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Arguments for the Existence of God

Philosophy of Religion

Religious Experience: An introduction

Information: This article gives a brief review of matters related to religious experience, in particular from the Christian theological perspective. A version of this article was originally published on the website www.faithnet.org.uk.

Introduction

'This is not a journey for the feet; the feet bring us only from land to land... you must close the eyes and call instead upon another vision which is to be waked within you, a vision, the birth-right of all, which few turn to use.' (Plotinus, The Enneads)

A religious experience is when a person believes they have had an experience of God, or another religious figure. Religious experiences can range from God actually speaking to a person, to someone being aware of God's presence, to an experience of another religious figure, or even a miracle. Therefore, religious experiences are not easily categorised as one thing or another. However, what we might say is common to all of them is that they are somewhat extraordinary events, and very different to ordinary everyday experiences.

Picture of person opening a door into another dimensionReligious experiences should be distinguished from paranormal events. Although both are considered to be extra-ordinary, they are different in terms of who or what causes them. For example, a paranormal experience such as a chair moving across the floor on its own is not usually considered to be an act of God, but that of a poltergeist (or ghost). As such, a supernatural experience which has no religious connection is more likely to be a paranormal occurance.

When and where do religious experiences occur?

Religious experiences can happen to anyone, anywhere and at any time. Although religious experiences are somewhat unique, it is not uncommon for them to occur in some very ordinary places. In the Bible there are many examples of people doing some very ordinary things, yet suddenly becoming aware of being in the presence of God. For example:

  • Moses was out tending to his father-in-law's sheep, when he suddenly saw a burning bush from which God spoke to him (Exodus 3:1-4).
  • Saul was on his way to Damascus to arrest Christians, when Jesus appeared to him (Acts (9:1-11).
  • John was in prison on the island of Patmos (Revelation 1:9), when he had a dramatic vision of future events which he wrote down as the Book of Revelation.

There are also examples of people having religious experiences in the midst of ordinary satiations in other religious traditions. Muhammad (PBUH) was said to be in a cave on Jabal al-Nour, when he received his first revelation from Allah (Qur'an 96). Arjuna was in a chariot on a battlefield, when Krishna revealed his divinity to him. Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, was bathing in a river when he was taken into the presence of God, and shown that there was one divine reality behind the cosmos (Guru Granth Sahib p.1).

There are also examples of religious experiences in the Bible, which occurred in some extra-ordinary places:

  • Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because God's presence filled it (Exodus 40:34-35).
  • The prophet Isaiah had a vision of God in the temple (Isaiah 6:1).

Something to think about: Why might religious experiences be said to be proof of God's existence?

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Common types of religious experiences

Numinous: The sense of ‘awe and wonder’ a person may feel when they experience the presence of God in a certain place or building. It usually describes the feeling (or realisation) that God is very different from us - powerful and awesome. Some people usually feel this when they enter a church or a cathedral. However, they might just as easily have a sense of God's greatness by looking at the world around them (E.g. a sunset).

Miracles: A miracle occurs when God acts in the world in a special way. Miracles are said to be things God does, which go against the laws of nature. People who believe God exists, usually believe God can and does work miracles. For example, miracles which involve healing the sick are often believed to be the result of prayer.

Mystical Experiences: Some people claim to have experienced God in such an intense way, that they have literally been in the presence of God. Some people also believe they have become one with God at certain times. People who claim have such experiences are often called Mystics. It is common for Mystics to use a variety of spiritual techniques, such as meditation, to come into the presence of God in this special way.

Summary: Key features of a religious experience

  • A religious experience is when a person has an experience of God or another religious figure.
  • Religious experiences can happen anywhere.
  • There is usually an overwhelming sense of God's presence (numinous).
  • The experience may lead to someone believing in God (conversion).
  • God may do something unusual (miracle)
  • A person might experience God in a direct and unique way (mystical experience).

God is infinite in his simplicity and simple in his infinity. Therefore he is everywhere and is everywhere complete. God is in the innermost part of each and every thing. (Meister Eckhart - Christian Mystic (1260 - 1327))

Evidence for religious experiences

  • People have often done amazing things because they believe God told them to (E.g. Moses).
  • People have sometimes converted to a different religion on the basis of a religious experience (E.g. Saul).
  • People have been miraculously healed, usually said to be God answering prayer.
  • Holy Books (such as the Bible) have many examples of religious experiences recorded in them.

Some issues

Picture of Saul's conversion by CaravaggioAlthough atheists deny the existence of God, religious experiences may offer proof that God does exist. People have done some rather inexplicable things because they believe God told them to, even at risk of their own life. For example, at a time when it was extremely dangerous to be a Christian, Saul converted from Judaism to Christianity because he believed he had met Jesus on the road to Damascus. Bearing in mind that Saul (later Paul) was on his way to arrest and persecute Christians for spreading (what he believed to be) lies about Jesus being the Son of God, this makes his change of faith even more remarkable. The question many Christians will ask is why did someone like Saul convert to Christianity, if he did not have the religious experience he claimed to have had?

Of course, the biggest problem with religious experiences is actually proving that people have heard God, or been in the presence of God. How do we know that people who claim these experiences are not simply convincing themselves that they have done these things, when when they have not? We should also note that some people have done some very wicked things because they believe God told them to do it.

To read more on this subject see Killer Cults: Murderous Messiahs and Their Fanatical Followers.

Finally, many people in lots of different religions all claim to have had religious experiences. However, they cannot all be experiencing the same God, as different faiths tend to teach different things about who or what God is, and our relationship with God. So if someone says they have had a religious experience, how can they prove that their experience is genuine, and also that it is better (or more genuine) than those of people in other faiths?

Something to do: Review the article NDE Analysis of Atheists (from www.near-death.com), and then discuss with someone whether religious experiences may provide evidence for or against the existence of God, or not.

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