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Religious Experience


Most of the philosophical work on "religious experience" that has appeared since 1960 has been devoted to its phenomenology and epistemic status. Two widely shared assumptions help account for thisthat religious beliefs and practices are rooted in religious feelings and that whatever justification they have largely derives from them.

The majority of the discussions of the nature of religious experience are a reaction to Walter Stace, who believed that mysticism appears in two forms. Extrovertive mysticism is an experience of nature's unity and of one's identity with it. Introvertive mysticism is an experience of undifferentiated unity that is devoid of concepts and images; it appears to be identical with what others have called "pure consciousness"a state in which one is conscious but conscious of nothing.

R. C. Zaehner argued that Stace's typology ignores love mysticism in India and the West. There are two types of introvertive mysticismmonistic (pure consciousness) and theistic. The latter is a form of mutual love that unites God and the mystic in an experience without images and with very little, if any, conceptual content. The most effective defense of a position of this sort is Nelson Pike's. Pike argues that the principal forms of mystical prayer in Christianity (quiet, rapture, and full union) are phenomenologically theistic. He defends his analysis against William Forgie, who denies that the identification of the experience's object with God can be part of its phenomenological content.

Phenomenological analyses of religious consciousness presuppose that we can distinguish descriptions of religious experience from interpretations. Ninian Smart proposed two tests for distinguishing descriptionsthat the accounts be autobiographical and that they be relatively free from doctrinal concepts. The question of criteria remains vexed, however (see Wainwright, 1981, chap. 1).

Others have argued that, because religious experience is significantly constituted by the concepts, beliefs, expectations, and attitudes that the mystic brings to it, attempts to distinguish interpretation from description are misguided. For example, an influential article by Steven Katz contends that a mystic's experiences are largely shaped by his or her tradition. This has two consequences. First, there are no "pure" or "unmediated" mystical experiences and, second, there are as many types of mystical experiences as there are traditions.

Katz's "constructivism" has been attacked by Robert Forman and Anthony Perovitch among others. Since pure consciousness is devoid of content, it is difficult to see how it could be constituted by contents that the mystic brings to it. To argue that it must be mediated because all experience is mediated begs the question; on the face of it, pure consciousness is a counterexample to the thesis in question. Forman also argues that constructivism cannot adequately account for noveltythe fact that the mystic's experiences are often unlike what he or she expected.

Defenses of religious experience's cognitive validity have taken several forms. William Wainwright argues that mystical experiences are presumptively valid because they are significantly similar to sense experiences. Both experiences have what George Berkeley called "outness"the subject has the impression of being immediately presented with something transcending his or her own consciousness. Corrigible and independently checkable claims about objective reality are spontaneously made on the basis of both types of experience. There are tests in each case both for determining the reality of the experience's apparent object and for determining the genuineness of apparent perceptions of it. The nature of the tests, however, is determined by the nature of the experiences' alleged objects. Since the apparent objects of religious experience and ordinary perceptual experience differ, so too will the tests for veridical experiences of those objects.

Richard Swinburne's defense of religious experience's cognitive validity is based on the principle of credulity, which roughly states that apparent cognitions are innocent until proven guilty. This is a basic principle of rationality; without it we would be unable to justify our reliance on memory, sense perception, and rational intuition. The principle implies that there is an initial presumption in favor of how things seem to us, although this presumption can be overridden. What is true of apparent cognitions in general is true of religious experiences. They too should be accepted in the absence of good reasons for thinking them deceptive. Swinburne argues that there are none.

The most sustained defense of religious experience's epistemic credentials is William Alston's. Whereas Wainwright and Swinburne concentrate on perceptual (or perception-like) experiences, Alston focuses on perceptual practices. Doxastic (belief-forming) practices are basic when they provide our primary access to their subject matter. The reliability of a basic doxastic practice like memory cannot be established without circularity; any attempt to justify it relies on its own outputs. Alston argues that sense-perceptual practice and "Christian mystical practice" are epistemically on a par. Since both doxastic practices are basic, neither's reliability can be established without circularity. Both practices are socially established, internally consistent, and consistent with the outputs of other well-established practices. They are also self-supporting in the sense that they have the outputs we would expect them to have if they were reliable (successful predictions in the first case, for example, and moral and spiritual improvement in the second). Alston concludes that it is unreasonable to engage in sense-perceptual practice while rejecting the rationality of engaging in Christian mystical practice. The rationality at issue, however, is not epistemic. Neither practice can be shown to be epistemically rational, since it is impossible to establish their reliability without circularity. Alston intends to show only that it is practically or pragmatically rational to engage in them, although it should be noted that engaging in them involves accepting their outputs as true and therefore believing that they are reliable. Alston concedes that the existence of competing mystical practices weakens his case but denies that it destroys it. Critiques of Alston's work have tended to focus on this point (see, for example, Hasker, 1986).

The most significant attacks on religious experience's cognitive validity to have appeared since 1960 are Wayne Proudfoot's and Richard Gale's. Proudfoot argues that an experience's noetic quality should be identified with its embedded causal judgment (that the experience is caused by a tree, for example, or by God) and this judgment's affective resonance. The incorporated causal judgment has no intrinsic authority; it is merely one hypothesis among others and should be accepted only if it provides a better overall explanation of the experience than its competitors'. While the causal hypotheses embedded in religious experiences could be correct, they are in fact suspect; they appear to be artifacts of the subject's religious or cultural tradition and not products of nonnatural causes.

Proudfoot's identification of an experience's noetic quality with an incorporated causal judgment and its affective resonance is more plausible in some cases than others. Given my background knowledge, I believe that a certain sort of pain in one's tooth is caused by cavities. Believing this, and having a pain of that sort, I spontaneously form the belief that my pain is caused by a cavity. While my pain is not noetic, the experience as a whole is, since it incorporates a causal judgment. But the experience lacks "outness." It thus differs from sense perception, which (because of this quality) seems to have an intrinsic authority that noetic experiences like my toothache lack. Religious experiences are also diverse. Some, like my toothache, involve spontaneous causal attributions and nothing more. Others, however, are perception-like and have the same claim to intrinsic authority that sense perceptions do.

Richard Gale, on the other hand, argues that religious experience lacks the authority of sense experience. The only way of establishing religious experience's cognitivity is by showing that the tests for it are similar to those for sense experience. Arguments for religious experience's cognitive validity fail because the dissimilarities are too great. Alston and Wainwright contend that these dissimilarities can be explained by differences in the experiences' apparent objects. Gale objects that explaining the disanalogies does not explain them away and that there is a "tension" or "inconsistency" in claiming that the tests are similar (as they must be if the defense of religious experience's cognitivity is to be successful) and yet different in nature. The first point is dubious. Only relevant disanalogies count. The point of Wainwright's and Alston's explanations is to show that the disanalogies are not relevantthat is, that the features that tests for sense experiences have and tests for religious experiences lack are not ones we would expect the latter to have if religious experiences were veridical perceptions of their apparent objects.

Gale's most original (and controversial) contribution is his contention that veridical experiences of God are conceptually impossible. The argument is roughly this: Talk of veridical experiences is in place only where it makes sense to speak of their objects as existing "when not actually perceived" and as being "the common object of different" experiences of that type. Sense experiences exhibit this feature because their objects are "housed in a space and time that includes both the object and the perceiver." Religious experiences do not exhibit this feature because there are no "analogous dimensions to space and time" that house both God and the perceiver. Gale attempts to establish this by refuting P. F. Strawson's claim that a "no space world of objective sounds" is conceptually possible. We could neither reidentify sounds in such a world nor distinguish between numerically distinct but qualitatively identical ones. It would make no sense, therefore, to speak of sounds as the common objects of distinct auditory experiences or as existing when unperceived. Talk of veridical experiences of objective sounds would thus be out of place. A fortiori, talk of veridical experiences would be out of place in a nonspatial and nontemporal world. Therefore, since no common space (and, on some accounts, no common time) houses God and the mystic, talk of veridical perceptions of God is inappropriate.

A few general observations about discussions of religious experience since 1960 are in order. First, most defenses of religious experience's cognitive validity have been offered by theists. Stace is one of the few who has attempted to establish the veridicality of pure consciousness and other nontheistic experiences that lack intentional structure. Second, philosophical discussions of religious experiences tend to abstract them from the way of life in which they occur and thereby impoverish our understanding of them. Whether this penchant for abstraction adversely affects the discussion of phenomenological and epistemological issues, however, is more doubtful. Finally, a philosopher's assessment of the cognitive value of religious experience is affected by his or her metaphysical predilections. For example, those who assign a low antecedent probability to theism will demand stronger arguments for theistic experiences' cognitive validity than those who do not. One's assessment of religious experience cannot be separated from one's general assessment of the relevant religious hypotheses.

See also Alston, William P.; Berkeley, George; Constructivism and Conventionalism; Constructivism, Moral; Intuition; Memory; Mysticism, History of; Mysticism, Nature and Assessment of; Perception; Philosophy of Religion; Rationality; Stace, Walter Terence; Strawson, Peter Frederick.


Alston, W. P. Perceiving God. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Davis, C. F. The Evidential Force of Religious Experience. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.

Forgie, W. J. "Pike's Mystic Union and the Possibility of Theistic Experience." Religious Studies 30 (1994): 231242.

Forgie, W. J. "Theistic Experience and the Doctrine of Unanimity." International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 15 (1984): 1330.

Forman, R. K. C. "Introduction: Mysticism, Constructivism, and Forgetting." In The Problem of Pure Consciousness, edited by R. K. C. Forman. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Gale, R. On the Nature and Existence of God. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Chap. 8.

Gutting, G. Religious Belief and Religious Skepticism. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982. Chap. 5.

Hasker, W. "On Justifying the Christian Practice." New Scholasticism 60 (1986).

Katz, S. T. "Language, Epistemology, and Mysticism." In Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis, edited by S. T. Katz. London: Sheldon Press, 1978.

Perovitch, A. N., Jr. "Does the Philosophy of Mysticism Rest on a Mistake?" In The Problem of Pure Consciousness, edited by R. K. C. Forman. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Pike, N. Mystic Union: An Essay in the Phenomenology of Mysticism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992.

Proudfoot, W. Religious Experience. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

Smart, N. "Interpretation and Mystical Experience." Religious Studies 1 (1965): 7587.

Stace, W. T. Mysticism and Philosophy. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1960.

Swinburne, R. The Existence of God. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979. Chap. 13.

Wainwright, W. J. Mysticism: A Study of Its Nature, Cognitive Value, and Moral Implications. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1981.

Yandell, K. E. The Epistemology of Religious Experience. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Zaehner, R. C. Concordant Discord. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970.

William J. Wainwright (1996)

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Religious Experience

Religious Experience

See Experience, Religious: Cognitive and Neurophysiological Apsects; Experience, Religious: Philosophical Aspects

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