Sunday, 2 July 2017

Are People Claiming Religious Experiences Deluded?

by Gabriella Watson

A religious experience is a non-empirical occurrence, which may be perceived as a supernatural event, for which there can be no scientific explanation. It is a subjective incident, as it is personal to the individual with a sense of a presence beyond themselves. However, the view that people who claim to have religious experiences are deluded is a rational outlook because, although Swinburne’s principles of testimony and credulity attempt to support the validity of divine occurrences by explaining that individuals have no reason to falsify the truth about their experiences, Flew’s falsification principle challenges Swinburne’s argument as it asserts that, without evidence, any claim to a religious encounter is meaningless. In addition, despite the fact that William James used the impacts of religious experiences to prove that declarations of divine occurrences are justifiable, Freud’s explanation contradicts James’ beliefs after he states that religious experiences are nothing more than disguised fulfilments of wishes, deeming the impacts as insignificant and lending credibility to the view that spiritual events are merely misconceptions.

Firstly, Swinburne does not support the view that people who claim to have religious experiences are simply deluded, after he explains that there is no reason why accounts of witnessing divine occurrences should be treated any differently to ordinary perceptual claims. Swinburne argues inductively that it is reasonable to believe that God is loving and personal and would seek to reveal himself to humanity through religious events. He claimed that “an omnipotent and perfectly good creator will seek to interact with his creatures and, in particular with human persons capable of knowing him”. Swinburne uses the principles of testimony and credulity to strengthen this belief. The principle of credulity asserts that we must accept what appears to be the case unless we have clear evidence to the contrary. It is an a posteriori argument in that it is reasonable to believe that the experiences of others are probably as they report them to be, in the absence of special conditions, for example, the usage of drugs. This is supported by the principle of testimony as it explains that an account of an individual’s claim to a religious experience is plausible as they would have no reason to fabricate the truth, unless there was positive evidence to discounter their claim. He explains that “other things being equal, we usually think that what others tell us that they perceive, probably happened”, furthering his belief that religious experiences and not delusions and are in fact justifiable as there is no logical reason to discredit them.

On the other hand, the challenge from philosopher Anthony Flew refutes Swinburne's probability argument as he claims that any statement without clear evidence is flawed, strengthening the view that people who claim to have religious experiences are deluded. Flew used his falsification principle which highlights the weaknesses of Swinburne’s argument as it teaches that if a theory or statement is not empirically verifiable then that particular theory or statement is meaningless. Flew states that “until and unless some such grounds are produced we have literally no reason at all for believing”. Therefore, after applying the falsification principle to religious experiences, Flew concluded that without evidence the claims of a religious occurrence become futile and unreliable. He used John Wisdom’s parable of the gardener to strengthen his argument. This analogy describes two explorers who return to discover a garden in which flowers and weeds had grown. Even though there are some areas which are overgrown, there are certain areas that appear to be tended to. One argues that there is a gardener on account of the flowers, the other argues that they could be no gardener on account of the weeds. Flew’s point was that for a religious believer, they would always offer a qualification as to why no evidence could be found to count against their own beliefs and, as religious experiences are essentially events where there are no clear and agreed upon criteria which can be used to count against them, they must be disregarded as delusional events.

However, pragmatist, William James, primarily focused on the effects which a religious experience can have on an individual and subsequently prove that the claims of religious occurrences are not misconceptions but instead rational and valid accounts. James examined numerous testimonies from individuals claiming to have witnessed a religious experience and concluded that many of the accounts appear to share a “common core”. This “core” was that the majority of spiritual occurrences can have two observable effects on the individuals both in the immediate and long term. Firstly, the immediate impact may be quite dramatic and involve visions and voices and which may last a few minutes or hours. Secondly, the moral helpfulness of the experience can usually involve a recognition that the current lifestyle of the individual is wrong or lacking in something. This will then normally lead to profound and significant changes to their moral perspective. James used the work of St Teresa of Avila, who had a religious vision, to strengthen the observations that he found and further his belief that religious experiences are valid. Her vision involved the image of an angel, holding a long spear which seemed to pierce her heart several times and, once withdrawn, left her “completely afire with a great love of God”. James concluded that St Teresa’s experience not only had a dramatic impact on her life but also involved a noetic quality, which provides the occurrence with “illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance”. James argued that this quality lends credibility to the validity of religious experiences as they hold “a sense of authority for after-time” demonstrating that religious experiences are not delusions but rather prestigious events which should hold great value. James further argued that he had witnessed similar characteristics from Teresa’s vision in other testimonies, subsequently proving that the resemblances in the accounts of religious experiences lend authenticity to the validity of the accounts, disproving the claim that they are delusional.

However, Sigmund Freud used a psychological explanation to prove that the accounts of those who claim to have had a religious experience are misapprehensions, directly contradicting James’ argument. Freud explained that spiritual occurrences are a form of wish-fulfilment, where individuals believe and experience what they want to be true about reality, contradicting James’ belief that events, inspired by the divine, are significant and important. In “The Interpretation of Dreams”, Freud states that dreams are disguised fulfilments of wishes and deep desires suppressed by the unconscious. He applies the same thinking to religious experiences. He explains that religious experiences are “illusions, fulfilments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind”. They are caused by the desire for security and meaning, consequentially proving that the effects that they have on an individual are futile as they are simply a demonstration of attempting to satisfy human needs, and therefore refuting James’s assertion that the effects from divine occurrences are significant and purposeful. Freud furthers his argument to prove that claims of religious experiences are delusions as he explains that religion itself is a form of “obsessional neurosis”. He drew a comparison between religious experiences and his famous Oedipus complex, in that God acts as a replacement father figure who acts as a source of security and protection. Consequentially, individuals who claim to witness religious experiences are mistaken as they are subconsciously yearning for comfort and safety in their lives.  

In conclusion, individuals who claim to have religious experiences are misapprehended because even though Swinburne used his principles of credulity and testimony to explain that their accounts are reliable as they would have no reason to fabricate the truth in the absence of special conditions, Flew claimed that, without evidence, any declaration about a divine occurrence is meaningless as it is difficult to verify. In addition, even though James argued that the impacts of such an event can have significant and profound effects on the experiencer, lending credibility to the validity of the account, Freud argued that spiritual occurrences are merely desires for security and comfort from a male figure, as expressed in the Oedipus complex, diminishing the impacts of the events and strengthening the viewpoint that religious experiences are merely misapprehensions.

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