Religious Experience essay by a student

This is an A/B borderline essay recently done by a student. I have annotated it with my comments in italics.

Discuss the view that religious experiences must be true because there is a common core to all of them. (35)

The view that religious experiences must be true because there is a common core to them postulates that religious experiences are veridical experiences of the divine having roots in the same objective creator. The theist claims the objective core of all religious experience is God.

Note how succinct and clear this paragraph is – how it spells out the assumption in the question to show the examiner understanding of the topic.

The classification of religious experiences by William James, Rudolf Otto and Richard Swinburne all support the view that religious experiences have a common core. James claims that religious experiences occur when one surrenders themselves to the divine; their experience is passive, ineffable, noetic and transient. Otto states religious experiences share a common core in the numinous, claiming that religious experiences take place as a result of our interactions with the numinous world. Swinburne also defines religious experience as an interaction with the divine sharing a common core in the theistic God.

Again this shows good grasp of the topic – clearly the student has understood that all three thinkers supported a common core. It is slightly disappointing that the student doesn’t spend more time analysing the substance of James’ or Otto’s arguments such as the four characteristics of mystical experience or Otto’s concept of the mysterium tremendum, as these are key to the strength of a ‘common core’ approach.

However, many philosophers have problems with the assumption that religious experiences share a common core, and moreover that they are veridical. For example, Hume’s conflicting claims argument refutes James’ idea that religious experiences are veridical because they have transformative consequences. Hume claims that the fact different religions postulate different religious experiences, each claiming to be valid, they cancel each other out. They cannot all be veridical as there can only be one theistic God. This implies that there is no common core in religious experience and thus the argument that they are veridical due to a common core becomes redundant. This argument is not straightforwardly persuasive though. Eg. Swinburne argues religions do not look upon religious experiences in the way Hume suggests; modern moderate religion accepts other faiths as a different interpretation of a deity. Therefore conflicting claims merely support the idea that humans interpret the divine in varying ways, not that religious experiences are fallacious or just an illusion. Wittgenstein supports this view claiming that conflicting claims come about in the conceptualisation of an experience, the experiences themselves share a common core that is interpreted in conflicting ways.

Some arguments against the veracity of religious experience accepts that they have a common core, yet dismiss the idea that this core has objective origins in the divine or numinous. The psychological attack on religious experience is a clear example of this. Freud states that religion as an unhealthy obsessive neurosis, leads to an illusion of religious experience created by our subconscious. For Freud, the common core within our experiences is our inner desire for a father figure that manifests itself from our subconscious in the form of a religious experience.

Notice how this paragraph introduces the possibility of a middle position whereby a common core has a psychological rather than a religious interpretation.

The view that religious experience is simply manufactured by the brain, with no core in the divine, is supported by various psychological experiments. For example, experiments with the psychoactive drug LSD have found similar effects to those found in religious experience, inferring the experience is simply an illusion created by chemicals in our physical brain. Freud’s apprentice Jung rejects this argument stating that a psychological explanation for religious experience does not disprove the idea that they share a common core in God or that they are veridical. Jung is supported in this view by Aldous Huxley who claims the subconscious may simply be a conduit of spiritual reality; we can accept both Freud’s analysis of religious experience and the view that they are veridical, originally in God. However, many atheists see this as logically fallacious. Mackie claims that the psychological explanation of religious experience does not allow for the belief in a divine origin. For Mackie, the psychological explanation disproves the veracity of religious experience.

This really needs explaining a bit further. Huxley essentially believed that psychoactive drugs might work by removing for a while a ‘survival filter’ that our brains usually employ to enable us to function in the world, and that in doing this they allow us more direct contact with spiritual reality.

The sociological attack on religious experience has a form similar to the psychological attack. Inspired by the young Hegelians, Marx claims religion simply acts as an opiate of the masses. Religious experiences are simply an illusion created by the oppressive, alienating and manipulative force of religion. This argument can be clearly criticised as circular, the attack on religious experience is formed from Marx’s pre-existing negative view of religion. Swinburne refutes Marx in this way claiming that religion is more than a manipulative force, as there is a lasting effect on people that transcends the sways and forces of society. Swinburne’s principles of credulity and testimony can also be applied here; we should trust testimony of religious experience unless there are special circumstances that infer we should not. An individual’s testimony cannot be dismissed as inaccurate by sociological challenges. Moreover the frequency and commonplace nature of religious experience in all cultures suggests they are not the result of an unhealthy Capitalist society as argued by Marx.

This sociological challenge paragraph is a bit general and could have been either left out or related more clearly to the notion of a common core.

Therefore it seems, while there are several challenges to religious experience, that claim they are not veridical, whether they share a common core or not, have been successfully refuted by theistic supporters. However, the argument that religious experience cannot lead to logical proof of a theistic deity and thus the veracity of these experiences, still stands.

These sentences are slightly unclear. It appears the student is arguing that although several challenges against the veridicality of religious experiences have been refuted, theists have still not demonstrated convincingly that religious experiences lead to God.  

There seems to be truth in Hume’s original conflicting claims argument as demonstrated by Teresa of Avila. Her claim that religious experiences must fit with Christian teaching supports the view that conflicting claims made from religious experiences cannot all be valid. Moreover her intellectual vision can seem to have been explained and made redundant by the psychological explanations. Therefore it seems one must accept that the argument that religious experiences must be true because they share a common core is not successful.

This is a conclusion that follows organically from what has been written, and is thus a good one. However, it would have been even clearer that common core theories don’t lead to God if more time had been spent actually unpacking James or Otto’s argument. This means a slight lack of AO1 material which brings down the overall grade.

AO1 17/21

AO2 11/14


Overall: 28/35


This is a good attempt which just sits on the A/B borderline as it verges on a more general evaluation of religious experience rather than focusing in on explanation of common core theories. I would bring in a paragraph where I demonstrate for instance how James moves from an ineffable noetic element in mystical experience to a claim that this knowledge somehow is sourced beyond cultural or creedal structures. In other words if you claim that mystics of many different faiths have all had similar noetic experiences characterised by statements like ‘All things are sustained by God’, or an experience of ‘the peace that passeth understanding’, then you are really saying that institutional faith is just an accretion on a more basic universal experience that all humans have of divine reality. There are many problems with this, a good philosopher to use to criticise this is Steven Katz who claimed that all experience is mediated by culture and language, so religious experience cannot be ‘pure’ in this sense.




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