‘Religious experiences are all illusions.’ Discuss.
Most arguments for the existence of God are ‘a posteriori’, seeking to move from experiences within the world to the existence of God rather than relying on the definition of God to prove his existence. Religious experience is an interaction with God or a feeling of connection with a higher power. It is interesting to note that William James never spoke of ‘God’ but of the ‘spiritual’, ‘unseen order’ or ‘higher’ aspects of the world. Does a person have to be sure they encountered God rather than connecting with a higher power for their experience to be classed as ’religious experience’? The basic problem when trying to verify religious experiences is providing proof to show others that what is claimed actually did happen and that it was not simply an ‘illusion’. Although there may be no evidence to fully prove religious experiences, there is also no evidence to disprove them, hence I will be looking at both sides of the argument but coming up with my own arguments that reflect my personal view that religious experiences have a real basis and are true encounters with something which we can only begin to try and comprehend. The word ‘illusion’ must be addressed. If one feels one encountered something beyond the normal world but did not know whether this was God then does this mean this was only an illusion? Freud believed that ‘we call a belief an illusion when a wish-fulfilment is a prominent factor in its motivation, and in doing so we disregard its relation to its reality, just as the illusion itself sets no store by verification.’ This suggests Freud believed that we only see the things which we would like to see. Freud’s view is that things which are not provable can only be classed as illusion. Therefore if we cannot prove religious experience at all, Freud would place all experiences, whether with God or a higher power, in the same category; illusion. Swinburne came up with five categories for religious experience to show the many variations of religious experience that can be had, however this does not prove whether these ‘religious experiences’ are encounters with God or a high power, or are tricks of the mind. Swinburne pointed out that religious experience is authoritive for the individual receiving it, even though others hearing about it may remain sceptical. He identified three types of evidence that may give us reasons for doubting the claimed experience. Firstly, if the circumstances surrounding the experience make the results unreliable e.g. hallucinatory drugs, secondly, if we have evidence to show that things were not as reported e.g. we know the person was not where they claimed to be when they had the experience, and thirdly if there is evidence to show the experience wasn’t caused by God, such as if the person had a fever or had been fasting. Although Swinburne gave these reasons for doubting the claimed experience, we can doubt the experience as being true but cannot know for sure. Must we simply accept we can never know if a religious experience is true as we have no means of testing it?
Swinburne believed if a person is trustworthy in every other sense and claims to have had a religious experience and we have no evidence contrary to this claim then we should believe them. He called this the principle of testimony. Swinburne also presents a second principle, the principle of credulity. How things seem to be is a good guide to how they are, therefore if a person claims to have had a religious experience then it is reasonable to assume that this is what happened, providing there were no hallucinating drugs involved. Again, these are just theories. They show no proof and are not a fool-proof guide for either proving or disproving the claimed experience. However there are arguments against this theory. Some argue that religious experience is not the same as other types of experience and so usual rules about when to accept an experience at face...
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