Recently I was speaking at a church. After the service was over a young man approached me with an interesting story to tell. As he describes it, he woke up on that Sunday morning to go for a walk on the beach. During the course of his walk he saw a small path that was carved through thickets and trees. According to this young man, as he continued his walk along the beach a voice spoke to him “as clear as any voice I have heard in normal conversations” telling him to “take the path through the thickets.” So he did. The path led to a clearing, and after entering the clearing he noticed a church in the distance. The same voice that told him to take the path spoke again, telling him that he was “going to go to church today.” Just as he had followed the instructions from the voice before, he followed the instructions of the voice again. To make a long and interesting story short, the young man gave his life to Christ during that worship service.
Stories like this are not as uncommon as people think. But one wonders whether or not we can take such reports as serious indicators that people have religious experiences. Perhaps there is another way to explain what happened. Perhaps this young man simply made up this story. Perhaps the young man had been using hallucinogenic drugs, and reported only what he “thought” he heard. Perhaps the young man has undiagnosed schizophrenia (much research has been done on schizophrenia and the unusually high rates of “religious experiences” from persons suffering from this disease). Or perhaps this young man actually experienced the voice of what he believed to be God.
In the following we are going to consider whether or not it is rational to believe the reports of people having religious experiences. We will look into several reasons to doubt reports of religious experience, and then offer some suggestions as to when it is more rational to believe a report of a religious experience rather than not.
Before turning to the problem of religious experience, it is important to understand what we mean by “experience” generally. The problem is that persons take the claim “I see a tree” as a given but become very suspicious about claims like “I’ve encountered the resurrected Jesus.” Why? Part of the suspicion is due to the fact that the implications of the reported experience are vastly different. Seeing a tree is normal, seeing a dead man alive again—not so much. But if we understand experience to be an immediate awareness of something derived from our senses (touch, taste, smell, sight…), then having an immediate awareness of a tree is not much different than having an immediate awareness of the resurrected Christ (which for Paul included not only seeing, but hearing as well). The significance of the experience must not be confused with what an experience is.
Accordingly, we can take what our experiences tell us as true (because generally speaking our experiences of the world are reliable) unless special reasons apply.1 For example, when I lived in New Orleans a man visiting my church told me of an experience he had with God where God “lifted him off the ground [literally, he was floating] and told him to quit using drugs.” I could be skeptical: (1) simply because the experience has a religious element, or (2) I can be skeptical for principled reasons. (1) is not the way to go given that it is question-begging:
Skeptic: I deny that you had such an experience.
Skeptic: Because such experiences do not happen.
Believer: But aren’t we trying to discover if such experiences happen?
Perhaps a more sober suggestion is that if special reasons apply, then we may question whether or not a religious experience happened, which is what (2) proposes. For example, I was admittedly skeptical about the report of divinely-caused human floating from my friend in New Orleans since the person telling the story was drunk while telling the story and had a history of drug abuse. This is not to say that the experience did not happen, only that given these factors it is more believable to think that he was either lying, or perceived himself to have had an experience that is just as likely to be caused from mind-altering drugs.
Another factor that provides solid grounds for doubt include when the person is extremely fatigued, and reports seeing something “that must be God” when their mental properties are impaired. In essence, you may have good reasons to be suspicious of a reported experience due to factors surrounding the person having the experience. At this point a critical note must be made—one must have evidence to think these “good reasons” for doubting a religious experience are a real factor; the broad logical possibility that something might have gone wrong with the person is not enough, nor is merely assuming that something is wrong as we have already seen when we considered (1). Likewise, if the person is mentally insane, suspicions are fair game. However, one must first know that the person is insane before providing this as a causal explanation for the reported experience.
Another feature that provides good reasons to question the report of a religious experience is contained with the report of the experience itself. For example, if the report of a religious experience is so bizarre as to be completely beyond any means of understanding it, then doubting the report of the experience is understandable. Presumably, if God intended to communicate something of himself through a religious experience then at least some of that experience will be discernible to the one having the experience. Since God is a God of order and not chaos, and he knows how to communicate in a way that is understandable, then after the experience she should be able to put some of the concepts gained through the experience into words that are discernible (not necessarily all). Highly ambiguous, muddled reports are doubtable.
Here’s another factor concerning reports of religious experience: if the report contains a contradiction, then one is rational in questioning (or denying) the report of the experience. Small conflicts in a report do not necessarily mean that the entire report must be thrown out. For example, I was speaking at a local university about the resurrection. During the Q&A I was asked what my thoughts were concerning the contradictory reports about the trials of Jesus as told by Mark and Matthew and what we find in the Gospel of Luke. “Mark and Matthew say Jesus was tried during the night, and Luke said his trials were during the day. This is a contradiction!” My response was as follows. Suppose I grant for the sake of argument that such a conflict in the report really exists. At that point I must agree that the reports concerning when Jesus was put on trial are not reliable. But this does not mean that I then must conclude that Jesus was not put on trial. I must only concede that I cannot tell you when, by the biblical account, these trials occurred. The follow up principle was then offered: if small variances in a report count against a report, then one must concede that where the reports are in agreement it must count for the report.2 Each of the Gospels agree that Jesus was put on trial, and thus I can take it as reliable, at least from the end of the consistency of the report, that Jesus was put on trial. This example highlights an important point—small variances in a report incline us to think we cannot accept the report as true concerning that difference, but not the entire report itself. More importantly, even if such disagreements in the Gospels exist, we cannot then infer that all of the reports in the Gospels are unreliable. The same holds true for religious experience in general. Small disagreements in a report are not enough to rule out the experience having happened. Large scale disagreements within a report provide sufficient reason to doubt the report wholesale.
Certainly more can be said about a topic as deep and interesting as the phenomenon of religious experience. What I have suggested in this work is that Richard Swinburne has provided a compelling account of how we can maneuver through some of the tougher questions that pertain to religious experiences, including when our skepticism about either a personal religious experience or a report of a religious experience is warranted. Here is a rule of thumb I propose to my students: when invested in important topics for discovery do not begin the investigation with an attitude of skepticism, but once there are demonstrable reasons for suspicion, skepticism about the experience or the report of the experience is fair game.
1This is drawn from Richard Swinburne’s The Existence of God (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991).
2I’m indebted to my friend Ed Gravely for this point.
Published March 30, 2016