Religious Experiences Revision

August 24, 2015 Violet S

A short and concise guide to the different types of religious experience that can be found on the AQA and Edexcel Syllabus and examples of each.

A religious experience is a non-empirical occurrence that can be spontaneous or as a result of intensive self discipline (eg meditation). The experience brings people closer to The Divine.


Visions can be:

Intellectual (the recipient learns something about God)

Corporeal (the recipient sees the figure externally – St Bernadette’s visions of the Virgin Mary)

Imaginary (the recipient sees the figure in the minds eye – Jacob’s vision of a ladder to heaven)

Julian of Norwich is a particularly good example to use here as she experienced strong visions, stating “in short, everything owes its existence to the love of God”

Alston offers some ‘tests’ to show the validity of a claim of religious experience. He states that should an account correspond directly to the doctrines then it is most likely true. Similarly, he states if the experience was unlikely to have been made up by the recipient then it is also true. An example of this is Ian McCormack who was stung by a jellyfish.

Michael Palmer states “perceiving Victoria station is the best way of knowing it exists” and “the absence of a chair in the room is good proof of there being no chair”


“That which produces effects within another reality must be termed a reality itself”

Conversions can be:

Intellectual (the individual changes their way of thinking about something and thus converts)

Moral (the individual changes behaviour to do what is thought to be ‘right’)

Social (the individual adapts based on the life they live and society they live in)

There are two types of conversion: volitional type and self surrender type. A self surrender conversion is a sudden one, whereby the individuals ‘surrender’ themselves to the love of God. A volitional conversion is often a much slower process, taking place over a number of years. An example of this is C.S Lewis, who came to accept that “God was…God” after living most of his life as an atheist.

A conversion is often the result of a vision, as intellectual visions in particular tend to bring the recipient to a certain awareness of God. For example, Saul is asked (in a vision) by Jesus “Saul, Saul, why persecutes thou me?”, and this vision leads him to convert to Christianity (St Paul).

William James talks of ‘subconscious incubation’ whereby the change has in fact been happening for years in the mind of the person, and one event can lead to the sudden realisation of this, spurring a conversion.

In general, there are two things in the mind of the candidate for conversion:

  • the present wrongness in their life (could be sins, changes etc)
  • the positive changes they wish to make


“…this I was able to understand not by way of comprehension but by transcending those perennial truths that can be reached by reason” – Nicholas of Cusa

Mystical experiences are experiences where the recipient feels a sense of ‘union’ with the Divine.

Mystical experiences, according to William James, should fit the following criteria:

Ineffability – “have I not said that the state is utterly beyond words?” –Alfred Tennyson

Noetic quality – insights into unobtainable truths through intuition and perception

Transiency (fleeting) – “I had a sense that a knowledge more than human possessed me, so that everything that had been confused was clear” – W. Somerset Maugham

Passivity – cannot be sought by the recipient (St John of the Cross describes this passivity in one of his accounts “I abandoned and forgot myself…all things ceased; I went out from myself”)

F C Happold states that two urges govern all of us: the desire for separation, and the desire to be a part of something bigger. This he calls the mysticism of love and union. The other ‘urge’ that is present in all beings is the desire to find out the meaning of life – we want to know the “whole story” as it were. This is called the mysticism of knowledge and understanding.

There are three aspects of mystical experience according to him:

  • soul mysticism – the idea of finding the soul and self-fulfilment “the chief object of man is the quest for his own self and right of knowledge about it”
  • nature mysticism – meditating on the beauty of nature inspires a mystical experience
  • God mysticism – all the soulds of humankind desire to return to their “immortal and infinite Ground, which is God”. The human soul becomes ‘deified’.

The challenges of the argument:

Ramachandran and Persinger both proposed that religious experience was a cause of activity in the temporal lobes. Persigner did an experiment to prove this – Persinger’s helmet – which he tested on a monk and a nun, who confirmed the sensation they felt during the test was the same as their ordinary religious experiences. Ramachandran did not deny, however, that God may have placed the temporal lobes in order to communicate with his creations.

Experiences are personal experiences and we only have the testimony of the individual to verify them.

Experiences are often via negativa

Intellectual experiences are non-cognitive so we don’t actually learn about God

Rationalists would argue that a priori are the only truths, and as religious experiences are a posteriori, they can not be.

The experiences seem unfair: why does God (seemingly) punish some for not believing in him, yet inflict himself on others?

As experiences are passive, free will is removed.

The experiences may be hyperbolic or exaggerated to achieve status (authoritarianism) for example, Padre Pio gained great status after experiencing stigmata.

Human error may alter the perception of the experience: “the Devil fools people into believing in vain visions and false prophecies”

They are paradoxical: God as both personal and impersonal.

How can God be recognised? How can the finite experience the infinite?

If all things are sacred (animism) then surely a ‘religious experience’ is discredited.

Freud argued that conversion was a ‘reaction to a hostile world’ in which insecure people reach out to ‘God’ as a father figure.


Richard Swinburne developed the principles of credulity and testimony:

CREDULITY: If a person sees something then it is usually the case they have seen something.

TESTIMONY: Unless you have reliable reason to doubt what a person says, you should accept it as true.

His cumulative argument states that, although alone religious experience may not be sufficient explanation for God, when joined with other arguments it gains weight. “ On our total evidence theism is more probable than not”.


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