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  • Subject area(s): Philosophy
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  • Published on: 21st September 2019
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Paste your essay in here...The concept of a religious experience is certainly not a concrete one. Key philosophers, thinkers and even psychologists have all attempted to identify common characteristics that define a religious experience. Therefore, religious experiences surely cannot prove to be a convincing argument for God’s existence when we cannot agree on a true definition for religious experiences. Linguistics aside, looking at these experiences themselves can provide key evidence as to whether the happening was instigated by an omnipotent deity. In some instances, God appears to be the only possible answer, as the religious experience is just so remarkable. Whilst I do believe in God’s existence, I do not feel that all religious experiences provide a convincing argument for God’s existence. Some of these occurrences do appear to point to God; however I do not believe that looking at religious experiences alone would enough to convince an atheist to begin the journey to theism.

The experiential argument is a reason for faith that is given by many religious believers. Hardy’s research into religious experiences was published by Hay in his book, ‘Inner Space.’ Hay revealed that between 25% and 49% of the population of Britain had been aware of a presence beyond themselves, and that religious experiences can produce a marked change in both behaviour and attitudes. Many people feel that it is not just the experience itself, but also the after effects that show that an experience is the work of an omnipotent deity. Being a pragmatist, James deemed the truth of something to be determined by its practical effects and consequences. James argued that religious experience stands at the very heart of religion and they could bring about the “unifying of the inner self.” Although the inner experience is not empirically detectable, the resulting changes in behaviour are something that can be empirically observed. Within ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience,’ James states that “God is real since he produces real effects,” showcasing his belief that religious experiences do suggest God’s existence, which some people would argue is therefore an argument for God’s existence. Teresa of Avila had a similar argument, as her acid test was questioning whether or not the experience had positive fruits and increased love for God. However, this opinion is highly disputed. James himself concluded that religious experiences on their own do not demonstrate God’s existence, but they do suggest the existence of something larger. Positive fruits do not necessarily indicate that the experience was from God, as many different explanations could be found for why people change, such as guilt or pressure from family members. It appears that Teresa of Avila and James are both using Ockham’s razor, as they are accepting the diving simply because no other explanation is more obvious. There is also a lack of evidence that these experiences have happened beyond what a person says. Religious experiences may alter a person; however this in itself does not give an insight into the nature or origins of religious experiences.  

Corporate religious experiences are yet another example of religious experiences. Many people find these more convincing as many people claim to experience God simultaneously. The Day of Pentecost, as written in Acts 2, marks the occasion whereby the early disciples received the gifts of the Holy Spirit. During the disciples’ meeting, “tongues of fire appeared above their heads and they proceeded to speak in tongues.” The disciples were touched by the Holy Spirit, which caused them to experience glossolia. This allowed them to share the word of God with those of differing nationalities. This appears to be more than just an illusion, as it was witnessed by many people who were celebrating the Jewish harvest festival. This religious experience still occurs today and the Pew Research Centre found that 18% of Americans speak in tongues several times a year. Surely all of these people cannot be disillusioned? Speaking in tongues is one of St Paul’s gifts of the Holy Spirit, which are identified in 1 Corinthians. However, Pentecost may have just been an illusion. In a crowd situation, it is very easy to just mimic and copy the actions of others, leading to crowd psychology. Sometimes people can believe in a religious experience to such an extent that they fabricate it in their own mind, which makes it no more than an illusion. The disciples were described as acting drunk; thereby the alcohol could have caused them to behave in such a manner.  This seems unlikely because in those times it was a regular practice for Jews not to eat or drink anything until after the third hour of the day, especially on the Sabbath, and on all festival occasions. In addition, the weak wine commonly used in Judea should have been taken at that early hour as to produce intoxication; therefore it is unlikely that the disciples were drunk. The Day of Pentecost had a very positive impact upon Christianity because it gave the disciples the vocation to then spread the Christian message around the world. James found that whilst religious experiences are often short in duration, the fruits of the event were far more enduring than the experience itself. He described this as transiency, which he felt was an indicator of a true religious experience, not an illusion. However, I do not believe that religious experiences are a convincing argument for God because there often appears to be a non-theistic explanation for these events, as written about by Martin. There is usually another explanation, such as a person being delusional or the impact of asceticism. This suggests that a large majority of religious experiences are in fact hoaxes, and consequently not proof of God’s existence. For example, some Sufi groups in Morocco take cannabis to attain spiritual ecstasy, and they consequently have corporate experiences. These provide no proof for God, yet some people could argue that this is the case if they unaware of the drugs. There must be many religious experiences that are only classed as holy because the true cause is kept hidden from the public.

The word numinous derives from the Latin word, ‘numin,’ meaning divine. Rodgers describes numinosity as an “emotional glow” referring to being in the presence of an immense power. Many people claim to have had numinous experiences, which cause them to turn to religion. Otto claimed that almost everyone has experienced the divine, which can be identified as “mysterium tremendum et facinans.” He believed that without numinous experiences “no religion would be worthy of the name,” showing that he certainly felt that numinous experiences were a convincing argument for God’s existence. However, other scholars have suggested that it is too simplistic to say that all religious experience involves a sense of the numinous and therefore leads to God. Buddhists would certainly disagree, as they claim to have religious experiences, despite being a non-theistic religion. Consequently, religious experiences could potentially just indicate an improvement of your spiritual worth, rather than a connection with a deity. I believe that feelings of the numinous can be induced in places of great natural beauty, so it is debateable as to whether we are in wonder of God’s beauty or of the great natural processes that have occurred to form valleys, geological features, etc.

Conversion experiences are regenerative experiences and transformative in nature. James said that when a person is converted, religious ideas previously at the edge of their consciousness now take a central place and it is religious aims which now drive them in life. He actually devotes three chapters of his book, ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience,’ to studying conversion experiences. An example of a modern-day conversion experience is that of CS Lewis. He originally felt that the New Testament was a myth, but his belief shifted after speaking to his Christian friends and witnessing his atheist friend convert to Christ. The conversion of Lewis is an interesting one because a vast majority of the conversion experiences occur during a period of crisis in the convert’s life. For example, Cat Stevens (later known as Yusuf Islam) had a near-death experience and Saint Augustine was plagued with guilt for his sexual sin. This theory is supported by Jung, who noted that conversion experiences often coincide with a time of stress and crisis in a person’s life. However, CS Lewis does not appear to have had this period of crisis. He was a successful academic and author, with a loving family, so why would he be in a period of trauma? So this could indicate that it was in fact God that caused CS Lewis to convert because he does not appear to have a clear psychological trigger. However, CS Lewis could have had been sociologically influenced. His Christian friends, such as Tolkien, may have influenced his decision because when we see people that we respect completing an activity, we often want to mimic them. I believe that conversion experiences are the most convincing of the religious experiences as an argument for God’s experience, especially when people turn from no religion to being an extremely devoted theist. This dramatic transitional shift in beliefs can sometimes appear to be so extreme that only God could have caused it. However, not all religious experiences are conversion experiences, which can be assessed objectively as people can clearly see the results of the experience.

Overall, despite being a theist myself, I do not feel that religious experiences are a convincing argument for God. There have been such a large number of hoaxes and experiences that can be explained by other psychological or sociological means, that it has become difficult to decipher between the true religious experiences and the lies. We can examine religious experiences in great detail and analyse the fruits of the experience upon a person’s lie. However, we will never be able to conclusively establish whether or not they are caused by God. I believe that unless you would be unlikely to convert to theism by looking at religious experiences, unless you are subject to one yourself, authentic or not.  

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