God and Human Experience:

The Argument from religious experience is an argument for the existence of God, as against materialism.

Outline logical structure

Its logical structure is essentially as follows:

  1. There are compelling reasons for considering at least some religious experiences to point to and validate spiritual realities that exist in a way that transcends any material manifestations.
  2. According to Materialism, nothing exists in a way that transcends its material manifestations.
  3. According to Classical Theism in general, and Christianity in particular, God endows Humans with the ability to have spiritual experiences and to perceive, albeit imperfectly, such spiritual realities and these spiritual realities exist in a way that transcends any material manifestations.
  4. Therefore, to the extent that premise (1) is accepted, Theism is more plausible than Materialism.

Points 2, 3 and 4 are relatively un-controversial, and the argument is formally valid, so discussion focuses on the premise (1).

Suggested reasons for accepting the premise

The principal arguments for the premise are:

  1. Very substantial numbers of “ordinary” people report having had such experiences, though this isn’t to say that religious believers aren’t ordinary. Such experiences are reported in almost all known cultures. Although such reported experiences may not all correspond to an objective reality, they are strong enough prima facie evidence that very compelling arguments to the contrary would be needed to cancel them out.
  2. These experiences often have very significant effects on people’s lives, frequently inducing in them acts of extreme self-sacrifice well beyond what could be expected from evolutionary arguments. It is hard to imagine an evolutionary benefit in having these experiences if they are all, or mostly, false.
  3. These experiences often seem very real to the people involved, and are quite often reported as being shared by a number of people[4]. Although mass delusions are not inconceivable, one needs compelling reasons for invoking this as an explanation.

Swinburne suggests that, as two basic principles of rationality, we ought to believe that things are as they seem unless and until we have evidence that they are mistaken (principle of credulity), and that those who do not have an experience of a certain type ought to believe others who say that they do in the absence of evidence of deceit or delusion (principle of testimony) and thus, although if you have a strong reason to disbelieve in the existence of God you will discount these experiences, in other cases such evidence should count towards the existence of God.

Suggested reasons for disputing the premise

  1. There is little doubt that some reports of religious experience have naturalistic and/or psychological explanations and are thus mistaken. If some reports are mistaken, perhaps all such reports may be.
  2. These might be mis-firings of evolutionary mechanisms selected for very different reasons.
  3. It is conceivable that some claimed religious experiences are lies, possibly done for attention or acceptance.
  4. Different people have had, or believed to have had, religious experiences pointing to the existence of different religions. Not all of these can be correct. (For more information see the Argument from Inconsistent Revelations).
  5. Some have argued that the experiences are hallucinations which stem from wanting to believe in God (In a way relating to Pascal’s Wager) that the person converts into a vivid hallucination that they try to convince themselves was real, but they know aren’t in the back of their mind(s). Some have compared them to insane people who have the same type of hallucination, but they obviously aren’t taken as seriously.

Notes & References

  1. ^ There are innumerable references in both the Old testament, from Adam talking with God in Genesis onwards, and in the New Testament of which the Transfiguration and St Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians about spiritual gifts and “seeing through a glass darkly” (i.e. through a poor mirror, imperfectly) may stand as two examples
  2. ^ Polkinghorne Belief in God in an Age of Science p119 referencing “the surveys conducted by the distinguished biologist Alister Hardy
  3. ^ Swinburne references David Hay Religious Experience Today (1990) chapters 5, 6 and Appendix
  4. ^ For example the New Testament speaks of Jesus, after his resurrection, appearing to 10 or more people at once (see eg 1 Corinthians 15:6, Luke 24, Mt 28, Jn 16, Acts 1).
  5. ^ Swinburne, Is there a God? p 133–136
  6. ^ This is broadly Dawkins’ line in The God Delusion

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