Against Religious Experience

If they are right and religious experiences are mere imaginings how can a person’s response to the experiences be explained? Perhaps they could point to schizophrenics whose voices and alternate personalities are very real to them but would not be accepted by rational people. Sam Harris has argued:

We have names for people who have many beliefs for which there is no rational justification. When their beliefs are extremely common we call them ‘religious’; otherwise, they are likely to be called ‘mad’, ‘psychotic’ or ‘delusional’ . . . Clearly there is sanity in numbers. And yet, it is merely an accident of history that it is considered normal in our society to believe that the Creator of the universe can hear your thoughts, while it is demonstrative of mental illness to believe that he is communicating with you by having the rain tap in Morse code on your bedroom window. And so, while religious people are not generally mad, their core beliefs absolutely are (2004:72).

 Supported by Dawkins:

You say you have experienced God directly? Well, some people have experienced a pink elephant, but that probably doesn’t impress you. Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, distinctly heard the voice of Jesus telling him to kill women, and he was locked up for life. George W. Bush says that God told him to invade Iraq (a pity God didn’t vouchsafe him a revelation that there were no weapons of mass destruction). Individuals in asylums think they are Napoleon or Charlie Chaplin, or that the entire world is conspiring against them, or that they can broadcast their thoughts into other people’s heads. We humour them but don’t take their internally revealed beliefs seriously, mostly because not many people share them. Religious experiences are different only in that the people who claim them are numerous.(2006: 88).



Anthony Flew continues the debate in suggesting that it is imperative to find out if “any such private experiences can be furnished with adequate credentials”. He suggests that two elements mitigate against this:

  1. “Religious experiences are enormously varied, ostensibly authenticating innumerable beliefs many of which are in contradiction with another or even themselves”.
  2. “Their character seems to depend on the interests, background, and expectations of those who have them rather than anything separate and autonomous” (2005: 133).

He also argues that even if religious experiences are true it does not prove the “existence and character of the Christian God” (ibid: 135). He suggests that even religious believers should be wary of using religious experience in and of itself as a basis for belief: “it is significant that the Roman Catholic Church is always chary of any appeal to personal experience not disciplined and supported by (its own) authority. For this insistence on the need for external checks and props surely springs from a wise acknowledgment that religious experience is not suited to serve as the evidential foundation which is needed if anyone is to be entitled to claim religious knowledge” (ibid: 136).

All that can be argued then is that these experiences are real to the people who claim to have them. The religious person ascribes religious meaning to experiences which the nonreligious do not. If someone is healed after a period of prayer is this a coincidence or a religious experience? Their objective validity is untestable and proof must be left to the believer or the sceptic. For the believer it is with the sceptic which lies the burden of proving the experience true; whereas with the sceptic the burden of proof lies with the believer:

But religious experience cannot be either exclusively objective or subjective. Something is experienced (objective), but what is experienced is a matter of interpretation (subjective). Two people could experience the same thing; for one it would be profound, moving and ‘religious’, for the other it could be a matter of little interest. The subjective aspect of religion is just as ‘real’ as the objective (Thompson, 1997:35-6).

It is also in critiquing religious experiences that we could use Hume’s arguments against miracles (1. The quality of witnesses; 2. Human suspense of sound reasoning when faced with the miraculous; 3. Miracles tend to be found amongst the “ignorant and barbarous”; 4. Religious systems are incompatible).

Further exploration of the arguments can be found in Psychological Critiques of Religion; Sociological Critiques of Religion, Scientific Critiques of Religion, and Arguments Against Miracles.