Religious experiences can be defined in many forms. A religious experience usually refers to experiences where you are in contact or receive information passed from God. Some experiences can be personal, or others non-personal such as the word of God through passages in the Bible. Near death, and conversion experiences are all forms of religious experiences because a long lasting change occurs within an individual or group. I will be arguing that religious experiences do not provide a basis for a belief for God or a greater power using scholars such as William James, Sigmund Freud and Anthony Flew to both appose and support my view.
William James, an American Psychologist and Philosopher does support the belief of religious experience. In his lifetime he attempted to define parts of religious experiences. His aim was not to convert, or prove the reality of religious experiences but to look at them outside from an objective position to learn the extent of the many forms. He postulated that not all religious experiences are of mass super natural events, but they occasionally can be. He found that all religious experiences could fit into four categories. Passivity, Ineffability, Noetic quality, and Transience. Passivity is where the experience feels controlled from an external point of view, Ineffability is the inability to express the emotions of the experience to its standard with the human language available. Giving the receiver truths of themselves and others that they would otherwise be unable to receive through reason is Noetic Quality. Finally, Transience describes an experience that is in time short but has life long lasting effects. W. James proposes that the experiences will feel real and give, what they believe, convincing evidence that God is personal and is a greater power.
The issue that many sceptics find with religious experiences is that they are impossible to prove and have no empirical evidence to support their existence. However, corporate experiences, where a group of individuals all experience the same thing can suggest that there is some validity to the event. The Toronto blessing is a case commonly used when in conversation of religious experiences. In this event, hundreds of individuals were all manically laughing, crying and rolling on the floor. They all proposed that they’d all experienced the same overwhelming emotion that lead to them acting in this way. This event is supports the view that religious experience can provide a basic belief in a powerful being. On the other hand, this can be disproved with an example of mass hysteria, where they all believe they are experiencing the same thing when in fact they are mostly repeating behaviour they are witness too.
Sigmund Freud does not consider religious experiences to have any bases of truth, and therefore have no basis to support the view of a powerful God or greater power. He proposed that religious experiences are no more but a longing for a fatherly figure. He postulates that the experiences are hallucinations and do not give any supporting evidence for a greater power. Wishful thinking causes people to believe that they have experienced something that they may not have. They can subconsciously convince and persuade themselves through longing, for example to see God or Jesus that they actually think they have.
The issue with denying the existence of Religious experiences and therefore their effectiveness in proving there is a greater power, is that we have no more evidence to disprove their existence than we do to prove. Unless we have strong evidence that an individual is hallucinating or that they are lying we have no basis to reject their proposed experience. Richard Swinburne suggested the principle of testimony and the principle or credulity. The principle of Credulity simply states that if someone has said they have seen something, such as God, then they most likely have. It is rational to believe what they said to be true. The principle of testimony goes on to argue that people will usually be honest, and we should believe with them unless we have reason not to. So, if we have no reason to disprove what individuals have said they have witnessed then religious experiences could be argued to assist proving the existence of God or greater power.
Anthony Flew argued against religious experience using the vicious cycle argument. This proposes that there is always a cause for something, Y comes from X, and without X it is unlikely that Y will occur. X is the religious belief which goes on to enforce and cause a religious experience to occur, which is Y. Without a religious belief a religious experience would be unlikely. This suggests that religious experiences do not prove the existence of a greater power because the likelihood of having a religious experience is unlikely without previous belief.
In conclusion, Religious experiences are very unreliable to assist in proving such a substantial argument in this case, existence of God or a greater power. It is near impossible to provide empirical evidence for their occurrence, and within the modern day, many people insist on receiving before accepting the truth. Events such as the Toronto blessing provide some form of evidence due to the size of the corporate experience. However, this can also be explained by mass hysteria where people may has just copied the behaviour they saw others portraying. The arguments provided by scholars such as Sigmund Freud and their postulation on wishful thinking being the driving force behind religious experiences provide strong face validity that they do not give evidence for God.
Author: S M