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Religious Experience: An Analysis

Updated on April 21, 2011

Can a Religious Experience Be Used As Proof for God's Existence?

Of the numerous arguments for the existence of God, the argument from religious experience is one of the more interesting ones owing to its dependence on a subjective experience few people have had, instead of common experiences or a priori evidence. C.D. Broad specifically addressed the argument in his article "The Argument from Religious Experience."

For the purposes of this paper, it is Broad’s article that will be used to defend as well as define the argument. The subjective nature of the experience is one of the reasons some scholars, such as Bertrand Russell, reject the argument. Of the two scholars mentioned, Russell was able to build a stronger argument against the veridicality of religious arguments than Broad could defend. By first examining Broad’s argument, then showing how Russell’s argument successfully refutes it, this essay will conclude that religious experiences are not veridical.

It is primarily important to note that Broad does not say that claims pertaining to the natural world from religious experience should be taken as veridical. While he does not say it, he does not treat the argument from religious experience as a proof of God’s existence. He is similar to Copleston in this way, who instead argued that the best explanation for religious experiences is the existence of God. Broad focuses completely on the credibility of the experience and any claims related to it. He states that it is reasonable to agree that when there is a core agreement in the religious experiences of people in different times, places, and traditions, and when they have the same rational interpretations of the experiences, it makes sense to conclude that they are all in contact with some objective aspect of reality, unless there is positive evidence otherwise (Broad 2008, 216–217).

He builds to this conclusion by asking systematic questions, providing different answers, and choosing the one he finds to be the best. He also uses several analogies, the first being the analogy between religious experience and musical experience. Here, he acknowledges that there are varying capacities for religious experience. In terms of his analogy: there are few people with little or no religious experience; similarly there are few people that are tone-deaf; the followers of a religion are like most people, who have a taste for music, but cannot grasp the higher forms or compose; saints or very religious people are like people with very fine ears for music, great players but still not composers; the founders of religions are likened to composers.

Broad acknowledges that this analogy is not complete. He identifies three problems in religious experience that do not occur with musical experience: the psychological factors, the genetic and causal conditions for the experience, and the veridicality of the claims. While these problems set it apart from musical experience, Broad continued with his analogy, saying that anyone who is tone-deaf and for that reason regards himself as better than those who can appreciate music should be regarded as "a self-satisfied Philistine. (Broad 2008, 214)" Correspondingly, theories put forth by people who have not had religious experiences should not be taken without suspicion.

This being said, Broad acknowledges that having a high capacity for religious experience does not make one possessed of high intelligence in general matters, but there are plenty of examples of those who are capable of analysis and philosophy who also had a great capacity for religious example, such as St. Thomas Aquinas or St. Teresa (Broad 2008, 213–214).

Next Broad addresses the fact that religious experiences often are contradictory. He admits that while they do not agree in detail, they have core similarities. The details and interpretations of the experience are dependent on the individual’s traditions and beliefs. He uses the example of a feeling of unity with the universe to show that someone brought up in the Christian tradition would interpret the same feeling if they were brought up in the Hindu tradition. The feeling would have been experienced anyway. His second example shows that the beliefs influence the experience because people have a traditional sense of what a religious experience should be. These are based on what they are told by those who have had these experiences before, which are in turn based on the tales of those who came before them, and so on and so forth until you reach the originator. According to Broad, "If it is a tradition in a certain religion that one can communicate with saints in that religion, mystics will seem to see and to talk with saints in their mystical visions. (Broad 2008, 214)"

Given that there is a group of people who have had religious experiences and these experiences are fundamentally similar, Broad states that there are two explanations for the phenomenon. Either these people are in contact with an aspect of reality that others cannot regularly access, or these people are delusional. He uses another analogy to illustrate these choices and present a third. (1) Biologists can recognise details about cells others cannot due to their training in the use of a microscope and their knowledge of the subject matter. People take respected biologists (indeed all scientists) at their word that what they say corresponds to facts about the world that they cannot perceive. (2) Drunkards from all over the world eventually have experiences in which they see or hear different things. People agree that these drunken experiences are merely hallucinations. (3) Imagine that there is a race of beings without the ability to see. Suddenly a select group gains the sense of sight, and when they try to communicate their visual experiences to their blind brethren, cannot be understood. However they could tell their friends certain verifiable things, such as what they would feel if they walked in a certain direction. In this way the blind people could conclude that the sighted people could experience other aspects of reality, even if they could not understand, say, the existence of colour.

Broad concludes that the experiences of religious people should be likened to the third scenario. He excludes the first one on the basis that there is no proper training to have veridical religious experiences any such training would produce the same kind of experience as the untrained experience. He rejects the second option on the account that drunkards seem to experience regular things with slight abnormalities. The fact that we would normally see them, but cannot, makes it very unlikely they are actually there. However, in regards to the third scenario, people with religious experiences are like the sighted people, and they cannot communicate everything that they experienced, but they can provide information that they perceived that anybody else could test. According to Broad this information was the ethics and standards of how to live a good life (Broad 2008, 215–216).

It is from this that Broad draws his conclusion stated earlier, where there is a core agreement between these religious experiences, one can reasonably say that there is an actual aspect of reality they are accessing, provided there is no positive evidence against it. Thus, the next question he asks himself is: is there any positive evidence against it?

The short answer is, “no.” Broad addresses two popular claims that would throw doubt on the veridicality of religious experiences: that the founders of religions and saints have very often been neurotic or suffered from some other bodily weakness, and that religious experience originates from other factors, such as sexual desire To the former, Broad points out that many saints and founders of religion have proven themselves to be quite capable of success in the secular world. He also mentions that many, if not all, geniuses have exhibited mental abnormality. Hence it would be surprising if religious geniuses were completely normal. A third rebuttal states that it is possible that in order to experience this other aspect of reality that many cannot, one might have to be slightly different mentally than the norm. The last rebuttal suggests that the veridicality of the experience of itself would produce the abnormalities in those who had strong experiences (Broad 2008, 217).

In regards to the second claim, Broad shows that people that make this claim often start off saying “X is a necessary condition of the existence of Y” and then start to treat X as if it is the same thing as Y, but in a more complex, or disguised form. Using sexual desire as an example, he shows how even if religious experiences are based in sexual emotion that origin does not make religious experience or its claims invalid (Broad 2008, 217–218).

Broad acknowledges that religious knowledge has a lot of nonsense and confusion in terms of its claims. He says that any one religion that claims to have complete knowledge on God’s existence and the nature of our world should not be taken seriously. Similarly he says holding to the opinion that the whole concept of religion is delusional is nearly as erroneous (Broad 2008, 219).

Broad’s argument is laid out very well, and he makes a coherent argument. However, one of his main claims is the analogy between the sighted and the blind. According to him religious experiences have allowed humanity to have ethics. Unfortunately, Russell clearly showed why the existence of ethics does not necessarily mean that the experience is veridical. In his debate with Copleston, Copleston claims the religious experience’s good moral effect on people as evidence that it is true.

Russell points out that there is no evidence in favour of the truth of a belief just because it can affect someone morally. He uses himself as an example, pointing out that while he has been significantly changed by experiences before, they did not involve anything outside of his self. He takes it a step further and uses the analogy of a person loving a fictional character to show that things which do not exist are perfectly capable of influencing people. If there is a boy who adores some hero character, and that hero character has good morals, then the boy will be affected in the same way Copleston described for people affected by religious experience.

Copleston admits that the boy in this case is influenced by real value if not something that exists otherwise. Russell in this way managed to undermine the main point of Broad’s argument. Russell’s’ other main point regarding the argument from experience was that people only agree that what we perceive exists in reality because enough people can perceive it. Religious experience is a very private phenomenon which makes it hard be accepted as veridical (Russell and Copleston 2008, 210).

Russell’s position is the stronger, because his argument uproots a fundamental element of Broad’s argument. By taking away the religious experience’s gift of moral information, Broad very little to argue. Broad’s only evidence for the veridicality of these experiences were ethical truths. If the experiences have no evidence of being veridical then there is no reason to believe that they are anything other than delusions. Broad admitted this when he said that the experiences could be considered true "…unless there be some positive reason to think otherwise.(Broad 2008, 217)"

It is for that simple reason that Russell has the stronger position. This is a good example of how an argument doesn’t have to be long or complex to successfully refute a long or complex argument. Broad’s analysis was in-depth, and very thorough. He considered many rebuttals, and defended his hypothesis very well. However, he left a glaring hole in his logic, which was immediately seen in another situation by Bertrand Russell, and much like a complex machine, that missing piece was a fatal flaw in the whole.


Broad, Charlie D. "The Argument From Religious Experience." In Introduction to Philosophy: Classical and Contemporary Readings, edited by Louis P. Pojman. 4th ed. By Louis P. Pojman and James Fieser, 212–19. New York: Oxford UP, 2008.

Russell, Bertrand, and Frederick C. Copleston. "A Debate on the Argument From Religious Experience." In Introduction to Philosophy: Classical and Contemporary Readings, edited by Louis P. Pojman. 4th ed. By Louis P. Pojman and James Fieser, 209–211. New York: Oxford UP, 2008.


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