Douglas Groothuis

Defending Christian Faith, October 19, 2004






IV.       The Argument from Religious Experience


A.        Types of religious experiences


1.         Relational, personal, theistic


a.         Ordinary (Ron Nash, Faith and Reason)


b.         Extraordinary, numinous (Moreland)


i.          Causal (God as best explanation for radical, spiritual change)


ii.         Direct perception (numinous experience)


2.         Monistic/nondualistic, pantheistic, impersonal, enlightenment (only touched on by Nash and Moreland)


3.         Religious yearning/desire (C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, Blaise Pascal “the infinite vacuum.”  See D. Groothuis, On Pascal, 93 – 94); not primarily experience of God or the sacred, but desire for this.


a.         Reverse of the projection argument against religion (Freud, et al)


b.         Humans yearn for the transcendent beyond the natural (“joy”)


c.         Natural means cannot satisfy this yearning


d.         Basic human yearnings—hunger, etc.—can be fulfilled


e.         Therefore, the yearning for the transcendent is fulfilled by the transcendent (but how understood?)


B.        The argument from positive religious experience (not yearning/desire)


1.         Types of religious experience:  theistic, monistic (nondualistic)


2.         A critique of monistic/nondualistic experience


a.         Phenomenology breaks down evidentially


b.         No subject/consciousness/object structure


c.         Beyond language, logic, personality


d.         Ineffability claims:  self-refuting or incoherent


e.         Therefore:  there no evidence in support of monism/nondualism


3.         Relational, theistic experiences


a.         The phenomenology of theistic experiences


i.          Numinous (Moreland).  See Exodus 3; Isaiah 6:1 – 8; Revelation 1:12 – 17.


ii.         Ordinary (Nash)


b.         The principle of credulity.  Unless there is good evidence to the contrary, if person S seems to experience E, S should believe that E probably exists.


c.         Vast numbers or different kinds of people have had theistic experiences (whether they are salvific or not)


d.         It is more likely that some of these experiences are veridical than all are delusory or deceptive


e.         Objections:


i.          No way to check for false religious experiences (Rowe, Martin)


ii.         Response:  Ways of checking for false religious experiences


iii.        Other religious experiences cancel out theistic ones


iv.        Response:  monistic experience fails evidentially


C.        Worth of the argument from religious experiences


1.         Evidence for the person who has the experience:  first-person unbeliever


2.         Evidence for one who does not have the experience:  third-person


3.         Evidence for one who is already a believer (partial confirmation):  first-person believer


4.         Argument should be given in a comparative fashion (don’t bias the case toward theism)


5.         Should be part of a cumulative case argument; it cannot stand alone


For more on the argument from religious experience argument, see Keith Yandell, Philosophy of Religion (Routledge, 1999), chapter 11; Norman Geisler, Philosophy of Religion (Baker, 1974; out in a revised ed.), part 1; Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God, revised ed. (Oxford, 1991), chapter 13; Swinburne, Is There a God? (Oxford, 1996), 130 – 139.