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Religious experience

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-K084-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 15, 2024, from

Article Summary

Philosophy is interested in religious experience as a possible source of knowledge of the existence, nature and doings of God. The experiences in question seem to their possessors to be direct, perceptual awarenesses of God. But they may be wrong about this, and many philosophers think they are. Many philosophers think that such experiences are never what they seem, and that no one has a veridical experience of the presence and/or activity of God. The main philosophical reason for supposing that such experiences are in fact sometimes veridical is a principle according to which any apparent experience of something is to be regarded as veridical unless we have sufficient reasons to the contrary. Experiences are innocent until proven guilty. If we do not accept that principle, we will never have sufficient grounds for taking any experience to be veridical – religious, sensory or whatever.

There are critics who think that we do have sufficient reasons to the contrary in the case of religious experience. For one thing, we do not have the same capacity for intersubjective checks of religious experiences that we have with sense perceptions. But to this it can be replied that we should not suppose that sense perception represents the only way in which we can achieve genuine cognitive contact with objective reality. For another thing, it is widely supposed that religious experience can be adequately explained by psychological and social factors, without bringing God into the picture. But even if this-worldly factors are the only immediate causes of the experience, God could figure as a cause farther back in the causal chain. Finally, the disagreements between alleged experiences of God, especially across different religions, provide a reason for doubting the deliverances of religious experience. But it is possible for a number of people to be genuinely experiencing the same thing, even though they disagree as to what it is like. This is a common occurrence in sense perception.

Citing this article:
Alston, William P.. Religious experience, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-K084-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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