Religious experience revision

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Religious Experience Department of Philosophy and Religion Wellington College Religious Experience and the argument • A religious experience may be understood as any encounter with God, or what is ultimate It is an experience of transcendent reality, seen in many different ways in different faith traditions • There are actually a number of different types of argument For instance, some argue from ‘direct awareness’ – the view that God can be known intuitively (directly) by the person perceiving him This is very personal however, and has limited capacity to persuade others • Most commonly, theistic philosophers have preferred to talk about an argument from religious experience: an inductive and a posteriori argument based on the evidence of witnesses and testimonies A summary of the inductive argument If an entity is experienced, it must exist God is the sort of being that it is possible to experience People claim to have experienced God directly Conclusion: God exists God also uses PowerPoint to help revise A key supporter of the inductive argument from religious experience is the philosopher Richard Swinburne He offers the following arguments: Developing the argument: Richard Swinburne • In his book (Is There a God?) Swinburne claims that it is reasonable to suppose that God would seek to engage and interact with his creation This would fit with the nature and attributes of God: he is omnipotent and benevolent If God exists, we should expect religious experiences to take place • Swinburne defends the idea that those experiencing God should believe intuitively what their senses tell them He calls this the Principle of Credulity • He also argues that we should trust those who give accounts of religious experiences, if there is no reason to doubt them He calls this the Principle of Testimony Swinburne readily admits that known liars, those influenced by drugs, etc should not be trusted Essentially, Swinburne is trying to leave the burden of proof with those who doubt religious experiences If we experience something, we tend to assume that this experience is genuine Why should it not be the same with religious experiences? If such experiences are genuine, it is reasonable to conclude that God or some higher power probably exists This line of argument is similar to the one developed by William Alston in Perceiving God – he claims that all beliefs based on perception are prima facie justified: “they are innocent until proven guilty” The extraordinary nature of religious experience • A key objective for Swinburne and Alston is to demonstrate that religious experiences should be taken seriously despite their extraordinary nature • The idea of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ points to the principle that we cannot doubt testimony simply because it is unusual After all, many people have experienced unusual things accurately Doubt must come for specific reasons that find fault in a person’s testimony • Swinburne and Alston claim that their argument is necessary for us to have any knowledge at all That is, if we doubted every unusual thing, we would never be able to gain new knowledge of unusual things Other forms of argument • A few other types of argument based on religious experience might also be considered, although they are less favoured by modern philosophers • The ‘historical argument’ states that the experiences of key individuals have been so great and impressive that they must be true: Mohammed, St Paul, etc Such individuals had enormous influence after receiving religious experiences • The ‘cumulative argument’ states that so many people have had religious experiences in the past that they simply cannot all be making it up God must be the cause of (at least some of) this St Paul – vision of Christ knocked him off his horse The trouble with these arguments is that they’re very subjective and ambiguous Who’s to say whether Mohammed has had a ‘great’ impact or not? Also, it’s implausible that God would be evident in all of these differing experiences, since so many are so different Surely they rule each other out The Varieties of Religious Experience William James, author of The Varieties of Religious Experience • A significant aspect of religious experience is the considerable variety of types: conversions (like that of St Paul), corporate experiences, near death experiences, or mystical encounters • The philosopher and psychologist William James was impressed by this great variety He thought that the heart of religion lay in personal experiences which for the individual would be “absolutely authoritative” James sees experiences as personally persuasive, rather than as evidence to prove God to others inductively • James regarded mysticism as a significant state of mind or awareness, identifying four key features of such important experiences: (1) Ineffability – they cannot be explained (2) Noetic Quality – they impart knowledge, (3) Transiency – they are over quickly, (4) Passivity – they come upon the individual without being sought after Key mystic: Teresa of Avila The basis of James’ theory: Philosophical Pragmatism • James is widely regarded as one of the greatest modern philosophers, for founding a theory of knowledge known as ‘pragmatism’ • He writes, “the true is only the expedient in our way of thinking” That is, James argues that we can never establish what is ‘true’ in an absolute and infallible way Instead, we decide what is true according to what fits or what ‘works’ best in practical terms • James thus argues that religious experiences express truth in pragmatic terms They are true to the extent that they help, improve, and make sense of our lives in the world They support the existence of God for those who benefit from such beliefs Weaknesses of the argument The problem with an inductive argument is that it only ever gives probable explanations for states of affairs This can lead to questionable ‘leaps’ in the evidence Claims to experience God can never amount to proof as there are many alternative explanations: states of mind can be chemically or drug induced, or they might be part of a natural and subconscious healing process (so Viktor Frankl), or they might result from activity in the temporal lobes Philosophical critiques A number of philosophers have also made criticisms of the argument from religious experience J.L Mackie has argued that it is wrong to draw evidence from people’s claims to religious experiences on the grounds that there are ‘disanalogies’ between these and other normal experiences Mackie states that religious experiences have different characteristics from other perceptions, so they should not carry the same degree of authority They are not part of the same scheme of shared and verifiable experiences common in daily life Mackie: ‘Disanalogies’ between experiences Ayer, verification • • • The argument from religious experience is also challenged by the ‘verification principle’, supported by the British philosopher and atheist A.J Ayer This is the principle that a proposition can only be meaningful if it could be verified analytically or synthetically That is, we could only regard religious experiences as meaningful if we could check their truth through the logical sense of the terms (analytically) or through gathering some body of supporting evidence (synthetically) Ayer is particularly critical of mysticism, because it tries to ascribe significance to a being (God) who, by definition, cannot be meaningfully described If there is no possible way to check what is meant by ‘God’, then why should we accept the validity of religious experience? Richard Dawkins also has something to say about this debate In his book The God Delusion, Dawkins tells a story from his student days He recalls that a fellow undergraduate was camping in Scotland and claimed to have heard “the voice of the devil – Satan himself” In fact, it was just the call of the Manx Shearwater (or ‘Devil Bird’), which has an evil sounding voice not convinced For Dawkins, this highlights the key problem with personal experiences They are often used in an appeal to God because people are ignorant of more straightforward physical or psychological explanations for what the perceive It is an argument based on ignorance Possible responses to criticisms • Mackie’s claim that religious experiences are disanalogous with normal experiences seems harsh William Alston suggests that there is continuity in our experiences, focusing on our ability to check perceptions, detect regularity, share experience, and have common views of public objects between cultures Religion might well fit into this scheme • Dawkins’ use of a personal anecdote is not revealing of religious experience as a whole In most cases, testimony or personal experience are not easily deconstructed in natural or psychological terms Contrary to Scooby Doo, there isn’t always a ‘perfectly straightforward explanation’ Debating Ayer and Verification • In Language, Truth and Logic Ayer claimed that statements about God could not be verified in any way: “if the mystic admits that the object of his vision cannot be described he is bound to talk nonsense.” But can religious experience really be criticised as meaningless, for lack of verification? • Arguably, there are problems with Ayer’s arguments Many normal, everyday experiences are not verified either; in social interactions we are used to taking things on trust, unless there are reasons not to The whole concept of trust assumes that we not require people to verify everything they say; this is the key point of Swinburne’s ‘Principle of Testimony’ • The verification principle itself has been subject to criticism, as it is not a principle that can be verified analytically or synthetically In that sense, is this statement about the nature of knowledge really in any better position than statements about religious experience? Can we verify religious experiences? What would a good method be like? What views of knowledge the various arguments assume? Burden of proof: the religious have to prove their experiences are genuine, or must sceptics disprove them? Final Evaluation Should God be something we can experience for ourselves? Can we defend religious experiences in terms of pragmatic truth? Are religious experiences really different from normal experiences? ... those who doubt religious experiences If we experience something, we tend to assume that this experience is genuine Why should it not be the same with religious experiences? If such experiences are.. .Religious Experience and the argument • A religious experience may be understood as any encounter with God, or what is ultimate It is an experience of transcendent... these differing experiences, since so many are so different Surely they rule each other out The Varieties of Religious Experience William James, author of The Varieties of Religious Experience •
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