General A Level Course Notes On Religious Experience (OCR, AQA, Eduqas, Edexcel)

NOTE: These course notes cover aspects of all the current A Level specifications offered by OCR, AQA, Eduqas and Edexcel. However, they are not comprehensive. See also the separate post on William James and mystical experience which is more detailed and up to date than the treatment he gets here.

For ease of revision, these notes are presented in a bullet pointed format.

Introduction

  • There are many different kinds of religious experiences, so bear in mind that any conclusions drawn about one type of experience may not apply to another.
  • For personages like St Paul, conversion experiences can be life-changing, as they can cause a person to modify their core beliefs about the meaning of life.
  • Some would say that even everyday acts of worship such as prayer are also a form of religious experience.
  • Some experience voices – they claim to hear God or Jesus speaking to them.
  • Others such as Julian of Norwich (who was a woman), Teresa of Avila, and Meister Eckhart claim to have experienced visions of God (see the end of this handout for a brief extract from St Teresa).
  • St Teresa argues that a sign of their authenticity in her case is that what she experienced was in conformity with the beliefs of the church and that, for her, they were genuinely life-changing.
  • However, this kind of perspective is not going to help when it comes to making sense of reports of religious experiences in non-theistic traditions (e.g. Buddhism, Jainism) as well as religions whose conception of God differs from that of Christianity (e.g. the non-trinitarian notion of God found in Islam, and the impersonal idea of ultimate reality represented by Brahman in Hindu sacred literature, such as the Upanishads).
  • Rudolf Otto (1869 – 1937) in his book The Idea of the Holy (1917) asserted that God should be thought of as ‘wholly other’.
  • Which creates an immediate problem: if God was truly ‘wholly other’ then He would be so transcendent as to be beyond experience.
  • Otto used the term ‘numinous’ (from the Latin numen – ‘divinity’) to refer to the essential nature of religious experiences.
  • This describes an experience of being overwhelmed by the awe-inspiring terror and mystery (‘mysterium tremendum’) of an encounter with a God who is outside of ourselves. Moses’s encounter with God at the Burning Bush in Exodus Chapter 3 would be an example.
  • However, non-theistic religious experiences cannot be categorised this way and mystical experiences typically involve a sense of oneness or non-separation from God, Brahman, Nature, the Tao etc. In some types of religious and mystical experience the truth is found within ourselves. Finally, many religious and especially mystical experiences bring about a sense of lasting peace and tranquillity rather than awe and terror e.g. the Buddhist experience of Nirvana which brings a stop to suffering.
  • Otto and – to a certain extent – William James (see below) possibly overestimated the explanatory power of their categorisations because they were writing at a time when Eastern Religious experiences as found in the Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Taoist traditions were not well known or understood.

William James on Religious Experience

NOTE: it is difficult to isolate an actual ‘argument from religious experience’ in his writing. All he seems to be suggesting is that the fact the fact that lots of people have religious experiences, especially mystical experiences (which typically involve a sense of becoming one with some higher reality), suggests that this higher reality may really exist if we take these reports at face value and judge them by the positive effects that these experiences usually have on people.

What is written below therefore just expands a little on all this. Once again, please note that the separate post entry on James contains a lot more detail and is far more up to date than what follows.

  • James argued in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) that the best way to study religion is by looking at the religious experiences people have had, and one of the aims of his book is to survey such experiences.
  • He then argues that we should take these experiences at face value and not simply try to explain them away as something that is simply the product of our brains.
  • But he also thinks that we should not let someone else’s religious experience have any power of us.
  • When we look at religious experiences, a certain type of experience known as the mystical experience* seems to have 4 qualities.
  • These are that the experience tends to be ineffable (it cannot be put into words), noetic (some new kind of knowledge is gained through it), transient (temporary) and passive (it happens to you, you don’t make it happen).
  • The fact that people from different times and places have experiences with these same features suggests a possible conclusion that there might be a common core to mystical experiences.
  • This common core might indicate that there could be some higher spiritual reality that we are not usually aware of. James therefore also concludes that ‘…they [religious experiences] point with reasonable probability to the continuity of our consciousness with a wider, spiritual environment.’
  • James also thinks that we should judge the value of these experiences by the effects they have on people.

* a mystical experience is a private and personal experience involving direct contact or union with God or a Higher Power or Reality.

BUT:

  • Not all mystical experiences are transient and passive e.g. Buddhist experiences of Nirvana can be permanent and result from many years of actively doing meditation.
  • Steven Katz has pointed out that we cannot know whether someone is experiencing the same ineffable reality. So the ineffable Brahman (Hinduism) e the same as the ineffable Allah (Islam) or the ineffable Nirvana (Buddhism).
  • If Katz is right there might therefore not be a common core to mystical experiences.
  • But the researchers Newberg and Waldman have found that when Christian nuns in prayer and Buddhists meditate activity in the parietal lobes in the brain decreases leading to a feeling of becoming one with reality. So there might be a common core to mystical experiences in terms of brain activity
  • It might well be that having a religious experience makes someone a better person but surely it still matters if their actual experience was genuine or not.
  • Given that people with temporal lobe epilepsy or schizophrenia sometimes have religious experiences it is surely sometimes right to explain these experiences in terms of chemical imbalances in the brain or unusual brain activity rather than to take them at face value as James suggests.
  • But even the neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran has stated that he is not sure whether the temporal lobes are the producers or the receivers of religious experiences.
  • The celebrated neurologist Oliver Sacks has suggested another possibility, namely, that the religious visions of mystics such as Hildegard of Bingen might be better explained as symptoms of a condition he calls ‘scintillating scotoma’, one that is a feature of a particular type of migrainous episode in which patients experience either an expanding luminosity, brilliant stars, sparks, swarms and ripples of light, or simple geometric shapes that are usually white in colour. These phenomena are also frequently accompanied by feelings of dread, foreboding and a mortal fear of the the imminence of death that was known in the past by the term angor animi. Accordingly, Sacks considers the visions of Hildegard of Bingen to be ‘undisputably migrainous.’
  • However, Mark Fox has pointed out that mystical experiences tend to be meaningful and even rapturous in character, are not usually associated with negative emotions when the experience is unfolding, and are positive in terms of their outcomes and effects on the lives of the mystics themselves.
  • Sam Parnia’s extensive research into NDE’s (Near Death Experiences) is also highly relevant, and a recent online article included this helpful summary of it: ‘The groundbreaking AWARE (AWAreness during REsuscitation) I and AWARE II studies from the Parnia Lab closely examined the experiences of hundreds of patients with cardiac arrest who had biologically crossed over the threshold of death before being resuscitated. Among the many intriguing findings, many survivors reported lucid and well-structured thought processes. They described seeing deceased relatives and reviewing their actions and intentions toward others throughout their lives, and afterward, many recalled details of their resuscitation.
  • Confirmation that we can exist outside of our bodies would, of course, indicate that accounts of at least one kind of religious or mystical experience will have turned out to be true (see the post Edexcel Course Notes on Life and Death/The Soul for more information on this). This suggests that we should, for now, be taking accounts of these experiences at face value, as James suggested. This, in turn, has implications for what Richard Swinburne has said about the principles of credulity and testimony (see below for more on these principles) and suggests that we should, perhaps, take descriptions of other types of religious experiences (e.g. corporate religious experiences) more seriously.
  • NDE’s are also frequently life changing and produce positive, life-changing effects. So if we are to judge these experiences on their effects as James suggests we should then we might have to conclude that NDE’s confer positive and therapeutic benefits on those who report them. Note that psychiatrist Bruce Greyson has noted these effects in his lifelong study of the NDE phenomenon.

Freud’s criticism

  • Freud would explain Otto/Buber and religious experiences of God as expressive of a need for a universal father-figure
  • He might argue that Teresa of Avila’s ‘visions’ were obviously sexual in origin.

Corporate religious experiences

  • Corporate (group) religious experiences are another category that require analysis and explanation.
  • A corporate religious experience is one which happens to a number of people at once in the same location.
  • Examples of corporate religious experiences include the Toronto Blessing, and the appearances of the Virgin Mary to a group of children at Medjugorje (see below for videos on both of these phenomena).
  • The outrageous behaviour of those who have undergone the Toronto Blessing could be explained as the Freudian Id being let off the leash with the approval of the ‘superego’ represented by the priests.
  • A Jungian explanation could be found for the children of Medjugorje in the sense that their corporate visions of the Virgin Mary could be projections of the mother archetype (as found in the collective unconscious) and as expressive of the need for wholeness and peace to be brought to what was previously a war-torn society. See below for more analysis of this instance of corporate religious experience.
  • Corporate experiences could also be explained as resulting from a kind of mass hysteria and/or the manipulation of people’s moods by a charismatic preacher.
  • Marx would view religious experiences as forms of wish-fulfilment and as examples of religion more generally as ‘the opium of the people.’
  • Kant denied that religious experiences were possible: God does exist but is not a being who can be experienced through the senses. God is not material in the way that other beings and objects are.
  • There is therefore the problem of how we could recognise a non-physical, infinite God with our finite minds. Kant does not think this is possible.
  • Some argue that their religious experiences are self-authenticating. But the privacy of this individual, subjective experience remains too much of a problem for the sceptic.
  • Some argue that there is no God so that religious experiences are ex hypothesi (according to the assumption made) impossible.
  • That not everyone experiences counts against them. For example, they could just be symptomatic of unusual activity in the temporal lobes. Michael Persinger has induced the experience of a ‘sensed presence’ by stimulating the temporal lobes of his experimental subjects with a special type of helmet. The resulting experiences seem similar to Otto’s description of numinous experiences. V.S. Ramachandran has shown that some patients with temporal lobe epilepsy respond to the sight of religious words the way that non-sufferers oridinarily respond to sexual words. However, attempts to duplicate Persinger’s research have apparently been unsuccessful, while Newberg and Waldman have shown that other parts of the brain are involved with religious experiences in addition to the temporal lobes.. Finally, even Ramachandran himself is not sure whether the brain is the producer or the receiver of religious experiences.
  • Richard Swinburne argues in his book The Existence of God for the Principles of Credulity (if someone says x is present to them, x is probably present unless we think there are good reasons to think otherwise) and Testimony (people should be believed unless there are good reasons not to do so).
  • For Swinburne, the evidence must be consistent (the sources must support each other) and ‘empirically reliable’ (e.g. eyewitnesses must be trustworthy).
  • When applied to the six children who claimed to be having visions of the Virgin Mary in a place called Medjugorje in the former Yugoslavia from 1981 onwards, the fact that the children are committed Catholics may be relevant when it comes to assessing their believability in terms of trustworthiness and credulity. Additionally, in his book Powers of Darkness Powers of Light: Travels in Search of the Miraculous and the Demonic, John Cornwell draws attention to the choreographed movements of the children when the Virgin Mary allegedly appears to them (something that Cornwell observed for himself). Their eyes are focused on exactly the same spot where they think they are seeing her. That they cannot simultaneously check that their companions are also looking at that same point is compelling for Cornwell.  
  • However, one of the children, Ivanka, had recently lost her mother and so believing that she and her friends were really seeing the Virgin Mary might have been reassuring. Also, none of the crowds who came to see the children receive their visions have ever been able to see and hear what the children claim they are experiencing. The Virgin Mary remains invisible to them. This point is also mentioned by Cornwell who also remains sceptical about the veridicality of these apparitions.
  • So it would seem that the children fail Swinburne’s test of Credulity because the crowd, in spite of their obvious faith, cannot see what they are seeing.

Conversion Experiences (see also separate post on this)

  • these seem to be both sudden ( in the New Testament, St Paul dramatically converts to Christianity after experiencing God on the road to Damascus) or gradual (e.g. through study of a faith or a number of experiences which contribute to the conversion)
  • Conversion is a controversial issue right now – some radical Muslims who have fought in jihads or engaged in acts of terrorism have either been young, Western converts or Muslims who have embraced a much stricter form of their faith.
  • The same pattern seems to hold for women who state that wearing the full veil (niqab) is their choice. They too seem to be young Western converts or Muslim women embracing a more orthodox lifestyle.
  • Brainwashing seems an inadequate explanation for this kind of change. Paul Heelas, for example, points out that there is no psychological test to distinguish someone who is brainwashed from someone who isn’t
  • And the idea of ‘washing’ the brain of prior beliefs and replacing them with ones from outside suggests that those who are brainwashed lose their free-will and become like robots. But again, as Heelas has pointed out, ‘Scientologist John Travolta’s performance in Pulp Fiction is not robotic’.
  • In the late 1800s, Edwin Starbuck conducted ground-breaking studies on conversion to Christianity.
  • From his studies we learn two significant things: the age at which people turn to Christianity and what leads them to do so.
  • Starbuck noted that the average age of a person experiencing a religious conversion was 15.6 years.
  • Other studies have produced similar results. In 1979, Virgil Gillespie wrote that the average age of conversion in America is 16 years. Most religious conversions apparently happen between the ages of 16 and 24.
  • Starbuck concludes that religious conversion seems to resolve an adolescent identity crisis which involved anxiety and depression.
  • This finding may be a better explanation for conversion to radical forms of Islam than brainwashing.
  • However, the sociologists Starke and Finke have conducted research which suggests that while conversions do happen, they are strongly influenced by society.
  • This suggests that conversion is not really about a faith choice or decision to believe as Starbuck’s research implies.
  • Instead it is more about bringing one’s views into line with those of one’s neighbours or recognition as an adult that the faith one has been brought up in is correct.
  • BUT: some people do convert to religions they have not been exposed to by friends and family.
  • AND: if beliefs are passed on down the generations in families and communities, then why has church attendance declined so much in the UK and Europe but not the USA? One would expect it to remain fairly consistent.
  • Though perhaps people have retained a private faith that they no longer reveal through the things they do, like going to church.

Revelation and Scripture

  • the term ‘Revelation’ refers to any act through which God reveals certain truths e.g. via the Qur’an. or the 10 commandments.
  • Faith becomes an acceptance of those truths.

Propositional Revelation

  • This term refers to God directly revealing truths about himself to us.
  • The propositions are regarded as true – beyond debate or doubt.
  • This view of revelation tends to make a distinction between Natural and Revealed Theology.
  • According to Aquinas, Revealed Theology involves God telling us things (propositions) that we would be unable to work out for ourselves if He didn’t tell us e.g. that He is three persons in one: father, son, and Holy Spirit.
  • Natural Theology involves the use of unaided reason to formulate propositions about what God is like and what He wants us to do e.g. Aquinas’s Natural Law theory involves looking at nature to form ethical propositions about what God’s expectations are e.g. He wants us to reproduce (the Primary precepts could all be seen in this way). From the way the world is we might also infer through the use of reason the kinds of propositions that go to make up Aquinas’s Five Ways.
  • Criticisms of propositional revelation are:
    • It assumes that those who receive the revelations are passive. However, philosophers and psychologists might argue that knowledge is never passively received; the brain is always active in processing what is learned.
    • However, perhaps those making the criticism are caricaturing this understanding of revelation. For example, Mohammed had to recite what was revealed to him via the angel Jibril and other recipients of revelation would have had to understand, remember and recall what they believed had been revealed to them. Thus, even where revelation is propositional no-one who receives a piece of divine dictation is ever entirely passive.
    • Nevertheless, we sometimes make mistakes when trying to learn things accurately and this opens up the possibility that the messages from God may not have been recorded accurately.
    • This is actually a view maintained within Islam. Muslims believe that the message of Allah is eternal and has been accurately revealed to previous prophets such as Moses and Jesus. However, even though prophets like Moses and Jesus then accurately recited the message, followers of these (and other) prophets recorded the content of the message inaccurately. For example, Christian belief in the Trinity is challenged by Muslims because they – quite reasonably – wonder why Jesus prays to be released from his destiny in the Garden of Gethsemane. If he is God’s son, he is effectively praying to himself, which seems odd. For Muslims, this is why Muhammad is ‘the seal of the prophets’ (the last prophet) because Allah’s message was finally recited and recorded accurately in the Qur’an. This is a particularly interesting example because Aquinas claimed that knowledge of the Trinity could not be gained through natural means and only through scripture.
    • An even bigger problem is that surely personal revelations as to God’s commands should be subject to the same doubts as religious experiences. Serial killers such as Peter Sutcliffe claim to have been told by God to kill and murder, but as Jean Paul Sartre said ‘If I hear voices, who can prove that they proceed from heaven and not from hell, or from my own subconscious or from some pathological condition?’
    • Another criticism of propositional revelation is raised by the above example: what about the revelations found in other religions besides Christianity? How are we to decide which are true or false? This issue led Bertrand Russell to conclude that even if we could be certain that one of the world’s religions was perfectly true, given the sheer number of conflicting faiths on offer, every believer should expect damnation purely as a matter of probability.
    • Finally what are we to make of revelations such as that found in 1 Samuel 15 where God instructs the prophet Samuel to instruct King Saul to wipe out a whole race of people: the Amalekites? Is the ‘proposition’ to be accepted here ‘God approves of genocide’?
  • According to the non-propositional view, revelation is about God revealing himself in history and human experience
  • The emphasis in non-propositional revelation is on the response to events as having religious significance (like the mother of the boy in R.F. Holland’s story about a ‘miracle’ or the character ‘Jules’ in the movie Pulp Fiction who thinks that the fact that he wasn’t shot by a hail of bullets is a sign of God acting in the world). It is not about the acceptance of a set of beliefs or propositions but more an awareness that there is a Divine Being at work in the universe.
  • This means that non-propositional view of revelation requires that faith be, in part, a ‘blik’ – a framework within which events are experienced in a particular way (see your notes on R.M. Hare and ‘bliks’ in the Religious Language revision guide)
  • Criticisms of non-propositional revelation include:
  • If faith is a blik from a non-propositional point of view, then it could be simply regarded as an irrational way of looking at the world.
  • Non-propositional faith seems to involve a kind of blind faith that there is some divine purpose behind events. It could therefore be criticised as being far too based on trust rather than a cool assessment of the propositions allegedly revealed through scripture.
  • The non-propositional view would see the Bible as a record of the human experience of God. Given that humans can be wrong about their experience, this leaves us with the problem of working out what is and isn’t genuinely inspired by God. Or to retain R.M. Hare’s term, there is no clear way of deciding between the allegedly revelatory ‘bliks’.
  • However, by claiming that the Bible is the divinely inspired, infallible Word of God the propositional view of revelation could be seen as an attempt to suppress doubt and dissent because it assumes that the content of the Bible is free from error and should never be questioned.

From the Autobiography of St Teresa of Avila (1515 – 1582)

“ I was at prayer on a festival of the glorious Saint Peter when I saw Christ at my side – or, to put it better, I was conscious of Him, for neither with the eyes of the body nor with those of the soul did I see anything. I thought he was quite close to me, and I saw that it was He Who, as I thought, was speaking to me. Being completely ignorant that visions of this kind could occur, I was at first very much afraid, and did nothing but weep, though as soon as he addressed a single word to reassure me, I became quiet again, as I had been before, and was quite happy and free from fear. All the time Jesus Christ seemed to be beside me, but, as this was not an imaginary vision, I could not discern in what form: what I felt very clearly was that he was all the time at my right hand, and a witness of everything I was doing, and whenever I became slightly recollected or was not greatly distracted, I could not but be aware of his nearness to me.”

Toronto Blessing

This clip briefly surveys the phenomenon:

The Medjugorje Apparitions