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Religious Experience. It’s Nature and Significance. Experience and Inference. Sense experience is “direct perceptual awareness” of a material being. Statements can describe or express the content of our experience Example: “I hear voices in the hallway.” (Alston, SP).

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religious experience

Religious Experience

It’s Nature and Significance

experience and inference
Experience and Inference
  • Sense experience is “direct perceptual awareness” of a material being
  • Statements can describe or express the content of our experience
  • Example: “I hear voices in the hallway.” (Alston, SP)
  • An inference is a conclusion drawn from other statements

Example: “There are people talking in the hallway.”

religious faith
Religious Faith

Faith shares some qualities with both experience and inference:

  • Like experience, it “feels” and/or is accepted as obvious or certain, although it is not based sensory facts.
  • Like inference, it is an acceptance of that which is not itself directly experienced, although some argue that the object of faith can be demonstrated by reason.
religious experience4
Religious experience

Religious experience (Alston, RE) shares some qualities with perceptual experience.

  • Both religious and perceptual experience are modes of “direct awareness” of something.
  • Thus, there is the feeling of certainty that is grounding in the reality of direct awareness.
  • Unlike perceptual experience, however, religious experience is not “of” natural being; it is directed beyond that which can be normally experienced.
philosophical questions
Philosophical Questions
  • The Descriptive Task

What are the reported characteristics of religious experiences, in all their variety?

  • The Interpretive Task

What can we infer about ultimate reality, based on the data of such experiences?

our readings on religious experience
Our Readings on Religious Experience
  • Smart explores both the nature and significance of religious experience generally.
  • Suzuki explains sartori, or the Buddhist experience of the “ultimate nature of things.”
  • Alston and Penelhum debate the significance of religious experience.
experiential dimension

Experiential Dimension

Ninian Smart and the Varieties and Interpretation of Religious Experience


Externally oriented; of the “awesome and fearful Other”; dualistic

  • Mystical

Internally oriented; of the ultimate oneness and unity of all

two kinds of religious experience

Externally oriented




Internally oriented



Two Kinds of Religious Experience

Shared Characteristics

1. Smallness of self

2. Limits of the ordinary

exploring the experience
Exploring the Experience

Some religions emphasize one kind of religious experience over the other.


No ultimate being or reality

Focus on consciousness: attainment of selflessness, peace and


Ultimate Being

Outer orientation (before inner cultivation of “union”)

exploring the experience11
Exploring the Experience

Some emphasize an integration of the two.


Braham – Ultimate reality and objective truth; exists “outside of” created beings

Atman – Ultimate reality and subjective truth; exists “within” all beings and is experienced by sentient beings

exploring the experience12
Exploring the Experience

The distinction can create conflict within a religion

  • Mystic visions v. Orthodox interpretations
  • Christian or Sufi (Muslim) mystics challenge the orthodox teaching of:
  • the holiness and otherness of God
  • the idea that salvation flows from “God the other”
the question of truth
The Question of Truth

Religion experience has an undeniable subjective effect. Why think it has objective significance?

Challenges from psychologists regarding the causes of these unusual experiences (Freud, Fromm, Jung)

brief comment about truth
Brief Comment about Truth
  • Freud’s theory does not apply universally
  • Fromm’s critique of “numinous experience” is insupportably judgmental
  • Jung reduced religious experience to collective psychology

Common problem (according to Smart):

Each involves judging a (religious) worldview from a (humanist) worldview – that is, arbitrarily applying the criteria of one perspective to that of another.

perceiving god

Perceiving God

Alston on the Significance of Religious Experience

two kinds of perceiving
Two Kinds of Perceiving
  • Sensory perception (SP)
    • Rooted in the physical universe
    • Source of claims about the existence and nature of physical things
  • Religious experience (RE)
    • Rooted in the putative spiritual universe
    • Source of claims about the existence and nature of God (and other spiritual phenomena?)
sensory perception direct realism
Sensory Perception – Direct Realism

1. the theory that “what you see is what you get.”

2. assumes that the object of perception exists and causes the experience of perception

3. asserts that the perceptual experience caused by the object of perception reliably represents the nature of that object.

religious experience god realism
Religious Experience – “God Realism”
  • religious experience is a form of experience
  • as experience, it supports the idea that there is a (religious) cause of the experience
  • Religious experience reliably represents the nature of its religious cause: i.e., religious experience provides evidence for the existence and nature of God (M-Beliefs)
the justification argument
The Justification Argument

Based on these similarities, Alston argues that:

  • As sense experience justifies perceptual beliefs (I see a table justifies the claim that “there is a table”)
  • So religious experience (via something other than sensory qualities) justifies religious beliefs (I “saw” God justifies the claim that “God exists”)
standards of justification
Standards of Justification
  • Shared perceptions are a basis for claims about objective reality
  • Perception is supplemented by other shared means to construct and verify knowledge
  • Override systems apply those other means
  • Override systems are themselves derived from experiences
alston s analogy
Alston’s Analogy
  • SP and RE are significantly alike in that both:
    • Are based on individual “perceptual” experiences
    • Support a wider “world view” based on those same perceptual experiences (doxastic value)
    • Have an “override system” (188)
the epistemology of religious perception according to alston
The Epistemology of Religious Perception (according to Alston)
  • All claims to knowledge must reference an experiential basis of belief
    • religious experienceis such a distinctive sort of experiential basis for belief, “like” sensory experience
  • All claims to knowledge must fit into a distinctive range of belief contents (subject matter)
    • Those who have religious experiences tend to report religiously acceptable conclusions from their experiences
the epistemology of religious perception
The Epistemology of Religious Perception
  • There must be an “overrider system” to correct unjustified “leaps” from experience
    • Not every unusual experience counts as a religious experience, by virtue of religious communities’ own experiences and bodies of belief
  • It is unreasonable to ask of any experiential doxastic system that its beliefs be indubitable.
yeah but
Yeah, but….
  • Religious perception seems to assume what it is trying to prove
    • Objection I – we are assuming that there is a God to cause a RE
    • Objection II – different people report different and contradictory claims about what God is or wants
    • Objection IV – there are naturalistic explanations of putative religious experiences
yeah but25
Yeah, but….
  • Religious perception is significantly unlike sensory perception.
    • Objection III – sense experience varies according to the varied conditions of perception
    • Objection V – RE is not universally available, and its inferred claims are vague or obscure
    • Objection VI – there is no intersubjective confirmation of RE claims
penelhum s response
Penelhum’s Response

The basic problem is that religious experiences – by Alston’s own criteria – are “religiously ambiguous.”

Such experiences can be explained by both SP (naturalist) criteria and RE (religious) criteria

Alston’s argument seems to put both on a parity, as he explicitly claims that these “doxastic” systems have epistemic parity.

penelhum s response27
Penelhum’s Response

Other observations:

  • The demand for parity makes us accord (epistemic) rights to apparently incompatible religious systems.
  • The demand for parity makes us accord (epistemic) right to non-religious systems.
glossary alston
Glossary - Alston

Doxastic – having to do with belief

Compare: aesthetic – having to do with the senses; with artistic experience

Compare: existential – having to do with meaning; with the purpose of life

Doxastic practices – having to do with belief-formation

the social and logical conventions and standards through which beliefs are generated and validated