Religious experience can be viewed in five different categories: vision experiences, voice experiences, corporate experiences, conversion experiences and numinous experiences. The claim above suggests that all forms of religious experience are created by the mind; this view is a psychological view and is adopted most notoriously by Sigmund Freud.
Freud believed that religion is an illusion and an expression of people desires coming from a persons psychological needs. He believed that Religion is rooted in a childlike desire for a father-like figure such as God. Applying this to a religious experiences such as Paul on the Road to Demascus; Freud would say his experience of the ‘bright light’ and Jesus, were constructed by his mind as a result of his psychological needs. Freud could suggest that the conversion from Saul to Paul was a result of Saul lacking a fully supportive upbringing from his parents, hence why his mind created the experience to direct him to righteousness. However, there is little scientific evidence of the subconscious to support Freud’s claims of the subconscious and deem ‘nurture’ as an explanation for all religious experiences.
On the other hand, William James did believe in religious experience. He thought that through analysis we could determine if an experience qualifies as a religious experience, or has any legitimacy. James believed are four characteristics prominent in all religious experience. The first, ineffable; whereby the experience is on such an individual and personal level it defies all means of expression through language. Second, the experience should be noetic i.e. insightful into the knowledge of God and gaining knowledge that is not otherwise available. Thirdly he said the experience should be transient, short in duration, but transpiring to a change in lifestyle. Finally, he said experiences should be passive; by this he meant the experience should approach the mystic, he used this to counter the claim that people will their own experiences. After defining what a valid religious experience is, James said that experience are a psychological phenomena, believing that experiences could be explained as part of a person’s psychological make-up. This suggests that James wouldn’t rule out the fact that experiences could be a construct of the mind. Since James said he didn’t see psychology as an argument against the belief in God, he explained how he felt it could prove religious experience is ‘natural’ to a person, just like self-awareness or thinking.
Nevertheless, sociologists would argue that religious experience is a reflection of the society you’ve grown up in, that’s why in the main Catholics have visions of Mary and Hindu’s have experiences of Shiva. Karl Marx is the most notable sociologist to speak against religious claims, he objected to the validity of religion, and in effect against religious experience. Marx was influenced by a philosophical movement known as the Hegelians, who suggested that religion was a form of ‘alienation against ones true self’. He believed a mythological belief was created to distract people from their reality and went on to call religion the ‘opium of the masses’, claiming the church was a form of social control to keep people oppressed and exploited. For Marx then, culture was the cause of religious experience. He said that religious experiences are caused by desperate situations, not God, believing that the origins of the experiences root back to the church. For Marx, religious experiences are not constructed by the mind. Instead, he believed the church constructed a mythological religion, which by implication caused oppressed people to have experiences of God.
However, evidence in history conflicts with Marx’s view of religion. For example, in the American civil rights movement, it was the Baptist church of Martin Luther King Jr, which pushed for liberation – not oppression. Equally in scripture, the story of Paul on the road to Demascus demonstrates how religious experience could lead to the ‘good’, in the way Saul was changed to a good man, Paul. This show’s that Marx’s wholesome condemnation of religion is flawed, in addition to this, there’s no evidence to suggest the communist philosophy makes people happier.
Alternatively, Alston argued how the views of sociologists and psychologists are unfair to reject religious experience. He’d have said it was unfair to say religious experiences were a constructed by the mind. Alston said in life evidence is what you can gain from experience. For example, if you heard a bird sing, or saw a red car, these would be vouched for by sensory evidence, and people would believe you. Alston used this to suggest it’s not right to doubt people have religious experiences, if you’d believe them in other situations. This is because Alston suggested a persons sense perception of cars or birds, is just a reliable as their perception of a religious experience. Alston’s argument is not evidence for religious experience, but suggest it’s not fair to simply reject religious experience as illogical or irrational.
Similarly, Richard Swinburne argued the principle of testimony in the same way. Swinburne said if a friend tells you they had a religious experience it is reasonable to believe them, unless, for example, the friend is a renowned joker. Moreover, Swinburne said that it is generally reasonable to believe the world is probably as we see it. He said if it seems to someone x is present, and then x probably is – he called this the principle of credulity. However, atheists might use this principle to suggest, since ‘I’ cannot experience God, thus it’s reasonable to believe he doesn’t exist.
Swinburne went on to reject this negative use of the principle, saying the absence of an experience doesn’t suggest it isn’t there, and sees his principle only in an A posteriori stance. He suggests a person’s testimony shouldn’t be doubted without reason and that religious experience wasn’t to be ruled out just because it hasn’t been experienced yet. Swinburne went on to say just because only some people have religious experiences, or because someone hasn’t had one, it is not evidence against them. He said a person wouldn’t recognise a telephone unless they had prior knowledge of what a telephone was. The knowledge would enable them to interpret the experience of seeing the object as a telephone. Consequently, he said, only religious people would recognise a religious experience for what it is. For Swinburne, only religious people would believe in the experience, and it’s wrong for psychologists or sociologists with ‘closed’ minds to denounce the experiences as constructed.
In contrast, there are many physiological challenges to religious experience. For example, there are some drugs such as LSD that can cause delusion and hallucinations, as can brain tumours. Another idea is that epilepsy or brain damage can cause experiences; epilepsy could explain Paul’s account of a bright light. However, there’s no evidence that everybody who has had a religious experience has some physiological explanation. In the corporate example of the Toronto Blessing, could all of the people at the airport have had epilepsy? The physiological challenges could be described as a defect of the body causing the religious experiences to be instead a construct of the brain, rather than a construct of the mind.
The debate on whether religious experiences are valid and meaningful, or whether they’re constructed or nurtured is ongoing. The psychological, sociological and physiological views are the main objections to religious experience. All viewing the experiences are either: constructed from a childhood deprivation, a result of the churches’ construction of religion or, an implication of a physiological defect. Whilst, both Alston and Swinburne suggest there’s no compelling evidence not to believe people. Swinburne even says, only religious people would recognise a religious experience for what it is, and the objectors are ignorant. On the other hand, William James takes a middle-ground and recognises that psychology could explain religious experiences. Claiming, the experiences derivation in psychology is evidence that religious experience is ‘natural’ and coordinated by God.