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What are said to be the distinctive features of a religious experience?

(16) Explain and assess the claim that such experiences can be dismissed as purely subjective.(24) A religious experience is deemed as an encounter with a deity. It is a subjective, non empirical occurrence which brings with it an awareness of something beyond us. For believers, this makes religious experience the most convincing proof of the existence of God. All involve calling to Gods purposes and the effect on the life of the person experiencing this is crucial. Religious experience is identified by a feeling of ultimate concern1. Every testimony of an experience must be unique then from Tillichs reasoning. Most occur to individuals in private but others are corporate experiences. The majority of testimonies however, reveal certain common themes of mysticism with a divine entity as well as a numinous element which surpasses that of all we perceive to be reality. The argument citing religious experience as proof of Gods existence is an a Posteriori one, such an argument then, is based on the premise that experience is, in some way, the product of facts about the real world. There are many distinctive ways many have claimed to have experienced the divine, and in one of two possible ways, directly or indirectly, seeing in the same way we view reality or seeing in nature Gods presence. Perhaps one of the most well known conversions from a mystical experience is that of Saul on the road to Damascus. As Saul came near the city of Damascus, a light flashed around him. He fell to the ground and a voice said to him, Saul why do you persecute me, it is Jesus whom you persecute 2. This particular mystical experience speaks of a moment of union with the divine, one which was so ineffable it created such a seismic emotional metamorphosis within Sauls life as to go forth and serve in a Gods name he had been persecuting. This arguably, intrinsically; is the core feature of a religious experience as it creates from a theistic point of view; God and humanity are not equated, as change can come about from the influence of such omnipotence. Such an experience too, could comply with Rudolph Ottos definition of numinous being wholly other3 than what we perceive as reality which is why it creates such drastic psychological repercussions. However, all things have potential to be a religious experience according to religious believers, not just an exact event. Mystical experience too, can be defined as having an experience of an ultimate being, for again the example of Sauls conversion demonstrates the subject becomes clearly aware of Gods presence. William James outlined four distinctive mystical experiences, the first being ineffability. I felt immense joy followed by intellectual
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Paul Tillich Acts 9:4 3 Rudolph Otto, The idea of the Holy

enlightenment both impossible to describe4. Perhaps then, a religious experience can only be experienced by the subject at that particular time, however it is the effects that are distinct and lasting. James secondly described a noetic quality, to be a necessary feature of an experience because it provides the user with an insight into transforming their personal stance, preference or religion. Transiency is arguably an extension of ineffability, as it presents that despite being indescribable, the memory itself outlives the shortness of the moment, The vision was only a few seconds, but the memories of its teaching have remained5. It is this teaching then, which provide premises to argue that a deity not only exists but is Omni benevolent to approach us in a way to aid ourselves. James final quality of passivity describes of the experience taking control of the individual its happening to, such as a charismatic experience. This could perhaps be seen as the most powerful element of a religious experience, as it in essence is the power of God taking hold within you. A near death experience too, is said to occur when a person dies and is later resuscitated, who can recall the experience of what happened to them when they died. Raymond Moody states, The divine being of light will appear in whatever shape will benefit all beings6. Moody looked for this in a number of core experiences and it seemed to be the most common. These also included a feeling of peace and ineffability, going through a dark tunnel, making a decision whether to cross a barrier or return to life. But is a near death experience a religious experience? Certainly they share a common ground of ineffability and an enlightening effect; however there is no empirical evidence to support this. Not surprisingly, those who have had such an experience claim that it proves undoubtedly there is an afterlife with a deity. Richard Swinburne claims that people, in general, tell the truth and that we cannot realistically work on the basis of always doubting their accounts of religious experiences, because we dont doubt the basic facts about the world. Under his principle of testimony, he argues that, unless we have evidence against, we should believe what people say when they claim to have a religious experience7. Furthermore, Swinburne suggests that, since many have claimed to have had an experience of what they believe to be God, then rationally we should believe them, this he calls the principle of credulity. Therefore, in his view, religious experiences provide a convincing testimony of proof for Gods existence and that belief in what you claim to have experienced is at the heart of it; it must be valid. Fredric Myers saw prayer as a vital component of the psychological well being of many individuals. He defined prayer as as attitude of
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William James-Religious experience 1902 William James 6 Raymond Moody 7 Richard Swinburne

open expectancy8. Indeed, prayer is so completely subjective that it would be foolish to state Christ definitely hears us. Myers points rest on the recognition that we have absolutely no idea as to how prayer operates, however it can bring us to a state of wellbeing which could lead to a religious experience. There are, evidently, an equal amount of theological difficulties with the ideals surrounding religious experience, largely ones which exploit the subjective nature of the accounts of supposed events. We cannot see the deity with our own perceptions and furthermore, why do only a select few receive such experiences and others dont, as if not all humans seem to have the capacity to witness them? John Hick argues that God is hermetic so as not to disrupt human freedom9, otherwise we would all feel compelled to obey him. Thus, another weakness of subjectivism emerges; religious experience seemingly can only take place within a context of faith, implying not all humans are equal in this instance. Also; one could argue that are all the different arguments in favour of Gods existence, building a cumulative case? All their evidence and reasoning points toward a deity but the conclusions can be challenged, as Anthony Flew illustrates, ten deeply flawed arguments dont make a good one10. A counter to this is fairly self evident, as Hume assumes the arguments are flawed, however the issue is whether the arguments are flawed or whether together, they serve a cumulative cause to prove God exists, as such providing the Religious Experience argument weight that its accounts are genuine, if its likely a deity exists. David Hume argues that if Christian religious experiences underwrite Christianity, then experiences for other religions should equally be held to underwrite them. Each religion therefore, can claim their experiences prove the truth of their religion and this provides as Hume states, A triumph for the sceptic11, as it implies every religion is true. John Hick argues the matter must be taken in three stages, we live by whats so is so unless we doubt it, therefore for Hick an experience is innocent until proven guilty but Flew argues that it is guilty until proven innocent. The paradigm of experience is for humans that of the senses. Thus, it can be argued that religious experience is a subjective piece to something mystical that may be real. Hare deems religious experience is unverifiable. A believer of the event sees or feels something and claims it to come from God; however this is from their personal interpretation influenced by society around them, which already undermines its reliability. it cannot be proved true for everyone else12, therefore the testimony is unreliable if it cant be universalised.
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Fredric Myers John Hick 10 Antony Flew 11 Hume 12 R.M Hare

The main difficulty with religious experiences is that they cant be verified by objective, empirical evidence and human methods of testing. Ludwig Wittgenstein used the notion of seeing as, in fact self perception leads to different understandings of what they think they have experienced, it may not necessarily be God. Therefore all testimonies on religious experience must be unreliable if left to the faculty of human sense. The argument citing religious experience as proof of Gods existence is a posteriori, under many thousands of testimonies. Such an argument is based on the premise that experience is, in a way, the product of fact in the world; religious experience is absolute, it cant be disputed13. As such, the experiences, despite being in themselves subjective, indicate a reality of God therefore its possible to argue that God exists and is present in our existence.


Carl Jung