Witness argument

The Argument from religious experience is an argument for the existence of God, as against materialism.

Outline logical structure

Its logical structure is essentially as follows:

  1. There are compelling reasons for believing that claims for having religious experiences point to and validate spiritual realities that exist in a way that transcends any material manifestations.
  2. According to Materialism, nothing exists in a way that transcends its material manifestations.
  3. According to Classical Theism in general, and to many theistic faiths, God endows Humans with the ability to have spiritual experiences and to perceive, albeit imperfectly, such spiritual realities. There are innumerable references in both the Old testament, from Adam talking with God in Genesis onwards, and in the New Testament of which the Transfiguration and St Paul's comments in 1 Corinthians about spiritual gifts and "seeing through a glass darkly" (i.e. through a poor mirror, imperfectly) may stand as two examples and these spiritual realities exist in a way that transcends any material manifestations.
  4. Therefore, to the extent that premise (1) is accepted, Theism is more plausible than Materialism.

Points 2, 3 and 4 are relatively un-controversial, and the argument is formally valid, so discussion focuses on the premise (1).

Suggested reason for accepting the premise

The principal arguments for the premise are: Very substantial numbers of "ordinary" people report having had such experiences, though this isn't to say that religious believers aren't ordinary.[1] Such experiences are reported in almost all known cultures.

These experiences often have very significant effects on people's lives, frequently inducing in them acts of extreme self-sacrifice well beyond what could be expected from evolutionary arguments.

These experiences often seem very real to the people involved, and are quite often reported as being shared by a number of people.[2] Although mass delusions are not inconceivable, one needs compelling reasons for invoking this as an explanation.

Swinburne suggests that, as two basic principles of rationality, we ought to believe that things are as they seem unless and until we have evidence that they are mistaken (principle of credulity), and that those who do not have an experience of a certain type ought to believe others who say that they do in the absence of evidence of deceit or delusion (principle of testimony) and thus, although if you have a strong reason to disbelieve in the existence of God you will discount these experiences, in other cases such evidence should count towards the existence of God.[3]

Suggested reasons for disputing the premise

  1. These might be mis-firings of evolved mechanisms selected for very different reasons.[4]
  2. Religious texts such as the Bible that speak of revelations are of disputable historical accuracy.[5]
  3. It is conceivable that some claimed religious experiences are lies, possibly done for attention or acceptance.[5]
  4. Argument from Inconsistent Revelations: Different people have had, or believed to have had, religious experiences pointing to the existence of different religions. Not all of these can be correct.
  5. It has been argued that religious experiences are little more than hallucinations aimed at fulfilling basic psychological desires of immortality, purpose, etc. Sigmund Freud, for example, considered God to be simply a psychological "illusion"[6] created by the mind, instead of an actual existing entity. This argument can be based upon the fact that since we know about some believers for whom this argument is correct (their reports for religious experiences are nothing more than illusions), we assume that perhaps all such reports may be illusions.

Notes and references

Further reading

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