I think that perhaps one of the most often dismissed evidences for the existence of God is Religious Experience–that is, an experience that someone takes to be an experience of God of the supernatural. I have experienced more than one such experience, and this claim is of course met with ridicule or at least massive skepticism by non-theists, and surprisingly enough even by many Christians. Why is this? I personally think that it is due to 1) on the side of the Christian or theist who doubts it, the granting of a kind of empirical belief that such things should be viewed quite skeptically and only believed in light of massive evidence and 2) on the side of the non-theist, an obvious presupposition that such things are obviously false and explainable naturalistically.
So, is there really a case for believing that Religious Experience can give any grounds for belief in (here I’ll more be arguing for beliefs about) God at all? I believe there is a rather strong case. I’ve argued elsewhere that such an experience can grant at least some amount of warrant for belief in God. But I believe that there is more to be said.
First we must discuss sense perception. What does it mean when someone senses something (here “sense” meaning using one of the five senses to ascertain knowledge of something)? There are a number of explanations, but I believe the most obvious one is simply that (in the case of sight) someone (x) sees something (y). Thus, I believe there is a kind of immediacy to sense perception. (Just a side note–this doesn’t go against my beliefs in a kind of Theistic Idealism, as my form of idealism involves a “real world” in the sense of Husserl’s “empty x” that we can perceive.) Now of course sense perception can be wrong, but the main idea is that when x sees y, it is just the case that x sees y, not the case that, say, x believes that x sees y or something even more drawn out.
But then what exactly is our justification for believing that sense perception has warrant? There really is no non-circular way to justify a belief based on a sense perception. Yet we continually believe that we are reliable when we form beliefs based on perceptions. The most common argument for the validation of sense perception in epistemic warrant is to say that our beliefs are justified because sense perception continues to feed us valid data (i.e. we are justified for believing that we are being appeared to “redly” because it is most often the case that when we believe we are being appeared to “redly” we are, in fact, being appeared to “redly”). But of course such a kind of justification is quite circular. It basically boils down to saying that our beliefs formed because of sense perception are valid because sense perception confirms such beliefs. So why do we trust our sense perceptions? It seems as though we have a few alternatives here (not trying to be comprehensive, merely illustrative): 1) we can simply not trust our sense perceptions, or 2) we can agree that it is possible for some system of epistemic justification to validate itself through repeated confirmation (as in the case of being appeared to “redly”). But if 2) is the case, as it almost certainly is, then we must be consistent with ourselves on this regard (this argument is based off Alston’s, cited below).
So then let us return to religious experience. Beliefs from religious experiences are, it seems, justified epistemically in the same way. The subject forms a belief based on the confirmation of that belief within the system. Let us say that some subject has a religious experience in which they believe that God is presenting himself as good. The subject then justifies this belief on the basis that they believe they are being appeared to “goodly” by God and that this is backed up by other experience (perhaps the belief that God continually sustains all things). While this may be circular in nature, one cannot object to the circularity unless they wish to subject sense perception to the same objection. Either both must be rejected, or neither. And if neither is rejected, then it is possible to have justification for a belief about God based on a religious experience.
There is more to say, of course. I mentioned above that I believe it is the case that when x sees y, x simply sees y. That can be applied to religious experience, especially those varieties of religious experience in which the subject claims to have a kind of sense perception of God (like “I saw a great light…” or something of the sort). Thus, when it is the case that the subject, x, experiences in a religious experience some sensation, y, it is simply the case that x experiences y, without any intermediaries.
Here now I’ll turn to a very commonly raised objection to religious experience. It may be claimed that when one experiences such a perception, they are subjected to a kind of euphoric state, either by drugs, by their own control over their brains (they want so badly to experience the religious that they cause it, unknowingly, to happen), or some other factor. These experiences can then be boiled down to a kind of reduction to brain waves, chemicals in the brain, etc. And because these experiences can be explained naturalistically, they are invalid for epistemic justification.
I believe this claim is utterly false. Again we can point to sense perception as being subjected to the same kind of reduction. If religious experience is merely the matter of neurons firing in the brain (among other things), then so is sense perception and indeed all knowledge in itself. But then we must reject everything that we perceive by our senses! For if we are to be consistent in our claim that if something can be reduced to natural causes, it has no epistemic warrant, then yes, religious experience could possibly be reduced to simply brain activity, but so could the existence of things outside of our heads, for we could observe brain activity happening when we observe things and form beliefs about them. Thus, for the sake of consistency, we would need to reject the reality of objects outside of our heads! This is of course not something that someone who raises such an objection is willing to do, but if they want to raise such an objection, their own beliefs are subject to the exact same scrutiny, and it will turn out to be the case that there is no such thing as a belief at all, if indeed all things are just brain activity (a hypothesis I utterly disagree with).
So it seems to me that it is indeed the case that people can form beliefs based on religious experience. I will write more in the future about whether these experiences can have any kind of warrant for those who did not experience the same thing, the problem of religious diversity in regards to claims of religious experience, and more on the concept of warrant with religious experience. For now, however, I’ll leave this as it stands. People can indeed be justified in believing something based on religious experience, if one wants to object in any of the ways outlined above, they simply must be consistent and reject sense perception, material objects, and the like.
Alston, William P. Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience. Cornell University Press, 1991.
Kwan, Kai-Man. “The Argument from Religious Experience.” The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology. Blackwell, 2009.
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