Arguments from religious experience are never convincing

8 August 2016

When people say that they have experienced God or the divine in some way; they are not saying that it ‘seemed like’ God but was something else. The issue for many philosophers is: are religious experiences veridical? By this is meant can we actually demonstrate that the religious experiences of people are what they seem to be, i. e. experiences of God, rather than delusions, products of the mind or of some other source such as LSD? Can a person saying they have had a religious experience really be convincing?

To know whether religious arguments are convincing or not, Richard Swinburne has suggested two principles that may be used to assess claims about religious experiences. First, he suggested what he calls that ‘principle of credulity’. Swinburne argued that, other things being equal, we have good reason to believe what a person tells us is correct. In general, if a person tells us that they can see a cat crossing the road, we believe them, even if we have not seen the event. Even if only one person sees the event, they still count.

Arguments from religious experience are never convincing Essay Example

Swinburne says “the principle of credulity states that we ought to believe that things are as seen to be, unless or until we have evidence that they are mistaken” by this Swinburne means that unless you can prove that the person often lies or has been or drinking or on drugs, then there is no reason not to believe that they had a religious experience. Swinburne also suggests the principle of testimony; he argues that it is reasonable to believe what someone tells you. For example, if your best friend tells you about a religious experience he or she had, do you have reason to disbelieve them?

It may be that you want to investigate what they said, but that is not a reason to automatically reject what they claim to have experienced. Therefore, Swinburne believes that arguments for religious experience are convincing, until they can be proven otherwise. However, there are many sociological challenges to claims of religious experiences; Marx was influenced by a philosophical movement known as the young Hegelians, who suggested that religion was a form of ‘alienation’ from ones true self.

By this they meant that religion was about mythological beliefs and an unreal god that distracted people from their own reality in the physical world, he described religion as the ‘opium of the masses’. In particular, Marx saw religion as a form of oppression and control of people in society, which prevented people from being truly human and making their own decisions. Marx believes that religious experience would be the product of the culture in which the person lived.

Marx therefore believes that the origins of the experience would be traceable to the teachings and beliefs of the church. So, Marx is saying that arguments from religious experience are never convincing. Although, many would agree with Marx’s point, others would also disagree. Marx did not accept the fact that for many people religion is more than a comfort. Religious people would argue that their faith is a relationship with God; and God is a real, existing being and not a product of society.

Therefore, the arguments for religious experience can be convincing as if God exists and he is not a product of society, then of course people can experience him in different ways, who is to say someone is lying about their experience with god? Anthony Flew claims that the character of religious experience “seem to depend on the interests, background and expectation of those who have them rather than on anything separate and autonomous…” Flew is showing that religious experiences cannot be convincing because there is no direct proof and all experiences seem to depend on the same thing.

Davies, however, rejects this challenge on the grounds that it applies largely to visions. Also, she claims that the person in one tradition will tend to use the language and ideas of the tradition to explain their experiences. However there is an important assumption being made here that one can strip away the description and arrive at a common core of meaning or a ‘raw, pre-conceptual experience’ in which is highly debatable.

Teresa of Avila suggests that if the experience fits in with the Christian teaching rather that going against it, and the experience leaves the person feeling at peace with the world and God, rather than distressed, then they were religious experiences and if explained in this way, then they should be seen as convincing because this is what a religious experience consists of. The distinction she makes here is useful, as if a schizophrenic tries to kill someone because a voice tells him or her to, another person could reason that this is not the voice of God, because killing goes against the Christian teaching that it is wrong to kill.

However, other people have pointed out that the fact that the voice fits in with church teaching in no way proves that the person heard the voice of God rather than a voice in their own mind. Another argument against religious experience suggests that the have a physiological cause. For example, did St. Paul on the road to Damascus have epilepsy? This could possibly explain his experience of bright light. Equally it is known that damage to the brain can cause hallucinations and delusions, as can brain tumors.

The weakness of this challenge is that there is no evidence that every person who has had a religious experience was suffering from an illness that can cause these side effects. Although, this argument is very successful, there are many things that could be the cause of a religious experience, and how do we know that it is just hallucinations, or an illness? There is no evidence to prove religious experiences are convincing. Freud also believed that religious experiences were not convincing and suggested that religious experiences were the result of human psychology.

Freud argued that religion is an ‘illusion’, by which he meant it expressed peoples desires and what they wanted to believe. In particular, religion meets people’s needs. If this is true, religious experience is an illusion derived from peoples needs, making religious experience very much like wishful thinking. Taking this view, religious experience would never be considered convincing as it is something that does is not revealed to a person through God, but that is the person who makes the experience into that of a religious one.

Overall it is credible to consider religious experiences convincing as Swinburne and Alston note that if a person is usually trustworthy and reliable, then why should we question their experience. However one must be cautious due to physiological and psychological explanations of where religious experiences may be derived from, if these can be proved true in every case of religious experience then it is fair to assume that religious experiences are never convincing.

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