apologetics, arguments for God, epistemology, philosophy, Religious Experience

The Argument from Religious Experience: Some thoughts on method and usefulness

The argument from religious experience (hereafter referred to as “argument from RE”) has seen a resurgence in scholarly work. Keith Yandell, Richard Swinburne, Jerome Gellman, Kai-man Kwan, Caroline Franks-Davis, Paul Moser, and others have contributed to the current discussion about the topic.

One thing which has disappointed me on more than one occasion is the dismissive attitude that some Christian apologists show towards the argument from religious experience.

What reasons are there for apologists to adopt such a stance? Well it seems possible that some of them simply haven’t studied the argument enough to consider its plausibility. I admit that before interacting with the argument, I was skeptical of the possibility for its having any value. But I want to suggest another possibility: apologists tend to favor arguments which can be presented and defended in a debate format or which are useful in short conversations with others. I’m not suggesting this as an attack on my fellow Christians, merely as an observation. And this is not a bad thing; it is indeed greatly useful to have arguments which can be presented quickly and defended easily when one is trying to present a case for Christianity to others.

The problem is the argument from RE requires a great deal of epistemological background in order to get to the meat of it. The authors listed above each develop a robust epistemology to go with their argument. This seems to put a limit on the usefulness of the argument; if it must be conjoined with a broad discussion of epistemology, then how can one present it in such a way that those who aren’t professional philosophers (or at least interested in the topic) can understand? It is to this question I hope to present an answer.

Background Information

Formulations of the Argument

There are two primary ways the argument from RE can be formulated (Caroline Franks Davis suggests a number of ways the argument can presented in The Evidential Force of Religious Experience, 67-92). The first is the personal argument; the second is the public argument. Now I have seen very few versions of the former in the literature. The personal argument is essentially an argument from RE which centers not on trying to demonstrate the existence of God to others, but rather upon justifying one’s own belief that such an experience is genuine. In other words, the personal argument from RE focuses upon defending one’s own conviction that a religious experience is veridical.

Paul Moser, in his work The Evidence for God, suggests one possible way to formulate this argument [he does not refer to it in the same terminology as I use here]:

1. Necessarily, if a human person is offered and receives the transformative gift, then this is the result of the authoritative power of… God

2. I have been offered, and have willingly received, the transformative gift.

3. Therefore, God exists (200, cited below).

This argument is one example of what I would call the personal argument from RE. It focuses on one’s own experience and uses that to justify one’s belief in God. [It seems Moser could be arguing for this as a public argument as well, but a discussion of this would take us too far afield.]

A public argument from RE is generally formulated to establish the belief in God (or at least a transcendent reality), just as other theistic arguments are intended. It will best function as part of a “cumulative case” for the existence of God. One example of an argument of this sort can be found in Jerome Gellman, Experience of God and the Rationality of Theistic Belief:

If a person, S, has an experience, E, in which it seems (phenomenally) to be of a particular object, O… then everything else being equal, the best explanation of S’s having E is that S has experienced O… rather than something else or nothing at all (46, cited below).

Readers familiar with the literature on RE will note the similarities between this and Richard Swinburne’s principle of credulity. The basic  idea is that if someone has an experience, then they are justified in believing they had that experience, provided they have no (epistemic) defeaters for that experience.

Brief Epistemological Inquiry

I’ve already noted the intricate ties the argument from RE has with epistemology, and a quick introduction to the argument would be remiss without at least noting this in more explicit detail. The core of establishing the argument from RE is to undermine methodological/metaphysical naturalism. Thus, a robust defense of the argument from RE will feature building up a case for an epistemological stance in which theistic explanations are not ruled out a priori.

A second step in this epistemological background is to establish a set of criteria with which one can judge and evaluate individual religious experiences. Caroline Franks Davis’ study (cited below) is a particularly amazing look into this tactic; she explores a number of possible defeaters and criteria for investigating REs. These range any where from hallucinogenic drugs to the multiplicity of religious experience.

The Force of the Evidence

One concern I had when I was exploring the argument from RE is that it would not have very much force. Upon investigating the topic, however, I can’t help but think the force of the argument is quite strong. Swinburne seems correct when he writes, “[T]he overwhelming testimony of so many millions of people to occasional experience of God must… be taken as tipping the balance of evidence decisively in favour of the existence of God” (Swinburne, Is There a God?, 120, cited below). The important thing to remember is that an overwhelming number of people from all stations of life and cultures have had experiences that they deem to be “spiritual” or hinting at “transcendence.” Denying universally all of these experiences as genuine would seem to require an enormous amount of counter-evidence.

A Suggested Version for Quick Discussion

So what to do with this background knowledge? It seems to me it is possible to at least sketch out a version of the argument from RE for a brief discussion, with a defense. Further reading is provided below.

The Argument Stated

1. Generally, when someone has an experience of something, they are within their rational limits to believe the experience is genuine.

2. Across all socio-historical contexts, people have had experiences of a transcendent realm.

3. Therefore, it is rational to believe there is a transcendent realm.

The argument made more explicit

The reason I suggest this as the way to use the argument from RE in a brief discussion is because it can more easily form part of a cumulative case and requires less epistemological work to justify it. The first premise is, in general, a principle of rationality. While there are many who have attacked Swinburne’s principle of credulity, it does seem that we generally affirm it. If I experience x, then, provided I have no reasons to think otherwise, I should believe that x exists/was real/etc.

The second premise is the result of numerous studies, some of which are cited in the works cited below. To deny this nearly universal experience is simply to deny empirical evidence. People like William James have observed this transcultural experience of the transcendent for hundreds of years.

Thus, it seems that we are justified in being open to the existence of things beyond the mundane, everyday objects we observe in the physical reality. If people from all times and places have had experiences of things beyond this everyday existence, then it does not seem irrational to remain at least open to the possibility of such things existing.

The conclusion may come as something of a letdown for some theists. But I would like to reiterate that this is a version of the argument intended for use in a brief conversation. There are versions of the argument in the cited literature below which defend theism specifically and engage in synthesis of these experiences into the theistic fold. What I’m trying to do here is make the argument part of the apologist’s arsenal. If we can use the argument merely to open one up to the reality of the transcendent, then perhaps they will be more open other theistic arguments. As part of a cumulative case, one can’t help but shudder under the overwhelming weight of millions of experiences.

Conclusion

The argument from religious experience has enjoyed a resurgence in scholarly popularity. A number of books from publishers like Oxford University Press, Cornell, and Continuum have reopened the argument to the scholarly world. It is high time that Christian apologists put in the work needed to utilize these arguments in everyday, accessible apologetics. The argument formulated above is just one way to do this, and Christians would do well to explore the argument further. The experience of God is something not to be taken lightly; Christians throughout our history have had such experiences and been moved into intimate relationships with God. We should celebrate these experiences, while also realizing their evidential value.

Further Reading and Works Cited

The following books are all ones I have read on the topic but do not present a comprehensive look at literature on the subject.

Caroline Franks Davis, The Evidential Force of Religious Experience (New York, NY: Oxford, 1989). One of the best books on the topic, Franks Davis provides what I would see as a nearly comprehensive look at the epistemic defeaters to consider with the argument from RE.

Jerome Gellman, Experience of God and the Rationality of Theistic Belief (Ithaca, NY: Cornell, 1997). Gellman provides a robust defense of the principle of credulity.

Paul Moser, The Evidence for God (New York: NY, Cambridge, 2010). This work is not so much about the argument from RE as it is an argument showing that any evidence for God is going to be necessarily relational. I highly recommend it.

Richard Swinburne, Is There a God?(New York, NY: Oxford, 2010). This is an introductory work to Swinburne’s theistic arguments. It has a chapter on the argument from RE that provides an excellent, easy-to-read look at the issues surrounding the argument. I reviewed this book here.

There are a number of other fantastic books on the topic as well. Swinburne’s The Existence of God has a chapter that remains a classic for the defense of the argument from RE.

William Alston’s Perceiving God is perhaps one of the best examples of a robust epistemology built up around RE and realism.

Keith Yandell’s The Epistemology of Religious Experience is a extremely technical look at many of the issues, and I found it particularly useful regarding the notion of “ineffability” in RE.

Kai-man Kwan’s Rainbow of Experiences, Critical Trust, and God is a very recent look at the argument which again features a large amount of epistemological development.

Nelson Pike provides a unique look at the phenomenology of RE and a synthesis of theistic and monistic experiences in his work Mystic Union.

SDG.

——

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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick has an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. His interests include theology, philosophy of religion--particularly the existence of God--astronomy, biology, archaeology, and sci-fi and fantasy novels.

Discussion

13 thoughts on “The Argument from Religious Experience: Some thoughts on method and usefulness

  1. In the end, all religious experience is just the product of people’s own mental states, and to suggest that God has anything to do with it would beg the question. Now, should one be an inclusivist, then one would suggest that all people experience Ultimate Reality, Being Itself, Should one be an exclusiivst , one would suggest that only ones own religion fructifies as such.And we skeptics as noted.
    To accept the experiences as real, one must consider ones own milieu. One should use John Loftus’s the outsider test to verify ones religion.
    How can these experiences be any more veridical than any other that comes from the same sources?We know how to produce the experiences. We skeptics suspect that those means cannot produce veridicality.
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    Posted by Lord Griggs | April 2, 2012, 7:10 AM
  2. Excellent post! I find fault with nearly all of the so-called God-proofs (including the “generalized” ARE that leans populum), but Gellman’s formulation in particular is absolutely on the mark.

    Posted by Stan | April 2, 2012, 10:27 AM
  3. Re: DRE – a Demonic Religious Experience

    Please forgive me for jumping down to comment without first reading every line of the text.

    I emailed a well known British journalist, a devout atheist, and said you don’t know me or where I am coming from ‘thought and belief wise’. So your ‘broad brush’ saying we Believers are irresponsible Earth dwellers is definitely rather too wide of the mark.

    For me, up to the age of 36 years in 1979 I was carefree, selfish and Godless. Then at the funeral service of my 59 year old mother in June 1979, I was asked again by the pastor about God. The previous time he posed a similar question was at the funeral service of my 59 year old father who died three weeks previously in May 1979.

    So I began my quest to consider the business of God on Earth and by 1982 I considered there had to be a God Almighty. And I can definitely say I became a serious Believer because of one particular time and date, that of 2:30 am Monday, May 16, 1983, when I woke up in bed next to my sleeping wife in the bedroom of our house in Winchmore Hill, north London.

    When I woke up I looked for the curtains drawn across the bay-window, but the curtains were not there. In their place was a large white screen the width and height of the bedroom, a kind of movie blank screen. I thought I was dreaming, so I glanced around the bedroom and all the other furniture and items were there as usual, but not the curtains. Then a picture came onto the screen, or rather I seemed to looking at an apparition of a scene set in the wilderness and in the foreground was a tent. This was no ordinary tent, but a kind of hi-tech accommodation unit consisting of four interlocking (touching) circular tents set on a base 10 x 10 meters. The reason for my knowing the measurement for the units was because I was told telepathically.

    Without going into too much detail, the soon to be next part of apparition was truly amazing for there stood before me the great fallen Archangel Satan. He was a gray human looking with handsome chiseled facial features and no hair. He had his arms crossed and was partly naked but I could only see him clearly down to his waist. Satan looked at me with the look of a challenge.

    Yet, the most curious thing that I saw in this vision, was that when the wilderness scene ended, and there stood the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, dressed immaculately in blue. She was looking straight at me. And then, like a wax-work, who was heated up, she began to slowly melt. It was then that I saw that Satan had been standing insider this Margaret Thatcher wax-work.

    Soon, the vision ended after a little more telepathy.

    Therefore, having such a never had before or since apparition, made me so much more a Believer in Almighty God.

    Hence, I had in 1982 a Religious Experience which was Demonic.

    JDM

    Posted by numerousloop | April 2, 2012, 2:37 PM
  4. JW: “Thus, it seems that we are justified in being open to the existence of things beyond the mundane, everyday objects we observe in the physical reality. If people from all times and places have had experiences of things beyond this everyday existence, then it does not seem irrational to remain at least open to the possibility of such things existing.”

    I’m not actually familiar with the empirical evidence regarding “experiences of things beyond this everyday existence.” You cite so many books at the end that I’m a little embarrassed to ask you for a summary since my request is an admission that I’m too lazy to pick those books up just now, but I wonder if you’d be willing to summarize what sort of experience people from all times and places claim to have, and if there are any commonalities about when and where people have this experience. A few questions I’m interested in would be if an experience happens more alone or in groups, during periods of grief or joy, with or without mind-altering substances, indoors or out, etc. etc. I know you don’t have time to hit all of these points, I’m just looking for some something more specific to grab on to than “experiences of things beyond this everyday existence” because for me that sounds like scuba diving, drinking a chocolate stout, or being spooked in the hallway when I’m alone at work. Lastly, would Davis’ book be the most to the point on my question?

    Posted by Walt | April 2, 2012, 7:07 PM
    • Walt,

      Thanks for your comment. As far as the empirical studies of religious experiences, one can reference essentially any of the studies I listed for a survey. However, more specifically, Kai Man Kwan in his chapter on religious experience in the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology notes a number of studies; John Hick in The New Frontier of Religion and Science sites studies which show that 35% of people asked (in 1975) via a subsidiary of Gallop polls in the U.S. said they’ve had a religious experience; Hick also cites a British National Opinion poll which reported 36% of people had religious experiences; William James’ classic study The Varieties of Religious Experience cites a number of different types of experiences from different traditions; Hick’s work also cites a number of experiences; Keith Yandell’s The Epistemology of Religious Experience notes on p. 21ff 4 types of religious experiences which are reported across holy books ranging across thousands of years of history; David Hay’s work Denied Awareness cites a number of empirical studies in the western world which yield evidence that approximately 1/3 of people believe they have had an RE; Nelson Pike’s work (cited in the post) notes a number of religious thinkers who had religious experiences; Timothy Beadsworth cites several thousand modern experiences in his work A Sense of Presence; Hardy in “The Spiritual Nature of Man” collected over 3000 examples of modern religious experiences.

      I could cite more but that gives you some broad examples.

      The problem with “summarizing the sort of experience….” is that these come in a variety of types. I think that perhaps Davis’ book would give you a good survey, but any of those in the list will give you a good introduction to many of the topics. Few of them delve into the empirical evidence as much as some of those I’ve listed above.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | April 3, 2012, 8:02 PM
      • Hey JW,

        I’ve considered the feasibility of diving into these sources, and I won’t have time to in the near future. Would you be willing to say something more specific about the nature of the religious experience reported by 30% of respondents? I realize that there are problems with summarizing the sort of experience, but it seems like something more definitive must be said about a religious experience for it to be considered evidence. If nothing can be safely said about a commonality between these experiences, then I don’t understand what exactly we’re talking about. Thanks for your patience on this one.

        Posted by Walt | April 13, 2012, 7:54 AM
      • Walt,

        I definitely understand the lack of time. The study Hick cites is expanded upon in David Hay’s work “Religious Experience Today,” however in Hay’s work he defers readers to simply look at the polls themselves, which are long out of print. I have tried to get to the original questions and one I was able to track down specifically was from a 1975 U.S. National Opinion Research Center inquiry which asked “Have you ever felt as though you were close to a spiritual force that seemed to lift you out of yourself?” In response, 35% of the sample said yes.

        Now what I would like to note to you is that the areas you touch on when you say ” I realize that there are problems with summarizing the sort of experience, but it seems like something more definitive must be said about a religious experience for it to be considered evidence. If nothing can be safely said about a commonality between these experiences, then I don’t understand what exactly we’re talking about” are the areas that have been developed extensively in the literature on the topic. Specifically, Nelson Pike’s “Mystic Union” works towards seeing the diversity of experience as the experience of the transcendent–specifically theism. He even works to integrate monistic experiences into theistic experiences, and I think he does a great job of doing so. Hay’s work, mentioned above, similarly draws some parallels across the lines and also focuses on the importance of trying to avoid bias as a researcher when studying RE.

        What I’d like to note is that the argument as I’ve painted it is very broad and only makes the claim that there is a transcendent realm. This is an extremely modest claim in light of the international, crosscultural, and historical pervasiveness of religious experience. I have not attempted to draw theism from religious experience, though I think it is very simple to formulate that argument. The more specific one makes an argument from RE, the harder it will be to maintain the burden of proof in light of “competing claims”; however, competing claims themselves do not discredit theism (again, diving into this would take much more time and space than I have available). So as far as the current argument is concerned, I don’t think it is even necessary to try to say something “more definitive” because all I’m claiming is that they are experiences of something outside of the physical realm. (Such an argument would therefore be part of a ‘cumulative case’ argument for Christianity.)

        If I were making the argument, as many do, that RE can specifically establish theism, then I would have to put in the groundwork for showing the types of experiences and all the extra epistemological work that must go along with that. But I’m not making that argument here. I am planning a series on the argument(s) from RE which will hopefully delve further into these issues.

        SO I guess I could have avoided much of this comment and just said that I think it is next to impossible to say something “definitive” about RE at large without at least several pages, if not an entire epistemological framework. I just do not think I could do it justice in even a blog post.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | April 14, 2012, 9:10 AM

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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