What is a self-authenticating religious experience?

Looking at the 2014 examination predictions over on Philosophical Investigations I was interested to see the question ‘”Religious experiences are self-authenticating.” Discuss’. The word ‘self-authenticating’ doesn’t occur in the spec itself, nor is it an obvious element of James’ argument, so what does it mean?

The classical arguments for God’s existence have all faced major challenges from what might be called evidentialism. This is the position that a belief can only be justified in proportion to the available evidence for it. Contemporary debates about whether it is possible to know God revolve around the question of whether evidentialism should apply to religious beliefs.

The usual form the evidentialist argument takes when it comes to religious experience is that because of the private, subjective nature of religious experience combined with lack of publicly agreed evidence for a God, no experience of God is sufficient to establish proof of God, and indeed the experience is more likely to be a delusion.

Various solutions have been proposed to get around this challenge. Philosophers such as Swinburne, Alston and Plantinga have developed variations on what might be called a ‘self-authentication’ account of religious experience, whereby a purported experience of God is itself enough to justify believing in God on the basis of it. For instance, Plantinga calls religious beliefs ‘properly basic’. In other words they can act as the axioms of a belief system (they can be foundational to that belief system).

So to claim that an experience is self-authenticating is to deny that there is any point to external tests of its veridicality. Does this work? Alston has pointed out that religious believers themselves do not do this – they have actually consistently sought out external tests to verify them. For instance, within the Catholic tradition, a highly developed system of tests to distinguish between real experiences of God and false or delusional experiences (coming from the Devil) can be found.

Nonetheless, within religious traditions, Alston claims a certain degree of self-authentication occurs. This can be compared to the wine-tasting community. Once you learn the rules of wine-tasting you can begin to know what is being talked about, but before this you would not be able to fully enter into the experience and might criticise the language of the wine tasters as fanciful. Equally, a mystical tradition has its own set of ‘doxastic practices’ (Alston’s phrase), which authenticate the experiences which happen within it.

This sounds to me a bit like Wittgenstein’s language games, that you can’t criticise the mystical language game from outside of it. Is this just another form of fideism then?

Don’t forget to check out my posts on Rudolf Otto here and here , for more discussion on the nature of a self-authenticating experience. Otto and James to some extent based their arguments on this concept, which goes back to Schleiermacher.



  1. Hello
    Im still not sure if i understand how to structure the essay of religious experience being self-authenticating, is this question asking us to argue if religious experience verify themselves, so we need to include Swinburnes principles of testimony and credulity, also use examples such as St Pauls conversion experience? and counter with Ayers, Flews and John Mackie criticism? i’m really confuse on how to structure an essay like this.


    • To be honest I highly doubt you will get a question with this wording. As I said in the post, it is not a term on the spec. But yes, the question of a self-authenticating experience could be seen from Swinburne’s point of view (of course he doesn’t say that religious experience is self-authenticating – that would be to say that a perception entails the veridicality of what is perceived – and Swinburne has clear cases where he says that we should doubt the authenticity of a religious experience, for instance, if it conflicts with our background knowledge of the way the world works, or it occurs under doubtful circumstances), his principles give some backing to the idea that religious experience could provide what he calls prima facie evidential force for God. Really this question should focus on people like Otto and James, and analyse the extent to which they use the idea of non-cogntive feeling as a basis for their theory of religious experience. Please see my posts on them.

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