Some Thoughts on Religious Experience

For as long as we’ve been around, human beings have had experiences which cause them to believe that a God is doing something to them — like consoling, watching over or guiding, etc. — or that a God has some property — like being loving, powerful or even great, etc.

It has often been remarked that there is a difference between having these experiences and hearing about them. It’s one thing to have an experience that causes you to believe in a God and another to hear someone say that they had such an experience.

It is alleged that while someone may have reason to hold theistic beliefs after having such an experience, someone who merely hears another claim to have had such an experience does not.

The distinction being drawn here is an important one. There is a difference between your experience directly causing your beliefs, and indirectly causing mine.

Suppose we’re on the phone. I ask you what it’s like outside where you are. You look outside and have a visual experience that directly causes you to think it’s snowing. You tell me “it’s snowing,” and I believe you.

In this case, your experience causes us both to hold the same belief, but it does so directly for you and indirectly for me. (For our purposes, you didn’t lie about having that experience).

However, because I am not having your experience directly, it may not affect me the same way as it does you.

Like if you told me the snow was rainbow colored, and I didn’t think you were just messing around or high, I’d probably say ‘pic or it didn’t happen’. That is, your visual experience caused you to believe, involuntarily and immediately, that the snow was rainbow colored; but the belief itself strikes me as so implausible that I actually doubt that you’re having that experience.

Think about what this means.

Why don’t I just accept that you are having that experience but dismiss the belief it’s causing in you? Why do I automatically doubt that you’re really seeing that?

I think it’s because we recognize that experience implies reality. Or that, reality causes experience.

The only times we have no problem accepting that someone is having an experience even though the belief it’s causing in them is bananas is when we know that it isn’t reality which is causing the experience, but something like hallucinogenics.

Given that there really are religious experiences happening, and that experience implies reality, they should be treated as innocent until proven guilty.

There’s nothing crazy about believing that a God is doing something to you — like consoling you or watching over you, etc. or about believing that a God is loving, powerful or even great, etc. Moreover, there is downright no reason whatsoever to think all or even most religious experiences are caused by perceptually distorting factors.

Gods just aren’t anything like rainbow colored snow: they’re not bizarre transgressive variants of a regularity. In fact, people have been having experiences of seeing them forever now.

So, it takes a lot more to write off religious experiences than just not having had one. Either the idea of Gods must be crazy or it must be clear that the causes of religious experiences do not track truth, and neither one of these has much going for it.


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