Religious experiences – evidence for God’s existence?

This article was published in the Spring 2015 edition of ‘On Religion’, a quarterly magazine providing in-depth, informed and impartial commentary on religion. It was also published online here.

What do a British journalist, a 19th century Russian novelist and an Arab orphan 1,400 years ago have in common?

Recently on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Something Understood’, John McCarthy related the extraordinary story of his solitary confinement in Lebanon where he was held as a hostage during the 1980s. As he was in the depths of despair, convinced he was about to be killed at the hands of his kidnappers, he was released.

In a similar fashion, Fyodor Dostoyevski was facing certain execution for belonging to a secret literary society perceived as a threat by the Emperor Nicholas I. He was tied to a post opposite a firing squad, when an order came through commuting his sentence.

The Prophet Muhammad, too, faced a perilous situation after declaring his mission, upsetting the leaders in Makkah for rejecting idolatry. His enemies plotted an assassination attempt, from which he emerged safe before emigrating.

Three individuals from very different worlds, terrifyingly close to the end of their life and cause. But that wasn’t the only thing they shared. Each also had a sense that a force beyond them had come to their rescue.

Was God behind each of these events? Were they all having a religious experience?

For centuries, philosophers and psychologists have attempted to comprehend the mystery of such phenomena. This remains pertinent, particularly at a time when traditional approaches to postulating God’s existence, such as the design and ontological arguments, have given way to religious experiences as a more effective case for theism.

Whilst many are more familiar with stories like Moses and the burning bush, or Saul’s visitation by Jesus en route to Damascus, it isn’t spiritual figures alone who have claimed contact with the Transcendent. Rather, such experiences appear to be universal, not confined to any specific faith, or even to believers.

In 1969, the Sir Alister Hardy Religious Experience Research Centre found that direct personal awareness of “a power or presence different from everyday life” were quite common (as high as 49%) among members of the British public. According to the most recent Census, almost three quarters of the population still affiliate themselves to a religion – and there are likely to be a lot more who may have had similar experiences without identifying themselves as religious.

Religious experiences can take multiple forms, ranging from visions and voices to dreams and miracles. The extent to which people of faith themselves accept different claims would depend on their exclusivist or pluralist position: must one necessarily be a Christian to receive celestial succour, or can adherents of other religions have equal access to this too?

Various thinkers have proposed certain characteristics and applied their own criteria for determining how veridical such experiences are.  Psychologist William James, the pioneer of empirical research in this field, defined them as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they consider the divine.” He also identified four traits to an experience: ineffability (defying expression), noetic (providing knowledge), transiency (temporary) and passivity (helplessness). However, these experiences would only be meaningful if they inspired a moral change in the agent.

For Rudolph Otto, experiences must necessarily be numinous, or awe-inspiring. Richard Swinburne went further by coining two principles for the assessment of any religious experience: credulity (accepting claims unless there is any sound reason to disbelieve), and testimony (accepting accounts unless there are any reasonable grounds to doubt their sources).

However, are we not in danger of validating any and every experience meeting such criteria, when they might easily be explained by our advancing knowledge about the mind?

There is huge scientific interest in mystical phenomena and how claims to experiencing the Holy and Other could be accounted for by our ever developing understanding of the body and brain. This has given birth to a new branch of science, called ‘neurotheology’. Could what many consider special divine encounters or interventions, merely be down to physiological causes?

The BBC Horizon documentary ‘God on the brain’ offers a fascinating insight into temporal lobe epilepsy, which like other forms of the same condition, effects seizures during which some sufferers may experience religious hallucinations, predisposing them to faith.

However, not all temporal lobe epileptics who have such sensations necessarily end up believing in a supernatural being. A lot of atheists who experience them remain and die atheists.

The suggestion that religious founders and mystics of the past may have had regular seizures would, for those who follow and revere them, be unpalatable. The faith of Muslims in their Prophet, as an example, is unshakeable. For them, Muhammad was nothing if not a divinely inspired Messenger, graced with frequent revelations and granted knowledge of al-ghaib, or things unseen. The extraordinary moral, social and intellectual reformation he wrought among the Arabs is arguably unparalleled anywhere before or since. Could all of his achievements – which have left great minds from Gandhi to George Bernard Shaw in total awe of him – really have been inspired by epileptic fits?

So is this yet another battleground for religion and science? Not necessarily.

Even if modern research is able to explain causes of such phenomena, they do not have to negate claims to religious experience. Many believers embrace scientific enquiry as a means of understanding God’s way of working in the world. Neurologist Professor Vilayanur Ramachandran suggests that circuits in the brain could serve as an “antenna”, placed by God, to make people more receptive to Him.

There are of course other problems for theists – not least the ‘competing truths challenge’ which cites conflicting claims from different traditions as philosophically and theologically incoherent. How, for instance, can a Christian or Hindu accept both Christ’s resurrection and also Krishna as a reincarnation of Vishnu, without compromising their beliefs and commitments? Which is true – one, both or neither? Such a challenge is, as David Hume put it, “the complete triumph of the sceptic.”

However, scholars like Caroline Franks Davis have argued that the vastness and variety of religious experiences throughout history and every corner of the globe have “evidential force” and so must count very strongly in their favour. In this respect, many treat such occurrences as being, at best, an abductive argument for God’s existence.

Whatever one’s philosophy or perspective on religious experiences, claims to encounters with God remain a deep and captivating mystery. And those claims are not going to cease anytime soon.

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