Religious Experience essay by a student (Number Two)

Here is the second of two essays on religious experience by students that were on the A/B borderline. Again in this essay my annotation in italics helps explain my allocation of marks, which I have put at the end. This essay, although slightly weaker in its evaluation and conclusion, is stronger overall, as I think it more directly answers the question and does a better job of explaining James’ theory. I would be really interested to know if other teachers of the OCR Philosophy and Ethics A-Level (or even students!) agree with the marks I have given this and the previous essay – leave your thoughts in the comments box!

Discuss the view that religious experiences must be true because there is a common core to all of them. (35)

Psychoanalyst William James dictated that religious experiences must share in a common cause as they exhibit shared characteristics. He created four criteria.

Firstly, James referred to religious experiences as ‘noetic’, meaning they possess a transformative characteristic that reveals some form of knowledge to the agent. For example, on Damascus Road, Saint Paul’s religious experience transformed his moral outlook. It would appear that all religious experiences demonstrate a revelation of truth, but one could argue that this does not indicate they are true. For example, Grof argued that we create religious experiences as a “projection of the human psyche”; building on Freud’s idea that ‘religious experiences’ are a way of externalising deep, repressed personal truths. In such a view, religious experiences are unverifiable and cannot be thought to prove the existence of God, as they are merely manifestations of the human subconscious, used only to externalise and ‘free’ our repressed thoughts and judgements of Freud’s ‘ego’. Obviously, then, a religious experience would require a noetic quality, as this is the only reason we ‘invented’ it.

The student has taken a strong tack by analysing one by one James’ four characteristics of religious experience. This shows the examiner that she has recognised that James believed in a ‘common core’ theory, and that its strength largely relies on his four characteristics. It would be good to see some reference to other believers in a common core, such as Otto or Swinburne.

Secondly, James states that they must be transient; religious experiences must occur over a short temporal distance and cannot be permanent. Whilst this remains true perhaps for the Toronto Blessing and Saint Teresa of Avila’s religious experience, it seems to neglect the most common religious experience of all: the feeling of God’s presence in one’s life. This is a life-long (or at least prolonged) religious experience, and clearly defies the ‘transient’ criteria of James’ religious experiences. This significantly hinders his initial premise that religious experiences all share common characteristics, and thus his entire argument appears relatively weak.

This is a strong criticism, which reveals James’ emphasis on ‘mystical’ experiences. He seems to disregard other types of experience which don’t fit with his criteria. Here the student could usefully have contrasted Swinburne’s five categories which are broader and include longer lasting experiences.

Thirdly, James requires religious experiences to be ‘ineffable’, meaning ‘unexplainable’. This certainly seems to speak true for many religious experiences, such as the Fatima miracle, but is not so much accurate with regards to Biblical miracles, such as Jesus’ walking on water, which seems easy enough to fathom and explain, but difficult to believe or understand as it defies natural laws. Moreover, this ‘ineffability’ seems to discredit the reliability of religious experiences, as it means they are unverifiable. Particularly when we think of an ineffable and transient event, this seems almost impossible to get exterior agents of a sound mind to corroborate and verify sufficiently.

He doesn’t so much require them to be ineffable, as point out that many do appear to be so. This is a subtle point about the language the student is using, but it would show the examiner the student is more aware of James’ pragmatic and phenomenological method.

However, this ineffable quality does help religious experiences overcome Hume’s conflicting claims challenged, as explained by Vardy, as it suitably explains that differentiation between accounts may occur simply as a result of transmitting their ineffability through the relative cultural constructs of human language. In this regard, their common ineffable core strengthens the plausibility of religious experiences.

There is much more to say here, and some useful criticism of this idea comes from Steven Katz.

Finally, James argues that religious experiences are of a ‘passive’ nature, as in the agent can do nothing to trigger them; they are caused by an exterior agent. This is perhaps the most persuasive of James’ criteria. (Why? The student needs to say.) However, other philosophers have challenged the accuracy of this claim. Freud and Wittgenstein have both argued that we, in fact, ‘invent’ and externally project our subconscious desires for “something greater… that extends beyond the blank wall of human existence” (Wittgenstein), and thus the experience is active and agent-centred, as opposed to a passive , God-given experience. Thus, the most integral of James’ criteria would be fallacious and easily explained in psychoanalytical terms – much like a dream. However, as Jung suggests, even if these ‘experiences’ are merely a product of the subconscious, it remains plausible to conclude that God uses our subconscious minds to communicate with, and thus the experience still originates from God and is passive. This is further supported by Swinburne’s evidence of shared religious experiences; as other agents experience the exact same thing (e.g. Toronto blessing), it seems most simple according to Ockham’s razor principle to conclude that they all share a common core and thus have a like, passive cause.

Not sure if the Toronto Blessing is the strongest example to use here!

Overall, whilst there are some exceptions to James’ identification of core qualities of religious experiences, they remain largely true. It is worth noting that the criteria is relatively vague and ambiguous, and therefore may substantiate many types of religious experience without necessarily identifying a common core. Furthermore, if we regard this criteria strictly, we will simply dismiss some experiences as non-religious experiences (i.e. ones that are not noetic), which would explain the adherence to James’ four basic criteria. However, such examples ought to otherwise be considered as religious experience. Thus, these ‘anomalies’ would dramatically weaken James’ initial premise, as his ‘common core’ becomes unreliable.

Furthermore, even if a common core does present itself, this does not necessarily imply they are true. Equally, they may prove only that we have similar repressed thoughts/needs, and the conflicting claims challenge supports this by demonstrating the influence of our external factors on our religious experiences. For example, no Catholic has reported seeing Brahma at Lourdes. However, as aforementioned, it is possible – as Jung suggests – for God to be using our subconscious minds to communicate, and the common core of these experiences does strongly suggest a direct common cause. Thus, it seems more viable to conclude that such experiences are true.

There do not seem to be strong enough reasons given here to conclude the last line of this paragraph. The student would need to unpack James’ pragmatic argument further (which she starts to do in the next paragraph), or use Swinburne’s principles of credulity and testimony to support this.

Finally, as James dictates, the experience need not be factually ‘true’ in the sense that it originates from God, but rather that “it is true for you”; the noetic quality of religious experience seems to support this. However, as William Lane Craig dictates, this would in some ways imply religious experiences are self-authenticating, owing to their extremely transformative nature; since the effect is so positive and affirmative, it could be argued as evidence for the belief in an omnibenevolent, interventionist God.

In light of all the above, a common core to religious experiences seems to strongly support a common cause – via Ockham’s razor, most probably God, although possibly just the human psyche – and whilst some anomalies occur, James’ criteria seems to establish this common core successfully.

AO1 18/21

AO2 11/14

Overall 29/35


Although slightly weakened by a conclusion that seems a little tacked on at the end, this is still a strong essay, cogently argued, and methodically explained. It lands just on the right side of the A/B borderline.


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