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Religious Experience

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  1. Religious Experience • Religious Experience: An experience of what one takes to be divine, e.g. an experience of God’s peaceful presence in the midst of prayer. • Veridical Experience: An experience that substantially corresponds to reality. • Delusory Experience: An experience that substantially does not correspond to reality.

  2. Credulity Principle: An experience should be assumed to be veridical unless there is good reason to believe it is delusory. • Good Reasons for Believing an Experience is Delusory. • The experiencer’s cognitive capacities are impaired, e.g Shortly after taking LSD, Joe claimed to see Bobby break into Mr. Black’s car.

  3. The experiencer’s cognitive capacities are not sufficient for the experience, e.g. Mary claims to have seen Mr. Smith murder Ms. Jones through six feet of solid concrete. • The object of the experience is something whose reality is highly unlikely, e.g. Peter claimed he came home one night to find a polka dot elephant cooking pasta.

  4. Are Religious Experiences Veridical or Delusory? • A critic might claim it’s only reasonable to maintain religious experiences are delusory. • This is so because humans’ cognitive capacities are not sufficient for an experience of the divine. • Response

  5. If the divine exists, it’s reasonable to believe that the divine could enhance humans’ capacities so that they could experience the divine. • For example, Prayer Experiences • Most of the world’s major religions maintain that the connection between humans and the divine in prayer is a gift of the divine.

  6. In other words, the divine reaches out to willing humans and allows them to experience the divine presence in prayer. • The divine initiates the contact because humans are incapable of initiating it. • To put it another way: Humans can speak to God in prayer, not because they can get His attention, but because He is always listening.

  7. Now, it’s reasonable to believe that ordinary religious experiences, e.g. prayer experiences, are veridical only on the assumption that the divine exists. • In other words, while having such an experience might warrant the experiencer’s believing (or coming to believe) in the divine, such an experience cannot be used to prove the existence of the divine to anyone else.

  8. What about alleged religious experiences that go well beyond such things as experiencing the peaceful presence of God in prayer? • What about, for example, the experiences of those who claim to have visions of the divine, e.g. visions of Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary, various saints, etc.? • Even on the assumption that the divine exists, should one assume experiences like these are veridical?

  9. The Epistemic Status of Private Revelations • Visions and the like are often called, collectively, private revelations. • The institution that has had the most experience with dealing with private revelations is the Catholic Church. • Catholics authorities tend to take a very skeptical view toward any alleged private revelation.

  10. Very strenuous conditions must be met before an alleged private revelation is given any sort of official sanction. • To wit: • All naturalistic explanations, e.g. mental illness or fraud, must be concluded to be insufficient for explaining the alleged private revelation. • The above conclusion must be reached with moral certainty.

  11. The benefit of any doubt must be given in favor of the naturalistic explanation. • The private revelation must be judged, with moral certainty, not to be injurious to souls. • Part of this determination depends upon comparing the alleged private revelation to public revelation, i.e established Catholic doctrine.

  12. If an alleged private revelation is inconsistent with public revelation, the alleged private revelation is dismissed as delusory or fraudulent. • Why do Catholic officials take this skeptical attitude toward private revelation? • The assumption is that private revelations should be rare.

  13. This assumption is based upon the further assumption that most contact between God and humans takes place through more “regular” channels, e.g. private prayer or public worship. • A private revelation is an extraordinary manifestation of God. • Such extraordinary manifestations should not take place every day.

  14. The Catholic attitude seem to be consonant with that of the Bible. • In the Bible, on extraordinary occasions, a few individuals receive direct revelations from God. • In most of the biblical narratives humans connect with God through such things as prayer, e.g. even Jesus talks to the Father in prayer.

  15. Once again, while a private revelation might warrant a person’s believing (or coming to believe) in the divine, it cannot be used to prove the divine’s existence to someone else. • Indeed, even after Catholic officials have sanctioned private revelations, e.g the vision of Our Lady of Guadalupe, no Catholic is obligated to believe in the revelation.

  16. Once a private revelation has been sanctioned, believing in it or not is left up to the consciences of individual Catholics. • Mysticism • Mystical Experience: An experience in which the experiencer has a perception of a profound union between himself and what he takes to be divine.

  17. Mystical experiences go well beyond an experience of the peaceful presence of God in prayer. • Mystical experience even go beyond private revelations because a person who has a private revelation always remains distinct from what he takes to be divine. • In a mystical experience, the experiencer, in some sense, actually becomes one with what he takes to be divine.

  18. The Varieties of Religious Experiences • Classic study of religious experience done by the great American philosopher and psychologist William James in the early 20th Century. • Along with others, James’ study reveals a remarkable similarity among mystical experiences, irrespective of place, time, ethnicity, gender, or religious tradition.

  19. When mystics from different religious traditions describe their mystical experiences, they use very similar language. • Mystics from different religious traditions interpret the meanings of their experiences differently, in ways consistent with their different religious traditions. • Still, the mystical experiences themselves seem to be very similar.

  20. “The farther I climbed the height The less I seemed to understand The cloud so tenebrous [dark] and grand That there illuminates the night. For he who understands that sight Remains for aye, though knowing naught, Transcending knowledge with his thought.” St. John of the Cross, 16th Century, Christian

  21. “When a man can still the senses I call him illumined. The recollection of the mind is awake In the knowledge of the Atman Which is dark night to the ignorant: The ignorant are awake in their sense-life Which they think is daylight: To the seer it is darkness” Bhagavad-Gita, 4th Century BC, Hindu

  22. “[The Fourth aspect of the Self] is not the knowledge of the senses, nor is it relative knowledge, nor yet inferential knowledge. Beyond the senses, beyond the understanding, beyond all expression, is the Fourth. It is pure unitary consciousness, wherein awareness of the world and of multiplicity is completely obliterated. It is ineffable peace. It is supreme good.” Mandukya Upanishad, 6th Century BC, Hindu

  23. “[The soul] seems to catch fire and spring to new life; its sins are cleansed, and God unites it with himself in a way none can understand, save the soul and God. The soul is incapable of speaking afterwards . . . . The soul has never before been so awake to the things of God, or had such light and knowledge of God even though both senses and faculties were completely absorbed. St. Teresa of Avila, 16th Century, Christian

  24. “[I]t is not possible for the tongue of human speech to tell all the utter unity and all the eternal variety of the Ananda [Bliss] of divine love. Our higher and our lower members are both flooded with it, mind and life no less than the soul . . . . Love and Ananda are the last word of being, the secret of secrets, the mystery of mysteries.” Sri Aurobindo, 20th Century, Hindu

  25. The Unanimity Thesis: Mystical experiences are essentially the same, irrespective of time, place, ethnicity, gender, or religious tradition. • What’s more, the criteria for evaluating the veridicality and worthiness of mystical experiences are very similar across religious traditions. (See the Wainwright Web Article) • This remarkable consistency among all mystical experiences can been seen as supporting the existence of some sort of divine, transcendent Being.

  26. A large and diverse group of witnesses’ offering essentially the same testimony is always regarded as good evidence for the truth of the testimony. • Each religious tradition, of course, differs as to what, precisely, the nature of the divine, transcendent Being is. • One must examine the respective merits and demerits of each tradition to see whose conception of the divine, if any, is the best.

  27. Still, the unanimity of the “raw” experience of some sort of divine, transcendent Being or reality is impressive evidence that there actually is such a thing.