Learning from (Religious) Experience?

The philosophy professor whom I mentioned in my last post made a fascinating argument against using religious experiences to draw theological conclusions.  I partly agree with it, and partly disagree with it, so I thought I would post it here and take it apart.

His basic argument was that people of many logically incompatible religions have strong religious experiences, on the basis of which they conclude that their respective religions are correct.  But since they cannot all be correct (since they contradict each other), religious experience seems not to be a reliable method for inferring which is the true religion.  Instead, he suggested, people who grow up in a religion typically develop positive emotions for the places, people, and objects associated with that religion, and these emotions then lead to experiences of God’s love, for example, or of the truthfulness of one’s own religion, experiences which may reflect nothing more than a lifetime of developing positive associations.

He described a discussion he had with two Mormons, in which he invited them to make the case for why he should come to believe in Mormonism.  With a caveat that it might sound crazy, they described the burning in their bosom which confirmed to them that the Book of Mormon was true.  The philosopher, far from being surprised, expressed that these sorts of experiences are exactly what he would expect for someone in their positions.  Instead, and I’m sure much to the consternation of this pair of Mormon missionaries, he denied that such an experience lends support to the truth of their religion.  People of other religions equally experience feelings which in their view confirm their beliefs, and those experiences are neither more nor less genuine, and neither more nor less confirmatory, than the burning in the bosom of the Mormons.

On the face of it, this is a powerful argument.  One person thinks experience A implies belief B and another person thinks experience A implies belief C, and yet B and C cannot both be true, so at very least without additional data we do not know whether experience A implies belief B, belief C, or neither.  Thus the experience alone, without additional data, is not sufficient ground for a belief.

Such positive emotions are indeed developed by some religious people, and might indeed trigger confirmatory experiences.  Another factor in religious experience, which this philosophy professor did not mention, is the power of wishful thinking: religions (whether Mormonism or Pentecostalism) which emphasize the importance of a particular experience will often lead to people experiencing something which matches the description.  Yet not all religious experiences can be explained by either theory.  Radical conversion, for example, resists both models: I did not grow up with positive associations with churches, Bibles, or even Jesus.  For converts, an alternate explanation of religious experience must be sought.

But the argument itself has a logical flaw: it requires asserting that all religious experiences are equally veridical.  People often describe their religious experiences in very similar terms, but the terms available with which to describe religious experiences may be much more restricted than the range of actual experiences, and the description of experiences tends to become stereotyped in the telling.  In the symbolic terms of the earlier paragraph, is it really the same experience A in both cases?  Even if two people describe their experience in identical terms, how can we be sure that their experiences are interchangeable?  Even leaving aside cases of people consciously lying about their experiences (by no means unheard of), perhaps they are having at root fundamentally different experiences, but happen to have settled on similar terms to describe them.  This would not be particularly surprising, as language is best developed and regulated as it pertains to external physical objects the sensory experience of which can be compared by people, and only secondarily for abstractions and non-material phenomena which cannot be reliably compared.  Fundamentally, we cannot access other people’s spiritual experiences.

The inability to access others’ experiences may simply lead us to agnosticism about all such experiences and the religious beliefs which seem to be supported by them.  For who knows if my experience is in any way comparable to someone else’s?  Or the observation of positive religious experiences confirming (what we believe to be) others’ false beliefs may lead us to skepticism even about our own experiences.  Given the power of wishful thinking, some such skepticism may be healthy!

But perhaps not all religious experiences are alike, and this argument may help us think more carefully about what we may conclude on the basis of religious experiences.  In particular, if religious experiences conform to our desires or our expectations, they may be fully explained by positive childhood associations or our own wishful thinking.  Such a possibility may make it difficult to conclude much of anything for certain on the basis of such experiences.  If, on the other hand, a religious experience conforms neither to our desires nor to our expectations, but is an unwelcome shock, then we need to seek a different explanation for it.  Such was my experience of “Yep.”  I expected no response, as I didn’t really believe that God existed, and I did not want a response, as it upended my plans and deprived me of self-ownership (as well as my teenage melodrama).  Perhaps it is this second category of religious experiences, unwelcome and uncomfortable, which should most command our attention.

There is a lot of fabricated religious experience out there, and “the heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9), so we can even unconsciously trigger our own religious experiences.  It is good to be skeptical of religious experiences.  But the argument that they are equally bad indicators of truth relies on all religious experiences being interchangeable, and some may not be.  In particular, religious experiences which are undesired and unexpected may be more reliable indicators of the truth than those moments of comfort.  To borrow a phrase from C. S. Lewis, “We have cause to be uneasy.”



  1. I enjoyed this post, it has helped me with my struggle. The Church holds relativism as a heresy, yet I keep finding myself surrounded by those who wish to unify the Church and the only hope is to accept that each individual’s spiritual experience is valid if anything to that individual and so there will be differences in the perception of God and His interactions with each individual. To totally discount individual religious experiences in a way discounts God’s infinity. I believe that there are common experiences, yet as you I view them with skepticism, I must see some positive results that are indicative of the workings of the Holy Spirit, such as a positive move towards life and away from death. The problem is that I see those in faithful followers of other religions.

    1. I think it is important to recognize the scope of each abstraction. Relativism about God is philosophical nonsense, as God is inherently absolute, but relativism about people is necessary as we are each limited and fallen creatures. That makes it hard to speak absolutely about others’ experiences, even as we may disagree with people about what they conclude on the basis of their experiences.

      I think the greater hope for Church unity is not so much in accepting others’ experiences as “valid” (which can be pretty wishy-washy, when it comes down to it), as it is in recognizing and repenting of our own arrogance in wanting to be the head of the Church to determine who else is in or out. The Church already has a Head (in the words of the Cook in Disney’s Mary Poppins, “The position ‘as been filled!”), and we all need to turn to him in repentance.

      1. I agree that our personal humility and repentance is of the utmost importance. I see where that accepting the validity of is wishy-washy, yet the continued question I have is how can those of other faiths still demonstrate gifts of the Holy Spirit? How can I know how God is or is not working in their lives? I can’t, so I must focus on my journey toward God and not hamper another person’s journey.

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