Critically assess, with reference to William James, the argument from religious experience.

This is the essay title I would like you to do Year 13. Treat it as you would any of the other arguments for God. Use the handouts but also refer to other philosophers and thinkers such as Swinburne and Freud.


  1. Have a look at this essay that I did for some ideas:

    Here is my introduction:
    The argument from religious experience can only be shown to hold weight if religious experiences are seen as veridical, that is truthful accounts of what they are claimed to be – experiences of the divine. William James aims to show that religious experiences are indicative of some kind of divine order which transcends normal reality.

  2. As a pragmatist, James focuses primarily on the effect a religious experience can have on an agent. In doing to, he hopes to overcome the criticism that religious experiences belong to a private sphere and are therefore not veridical, by proving that all mystical experiences share a ‘common core’, which would imply that only one origin exists (i.e. God).
    Karl Jaspers advocates a similar idea where he states “despite all the contradictions and mutually exclusive claims to truth, there is in all philosophy a One, which no man possesses”. In order to establish that religious experiences are veridical, therefore, James must first affirm that the frequency of religious experiences (in the sense that not everybody has them) does not hinder their reliability, before then providing a common criteria that all religious experiences share. James employs an analogy whereby he demonstrates that the fact that only a few agents are able to identify a piece of 18th Century furniture does make their account unreliable. The same is to be said of religious experience; just because only a few individuals have had religious experiences, it does not follow that their accounts ought to automatically be discredited. Having demonstrated this, James can then identify a common criteria for religious experiences that will allude to the one cause.

  3. (Excellent Amy! I think it’s Sophie G next – can someone fb her or something? If she doesn’t reply maybe Esme can comment? )

  4. William James leaves open the question as to whether religious experience is evidence of the existence of God. On the one hand, he notes that all religious experiences share a ‘common core’ i.e. passivity, ineffability, noetic quality and transiency. However, James also suggests that religious experience may be seen as ‘physiological phenomena’, therefore possessing no divine quality. Ultimately, though, James does not desire to disprove the possibility of divine involvement in metaphysical occurrences. James argues that one should be open to the possibility of religious experiences due to the similar nature of all of these events, despite cultural barriers. For example, a religious experience occurring in a Christian community will share James’ ‘core characteristics’ with a religious experience occurring in a Hindu one; passivity, ineffability, noetic quality and transiency. Despite this, one may find fault with James’ argument. Although these experiences all share William James’ ‘common characteristics’, this does not necessarily imply religious involvement. Russell and Hobbes both argue in favour of this, positing that evidence shows that religious experience happens to those who are already believers, explaining James’ ‘common core’ and rejecting the view that these experiences are any more than physiological coincidences or evidence of divine intervention.

    • (That’s great Esme, thank you! Can I just open up a free-for all on this now – first-come first -served, as if we wait to do it in alphabetical order I don’t think we’ll get it done before Tuesday’s lesson. If I were the next person to comment I would pick up Esme’s point about rel. exp happening to those who already believe, and expand this point with other sceptical challenges from Russell, Hobbes, Freud etc.)

  5. Below is my attempt to participate in this discussion. I am struggling with this topic and so I am not sure how to make these points relevant. Please forgive my ignorance!

    Although there are a few accounts of non-Theists having religious experience, particularly conversion experiences, the majority of religious experience accounts come from those who already believe. William James proposed that “all normal people have religious experiences”, which could be right in the sense that everyone has experienced awe when contemplating the universe; however, if he is inferring that everyone has experienced the supernatural (e.g. angels, God etc), then he is easy to refute as this is not applicable to everybody.

    Being that most religious experiences happen to theists, synics could postulate that religious experiences only occur for the individual as a mechanism of faith validation. In other words, theists subconsciously desire a sense of security in their lives and by having a supposed religious experience, they are able to take comfort and feel as though their commitment to God is worthwhile. Freud argued, for example, that religion satisfies those who are looking for meaning in their world. It can be said therefore that non-religious people having religious experiences support the validity of religious experience.

    Thomas Hobbes asked what the difference is between saying “God spoke to me in a dream” and saying “I dreamt that God spoke to me.” The former seems to imply that God spoke directly to someone while they were sleeping and when their conscious was inactive. The latter however implies that God was a character in their dream that spoke to them. Theists who have had a religious experience that occurred while they were sleeping are more likely to verbalise the former, “God spoke to me in a dream”, whilst a non-believer might say “I dreamt that God spoke to me”.

  6. Unlike other arguments for the existence of God, which require some degree of logic and a priori reasoning, the argument from religious experience is controversial in that it relies solely on the experience of the individual. Thomas Hobbes questions the individual’s taxonomy of religious experience; how do you know whether God spoke to you in a dream or if you dream God spoke to you? Similarly, A.J Ayer points out our tendency to jump to an assumption of a God; arguing that mystical experiences explain the nature of the individual that has them rather than the entity said to produce them. Because, as discussed earlier, the individual tends to already be a believer, it is harder to authenticate such experiences. Psychologists such as Freud attribute religious experiences to the products of guilt and desire from the religious society. He argues that if we are from a religious background, we are more likely to assume direct contact with God than a non-believer who has had a similar experience. For instance, in John Wisdom’s parable of the gardener, both interpret the same event differently; can the same be said for direct contact with God? The conversion experience can be seen to support the view from religious experience, for instance Saul’s conversion to St Paul after seeing God. Such examples suggest that there is an external deity which attracts us to them and refutes the view that religious experiences are the result of subliminal messages through a seemingly religious life. Although there is a tendency to find fault with the individual interpretation of religious experience, James offers a sympathetic stance by positing that if we are skeptical of our interpretations of religious experience, we must also be of socially accepted experiences, for instance being happy or being in love.

  7. Richard Swinburne helps to strengthen William James argument for religious experience to an extent. Swinburne identified different types of religious experiences in which people claim to experience god. Experiences which can be described using everyday language such as a dream, a mystical experience, a normal phenomenon, perceiving a very unusual public object and a conviction that god has been experience in somewhere with no material evidence. Even though there was opposing arguments conducted by Freud to undermine the concept of a religious experience, Swinburne considered what evidence would be needed to support the beliefs in such miracles occurring. Like James, Swinburne concludes that having memories of our experiences and people providing a testimony about their experiences is what makes an experience more probable because it can be proved. Swinburne then goes on to suggest that after the evidence is identified, it must be assessed and deduce a conclusion and use factors in discussions about interpreting in the past. Swinburne suggests that because they are sources of evidence for religious experience they should be used as empirical evidence and should not be rejected without good reason. This strengthens James argument on religious experience because they both suggest that the effects of these experiences are true because they are powerful and positive. They change the lives of and individuals in a way that it difficult to explain without reference to an outside agency such as God, it can also be inferred that there are considerable similarities between descriptions of religious experiences that would not be present if these experiences were made up.

    • Thanks Ann-Marie. I was hoping someone would use Swinburne here. To clarify this paragraph I would explain Swinburne’s theory here. Swinburne arrived at two principles called the principle of credulity and the principle of testimony. They are very straightforward. He said that, in the absence of special considerations (like I am on drugs, or mentally ill) we usually trust our experiences as being of something real. This is the way we normally look at the world. If you have a religious experience, you are just as entitled to trust the experience. This is called the principle of credulity. Equally, if someone tells us something happened, in the absence of special considerations like them being a habitual liar, we usually believe what they say. This is called the principle of testimony. This turns the tables on the sceptic, and challenges them to say why the experience is not what it is believed to be.

  8. While Swinburne’s principles of credulity and testimony do seem to support James’ argument, they are not irrefutable. For example, Swinburne himself states his two principles only apply if there are no ‘special considerations’ that would discredit the validity of the testimony of an individuals religious experience. Following this, one could easily argue James’ emphasis on the connection between religious experience and neurosis is, in itself, a special consideration. We have reason to doubt the testimony of those who have had religious experiences because they are individuals with a tendency towards neuroses. Despite Swinburne’s effort, his and James’ argument seem to be working against each other here.
    In addition, Anthony Flew takes issue with Swinburne’s accumulative approach in attempt to prove the existence of God. While Swinburne argues that religious experience combined with classical arguments for the existence of God make one strong argument for a de re God, Flew uses his ten leaky buckets analogy to illustrate the weaknesses of this idea. The analogy compares the several weak arguments for the existence of God, such as that from religious experience, to ten leaky buckets- even if the buckets are combined, they are ineffective. Thus it seems Swinburne’s principles of credulity and testimony fail to support the argument from religious experience.

  9. A strength for God’s existence regarding religious experience is shown through a survey conducted by Hardy. It showed that over 50% of people claimed to have had a religious experience and therefore it would be irrational to believe that they could all be wrong. You would only need on experience to be verified to show God’s existence and this amount of people definitely increases the probability of God’s existence. William James however, takes on the idea that the religion is about the experience, and so the experience comes before the belief (which is probably why he rejects the ordinary religious believer)
    However, despite these strengths, Hume proposes a weakness as he draws attention to the fact that people from different religions claim to have seen their God. This raises the questionability of whether religious experiences are valid and/or whether God truly exists. It must be understood that not all people who have claimed to have experiences can be correct especially with different religious dominations involved. Therefore William James and the above explanations of Swinburne’s thoughts fail to explain the validity of Religious experiences.

  10. Another criticism of the validity of religious experiences takes the form of the vicious circle argument, whereby it is argued that religious experiences are not veridical owing to the fact that they only confirm what the agent already subconsciously believes. For example, a Catholic and Lourdes is unlikely to have a vision of a Hindu deity, such as Brahma. Here, religious experiences are seen as a product of our faith as opposed to an epistemological grounding of it; we see what we expect to see. Conversion experiences could be argued to be a criticism of this, owing to the fact that, in such circumstances, the agent arguably sees something independent of their prior beliefs that they have not been ‘conditioned’ to believe. However, this is weakened by the fact that conversion experiences are still traditionally relative to their culture. For example, an agent in an Islamic country is unlikely to have a vision of the Virgin Mary. However, it can be argued that this is owing to the ineffable nature of religious experiences; the ‘pure’ experiences share a common core, but this is polluted by cultural elements when later interpreted by the agent. Despite such criticisms, this vicious circle argument remains relatively strong.

  11. Nicholas Lash presents a different approach undermining William James’ argument from religious experience. He does not deny the existence of religious experience however he states they do not underpin religious belief. Lash argues that the way we are brought up, affects the way we interpret the world, that religious experiences are merely a religious outlook. By having belief religious followers learn to see God in their everyday life and therefore their eyes are open to religious experiences. This contradicts James’ belief that religious systems, such as churches are strengthened by religious experiences, as he disregards ‘normal believers’. According to Lash the everyday religious experiences should be considered just as much as the ‘abnormal’ and rare religious experiences.

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