Evaluate the claim that religious experiences are just delusions.

One key objection to the validity of religious experiences is the possibility of their interpretation in ways other than that put forward by believers. Bertrand Russell said that some people get drunk and see snakes, other people fast and see God.

Whether religious experiences are personal experiences like visions or voices, or whether they are corporate, one criticism of them is that they rely on personal testimony, not on empirical evidence. The obvious problem here is the multitude of problems that surround taking personal testimony at face value. I might want to believe someone when they say they saw a vision of Christ, and even if the person themself is not lying and entirely believes they saw Christ, does this mean they actually did, and the vision was not down to a lack of sleep, drugs, or a psychotic episode. Schizophrenia is a mental illness where it is common to feel that God is speaking to you, or that you have been chosen by God in some way. How are these delusions separable from ‘real’ religious experiences?

Freud felt that Religious experience is explicable in terms of psychological factors acting on the personality, factors that are ultimately based on childhood traumatic experiences involving the parents. For Freud the human condition is one of fear in the face of our mortality, and helplessness in the face of nature. Thus we need comfort – as children this comes from the father, later in religion the father-in-the-sky. This religious comfort is wish-fulfilment – Freud believed that powerful wishes could find outlets in dreams, but also in other delusory states – essentially then religious visions, voices and experiences are hallucinations which come from our powerful need to feel control over our own helpless state.

With this interpretation, it must be remembered, Freud did not mean to dismiss religious experience as untrue, he said that just because religious experiences are illusions, it doesn’t mean they are false, an illusion like this is not an error, as it is based on one of the oldest, strongest wishes of humankind. Presumably he meant by this that there is a certain meaningfulness or significance to religious experience because they come from such a deep-rooted and universal source, but it is hard to see how I can retain my belief in the veridicality of my experience whilst also seeing it as a wish-fulfilment. If it is caused by my desire for security and meaning in my life its source can’t be in the divine or supernatural realm.

The question of whether religious experiences are false if their source is in the mind has been explored to some extent by Jung, a disciple of Freud. His critique of religion is more nuanced and less reductive. He thought it was wrong to think of the mind as ‘merely’ or ‘nothing but’ as if the mind was a known thing. He used the Greek word psyche for mind, which has connotations of soul, and he bleieved that what we call mind – consciousness – is a tiny part of the the psyche which is mainly unconscious. For Jung, religious experience was an irruption of unconscious contents into the conscious mind, threatening its stability, and bringing numinous feelings of awe and wonder. The individual’s task is to accomodate these powerful experiences into the conscious ego. If the ego tries to ignore them they will end up overpowering it and causing neuroses. If the ego allows them to take over completely, they will also cause damage.

This kind of psychological account of religious experience can be fruitful for an understanding of it. It improves on Freud’s account because it doesn’t make assumptions that the source of religious experience lies in fear and helplessness. Freud doesn’t convincingly show why religious experience must come from this state, but rather assumes the non-existence of God as part of his world-view, and therefore begs the question whether religious experiences are veridical. Freud’s theory also doesn’t seem to account for the vast number of religious experiences that are terrifying, troubling, painful and life-changing. If religious experiences are caused by our needs to placate our sense of fear and helplessness, as he says, would they not be uniformly pleasant and comforting?

Jung, however, remained agnostic about how to interpret the contents of the unconscious mind – he once said “I don’t believe in God, I know God”, thus implying a direct personal connection through experience. Jung, like James, believed that a good guide to the validity of an experience is the effect it has on one’s life: “Religious experience is absolute….it cannot be disputed. Those who have had it possess a great treasure, a source of life meaning and beauty which gives a new splendour to the world. It is overwhelming and healing and is therefore of great validity”. If this is a delusion then it is one that has produced the most profound effect on a person’s life.

William James essentially avoids the problem of the veridicality of religious experience on the grounds that it cannot ever be settled. We have seen that this is the case – Freud may argue that the experience is of the mind, another may argue that God works through the mind. We are reminded of John Wisdom’s parable of the Gardener – the same scene is regarded by two different people in fundamentally opposed ways – how are we to distinguish the ‘correct’ view? Instead James takes a pragmatic view – if such experiences ‘work’ for a person, then that is more important than where they came from. Certainly in many areas of our lives, we have no problem in having powerful, sometimes life changing responses to things that are essentially made-up – look at films, drama, literary fiction, art, games – on a strict view, some level of artifice or lying lies at the basis of all of these, and yet we willingly accept these fictions as true for us while we are involved in them.

Nonetheless the modern empiricist challenge to religious beliefs and assertions is powerful, and is not entirely taken care of by James’ pragmaticism. There remains the problem that although my delusion is having an important and profound effect on my life, it is still just that – a delusion. It surely matters to the believer that the source of their deepest experiences is what it appears to be to them – ie. a reality greater than them and independent of them, rather than just an aspect of themselves. The fact that the character of many religious experiences is of this very nature makes it harder to get round the problem – either the experience is your own mind deluding itself that it is a higher power and reality separate but involved with you, or it is in fact this higher power. For  Positivism, this problem of verifying the experience was key. It was anticipated by Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who asked what the difference was between saying ‘God spoke to me in a dream’ and ‘I dreamt that God spoke to me’.

For Ayer, the problem of the ineffability of religious experience led to his dismissal of its meaningfulness: “If a mystic admits that the object of his vision is something that cannot be described, then he must also admit that he is bound to talk nonsense when he describes it…in describing his vision the mystic does not give any information about the external world; he merely gives us indirect information about the state of his own mind’.

Swinburne’s principles of credulity and testimony provide convincing reasons to reject the empirical challenge and the alternative psychological explanations challenge to religious experience. He claims that the principle of credulity is one we all use already in everyday life, without which we would be stuck in a sceptical bog. He says that it is a principle of rationality that if it seems to someone that x is present, then probably x is present. How things appear to be is usually good grounds for a belief about how things are. He says that apart from special considerations, such as if a person has taken hallucinogenic drugs, that if someone claims to have had an experience of God, that constitutes evidence that the person has experienced God. The principle of testimony follows from this – if I say I have experienced a table or God, that constitutes a reason for you and me to believe that I have experienced a table or God.

Of course, we should not believe every report of an experience that is presented to us – there are lots of things that could make us sceptical. These are the ‘special considerations’ already mentioned, such as drugs, but Swinburne argues that these limiting conditions do not apply in all cases of religious experience. Sometimes reports will be unreliable, sometimes they will be made in circumstances where it is rational to think that the experience has been caused by something else, but this is not a general refutation of all religious experience.

Swinburne has provided a powerful argument against the empirical challenge that would restrict the principle of credulity only to non-religious contexts – he has shown that there is no special reason to do so. However, some object that he has no answer to psychological challenges such as Freud’s: that religious experiences are acts of self-deception. There are plausible alternative explanations (this is Dawkins’ main argument against them). I have already shown some of the limitations of Freud’s theory – but there are some other problems with it. There may be many alternative plausible explanations – psychological, physiological, societal, medical, dietary, political, but what reason do we have to believe that the explanation really works in the way it says? We need evidence, because just assuming that the experience is non-veridical is question-begging. Stephen T Davies says that we only seek explanations for why someone believes something when we are convinced that what the person believes is false.

All the ‘alternative explanation’ challenges fall into the trap of the genetic fallacy – the mistake of thinking that you have refuted a claim when you have explained why a person has made it. ‘You only believe in God because your parents brainwashed you into believing it, therefore your belief in God is false’. This kind of challenge then is obviously incorrect, because the question of why you believe something is unrelated to the truth of what is believed.

It is clear then, that no convincing argument has been made to show that religious experiences are nothing more than delusions. Swinburne’s principles of credulity and testimony, backed up with his related cumulative claims argument, provide good reasons to take many accounts seriously as veridical.

4 thoughts on “Evaluate the claim that religious experiences are just delusions.

  1. Just giving a belated thank you for all your help. I managed to get a B in Religious Studies overall, and it couldn’t’ve been achieved without your blog!

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