Religious experience as an argument for belief in God

For many, religious experience is a powerful source of conviction in their faith. A seemingly direct encounter with, or sensation of, the divine can either fortify previous beliefs or result in radical change of religious allegiance. For others, a moment of apparent transcendence is simply a psychological reaction, explicable in natural terms, and easily reconciled with an atheistic world view.

Given our increasing knowledge of the magnitude of “religious experience” in modern society (figures suggest that between one third and one half of adults in the US and UK believe themselves to have had one), it is increasingly important that we address their relevance as an argument for the existence of God. Do religious experience offer any substantial support for religious belief? One of the most prolific proponents of religious experience as a basis for accepting theism is Oxford University theologian and philosopher Richard Swinburne.

Swinburne firstly applies two principles to the argument: that of credulity, and that of testimony. The former states that if we experience something, then it is reasonable to accept it unless we have evidence to the contrary. Certainly it is true that in general, we trust what we experience through our senses- unless we are, like Descartes, to become extreme sceptics and reject sensory experience as a valuable suggestion of an underlying reality altogether.

Therefore, Swinburne argues, if we experience what we perceive to be God, we should not deny that experience in an attempt to rationalise it; but instead accept it as an indication of a supernatural entity’s existence. Secondly, the principle of testimony states that we should accept the accounts of other people unless we have a good reason not to. There is a burden of disproof on the sceptic, rather than on those who testify about their experiences. If we were to accept these two principles, then we would consider religious experience as a sound basis for belief in God.

However, while this “innocent until proven guilty” style approach may appeal to theists, it suffers under criticism. Not least, the fact that we can be, and regularly are, deceived in our sense experiences, through various hallucinations and illusions, greatly inhibits our ability to take an unverifiable experience seriously as “proof” for anything. It must be remembered that to talk of “god” is radically different from talking of a material thing, which weakens Swinburne’s An experience of the physical world can be verified or falsified by other people, whereas the ineffable, private sense of encountering a divine being cannot.

If we accept God as a logically coherent idea, then it is impossible to prove the non-existence of God, and theists may always fall back on the argument that “god works in mysterious ways”, beyond our comprehension, or in some vague pantheistic manner. Therefore it is of little value to say that “in absence of opposing evidence” we must accept a God who there will never be sufficient “opposing evidence” of to disprove. By Swinburne’s principles, we have no choice but to accept an earnest testimony citing the existence of an omnipotent, intangible teapot (a favourite example of Richard Dawkins).

Some have argued that the very idea of an “experience” of God is incoherent. How could a finite human recognise such an entity, or recognise its characteristics- omnipotence, omniscience, etc. ? It seems that Gods very nature would make him imperceptible, and that therefore religious experience cannot be valued as a true encounter with the divine. It could be said that there is no such thing as a “direct experience” of something- everything we experience is in fact filtered and interpreted through our senses- and therefore we cannot know anything of God’s (non) existence from our own experiences, rather than through reason.

However, Swinburne claims that, given the traits of the Judaeo-Christian God (benevolence, omnipotence), such an entity would wish to contact us somehow. Conversely, it is argued that the variety of different religious experiences suggest that they do not come from one ultimate being, but are in fact a human delusion. If we accept that religious experience can prove anything, then a Hindu religious experience confirms Hinduism while a Christian religious experience confirms Christianity, despite the two being arguably incompatible.

However, it could be countered that God may adapt his message to best fit the individuals previous convictions, or that there is a core experience which is then interpreted by the individual with regards to the culture they are immersed in. Finally, the falsity of all, for example, the Christian accounts would not necessarily entail the falsity of the Hindu ones, and vice versa. Swinburne also proposes the “cumulative argument”. This is the claim that, while each individual argument for the existence of God is, in isolation, inconclusive, if they are viewed altogether they do seem to increases the probability of God’s existence.

Therefore, together with the teleological and cosmological arguments, (which alone seem to quail in the face of modern science), and the other arguments often cited, religious experience is a valuable contributory contention for theism. This certainly seems dubious- add zero together as many times as you please and the sum total will remain the same. This argument seems to divert attention from the unravelling of the arguments individually. Another claim appeals to Occam’s razor, which argues that, in the choice between hypothesis, it is reasonable to accept that which makes fewest unsupported assumptions. – the “simplest explanation”.

It is arguable that God, whose assumed existence would be an answer to the existence of the world, the development of morality, the apparent “design” of nature, and religious experience, is simpler than the atheistic alternative. However, to say that the God hypothesis is simple would be ridiculous- His existence would create as many problems as it resolves. For one, where did this God come from? How can his existence and nature be reconciled with the grotesque ubiquity of suffering in the world? How can someone be both impassable (unable to suffer), and simultaneously omniscient and therefore know what it feels like to suffer?

Far from making fewer unsupported assumptions, the God hypothesis presupposes that there can be supernatural causes for anything in the world, rather than those which could be understood to fall under a natural law. Surely the assumption that such a being could exist is of greater complexity than attributing the world to natural processes of psychology, evolutionary biology, chemistry etc. For indeed, the most powerful argument against accepting religious experience as a basis for belief in God is that it can be explained in ways that do not appeal to the supernatural.

David Hay has argued that religious experience are an evolved mechanism vital to social cohesion. Psychological perspectives, Freud among the most prominent speakers on the issue, describe religious experience as a manifestation of the profound need for paternal comfort in a world that often seems lonely and absurd. Certainly, religious experience appears most commonly in the depressed, the mentally ill, particular personality types and at times of emotional upheaval (such as adolescence). There also appear to be physiological factors, as certain drugs have been shown to induce religious experience.

In conclusion, while religious experience may be a compelling influence on an individuals faith, it can never really be valued as a reasonable argument for the existence of God. It is too subjective, too open to interpretation, and too clouded by the human capacity for being wrong. Historically, when humanity experiences something it cannot comprehend, it assigns supernatural influence to it. Rainbows were once the work of God, as was the eye. As every western child knows, presents on Christmas morning are the gift of a fat man with flying reindeer coming in through the chimney.

As science dispels the former myths, just as maturity dispels that of Father Christmas, superstition gives way to the march of empirical knowledge. When I was 5, I swore I saw Santa- now I understand that I was mistaken. Religious experience, not yet comprehended in its entirety, is misconceived as the manifestation of a supernatural being; Santa on a grander scale. As our understanding of “transcendental” experiences origin grow further, and we mature from the childhood of our species, we will cease to see these experiences as any rational basis for belief in God.