In my last post I began writing about the epistemological argument for belief in God, also known as the argument from religious experience. And I argued, from considerations of impartiality, that the principle of critical trust is applicable to religious experiences as it is applicable to any of our experiences, which is the first premise of the argument.
This means the beliefs that people form in the context of religious experiences have some degree of inherent justification – though perhaps not enough to warrant accepting those beliefs without corroboration and further critical examination. That is where the third and fourth premises come in, which are that a certain class of religious experiences are well-corroborated, and that overriding reasons to disbelieve those experiences are not present. Those are the premises I will defend in this post and the next.
Before I get into that, it is worth saying something about the second premise. People have religious experiences, experiences that they take to imply some kind of transcendent reality. This statement should be fairly uncontroversial, unless you want to make the rather audacious assertion that everyone who has ever claimed to have a religious experience is lying.
To get a sense of the diversity of human religious experience, here are some of the different kinds of such experiences that many people have reported. (This list is mostly taken from Kai-man Kwan’s article on the argument from religious experience, and some sources can be found there.)
- Theistic experiences – experiences of God, the personal and perfect creator of the world
- Numinous experiences – experience of God as a tremendously powerful being, a mysterious and awesome reality who is brimming with life and energy
- Theistic mysticism – experience of deep unity of oneself with God, where the soul seems to experience God from within God himself
- Sense of presence of God – awareness of the presence of God, often accompanied by a feeling of calm assurance and peace
- Divine-human encounters – awareness of God’s ultimate worth as well as one’s own moral obligations to God, experienced along with feelings of personal interaction (warmth and gratitude, sense of being personally addressed)
- Experiences of grace – feeling of being forgiven of one’s moral transgressions against God and being reconciled to God, feeling of peace and joy, freedom from guilt
- Conversion and experiences of personal growth – feeling of being transformed by God, accompanied by moral character growth
- Charismatic experiences – speaking in tongues, prophesy, faith healings, and the like
- Sensory theistic experiences – visions, dreams, and the like
- Corporate theistic experiences – experiences of God in corporate worship or prayer, or as an integral part of (religious) community life
- Mediated theistic experiences – experiences of God mediated by other experiences, for example, in nature, art, conscience, fellowship with others, or moral character of others
- Interpretive theistic experiences – spontaneous interpretation of an event as being from God, for example, feeling that an event is an answer to prayer or a sign from God
- Intuitive apprehension of God – intuitive belief that God exists without any other experiential content
- Experiences of transcendence
- Experiences of contingency – profound feeling that this world is not ultimate and that it depends on something beyond
- Experiences of design – profound feeling that the beauty and intricacy of the natural order is ultimately due to a creator
- Experiences of ecstasy – feeling of ecstasy through encountering some kind of transcendent reality
- Encounters with immaterial reality
- Near-death experiences – out-of-body experiences or encounters with a transcendent reality when near death
- Experiences of minor deities, evil spirits, angels, or departed saints – these differ from theistic experiences in that the being encountered is a finite part of reality, rather than transcending all other reality and sustaining it in being
- Various mystical experiences
- Nature mysticism – feeling of being one with the universe
- Monistic mysticism – feeling that All is One, often with the belief that ultimate reality is impersonal, may include a pure consciousness event as part of the experience
- Pure consciousness event – a state of pure consciousness with no intentional object or conceptual interpretation whatsoever
- Experiences of Nirvana – feeling that No-self or Nothingness is the ultimate reality
Obviously, we cannot take all of humanity’s religious experiences at face value – many of them contradict one another, and it is very likely that some of these experiences will be found to be fraudulent or delusory even if God does exist. The same, after all, is true of our physical perceptions. Eyewitness accounts of the same event can contradict each other, and people can lie, hallucinate, or be fooled into thinking they saw something that they didn’t. (Of course, this can be used as an objection against believing religious experiences, and I will talk about that more when I discuss the fourth premise.)
What the principle of critical trust says is not that we take all of these experiences at face value permanently, but rather, that we treat them as “innocent until proven guilty,” as we tend to do for our physical perceptions. When two eyewitnesses describe a car crash and they disagree on some of the details – even major ones – it wouldn’t reasonable to assume that nothing happened at all. When someone tells you that they saw something unusual, it isn’t reasonable to assume right off the bat that they are lying or deluded. The critical trust approach says the same should go for religious experiences.
Many religious experiences are not overwhelmingly powerful, and a non-believer who has one, or something like it, may just brush it off. My own experiences in my relationship with God are generally of this modest variety. But a significant number of people throughout history have had quite powerful and vivid experiences of God, sometimes throughout their lifetime. (Kwan’s article cites some examples.)
For those people who have powerful and compelling experiences of God, is it really reasonable to say that they are not entitled to trust their experiences, at least initially? When they otherwise seem like honest and mentally stable people, is it really reasonable, before even examining the issue, to say that their beliefs based on those powerful experiences are simply the result of gullibility?
So I think that religious experiences should be allowed to count as at least some evidence for the truth of the beliefs that they form. The next two premises are about why, for some experiences, I think that evidence is strong enough to fully justify those beliefs.
Theistic Experiences are Well-Established
I am now going to focus on a subcategory of religious experiences, specifically, theistic experiences. Theistic experiences are those that the subjects take to be of God, that is, the all-powerful personal creator of the universe. The third premise of my epistemological argument is that theistic experiences constitute a well-established type, so that such experiences produce not merely some justification for their associated basic beliefs, but sufficient justification to accept those beliefs.
The criteria for being a well-established type of experience are:
- experiences of that type occur to many different people and in many different situations,
- the experiences are coherent with each other and with other types of experience, and
- the experiences fit well into a worldview that best explains all of reality.
All three of these criteria are fulfilled by theistic experiences.
First, many people throughout the world, across cultures and eras of history, have theistic experiences. The majority of people worldwide are religious. The largest religious traditions, Christianity and Islam, are theistic, and a significant fraction of the adherents to those religions have had experiences of God. Theistic experiences are not limited to the Western world, either. There are theistic traditions within Hinduism, and indications of theistic beliefs in ancient China, for example. Even non-religious people sometimes have religious experiences, many of them theistic or compatible with a theistic worldview. (Some polls cited in Kwan’s article suggest that more than a third of the general population in the Western world have had a religious experience of some kind.)
All in all, it is plausible that hundreds of millions of people alive today have had experiences of God, and many more throughout the five thousand years of recorded human history. These are not a collection of isolated events. Rather, spanning continents and cultures, theistic encounters form part of the normal range of human experience.
Second, theistic experiences are generally coherent with each other. There is a rich diversity of ways in which people claim to experience God, but they are all unified by pointing to God as a personal and spiritual being who is the Ultimate Reality, the foundation of moral values, and the creator of the universe. All of the different modes of theistic experience listed above generally make sense in light of this concept of God. There are differing claims about the identity and nature of the God who is encountered in these experiences, but at least a common core of proposed truths about God can be extracted from these differing claims.
Furthermore, theistic experiences are generally coherent with all of our other types of experience. Most other religious experiences can be fit fairly comfortably in a theistic worldview, with the possible exception of monistic mystical experiences and experiences of Nirvana. (I’ll write a bit more about those when I discuss the next premise.) There is certainly no direct contradiction between the existence of the physical world revealed by our senses, and the existence of a spiritual reality revealed by our experiences of God. And our moral and rational intuitions are at home in a universe where the Ultimate Reality is a personal being.
Third and finally, theistic experiences are coherent with and even suggested by a worldview that (I believe) takes into account all the data and best explains all of reality – namely, a theistic worldview, and the worldview of Christianity in particular. I will let all the other arguments for God’s existence, many of which I will explore in future posts, stand in support of the claim that a theistic worldview is the best explanation of all the data.
(It may be objected that postulating the truth of a specific religious worldview can never be a good explanation for spiritual experiences from outside of that religious tradition. I will address that objection as part of my next post.)
All of this means that theistic experiences are a well-established type of experience: they are coherent and corroborated by other experiences, and so can be taken to provide sufficient justification for accepting the beliefs that we form in that context.
Logical Incoherence Objection
If the concept of God is not coherent, then experiences of God cannot be coherent either, which removes the justification for thinking that they are a well-established type. This is something that I’ll look at in more detail in the future, but suffice to say that I haven’t found any supposed contradictions that aren’t resolved by closer examination.
Even if the concept of God is coherent, the concept of a theistic experience itself might not be coherent: some critics of the epistemological argument contend that God is not a possible object of experience. Reasons for this may be that God’s properties are not the kinds of properties that can be given in our experience, or that it is impossible for our finite minds to experience his infinite attributes.
However, by those criteria, even physical entities are not possible objects of experience. The only things we really experience are mental qualia. But we still say that we can see physical objects, even if some of their properties (like mass and charge) are not directly present in our experience, and even if they are too large to be seen all at once. So there doesn’t seem to be a problem with experiencing God.
It is also worth noting that sensory-like perception is not the only way that we experience the world around us. Emotions and intuitive apprehensions can also convey meaning: these are an important component of our interpersonal experience, for example. Since theism contends that God is personal, this mode of encountering God is expected. So God may also be experienced via non-sensory phenomena, and the principle of critical trust still applies.
Impossibility of Individuation Objection
Another objection to this premise is that we can never prove that different theistic experiences are actually of the same God. But we can also never prove that different sensory experiences of the table in my living room of actually of the same physical object. The table could have been replaced by an indistinguishable one while I was away, for example.
The point is that we routinely use the principle of critical trust, along with inference to the best explanation, to identify and reidentify objects between different experiences. It is no different with experiences of God.
Objection of Non-Universality
As widespread as theistic experiences are, not everyone experiences them. This has been suggested as another reason why we should not take theistic experiences as a well-established type, arguing that well-established experiences should have the same level near-universality as our physical perceptions.
However, it is simply not true that experiences must be universal to be justifiably believed. Our sense experiences enjoy confirmation and corroboration far in excess of what is required to be reasonable, so I will certainly grant that they are better established than theistic experiences. But to require universality of all experiences before believing them is like saying that if a hockey player is not as great as Wayne Gretzky in his prime, he must be therefore be an incompetent hockey player who you would never want on your team.
There are relatively few people who experience perfect pitch (about 1 in 10,000 according to Wikipedia), but those who do are still justified in trusting their recognition of the absolute pitch of a note on the basis of their experience. Similarly, we will often believe something based on the testimony of a number of people considerably smaller than everyone available. If one person told you they had seen an airplane land on the highway, you might doubt it; if ten more people told you the same thing you would most likely believe it. If a hundred more people then told you, you might consider it even more confirmed, but mostly you would be thinking that you knew that already.
So universality is not required for a type of experience to be well-established.
Objection of Vagueness
Similarly, theistic experiences are usually not as vivid or detailed as our physical perceptions. But this is not always true: some people have very detailed visionary experiences of God. And in any case, experiences to not need to have the same level of vividness as our physical perceptions to be believed either. A person whose senses have been dulled by damage or old age is still justified in believing what they can discern from their experiences, even if those experiences are not as vivid as typical physical perceptions.
Other Disanalogy Objections
Critics of the epistemological argument might object to theistic experiences on a number of other ways that they are not analogous to sensory experiences – but unless the difference can be shown to be epistemically relevant, these are not good reasons for rejecting theistic experiences as a well-established type. They simply represent an unjustified preference for sensory experiences.
To press this point, memory is very different from sensory experiences in many ways, yet the justification for much of our knowledge about the physical world rests on memory – and memory cannot be non-circularly justified without the principle of critical trust. And similarly, inductive and abductive reasoning have important differences from deductive reasoning, but they are still rational and crucial in both everyday life and in the practice of science.
That is what I have to say about the third premise of the argument from religious experience. In my next post I will explore the final premise, and conclude my discussion of this argument.