A Religious experience it can be portrayed as a ‘mental event’ which is undergone by an individual and of which that person is aware. The experience can be unplanned or it may come about by intensive training and self discipline. It is a recognized fact that people may claim to have undergone a religious experience, or some form of experience which reveals God to them. In recent times, Swinburne has focused on religious experience as one of the key arguments for the existence of God.
Swinburne’s argument begins with a definition of what he believes a religious experience to be. He states ‘to the subject to be an experience of God (either of his just being there, or doing or bringing about something) or of some supernatural being. ‘ If we go ahead and accept this definition put forward by Swinburne we are accepting the involvement of such beings under the class of ‘some other supernatural being. ‘ After the definition, Swinburne’s argument takes two routes, the principle of Credulity and the principle of Testimony.
The principle of credulity states, ‘What one perceives to be the case ‘X’, is probably the case unless there were challenges put forward to why ‘X’ could not be the case. For example, if someone was sitting on a beautiful sandy beach, then claimed to have a religious experience, it is more likely to that they had that particular experience than it is likely they did not have the experience. If I were then to say, that the person did not have religious experience, it would be up to me to prove them wrong.
If I succeed then their claim is false, however if I do not succeed then their claim is true an example of this may be the UK justice system, innocent until proven guilty. This argument put forward by Swinburne is quite strong as religious experience is very hard or even impossible to disprove, as you cannot simply check with God to see if he actually was there/not there. Challenges were then introduced when Swinburne developed the four key challenges. These were then summarised well by Caroline Franks Davis.
One of the challenges put forward is; if the subject ‘S’ was unreliable an example of this may be someone was known to be a liar or a cheater, if similar perceptions are shown to be false for example if the person claimed to have a religious experience whilst having a shower and if it was also proven that you cannot have a religious experience in a shower. If there is strong evidence that X did not exist, for example if there is strong evidence for anyone to have a religious experience is impossible as religious experiences do not exist and the last challenge developed by Swinburne is if X can be accounted for in other ways.
The other route taken by Swinburne is the principle of Testimony which states we should believe a person unless we have good reason not to (i. e. innocent until proven guilty). Swinburne also went onto identify the 5 types of religious experience a person may undergo. The first identity was in perceiving a perfectly normal non-religious object, such as trees. The next identity was in perceiving a very unusual public object. These two identities were public; the next three identities put forward were more private.
Swinburne went on to say that some people may perceive god by having private sensations that are not ineffable and they hold the capability to use normal vocabulary. Swinburne’s next identity was people may perceive God by having private sensations which are absolutely ineffable, and that the person does not hold the capability to use normal vocabulary. The last identity put forward is that the recipient may have no sensations at all; therefore the recipient would be unable to refer to anything in particular that made it seem they were experiencing God.
One main key objector to Swinburne’s definition is Davis. Davies believes that Swinburne’s focus on God, or some form of a supernatural being prevents us bearing in mind, the aspects of nature-mysticism in our consideration of religious experience. Davies went on to say that for example if we consider Buddhism we will find that we are ignoring a sizeable area of interesting testimony. Some people may feel that God may be revealed to them through nature, so therefore they have encountered a religious experience.
For example, a person may go to the Niagara Falls, and realise what a beautiful place it actually is, then conclude that because of this view God has revealed himself by his creation. Thus, they have undergone a religious experience. Davies argument towards Swinburne’s definition succeeds quite well as it obvious in Swinburne’s definition that he has no mention of nature- mysticism. There have been many criticisms put forward about Swinburne’s argument, however Swinburne was aware of this when he went on to develop the four key challenges.
One of the four key challenges states that if the subject ‘S’ was unreliable then the experience would produce unreliable results for example the recipient was under the influence of drugs or alcohol. This can be countered by the argument put forward by William James. James recognised the fact that people may be under the influence of drugs and alcohol when undergoing a religious experience but saw no apparent problem with it. James states, ‘The drunken consciousness is one bit of the mystic consciousness.
The second key challenge states ‘the recipient did not have the ability to interpret the evidence. ‘ this also can be countered by James. James feels that everyone has the capability to undergo a religious experience despite their ability. For example a person who might have a faulty mind could be seen to some, as a person who does not hold the ability to have a religious experience, however James goes on to speak of religion and neurosis’ being perfectly compatible, and did not see a flaw with it.
Overall James’ arguments overcome two of the key challenges put forward by Swinburne himself, thus strengthening his argument for the existence of God. Atheist Michael Martin criticised Swinburne’s use of the principle of credulity. Martin goes on to say an atheist who experiences the absence of God can argue, using the principle of credulity, that the world is probably as this experience represents it as being: godless. Arguments from religious experiences to the existence of God can thus be met with arguments from atheist experiences to the non-existence of God.
For example I was an athiest and claimed that because I had not experince God, then God did not exist, if anyone who did not believe me would have to prove that my claim is false. However Swinburne responds to this objection by arguing that this negative principle of credulity is false. Swinburne carefully states his positive principle of credulity states if it seems to a subject that x is present, then probably x is present therefore it does not apply to experiences of absences.
So if if I thought God exists then God actually does exist, however it would apply if I then went on to say, because I have no experineced God then God does not exist, because his postive principle does not apply to absences. Swinburne then said the negative principle states if a subject that x is not present, then probably x is not present, this Swinburne rejected. An example of this is like when an athiest claims that God does not exist, then probably God does not exist. This negative principle, he suggests, would only be a good one in cases where it is reasonable to believe that if x were present then the subject would experience x.
There is no reason, however, to suppose that if God existed then the atheist would experience him, and so the negative principle of credulity does not apply to atheists’ experiences of the absence of God. This is another argument Swinburne has overcome, again strenthening his argument for the existence of God. Marx and Freud both believed God was simply an imaginary projection of peoples needs and the qualities, that people thought were the mose imporant, for example perfection and love.
Therefore, if someone claimed to have experienced God directly, Marx and Freud would argue that it was not the case that an ultimate power has chosen to contact them. Rather, the person was reflecting their own needs as a human being, and religion as Freud states was purely illusory. Although, according to the principle of creduality, if Freud and Marx could prove that people were reflecting their needs as a Human beings and that religion was purely illusory, then Swinburnes argument fails.
However, if they cannot prove this then Swinburne’s argument succeeds quite well. In conclusion, I feel that Swinburne’s argument is quite successful, as any challenges put against it would need to fundamentally proven. For example, the ideas of Marx and Freud need to be proven in order for them to overcome Swinburne’s argument. Marx and Freud would argue that it was not the case that an ultimate power has chosen to contact them when a person has claimed that they have had a relgious experience.
However, if Marx and Freud could prove that the recipient did not have a religious experience and it was rather, the recipient reflecting their own needs as a human being, then Swinburne’s argument would fail. But if they could not, then Swinburne’s argument suceeds. Another main aspect I feel that strengthenes the argument put forward by Swinburne, is the fact if we were to prove that the recipient did not undergo the religious experience it is incredibly hard or even impossible. As we cannot simply ‘check with God’ to see if He was/was not present or involved in an alleged experience.
Thus, strengthening Swinburne’s argument and therefore overcoming the challenges put forward against it. Another main reason why I feel that Swinburne’s argument is so successful at overcoming the challenges towards it is because with religious experiences is that cannot simply ‘check with God’ to see if He was/was not present or involved in an alleged experience. However, the definition put forward by Swinburne is not successful in proving the existence of God, as Davis suggests that Swinburne prevents the inclusion of aspects of nature-mysticism in our consideration of religious experience.