AQA Religious Studies Unit 03 - Philosophy of Religion - Religious Experience

St Bernadette Soubirous' grotto in Lourdes France.
St Bernadette Soubirous' grotto in Lourdes France. | Source

Examples of Religious Experiences

  1. St Bernadette Soubirous - Young girl sees a figure (that looks like Virgin Mary) in a Grotto in France. She is told to eat mud, burn herself (she doesn't get hurt in the process) and build a chapel in the Grotto which is now a point of pilgrimage for many Christians.
  2. Toronto Massacre - God causing mass barking and other madness in a church
  3. Saul's Conversion - Murderer becomes blinded by God so that he becomes a believer.
  4. Moses and the Burning Bush - Moses gets leprosy temporarily by God and is commanded to free the Israelites.
  5. Jacob's Ladder - Jacob dreams of a ladder that reaches up to heaven and also that God speaks to him, telling him that he is real and that he will make sure Jacob will have many descendants.

Arguments For the Validity of Religious Experiences

  1. Richard Swinburne's Principle of Credulity
    “It seems to a subject that X is present, then probably X is present; what one seems to perceive probably is so“ - Richard Swinburne

    This argument states that if something appears to be the case then it probably is just that, if it appears to people that God is intervening in their lives and sending them messages, then God probably is.
  2. Principle of Testimony
    This argument states that people will normally tell the truth and therefore we should believe them, unless of course we have good reason not to. Therefore, we should believe people who claim to have religious experiences when it is not clear why they would lie about such things.

Arguments Against the Validity of Religious Experiences

  1. Doctor Ramachandran - religious experiences are epileptic fits and a result of a malfunctioning temporal lobe. Patients he studied with such defects report similar things as those who claim to have religious experiences (bright flashes of light, seeing people).
  2. Human Error - If not epilepsy, the religious experiences are likely to be a manifestation of human error, with the senses being very prone to being confused or mistaken, especially when tired or otherwise mentally affected.
  3. Illogical and Inconsistent - opens many questions that are left unanswered: why does God only contact certain people and not others if, as the Bible teaches, all humans are 'equal' and why does he come to the people he does in such different ways.
  4. Pointless and Unfair - What is the point of God's intervention in these peoples lives? Why does he do what he do? Why does he 'need' to enforce himself upon some people whilst punishing (according to some) others for not believing in him.
  5. Takes away Free Will - If God gives humans 'free will', why does he choose to take it away from many by appearing to them, telling them to do things (as in Saul's conversion and Moses and the Burning Bush) and taking away the option of believing in God by coming to them personally.

William James and his 4 Criteria

William James makes an attempt at describing what qualities a religious experience must have in order to be called so with 4 criteria:

  1. Ineffability - The experience cannot be described accurately in words.
  2. Transiency - The experience does not last for a long time
  3. Noetic Quality - Something must be learned during the religious experience, something God wills upon the recipient to know.
  4. Passivity - The religious experience comes to the person and not the other way around, the experience cannot be sought after but rather is enforced upon recipients. During the experience God is in control and the recipient is not.

Example Essay Answer for a Past Paper Question on Unit 03 - Religious Experience

Many people say that it is impossible to verify a religious experience - that we cannot be 100% certain that these experiences ever happened. For example, although some religious experiences are documented, e.g. people speaking in tongues, videoed on camera, there is no proof that the behaviours seen are not a hoax, or that it was not mental disorders resulting in such behaviour.
In addition, most religious experiences that are given as evidence for the existence of divine beings are not actually recorded in any way [You could word this slightly better. Religious people would say they are recorded/documented. You could say their method remains unsatisfactory to many] - events like the Toronto Blessing, St Bernadette's marian apparitions and biblical accounts (Moses and the Burning Bush, Saul's conversion) of religious experiences are merely stories we are told by other people. These types of experiences can never be verified because we are getting the knowledge from other people - second hand accounts can be riddled with mistakes, biases, exaggerations and lies. In addition, rationalists arguing that a priori truths are the only truths will state that a posteriori arguments like religious experiences are not verifiable because the process of experiencing is subject to misinterpretation - how do we know for sure that we are feeling what we are feeling, sensing what we are sensing? Further to the point, since we cannot explain religious experiences via a priori arguments, we cannot believe religious experiences ever happened.
On the other hand, empiricists would state that religious experiences being a posteriori argument are very valid and verifiable because what we sense is the only truth we can know. Religious experiences therefore can be defended by stating that if many people claim to feel the same experience - that experience must exist - religious experiences can be verified by having many people testify that they had that experience. Some would argue that the sheer amount of people who have come forth to testify that they have had religious experiences verifies that religious experiences did indeed happen.
Others would argue that mistaking what we sense is part of human nature and since there are 7 billion people, it is only natural that many people would come forth and claim such things. As it happened, only a minority of people have claimed to have felt religious experiences. If, however, all 7 billion people claimed to have had the same religious experience, then just as we have no need to test that we all breath and eat, it is still verified (since everyone we see has claimed to do these things) that they do it.

Full List of Questions Asked about Religious Experience in Past Papers

  • January 2010:
    (a) Examine the main characteristics of conversion and mystical experiences. (30 marks)
    (b) 'It is impossible to verify religious experience.' (15 marks)
  • June 2010:
    (a) Examine how religious experience might be challenged by philosophy and by science (30 marks)
    (b) How successful are these challenges? (15 marks)
  • January 2011:
    (a) 'I have had a religious experience.' Explain what this means for a religious believer. (30 marks)
    (b) 'It is necessary to have a religious experience in order to understand fully what a religious experience is.' How far do you agree? (15 marks)
  • June 2011:
    (a) Examine the main characteristics of both visions and conversion experiences. (30 marks)
    (b) 'All religious experiences have natural explanations.' Assess this claim. (15 marks)
  • January 2012:
    (a) Examine the main characteristics of visions and of mystical experiences. (30 marks)
    (b) 'Science has fully explained religious experience.' To what extent do you agree (15 marks.
  • June 2012:
    (a) Explain the argument from religious experience for the existence of God (30 marks)
    (b) Religious experiences cannot prove that God exists. Assess this claim (15 marks)

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