Thursday, 23 May 2013

A2 Religious Studies: Religious Experiences

Richard Swinburne believes that religious experiences help prove the existence of God. He believes that it is important to categorise the two types of experience:

  1. Public experiences
    1. Ordinary, interpreted experiences such as the beauty of the sky
    2. Extraordinary experiences, such as Jesus walking on water
  2. Private experiences
    1. Experiences that are describable in normal language
    2. Experiences that are ineffable (cannot be explained in language)
More importantly, Swinburne puts forward two principles to support the argument for religious experience:

The Principle of Credulity - if someone appears to be present, it makes logical sense to say that they are so, unless the observer is under particular circumstances (intoxicated, has a mental illness etc.)
  • However, some argue that religion itself is a particular circumstance, and that you are more likely to see things which aren't there if you belong to a religious group
The Principle of Testimony - it makes sense to believe what people tell you, since the majority of people tell the truth.
  • However, this can be criticised as a view that is far too optimistic and idealistic for mankind
Swinburne also argues for the priory probability argument, whereby he states that the probability of the existence of a cosmological God is higher than that of, say, the existence of UFOs, so the likelihood should be taken seriously
  • Antony Flew criticises Swinburne's prior probability argument, accusing him of simply adding up theories to create a 'cumulative case'. Using the analogy of ten leaky buckets, Flew stated that arguments for God make a 'bucket', but the flaws of all these arguments put holes in the buckets; it is pointless trying to fill up a bucket with holes in it!
Another big advocate (and one who should always be mentioned) was William James, who wrote Varieties of Religious Experience. He broadly defined religious experiences as:

"The feelings, acts and experiences of individual men."

James, like William Alston, argued that something is real if it has real effects. We can't really deny that religious experiences have effects on people, so James goes one step further and uses the effects as evidence for the existence of God.

James summed up religious experiences by giving four distinct descriptions (PINT):

P: passivity - you are not in control of the experience
I: ineffable - the experience cannot be described in human language
N: noetic - the experience leads to a greater understanding
T: transient - the experience is temporary

This is similar to the Martin Buber belief; Buber spoke of "I-thou" experiences, calling all experiences personal one-to-one conversations with God
  • Nicholas Lash rejects James's view that experiences are directly personal, arguing that experiences are about experiencing God through pattern setters
    • Peter Vardy rejects this view, calling him an anti-realist
William Alston argued that experiences are non-sensory; God is spiritual, and cannot affect people physically. Similarly, R. Otto argued for numinous experiences, saying that God is transcendent and so he can only affect us by filling us with a sense of awe. He called this:

"Mysterium tremendum"
  • Kant criticised this view, stating that we cannot use our senses to experience God, since he is in the noumenal world whereas we're stuck in the phenomenal world
A major criticism on the argument from religious experience is the argument from psychology, advocated largely by Sigmund Freud. Freud called religious experiences wish fulfilment, referring to religion as:

"A universal, obsessional neurosis."

He argued that religious experiences stem from the primal horde theory. This theory states that every society consists of a 'primal horde' of people who gather around a single dominant male. Freud argued that the male will inevitably be killed out of jealousy, leading to feelings of guilt. These guilty feelings pass down through history into people's unconscious minds

According to Freud, males focus their guilt onto a totem animal. They pray to this totem and sacrifice animals to appease it in order to gain a sense of atonement for what they have done. Freud likened his totem idea to the act of communion, and said that God is the ultimate totem.

Freud also outlined the structure of the psyche: the id (primitive desires), ego (rationality and reflection) and superego (moral compass). 

He drew a comparison between religion and his famous Oedipus complex, in that God acts as a replacement father figure. He also suggested that people turn to religion out of a fear of death, an argument supported by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.
  • Michael Palmer criticises Freud, asking how the Oedipus complex applies to religions where people believe in multiple gods. He says that in Freud's argument:
"All evidence is discredited."
  • Paul Vitz takes Freud's logic and argues that atheists are simply rejecting their father figure by not believing in God
  • Anne Marie Rizzuto argues that Freud has not removed the illusion with religion, but has replaced religion with an illusion
Carl Jung, another psychologist, also argued that religious experiences were not evidence of God's existence. However, Jung differed from Freud and argued that, as an agnostic, religion is actually positive. He referred to God as a universal archetype, and said that a belief in God is part of the collective unconscious which all humans share. He called religious experiences natural processes, and argued that faith can help combat psychological problems.

Antony Flew proposed the vicious circle argument in opposition to the argument from religious experience. He argued that everything which we are is based on something else; x leads to y, which in itself enforces x. A religious belief, Flew said, enforces a religious experience, and vice versa. 
  • However, this doesn't account for a) people of one religion having religious experiences relating to different religions or b) people converting to religion without having a religious experience
David Hume put forward the conflicting claims argument to oppose the argument from religious experience. He simply argued that two opposing religious experiences cancel one another out and discredit them. He called this:

"A triumph for the sceptic."

  • But two conflicting religious experiences still leaves the possibility of one being correct
  • J. Smart argues that all experiences come from the same God, but are merely interpreted differently
Criticising the argument from religious experience, Karl Marx put forward the sociological argument, stating that religion is merely a way to oppress and alienate lower classes.

Marx gave four particular images to enforce his argument:
  1. Humans are in flower-covered chains - religion oppresses us, even if it seems to comfort us
  2. Religion is a false sun - it appears to give light and clarity, but does not
  3. Religion is "the opium of the people."
  4. Religion is "the sigh of the oppressed."
Similarly, Edwin Starbuck argued that religious experiences are often down to social pressures.
  • However, Marx's argument was proposed in a time where many religious organisations were corrupt, which arguably doesn't apply to modern world religion
Corporate and Individual Experiences

In the exam, a question may ask about how valid corporate or individual religious experiences are. Corporate experiences are experiences that happen in public places to several people. One of the best examples of this is the Toronto Blessing of 1994, whereby many people who visited a Pentecostal church went through strange religious experiences, from speaking in tongues (glossolalia), to laughing hysterically, to barking like dogs.

  1. Corporate experiences are more numerically valid
  2. They often show shared feelings and responses, which are more valid than individual experiences
  3. Suggests that experiences come from God, not individual imaginations
  • Taking the Toronto Blessing as an example - why would God show himself by making people laugh hysterically and bark like dogs?!
  • Hank Hanegraaff argues that such phenomena are the result of mass hypnosis
  • William Sergeant argued that mass religious conversions are down to conditioning
  • Christian psychiatrist John White refers to corporate experiences as:
"learned patterns of behaviour"

Individual Experiences

Individual experiences are self-explanatory... they relate to the Swinburne and James view.

  1. Corporate experiences can be described as being down to 'mass hypnosis'
  2. They can be authenticated personally
  3. They are less likely to be conditioned
  • Don't appear as valid as corporate experiences
  • There are often no witnesses to these experiences
  • Lack of empirical evidence
Speaking in Tongues/Glossolalia

Glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, is a particularly well-known form of religious experience, whereby people slip into an indistinguishable language (adhering to the view that such experiences are ineffable) and appear possessed by God's grace.

Biblically, speaking in tongues wasn't uncommon. It happened to the Gentiles and the Disciples
  • Emil Kraepelin referred to people who speak in tongues as schizophrenic, calling it unhealthy
    • This is refuted by John Kildahl, who said that glossolalia is actually good for stress relief
  • Goodman, who studied glossolalia, argued that when people speak in tongues, they are simply in a trance
    • This is refuted by Samarin, who criticised Goodman for only looking at one group in his study
In 2006, the Newburg's Study was founded to investigate the phenomenon of glossolalia. But don't get too excited, because the study eventually deduced that the experience is real to the person (so James would argue it is therefore real) but not necessarily real in itself. Newburg himself said:

"The question is still left open."


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