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Support Us! By providing information which is nearly impossible to find elsewhere, the Secular Web has sought to level the playing field by offering arguments and evidence challenging supernatural beliefs. In an ocean of religious confusion, help us maintain a drop of sanity!

Religious Experience

According to the argument from religious experience (ARE), the "self-authenticating witness of God's Holy Spirit" or other mystical experiences constitute direct evidence of communion with God or other supernatural beings. In "The Will to Believe" (1896) William James distinguishes between strong and weak versions of the argument. The strong version contends that religious experiences are evidence for the existence of God or other supernatural beings for everyone, whereas the weak version holds that they are only evidence for such things for the experiencer.

The central question for the philosophy of religion here is: Are religious experiences veridical? That is, do they provide experiencers with new information about "the way things are," or not? Defenders of the ARE have typically maintained that we should accept religious experiences as evidence for the supernatural in the absence of positive reasons for thinking that experiencers are deluded. However, there are several related problems here. First, different religious experiences often generate contradictory claims about reality, demonstrating that overall religious experience isn't a reliable source of knowledge. Second, while it is possible that some mystics experience an ultimate reality while others do not, in the absence of further evidence--evidence other than the experiences themselves--there is no way to distinguish "genuine" mystical experiences from "delusional" ones. Finally, religious experiences typically generate claims that cannot be corroborated by independent evidence (e.g., metaphysical claims, platitudes, and so on).

-- Keith Augustine

In addition to the articles below, see also related Debates, Reviews, and Links. To purchase related reading, go to the Secular Web Book Store.

Can Mystical Experience be a Perception of God? A Critique of William Alston's Perceiving God (1999) by Keith Augustine

William Alston's Perceiving God argues that some mystical experiences should be regarded as perceptions of God analogous to the perception of physical objects in sense experience. I conclude that there are several reasons for doubting that mystical experience generally--or Christian mystical experience specifically--can be a form of perception, even given Alston's epistemic commitments.

Confessions of a Former Mystic (2001) by Edward Tabash

Drawing on his own experiences as a devotee of a New Age religion, Tabash argues that the universality of searching for the transcendental, and the different sources attributed by people of different perspectives as the cause of lofty experiences, yields no additional evidence in our world of a supernatural being that undergirds reality.

Craig's Holy Spirit Epistemology (1998) by Michael Martin

"In Reasonable Faith, William Lane Craig makes a sharp distinction between knowing that God exists and being able to show this. He maintains that one knows that Christianity is true 'by the self-authenticating witness of God's Holy Spirit.' ... I will argue that Craig fails to make clear what an experience of the Holy Spirit is and does not justify his thesis that this experience is universal, veridical, and unmistakable. I will further maintain that, even if one grants his position, his claim that nonbelievers are without excuse for nonbelieving must be rejected unless one assumes that all beliefs are actions, and that he gives no reason to accept this assumption."

Trouble in Paradise? Michael Martin on Heaven (2003) by Tom Wanchick

Wanchick evaluates a sampling of Michael Martin's Internet publications, particularly his "Problems with Heaven" and "Craig's Holy Spirit Epistemology." On the former, Wanchick contends that Martin's arguments "are aimed largely at conceptions of Heaven that the vast majority of the Christian community would reject" and that his relevant arguments are "less than impressive." In his analysis of the latter, Wanchick critiques five objections Martin offers to the sort of Holy Spirit epistemology offered by William Lane Craig, concluding that "Dr. Martin's objections to this kind of Christian epistemology are largely mistaken."

More on Heaven (2004) by Michael Martin

Martin contends not only that there are serious problems with the Christian concept of Heaven, but also that although belief in Heaven may sometimes be liberating, it has more often been politically and socially repressive, hindering social change and making people complacent about poverty, political oppression, and injustice. Wanchick's assertion that everyone has had an experience of some God or other has no empirical support, and "conflicts with the apparently sincere claim of many atheists that they have had no religious experience.... Given conflicting religious experiences there is no reason to suppose that they have any validity at all."

Do Mystics See God? (2000) by Evan Fales

"Theistic philosophers have perennially cited mystical experiences--experiences of God--as evidence for God's existence and for other truths about God. In recent years, the attractiveness of this line of thought has been reflected in its use by a significant number of philosophers. But both philosophers and mystics agree that not all mystical experiences can be relied upon; many are the stuff of delusion. So they have somehow to be checked out, their bona-fides revealed."

Do Religious Life and Critical Thought Need Each Other? (1996) by Richard Carrier

Text of a paper published in the Fall (1996) issue of Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines, addressing why and how religious experience is to be approached critically, using Buddhist meditation as the central example.

From Taoist to Infidel (2001) by Richard Carrier

Richard Carrier describes his own spiritual journey, how he came from a background as a Taoist in a Christian country to become a fighter for secular humanism and metaphysical naturalism. The role of religious experience in his Taoism is relevant evidence against arguments from religious experience.

Mystical Experiences (1995) by Paul O'Brien

O'Brien suggests that there are two crucial differences between mystical experiences and sensory experiences. First, that sensory experiences are sustained while mystical experiences are brief. And second, that "sensory experiences can be shared by anyone with the physical capacity to sense them, while mystical experiences seem almost strictly personal." Part 15 of O'Brien's Gentle Godlessness: A Compassionate Introduction to Atheism.

The Personal Savior (1993) by Robert M. Price

Price explores what Evangelicals mean when they claim to have a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ." Though they will often insist on a literal application of the term "personal relationship," a Born Again Christian's claim that "I speak to him in prayer; he speaks to me through the words of the Bible," is ultimately metaphorical. From Price's Beyond Born Again: Toward Evangelical Maturity.

Stace and the Question of Objectivity in Mysticism (1996) by Mark Vuletic

Vuletic argues against W.T. Stace that a third category of experience intermediate between objective and subjective is not needed for the characterization of mystical experiences.

Swinburne's Argument from Religious Experience (1994) by Richard Gale

"Of all [Richard Swinburne's] many important contributions to philosophy, the one for which he is most likely to achieve lasting fame is his empirical argument for the existence of God in The Existence of God, a book that will become a CLASSic in my opinion. As a result of this work, a return visit from Hume's Philo is needed, but he had better come loaded for bear, because the weapons that he used so effectively to stop poor Cleanthes in his tracks will be of no avail."

Why Alston's Mystical Doxastic Practice Is Subjective (1994) by Richard Gale

"Within each of the great religions there is a well established doxastic practice (DP) of taking experiential inputs consisting of apparent direct perceptions of God (M-experiences) as giving prima facie justification, subject to defeat by overriders supplied by that religion, for belief outputs that God exists and is as he presents himself. (This DP is abbreviated as "MP.") William Alston's primary aim in his excellent book, Perceiving God, is to establish that we have epistemic justification for believing that MPs are reliable in that for the most part their belief outputs are true and moreover true of an objective or experience-independent reality, unlike the belief outputs of the DPs based on sensations and feelings, along with the introspective DP whose intentional accusatives, although existing independently of being introspected, fail to be objective because they are themselves conscious states."

The Yoga-Sutras of Patanjali and The Cloud of Unknowing: A Preliminary Step in Assessing the Ontological Accuracy of the Mystical Experience (1996) by Mark Vuletic

Comparison of two mystical works from very different traditions, and assessment of whether the similarities and discrepancies are best explained by naturalism or mysticism.