An Analogical Argument for the Legitimacy of Religious Experiences

In the course of religious study, it is easy to become very attached to the idea of "seeking out" God. The emphasis is often placed upon logical reasoning and scientific research. There are, however, other ways of finding (or not finding, whichever the case may be) God. I am in particular referring to mystical/religious experiences. In these experiences, the subject believes that God has shown Himself to him/her. No intentional steps need be taken to induce these experiences. In fact, they are quite often unexpected and/or uninvited. These experiences often lead to those who have them to believe that God in some form exists.

Specifically, religious experiences are stated to be analogous to sensory experiences and therefore veridical. The following is an example of a simple argument for God's existence from analogy.

  1. Religious experiences should be considered to be analogous to sense experiences in cognitively relevant aspects and therefore a type of valid perception. (premise)

  2. When one perceives something, one generally has good, though not certain reason to think that the thing perceived objectively exists. (premise)

  3. Someone who is the subject of a religious experience generally has good, though not certain, reason to believe that God exists. (conclusion from premises)

I will concede that the argument as stated is somewhat inadequate. For instance, there are no explanations for why the premises hold. However, I have seen no explanations or contradictions which defeat it to my satisfaction. These weak arguments against the analogical argument for the veridicality of religious experiences are the subject of my criticism.

Before I can proceed with the analysis of criticisms against this argument, I feel it necessary to provide adequate defense of its premises. Three names come to mind as proponents of this argument: Saint Teresa, William James, and William Alston.

Saint Teresa is credited (at least by the Catholic Church) with having a veridical experience of Jesus Christ. When defending her "vision", her strongest point lies in her reformation resulting from the experience. She states that the purity and spirituality of the experience left her with the desire to be as virtuous as she possibly could. To those who called her visions wishful thinking or imagination, she referred to the "gift" she had been given. She said that if she had been given a precious stone by someone and then told she had imagined the meeting with the person, she would be convinced in her observation rather than others'. She felt that she had been given a precious gift of sanctification from God. Who is to say that she didn't? Do we not judge people and experiences by the fruit that they bear? She had a religious experience and was sanctified as a result. At the very least, this case provides a reason to give the argument a chance. Otherwise, we would be casually dismissing someone's reason for living.

If we give religious experiences a "chance", how can we know that they are more than just a flight of fancy? William James attempted to answer this question. His argument concentrates on the authority of religious experiences. He argues that mystical/religious experiences have every right to be authoritative to the person who had it. This is because the mystic has "been there". How can anyone who has not had the experience the mystic had say that he should not guide his life by it? Virtually no rationale will change his mind. Though we may never believe the mystic, he will still behave according to his experience. Something similar occurs with some sensory experiences. Sometimes someone says that an object is located somewhere and we check to see if he is telling the truth. In fact, a great deal of the time, we try to sense the relevant object(s) ourselves, rather than assume he's a liar or a lunatic. Why, then, are we so often harsh towards mystics? Are we that suspicious of each other that we cannot afford them the same courtesy regarding the validity of their religious experiences we would for sensory experiences?

This brings me to William Alston's views. Alston develops the idea that if religious experiences can meet certain crucial condition, they can be given the same epistemological treatment as sensory perceptions. These conditions include presentation, causality, and existence. He states first that God (assuming He exists) presents Himself much in the way an object is presented to our five senses. He "appears" in the sense that a chair appears to be in front of me. To the question of causality, he points out that specifying the "correct" way for God to present Himself is a difficult concept at best. At this point, he concludes that assuming that God exists, experiences of Him should be treated as veridical in a similar way to sensory experiences. He clarifies his point by saying that since God's nonexistence has not been proven, religious experiences should be treated like sensory perceptions – at least in a probationary manner.

At this point the premises are perhaps reasonably supported, though not really proven. They at least bear testing. If they are found to be acceptable and accurate, then the conclusion follows naturally. The consequences of which would be gargantuan in proportion. With that inspiration, I will now set out to challenge the common criticisms to these premises.

One criticism involved "proving" that religious experiences cannot and do not fulfill the basic requirements for a veridical sensory experience (a superset of Alston's conditions) and therefore are not valid perceptions. These requirements included, but are not limited to, logical consistency, empirical consistency, existence of apparent object, reliability of subject, agreement, continuity between contents, prediction, proper position, psychological health of subject, physiological health of subject, and causality. For the purposes of this paper, I will focus on logical consistency and agreement. I chose these because they are the primary focus of most attacks on the veridicality of religious experiences. The remainder are either far from unique to religious experiences or red herrings.

Michael Martin, in Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, used these requirements to invalidate religious experience as perception. In other words, the first premise of our argument is not true in his view. His belief (put in a simple form) is that because there are cultural dependencies built into religious experiences (lack of agreement) and because they involved logically improbable and/or impossible events (lack of logical consistency), they cannot be considered equally valid with sensory perception and its veridicality and reliability. First, not all sensory experiences can demonstrate agreement between observers. I am not referring to "phantom" experiences. These are experiences that have been repeatedly accepted as veridical, valid, and reliable.

The events to which I refer are car accidents and bank robberies. Any police investigator will tell you that it is neigh impossible to get coherent, cogent, and consistent stories from witnesses of either of these types of events. All participants witness a subset of the same sensory stimuli, yet each has a slightly, if not completely contradictory, memory of the event in question. Nobody but a complete skeptic would question the veridicality of a car accident or bank robbery. To do so would cast doubt on all sensory experiences as source for understanding our universe – a rather extreme proposition. Yet, if several people experience mystical/religious states, they are typically called liars, fools, or drug addicts. They are told that even if anybody wanted to believe their stories, people wouldn't simply because the stories are inconsistent! This kind of double standard is not acceptable.

I am reminded of a poem by John Godfrey Saxe, "The Blind Men And The Elephant". At first reading one might tend to believe that the poem supports Martin and his cause. However, at closer inspection it is apparent that it better suits my argument for the validity of religious experience as perception. Though the six men (theologians) all disagree on the nature of the elephant (God), the elephant (God) still exists. In my opinion, it is quite possible that God exists and that cultural differences get in the way of proper perception. It is also possible that a seventh blind man has been given a direct non-sensory image of the elephant and therefore can accurately describe it. In other words, either all cultures are partially right and partially wrong or all but one is wrong. Either way, God would still exist. Consequently, religious experiences could be considered veridical perceptions of a real object.

On the point of logical consistency, I have this to offer. Martin states that a sensory experience can be inaccurate but still be veridical because it was based on a real event. In other words, even if information at a certain time is in limited quantities, later addition of information can reinforce the veridicality of an event. For instance, one could think one sees a UFO while driving to work one day. When you later discover that it was really a top-secret government plane, you feel better (because now you don't think you are going crazy!). The even of that plane flying in that place actually happened regardless of how erroneous the perception of it was. Therefore, the experience was, in a limited sense, veridical. It is my contention that the same principle can be applied to religious experiences.

How well acquainted with religious experiences is the average person? I would wager that the average person has never had a religious/mystical experience (that he is consciously aware of). Of course, this does not mean that religious experiences are bogus. I have never seen a tse-tse fly. They still exist outside of my direct knowledge, though. Since I have never seen one before, if and when I ever do, I will not be sure how to "properly" react to it. The same holds for religious experiences. Someone who has never had a religious experience is likely to react to it with prejudice and assumption. Thus, going back to a previous argument, it is not surprising to find that different cultures have different kinds of religious experiences. In addition, one who has not experienced a mystical state before is likely to be unable to describe and react to it properly. Describing a religious experience without logical inconsistencies would be like trying to describe "red" to a man who has been blind since birth. It is essentially impossible. Another example would be showing a computer to a medieval person. He would likely call it a demon spirit of some kind. That does not mean he did not have a veridical perception of a computer. Likewise, an experience which is described in ethnocentric religious terms does not eliminate their validity.

At this point, I believe it fair to say that I have provided at least sufficient, if not infallible, reasons to accept the first premise of the analogical argument. The next topic is trivial. If a mystical incident has been classified as a valid and real perception, everything I know about inductive reason tells me that the conclusion follows readily. In other words, if I can experience it, it must exist objectively. Similarly, if the first premise is satisfied for religious experience, then the second premise, and thus the conclusion, is valid as well.

To conclude, I would like to briefly summarize and clarify my argument. Religious experiences can be a form of veridical perception. If they cannot, it is likely that sensory experiences cannot be veridical either. Inconsistencies in religious experiences do not preclude their validity, nor do they preclude the existence of God ("The Blind Man And The Elephant"). Given the validity of the premises, the conclusion naturally follows. If one truly perceives a chair, one has good reason to believe that there is a chair in front of him. It could be a hologram, but either way he did not imagine it. Drugs did not induce its appearance, either. He saw something. Whether he properly interprets it is not important. Correspondingly, if I have an experience that I believe is of God, then I have a good reason to believe that God exists, even if I may be wrong about some or all of His attributes.

Comments 7

  1. Tom Smith wrote:

    Perhaps I haven’t read your post closely enough, but I have a question.

    “The events to which I refer are car accidents and bank robberies. Any police investigator will tell you that it is neigh impossible to get coherent, cogent, and consistent stories from witnesses of either of these types of events. All participants witness a subset of the same sensory stimuli, yet each has a slightly, if not completely contradictory, memory of the event in question. Nobody but a complete skeptic would question the veridicality of a car accident or bank robbery. To do so would cast doubt on all sensory experiences as source for understanding our universe – a rather extreme proposition. Yet, if several people experience mystical/religious states, they are typically called liars, fools, or drug addicts. They are told that even if anybody wanted to believe their stories, people wouldn’t simply because the stories are inconsistent! This kind of double standard is not acceptable.”

    How are the witnessing of a bank robbery and a religious experience at all alike? They’re both experiences, but that’s it. I don’t even know that I’d call a religious experience “sensory.” Because a bank robbery is something extrinsic to me, I am limited to how I witness it. But a religious experience is something that is infused in me by God. It does not exist outside of me, and therefore there can be no variance in the interpretation of it. It’s not like there’s one religious experience everywhere throughout the world that I am merely tapped in to at a particular time. So in a way, religious experiences, if they do, indeed, exist, have far more veracity than other experiences.

    Posted 23 Oct 2005 at 6:19 pm
  2. Funky Dung wrote:

    “How are the witnessing of a bank robbery and a religious experience at all alike?”

    The point is that though eye-witness accounts of such sensory events are notoriously inconsistent, nobody doubts that such an event actually ocurred. Some people dismiss religious experiences as bunk because accounts differ wildly at times. My argument is that in this way religious experiences might be like bank robberies. IOW, contradictory accounts do not nullify the veridicality of an event. Make sense?

    Posted 24 Oct 2005 at 1:46 am
  3. Tom Smith wrote:

    I agree that contradictory accounts do not imply the non-existence of the actual thing being witnessed. Perhaps my objection is only to your example of the burglary. The thing is, if 20 people see a bank robbery, and all say different things, you at least know that something’s happened. But religious experiences are not like bank robberies because there can only be one account of a religious experience — that of the person who has it. It does not exist outside that person, and it could therefore be much more easily invented. Maybe another way to put it is this: you *witness* a bank robbery, whereas you *have* a religious experience. Does that make any sense?

    Posted 24 Oct 2005 at 10:04 pm
  4. Funky Dung wrote:

    You assume that every religious experience is necessarily entirely unique. What if they’re not? Maybe I should have used a different analogy, such as feeling hungry, having an itch, or being in love. The robbery analogy resulted from a psych experiment I took part in, wherein written descriptions of perpetrators were compared to photo identification of the same. The written accounts sucked. The photo selections were flawed, but they were right, or closer to right, most of the time.

    Posted 24 Oct 2005 at 10:19 pm
  5. Tom Smith wrote:

    Each religious experience is ontologically unique, as it’s not something that’s shared with others. But you’re right that they aren’t necessarily completely different. I think your other suggested examples probably fit the mold of religious experiences better.

    Posted 25 Oct 2005 at 11:49 pm
  6. Troy wrote:

    I heard recently about research that found that those who believed in alien abductions were much more likely to report being abducted than those who didn’t have that prior belief. Our courts have to deal with false memories being invoked in children all the time. It’s funny (hee hee) how mystical/religious experiences follow the expectations of the culture in which they are experienced. When’s the last time you heard of an LDS missionary claim to receive a revelation from Ganesh?

    Posted 07 Nov 2005 at 8:58 pm
  7. Funky Dung wrote:

    You make interesting points, but I wonder if you miss one of the points I was trying to make. That the experiences differ, or even that they are attributed to different causes, need not invalidate them entirely. Perhaps Saxe’s poem is more meaningful with it’s intended meaning in this context. The incorrect deductions made by the blind men do not invalidate that fact that they are all indeed toughing not only an elephant, but the same elephant.

    Posted 08 Nov 2005 at 3:42 am

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