetic proposition truly be proved or even accepted when there are so many problems among the premises?
At the same time, if no body had religious experiences, there would be no basis for the idea of ‘god’, nor would there have been any reason for religions to have developed. The empirical nature of this argument, despite the experience not being able to be proved is very appealing in our rational yet sense-based age.