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.
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.
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.
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I’m going to write more on the ideas present in this book, as I find them vastly important, but because of time constraints and the fact that I want to put up a normal review for this book, I figured I would post a review first.
The Elusive God by Paul K. Moser was, for me, an exercise in frustration. I was very excited to get a hold of the book, as I felt the topic it explored would be truly interesting. I had very high expectations. It was certainly interesting and Moser makes some good points throughout the book. The Elusive God seems repetitive in some aspects and misses the mark on some vital theological issues, but, ultimately, it is worth a read by anyone interested in this question within theism.
Moser attempts to tackle the rather impressive problem of why God, if He exists, is not obviously evident at all times. He argues that evidence of God’s reality would be “purposively available” to humans, which means “available in a manner and only in a manner suitable to divine purposes in self-revelation” (2). Moser’s key point is that such questions as “Do we humans know God exists?” must be rephrased because if that (perfectly loving, etc.) God exists, then we should consider how God would interact with humans (4). Thus, argues Moser, such questions should be rephrased as “Are we humans known by God in virtue of (among other things) our freely and agreeably being willing (i) to be known by God and thereby (ii) to be transformed toward God’s moral character of perfect love as we are willingly lead by God in volitional fellowship with God, thereby obediently yielding our wills to God’s authoritative will?” (4, Moser’s emphasis). But even this question must be seen in light of a third rendering of the question “Do we humans know God Exists?” which is “Are we humans known by God in virtue of… our freely being willing to receive an authoritative call to… fellowship with God…?” (4). This page has most of what Moser will expand on for the rest of the book.
From these modifications of the question “Does God exist?” (my rendering of the question), one can essentially draw out what Moser’s argument is. God, if God exists, is a morally perfect, loving being, so rather than asking why God doesn’t simply reveal himself to us indiscriminately, we should model ourselves to be agents capable of receiving His authoritative call. Thus, the question “Does God exist?” can only be answered if we humans cease asking this question as a kind of non-interactive, sterile question, but instead ask it in the terms of being a truly life changing or reinventing question.
Moser argues that “…we gain evidentially and thus cognitively as we turn from (that is, “repent” of) our selfish ways in order to get in line with a perfectly loving God…” (27, Moser’s emphasis). Central to Moser’s argument is the idea that evidence of God’s existence as God allows for it would have to be capable of being rejected (39). In other words, God would not force people to believe in Him or coerce them into belief by doing something as blatant as writing “BELIEVE IN ME- GOD” in the sky or something of the sort (he refers to this as “spectator evidence”–evidence that doesn’t ultimately mean anything in the life-changing way, which, Moser argues, is necessary for God’s loving purposes [see p.47, 35, 149, 93, etc.]). God would be “…a God of intended redemption as reconciliation of humans to God” (47).
Further, argues Moser, there is no reason that God should provide us with the kind of “spectator evidence” (see above) that we may desire for evidence, but rather, God, being the absolute authority in the universe, could make demands with authority, as well as making demands about the state of being that those whom He would reveal himself are in.
Moser seems to really avoid any kind of analytic nature to his philosophizing (which is greatly aggravating to me, as I vastly prefer arguments to be laid out analytically and then expanded on, but this is a mere preference), but he does present an argument for the existence of God in an analytic fashion:
“The transformative gift [is defined as] via conscience, a person’s (a) being authoritatively convicted and forgiven by X of all that person’s wrongdoing and (b) thereby being authoritatively called and led by X both into noncoerced volitional fellowship with X in perfect love and into rightful worship toward X as wrothy of worship and, on that basis, transformed by X from (i) that person’s previous tendencies to selfishness and despair to (ii) a new volitional center with a default position of unselfish love and forgiveness toward all people and of hope in the ultimate triumph of good over evil by X” (134-135) Which leads to:
“1. Necessarily, if a human person is offered, and unselfishly receives, the transformative gift, then this is the result of the authoritative leading and sustaining power of a divine X of thoroughgoing forgiveness, fellowship in perfect love, worthiness of worship, and triumphant hope (namely, God).
“2. I have been offered, and have willingly unselfishly received, the transformative gift.
“3. Therefore, God exists” (135).
Central to his discussion of this argument is the assertion that “We… can’t separate God’s existence… from God’s… character” (135).
While I don’t personally find this argument to have any evidential value for anyone but the subject of such a transformative gift, I am still pondering whether it is useful in the field of apologetics at all. I think this is a large part of the problem with most of Moser’s work: it doesn’t seem as though it will do anything to convince anyone who is not already sure that God exists.
Not only that, but the book is exceedingly repetitive. It weighs in at about 280 pages, but it honestly could probably have been reduced to about 1/10th that, 28 pages, and still have been as effective in getting the point across. Even as I was writing this review, going over the parts I underlined or wrote notes on, it is very clear that certain points are simply repeated many, many times throughout the book.
One may note that I didn’t even write about most of the last part of the book. This is because the latter part of the book involves Moser outlining what he thinks philosophy should be now that one acknowledges the existence of God. I’m not sure I stand convinced. Certainly Christian philosophy should be oriented around theistic beliefs and what it means if God exists and the promise of Christ is true, but that doesn’t mean that other pursuits are somehow excluded from usefulness. I think that if God does indeed exist (as I believe He does, very strongly), then, necessarily, any knowledge at all would relate to God in some way. Thus, any philosophical pursuit would be essentially related to God.
A final note I’d like to make before my conclusion is that Moser’s view of Christ seems wrong. He appears to downplay the divinity of Christ (though he does refer to him as Lord in a couple places), but he also apparently argues for some kind of belief that those outside of Christianity are saved. On page 198 he claims that people of other faiths may be worshiping the same God as we are, which is absolutely contrary to Scripture (Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the father, except through me.” John 14:6). He also criticizes N.T. Wright for his (in my opinion, phenomenal) work on the historicity of Christ. Moser suggests that Wright doesn’t give us any reason to think that Jesus is good news now. I honestly don’t see this at all from Wright’s work. I think that Moser is reading into it in a rather large way. Wright’s task in such works as “Jesus and the Victory of God” seems to be more focused on what happened historically, from a historian/apologist’s viewpoint, than on an evangelical witness. Wright does, however, provide ample reasons for thinking that Jesus is good news now in his work “The Resurrection of the Son of God” and “The Challenge of Jesus.”
Overall, I think that Moser makes some interesting points, but many of them smack in some ways of “choice theology” which I firmly oppose (i.e. somehow making ourselves acceptable to God’s call). I do, however, believe that Moser has some things that can be used effectively by the apologist here. I would rework some of what he says for my own use, but that’s a task that I will tackle some other day. I think that The Elusive God is an okay read, but its redundancy is frustrating and his argument doesn’t seem at first glance as though it is going to be useful for the average apologist without some extensive effort. One who wants to get the main points Moser makes in this book could just as easily pick up the work “God is Great, God is Good” edited by Craig and Meister, as Moser presents a condensed version of the argument therein.
The Elusive God is, however, an essential read, in my opinion, for the Christian philosopher. It addresses a question not often discussed in philosophical discourse, and while I’m still unsure of how useful the book will be, it has forced me to think about the major points for several weeks now. I think Moser really has something with his concept of “purposively available evidence” but I’m trying to figure out whether it is question begging.