Discuss the varieties of religious experience
Discuss the varieties of Religious Experience (35)
William James in ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’ defines religion as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine”
Ninian Smart defines religious experience as “a mystery which is awe-inspiring and fascinating and points towards the Transcendent”
- Here James suggests that religious experiences were solitary events in which the person experiences the divine.
Can be criticised as cannot be empirically analysed. Can’t be falsified scientifically.
- James argues that religious experience stands at the heart of religion. Superior to the teachings and practices which he regards are secondary.
- It is the actual experiences themselves that can be regarded as true religion.
In Religious Experience Today David Hay published research from the Religious Experience Research Unit which included figures that show that about a third of British people and approximately a third of the American population have felt close to a powerful spiritual force, or have had what they consider a religious experience. Descriptions of these experiences include: short time frame, unlike anything ever experienced, and they’re thought to have given awareness that there is a greater reality from what we experience in our physical world.
- Though there may be individual differences between these experiences there does seem to be recurring themes and accounts, and considering how prevalent religious experiences seem to be (according to surveys). It seems they are not something to be dismissed as nonsense.
Hay points out the variety of different religious experiences, including;
- Mystical experiences – experience of direct contact or oneness with God or an ultimate reality
- Numinous experiences – Experiences of awe and wonder in the presence of God.
- Corporate experiences – religious experiences that happen to a number of people at once in the same location e.g. The Toronto Blessing.
This is a preview of the whole essay
James breaks down religious experiences into three categories:
Mystical – This is the experience of having apprehended an ultimate reality which is too difficult to express using normal vocabulary. An example of a mystic is Teresa of Avila who wrote about her experiences, which were mainly visions. Some of which was published. Her most famous vision was of angel with a beautiful face and spear alight with fire, which he thrust into her heart. “it penetrated into my entrails when he drew out the spear he seemed to be drawing out with it leaving me all on fire with wondrous love of God.”
Conversion – transformation from a divided or imperfect self to a more unified consciousness. An example of this is shown through the scriptures, in the story of St. Paul on the road to Damascus, where Paul, once a tax collector and prosecutor of Christians has a sudden enlightenment, an encounter with the divine which lead him to transform into one of the most important Christian preachers and missionaries.
Prayer – any attempt to communicate with that greater than you.
In “the varieties of religious experience” James writes his criteria for judging whether somebody has had a mystical religious experience. He claimed the experience should be ineffable (indescribable) , noetic (providing knowledge), transient (short lived but with long term effects), and passive (meaning you didn’t choose to have the experience). As a psychologist, James coolly analyses these experiences, and then argues that religious experience may well just be psychological phenomena in our brains however this doesn’t rule out that there could be some sort of supernatural force which accompanies this.
CONCLUSIONS OF JAMES – Religious experience are valid, because they do not point away from God and may well point towards God. His findings are rooted in three beliefs, firstly as an empiricist; empiricism (believes that empirical evidence is needed to deem something valid). However James is criticised on this point, and argue that he interpreted the effects of the experience, and thus there is no empirical evidence. James Responds – we all interpret knowledge in order to gain empirical evidence. And furthermore argues the effects of these experiences are empirical evidence that the person did come into contact with the divine.
Another belief is pluralism – he argues that although people from different cultures may see different things in their religious experiences, this doesn’t mean that they are making it up. Amongst the psychology community the prevalence provides more evidence for religious experience. It is possible also to draw out similarities. James argues then that these people see the same thing but interpret it differently.
Lastly there is pragmatism – James believes that the truth was not fixed and that the truth is whatever has great value for us. Thus when looking at the effects of R.E we are obliged to conclude that religion holds truth. This is a similar argument to that of R.M Hare who claims we all have bliks (things that we regard are valid and true) whilst others may not see religious experiences as valid, for some who have that blik it is meaningful and so can be regarded as truth. Similarly Wittgenstein’s theory of Language games could apply as it could be argued that those who are part of the game (belief in religion and religious experience) would hold meaning for these accounts whilst those who are outside of the game cannot comprehend this concept, simply because they aren’t part of the game. Having considered these scholars’ argument James’ statement “be ready now to judge the religious life by its results exclusively” seems quite solidly grounded in reason.
Swinburne supports James’ view of religious experience as he too sees no reason to not believe those who claim to have had a religious experience. He bases this on two principles: The Principle of Credulity and The Principle of Testimony, which argue that if someone is generally truthful and there is no exterior reason to suspect they are lying (e.g. if there are intoxicated or deemed to have a mental disorder) then we should accept what they are saying as truth. Though Bertrand Russell would counter this argument on the basis that the human mind is bound to make mistakes. He claimed that we can reject all religious experiences as invalid, as we do not know for certain what is going on in a person’s mind, regardless of if they are honest or dishonest.
Further criticisms on the validity come from psychologists who argue that humans project this idea of God because it fulfils or deepest desires. Feuerbach claims that we have created God in our minds as an ideal human and role model, to instil purpose, a goal to move towards.
Another psychologist Sigmund Freud criticises religious experience, he focuses on conversion and suggests that conversion may meet psychological needs of people. He sees religious experience as a reaction to the physical world. We feel helpless and as Feuerbach says, we seek a father figure, and thus we create God to satisfy our needs. Freud even goes as far to say that sexual frustration was the explanation of St. Teresa of Avila’s mystic experiences. Karl Marx supports Freud’s view from a socialist view point, he claims that religion was simply a manmade device to ensure order in societies.
However Rudolf Otto is in support of religious experience, in his Book ‘The idea of the Holy’, he suggests that religion sprung from religious experience as James too believes. He describes it as something that is ‘wholly other’ than the natural world. Thus using this description of religious experience it would seem that the realms of science and psychology cannot be used to validate religious experience as it is so different, therefore many of these criticisms could be discounted.
Martin Buber stresses personal relationships with God and that which underlies them. In his book ‘I and Thou’ he argues for two types of relationship the I-it and the I-thou. The former is where view things as merely phenomena. But by probing deeper we can enter the second relationship both with people and things. This is an interesting point as it could explain why people discount religious experience as nonsense; using Buber explanation it could be said that because they do not have a personal relationship with religion or God they see it as just a normal occurrence, but those who have actually had a religious experience move in the I-thou and therefore can see that it is extraordinary phenomena.
Many have used conversion religious experiences as evidence of the validity of the experience; it is argued that such a dramatic chance in such a short space of time is great evidence of the actual reality of the experience. For instance St. Paul on the road to Damascus….
Edwin Starbuck criticises conversion religious experience and suggests it is a normal process that we all undergo.