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Argument from religious experience

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Title: Argument from religious experience  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
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Subject: Philosophy of religion, Cosmological argument, Argument from morality, Ontological argument, Teleological argument
Collection: Arguments for the Existence of God, Subjective Experience
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Argument from religious experience

The argument from religious experience is an argument for the existence of God.


  • Outline 1
    • Suggested reason for accepting the premise 1.1
    • Suggested reasons for disputing the premise 1.2
  • Notes 2
  • References 3
  • Further reading 4


In essence, the argument's structure is as follows:

  1. There are compelling reasons for believing that claims of religious experience point to and validate spiritual realities that exist in a way that transcends material manifestation;
  2. According to materialism, nothing exists in a way that transcends material manifestation;
  3. According to classical theism, God endows human beings with the ability to perceive – although imperfectly – religious, spiritual and/or transcendent realities through religious, spiritual and/or transcendent experience.
    In the Old and New Testaments of Christianity, for instance, Adam "talks with" God while Saint Paul refers to "spiritual gifts" and "seeing through a glass darkly".[n 1]
  4. To the extent that premise 1. is accepted, therefore, theism is more plausible than materialism.

This argument is formally valid. As statements 2 to 4 are generally treated as uncontroversial, discussion has tended to focus on the status of the first.

Suggested reason for accepting the premise

The principal arguments for the premise are: Very substantial numbers of ordinary people report having had such experiences, though this isn't to say that religious believers aren't ordinary.[1] Such experiences are reported in almost all known cultures.

These experiences often have very significant effects on people's lives, frequently inducing in them acts of extreme self-sacrifice well beyond what could be expected from evolutionary arguments.

These experiences often seem very real to the people involved, and are quite often reported as being shared by a number of people.[2] Although mass delusions are not inconceivable, one needs compelling reasons for invoking this as an explanation.

Swinburne suggests that, as two basic principles of rationality, we ought to believe that things are as they seem unless and until we have evidence that they are mistaken (principle of credulity), and that those who do not have an experience of a certain type ought to believe others who say that they do in the absence of evidence of deceit or delusion (principle of testimony) and thus, although if you have a strong reason to disbelieve in the existence of God you will discount these experiences, in other cases such evidence should count towards the existence of God.[3]

Suggested reasons for disputing the premise

  1. These might be mis-firings of evolved mechanisms selected for very different reasons.[4]
  2. Religious texts such as the Bible that speak of revelations are of disputable historical accuracy.[5]
  3. It is conceivable that some claimed religious experiences are lies, possibly done for attention or acceptance.[5]
  4. Argument from inconsistent revelations: Different people have had, or believed to have had, religious experiences pointing to the existence of different religions. Not all of these can be correct.
  5. It has been argued that religious experiences are little more than hallucinations aimed at fulfilling basic psychological desires of immortality, purpose, etc. Sigmund Freud, for example, considered God to be simply a psychological "illusion"[6] created by the mind, instead of an actual existing entity. This argument can be based upon the fact that since we know about some believers for whom this argument is correct (their reports for religious experiences are nothing more than illusions), we assume that perhaps all such reports may be illusions.



  1. ^ Polkinghorne Belief in God in an Age of Science' "the surveys conducted by the distinguished biologist Alister Hardy"Swinburne references David Hay Religious Experience Today (1990) chapters 5, 6 and Appendix
  2. ^ For example the New Testament speaks of Jesus, after his resurrection, appearing to 10 or more people at once (see e.g. 1 Corinthians 15:6, Luke 24, Mt 28, Jn 16, Acts 1).
  3. ^ Swinburne, Is there a God? p 133–136
  4. ^ This is broadly Dawkins' line in The God Delusion
  5. ^ a b Walker, Cliff. "Is The Bible Historically Accurate?". Positive Atheism. Retrieved 11 May 2010. 
  6. ^ Freud, Sigmund, The Future of an Illusion, W. W. Norton & Company, ISBN 0-393-00831-2

Further reading

  • Ian Barbour, Religion and Science, SCM: 1998 (ISBN 0-334-02721-7).
  • Caroline Franks Davis, The Evidential Force of Religious Experience, OUP: 2004 (ISBN 0-19-825001-0).
  • Joseph Hinman, The Trace of God: A Rational Warrant for Belief (ISBN 978-0-9824087-3-5).
  • Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (although not identified explictly, the argument from religious experience is dismissed).
  • William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience.
  • Kai-man Kwan, "The Argument from Religious Experience" in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology.
  • John Polkinghorne, The Faith of a Scientist and Belief in an Age of Science.
  • Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God, OUP: 2004 (2nd edition) (ISBN 0-19-927168-2) and Is there a God?, OUP: 1996 (ISBN 0-19-823545-3).
  • Tom Wright, Simply Christian, SPCK: 2006 (esp. Chapter 2, "The hidden spring").
  • Yandell, Ketih E. (1994), The Epistemology of Religious Experience, Cambridge University Press,  

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