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. Another criteria of mystical experiences is that it must be transient, although its effects may last a long time the experience is temporary and cannot be sustained. Lastly, it must be passive, the experience is not initiated by the individual but they have a sense that something is acting upon them instead.

James accepted that religious experiences are psychological phenomena that occur in our brains. However, for a number of reasons, James argued that these experiences may well have a supernatural element as well as a physical element. Firstly, he believed that the sheer volume of his case studies are empirical evidence of the effects of religious experience. These provide us with clues of the reality which lies beyond this world. Secondly, James believed that religious experiences from the different faiths were similar. They were experiences of the same ultimate reality which is then interpreted into the ‘second hand’ religious structure of that person. A Christian might interpret an experience as the presence of the Holy Spirit, whereas a Hindu might interpret it differently.

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James also argued that despite the wide variety of religious experiences there is a common core to all of them, they will normally include similar elements, like the sense of being in the presence of a greater power or the recipient has relatively little control over the experience. Also includes an insight into “usually unseen dimensions of existence which are of intrinsic value and fundamental importance”. For some they may consist of a direct experience of the divine or may be a gradual realisation that there is more to life than the world around us and it often leads to ...

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