Discuss the suggestion that it is pointless to analyse religious experience

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Harry Hurd

Discuss the suggestion that it is pointless to analyse religious experience

Religious experience, by its very nature, is a realm of religion that cannot be empirically scrutinised to the extent that a scientific consensus can be found. The question however still arises as to whether there is sufficient cause or worth to analyse religious experience, or whether, at best it is merely a superstitious delusion by the individual, or at worst a method propagated by the religious institutions intentionally to compound its unaccountability. Many thinkers have posited over religious experience, and although many have spoken at length on the subject, there are those that view the analysis of the actual religious experience as meaningless. However this is by no means split between secular and religious thinkers, although they do evidently have a different approach to the experience.

First, it is important to define (roughly due to the imprecise nature of the topic) what religious experience shall mean. It is an unexplainable subjective experience of contact with what the individual believes to be a transcendent or supernatural being. In this case, one may be able to say with a fair degree of reliability that a majority of religious believers hold the view that religious experience is genuinely an encounter with God or the holy spirit. Although the average religious believer (especially with regards to Christianity) may have something in common with existentialism when analysing what their experience meant to them, they certainly analyse it to the point that they appear to ‘self-rationalise’ the experience and those who believe genuinely believe that they have encountered God.

Christian mysticism, which is an off-shoot of the more general mysticism which exists in all of the institutionalised religions, believes that although God converses and is personally involved with all humanity, it is only through mystical religious experience that God’s message can truly be encountered. With this regard, if what they claim has any shred of truth to it, then it would not only be meaningful to analyse religious experience, but necessary, as the supreme creator is conversing his ‘wishes’ and ‘commands’ directly to the human psyche. However there is an evident problem with religious experience in itself, and especially to the religious believer who commits a fallacious thought process of converting what is essentially intuitive and subjective to a rational objective. The term ‘leap to faith’, coined by Kierkegaard sums up both the potential positive and negative aspect of religious experience. Religious believers may see religious experience as the ultimate example of a leap to faith, as it is wholly subjective and non-empirical, and thus hugely positive. There is evidently a large amount of doubt that should also go hand in hand with any such faith. As Kierkegaard writes, "doubt is conquered by faith, just as it is faith which has brought doubt into the world. If this is the case, then there is little point in analysing religious experience as it is by its nature a faith proposition, not an empirical one. Yet if one takes the other standpoint that a leap to faith is negative as it clouds the individual from rationalisation and openness to potentially more realistic explanations and flaws. Just as John Wisdom’s parable of the Gardener shows how a religious belief is unfalsifiable, a religious experience contains the same inherent flaw. Whereas analysis of scientific theory  is absolutely necessary and permanently exists, there is not the same necessary level of analysis needed. Analysis and scrutiny is only useful if those under scrutiny have the willingness to accept any criticisms and to continually search for that which provides the most logical answer. Unfortunately many religious believers when faced with logical criticism do not alter their foundational beliefs, but merely irrationally change that which they believe to suit their foundations. For example a religious believer may have had an experience that made them feel a great sense of fear over an event that they believe is imminent. If there is no obvious event, instead of discounting the experience, many religious believers would find another meaning or an insignificant event that only serves the experience rather than the other way round.

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Richard Swinburne, with his ‘principle of credulity’ and ‘principle of testimony’ perfectly exemplify the previous point. The principle of credulity holds that if one cannot find any reason to disbelieve an event, one should wholly believe that it is occurring. Thus Jesus’ resurrection or the Toronto Blessing would fall under this category to the religious believer. However the problem holds that although the experience may have been analysed by both secularist and religious person, they may both be guilty of pre-held beliefs, and thus commit a logical fallacy. Swinburne’s principle of testimony has similar problems, although perhaps more weighted to ...

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