In its nature religious experience is not a topic of religion that cannot be empirically scrutinised. However it is still questionable as to whether there is a sufficient enough cause to analyse religious experiences or is it, at its best just a mere suppositious delusion on the part of the individual. Many thinkers have taken religious experiences as facts and although many have spoken at great length about the subject, there are those who view that the analysis of religious experience as meaningless and pointless.
Firstly, in definition religious experience is an unexplainable subjective experience of contact with what an individual believes to be a transcendent or supernatural being. The majority of religious believers hold the view that religious experience is genuinely an encounter with God or the Holy Spirit.
Christian mysticism believes that although God converses and is personally involved with humanity, it is only through mystical religious experience that God’s message can truly be encountered. If what they claim has any shred of truth, then it would not only be meaningful to analyse religious experience but it would also be necessary, as God, the supreme creator is conversing his ‘wishes’ and ’commands’ directly to the human psyche. However there is the evident problem with religious experience itself and also with the religious believer who may commit to a misleading thought process of converting what is essentially intuitive and subjective into something rational and objective. The term ’leap to faith’, coined by Kierkegaard sums up the positive and negative aspects of religious experience. Religious believers may see religious experience as the ultimate example of a leap to faith, as it’s wholly non-empirical and subjective and this is positive. But there is a large amount of doubt that should go hand in hand with this.
As Kierkegaard writes, ’’doubt is conquered by faith, just as it is faith which has brought doubt into this world’’. If this is the case, then there is little point in analysing religious experience as it is by its nature a proposition of faith, not an empirical one. Yet if you take a different view, that a leap to faith is negative as it clouds the individual from rationalisation and the openness to more realistic explanations and flaws. Just as John Wisdom’s parable of the gardener shows how a religious belief is unfalsifiable, a religious experience contains the same inherent flaw. Whereas the analysis of scientific theory is absolutely necessary and exists permanently, there is not the same necessary level of analysis needed.
Analysis is only useful if those who are under analysis have the willingness to accept any criticisms and to continually search for that which provides the most logical answer. Unfortunately, many religious believers when faced with logical criticism don’t alter their foundational beliefs, but irrationally change what they believe to suit their foundations. For example, a religious believer may have had an experience that made them feel a great sense of fear over an event that they believe is imminent. If there isn’t an obvious event, instead of disproving the experience, many religious believers would find another meaning or an insignificant event that only serves the experience rather than find another way round the explanation.
Richard Swinburne, with his ‘principle of credulity’ and ‘principle of testimony’ exemplify the previous point I just made. The principle of credulity says that if one cannot find any reason to disbelieve an event, then one shouldn’t really believe in its occurrence. For example, Jesus’ resurrection or the Toronto Blessing would fall under this category to a religious believer. However the problem is that although the experience may have been analysed by both secularist and religious person, they may both be guilty of pre-held beliefs and therefore can’t commit to a logical fallacy. Swinburne’s principle of testimony has similar problems, although it perhaps more weighted towards a religious believer than a secularist. If an individual should believe any witnesses to an event or experience (in regards to an experience or event that seems implausible to what we hold to be natural law or logic), then the individual is at danger of allowing religion and the believer to become a void of scrutiny. However, Swinburne’s five categories of religious experience are inherently useful to both the believer and the secularist, as they are a step towards a rationalisation of the experience. Swinburne’s categories:
Public experience – a normal, non-religious object/ event (e.g. a sunset)
Public experience – through an unusual public event (e.g. walking on water)
Private experience – private sensations expressible through normal language (e.g. a dream)
Private experience – a non-specific, general feeling of God working in one’s life, an encounter with the ‘holy’
The categories seek to give what is essentially inexpressible, a defined language. They are not verifiable, but they go some way to allowing them to be at least weakly verified and explained.
Another, one of the most recognisable philosophers/ psychologists to be associated with religious experience is William James. James also created characteristics of religious experience with a hope of being able to understand them and giving them a greater meaning. The characteristics he came up with were, ineffability (the quality of the experience, beyond words), noetic quality (an insight into the wisdom and truth of God, intuition of reason), transience (experience can be fleeting but have life long effects) and passivity (the lack of control by the individual). James differentiated between institutionalised religion and a personal religion, and suggested that the highly subjective nature of religious experience meant that it was and is outside the realm of objective testing. Moreover, what was more important to James, was not the analysis of the experience but the effects that it had on the person.
So in this respect, James’ position on the worth of analysing religious experience is mixed, as he believes not in the worth of the cause or the root of the experience (suggesting that he may see it as worthless), yet devised a way of categorising religious experience so as to make them more analysable. Ultimately, he advocated that the study of religious experience may be beneficial as giving greater strength to the effects that it may have on people on a tangible level, but he didn’t suggest that through analysis of religious experience one could derive an argument for the existence of God. James believed that there was a substantial difference between institutionalised religion and personal religion. To James the thought of loving God who at the same time was all powerful and creator of the universe is a confliction.
There is a strong secular argument, for the worth of analysing experiences. Freud, Marx and Jung all commented on the on the existence of ’religious experiences’ or religious illusions as Marx referred to them. They approached them with a secular view, yet still found their analysis useful. They believed that religious experience is a product of the psyche and the incredibly complex and still unknown effects of the unconscious. Freud believed that religious experience is perfectly compatible with psychology, as it was the result of two parts of the human mind. First the deep despair and feeling lack of control in the world and second, the infantile faith and responsibility placed in the father figure as a child. Freud saw it as evidence that as we progress from the childlike state of little responsibility we must project our lack of control and responsibility onto a father figure that we believe we can cope. These hopes and desires are so strong that we can create self hallucinations as to a real father figure.
Marx had a similar approach and believed that religion was a form of mass longing. The ability of religion to dull the pain and reality of life is the reason for its adamant grip on reality, “Religion is the opiate of the masses” was Marx’s famous quotation. “Morals, religion, metaphysics and other forms of ideology and the forms of consciousness corresponding to them no longer retain their apparent independence. It is not consciousness that determines life, but life that determines consciousness.”. Religious experiences exist because of their strength in throwing a blanket over the reality of the world.
However there are those, who even though they may not dispute the existence of religious experience, would argue that it is pointless to analyse them. William James believed that although study should be conducted, what was really worth study was the effects. He was and advocate of symbolism and the worth we should ascribe to it. For example, he stated that although the though of a lemon may make them salivate, even though there is nothing tangible about the thought of a lemon, the reaction however is worth academic inquisition. James believed that “One must not consider an object’s physical derivation when making a proposition of value” and thus the root of the religious experience is perhaps less important than the experience itself. James used the example of the founder of the Quaker movement – George Fox. Many of the scientists in James’ audience, and many today, immediately reject all aspects of the Quaker religion because evidence suggests that Fox was schizophrenic. Calling this rejection medical materialism, James insisted that the origin of Fox’s notions about religion should not come into account when propositioning the value of the Quaker religion.
Kierkegaard, believed strongly that faith is something that is wholly subjective but meaningful as long as it has a religious effect on the person. For him, there can be no objective study or reality of religious experience or religion as a whole, as its entire nature is subjective. The reality of any religious experience is irrelevant as long as the result is meaningful. Individual experience is key.
Paul Tillich, believed that true religion is having absolute concern, ’’faith as ultimate concern is an act of the total personality. It is the centred act of the human mind, it participates in the dynamics of personal life.’’ He believed that the only true dominating factor of faith is through concern, and because of this belief if a religious experience fosters true ultimate concern rather than the experience itself. Tillich believed that the God of religions was flawed and that a personal God was illogical. He disagreed with any literal philosophical and religious statements that can be made about God. Such statements attempt to define God and lead not only to anthropomorphism but also to a philosophical mistake that Kant warned against, that setting limits against the transcendent inevitability leads to contradictions. Any statements about God are simply symbolic, but these symbols are sacred in the sense that they function to participate or point to the unknown being.
During the 1980s Dr. Michael Persinger stimulated the temporal lobes of human subjects with a weak magnetic field. His subjects claimed to have a sensation of “an ethereal presence in the room.” This suggests that perhaps the claimed religious experience is merely a material and tangible process that occurs within the brain that leads to the feeling of an unknown sensation that many falsely attribute to God. A 2003 Horizon program by the BBC conducted research into temporal lobe stimulation, and found two people who said they had experienced religious experiences.
Rudi Affolter and Gwen Tighe both experienced strong religious visions. The first is an atheist; and the latter a Christian. He thought he had died; she thought she had given birth to Jesus. After numerous studies it was revealed that they both showed signs of temporal lobe epilepsy, supporting perhaps the idea that the feeling of God and the unknown sensations are a biological function of our bodies. Richard Dawkins, who is vehemently opposed to religion and religious experience on the grounds of their being very little evidence for the existence of God in the first place. He states that even if a person did encounter a ‘religious experience’ there is nothing to suggest that it is religious based rather than any other phenomenon of biology or the unknown. However Dawkins allowed Dr. Persinger to stimulate his temporal lobe to see if he could stimulate the feeling of a religious experience; and Dawkins stated that although he felt shortness of breath, he felt no religious experience.
In conclusion religious experience, although hugely meaningful for a large amount of people, ultimately it will always be subjective. You should not confuse objectivity and rational logic with the idea of mystical feeling and because of this the nature of religious experience should not be analysed. However, religious experience provides a great deal of meaning and benefits to those who believe in it and their responses and the good and the bad that can result is worthy of analysis.