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Critically assess with reference to William James the arguments from religious experience.

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´╗┐Critically assess with reference to William James the arguments from religious experience. In the book ?the varieties of religious experience?, James concluded that religious experience testifies that ?we can experience union with something larger than ourselves and in that union find our greatest peace?. He defined such experiences as ?experiences of the divine? and believed that religious experience was at the heart of religion. For James, religious teachings, practices and attitudes are second hand religion, which later develop as individuals reflect on their common experience. It is the actual experiences that directly point to God. However this theory does little to prove religious experiences simply because many of his claims do not stand up to critical analysis. James looked at a variety of religious experiences, particularly mystical experiences, this refers to experiences where God is revealed directly and there is a sense of oneness with the divine. James claimed that there are 4 criteria which are all characteristics of mystical experiences. Firstly an experience has to be ineffable in that it is beyond proper description as it cannot adequately be described in words. It must also be noetic, mystical states are not just feelings, the experience gives the mystic a deep and direct knowledge of God. ...read more.


People will often feel more fulfilled and purposeful in their understanding of the world and their place in it. Examples of this include St Paul, who after conversion on the road to Damascus ceased persecuting Christians and became a leader of the early church. Similarly, John Wesley after his conversion founded Methodism. Another famous example of someone who has been inspired by their beliefs and experience of God would be Martin Luther King. For James, no use of drugs or auto-suggestion could produce the visions and voices which often play a part in religious conversion. Nor could they produce the moral change conversion brings. In constructing his argument James was influenced by the work of the mystic St Teresa of Avila who argued that the genuineness of a religious experience is the permanent change it creates in someone?s character and whether it is consistent with the teaching of the church in what it reveals. But this does not prove that the claimed religious experience reveals God: it demonstrates only the sincerity of the believer. If I sincerely believed I had received a vision from God, it would change my life, perhaps for the better but my sincere belief might still be mistaken. Others pointed out that the fact that what a voice says fits in with Church teaching in no way proves the person heard the voice of God rather than a voice in their own mind. ...read more.


In response, Peter Vardy has quite rightly pointed out that an acceptance of these principles would also necessitate us accepting as valid, claims to have sighted UFOs and fairies. Furthermore, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that people do not always tell the truth and are rarely altruistic. Hume claimed that religious people were not averse to telling lies to promote something they believe to basically true. Many scholars claim that in addition to the difficulties with the arguments put forward in favour of religious experience there are alternative and more acceptable explanations of religious experience, for example, it could be the result of extreme emotional trauma e.g. the death of a loved one. An experience could also easily be the result of religious hysteria or being carried away by the religious intensity of a service or place e.g. Toronto Blessing. Religious experiences could also be for financial reward and improved status and authority within a religious group. It is also thought that the experience could be deceptive. As a consequence scholars claim that religious experiences are illusory. In conclusion, although James is supported by others, it is clear that his position is open to severe criticism and that there are a variety of different explanations for religious experiences such as religious hysteria, illusions or just simply fraud. For these reasons, James? arguments for religious experiences are fatally weakened and do not stand up to close investigation. ...read more.

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