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Atheism 6: Religious Experience


Martin addresses the argument that sometimes religious experiences are experiences of something real and supernatural.

A good comparison is on page 159. Martin compares religious experiences to those induced by drugs, mental illness, or other malfunctions. One could argue that these are not malfunctions, but an opening of the mind to another realm. Martin says:

Drug-induced experiences tell no uniform story; indeed, sometimes the description of a drug induced experience makes no sense at all. We have no plausible account for the discrepancies and have no ready explanation of this incoherence and no reason to suppose that some suggested coherent translation captures the meaning of the description. . In our world then, the psychological hypothesis is the best explanation of these experiences.

Religious experiences are likely psychological for the same reason. Evidence that there is a shared, independently described supernatural realm would be good evidence for its existence. How about emotions, like happiness, joy, or peace? Those wouldn’t seem to count either. Marijuana provides these emotions as well, but no one thinks that marijuana is opening some door to a realm, or to some temporary knowledge that provides joy. It’s a common physical reaction to the chemicals. Similarly, religious experience of awe, joy, etc. would seem not to count for the existence of a supposed being.

If on the other hand, individuals all over the world were able to independently describe some characteristics of a supernatural being, this would be at least some evidence that this being exists.

On p. 162 Martin says that even if we had good reason to think Jesus appeared to people after his death, “This would be strong evidence that Jesus was a supernatural being, but it would not be strong evidence for the existence of an all-good, all-knowing being.”

That’s exactly the point I’ve made in the past, and it’s nice to see the thinking paralleled with Martin. What could possibly warrant a belief that something is infinite? The numbers after the decimal point in pi are supposedly infinite, so is there a similar way to establish the infinity of God’s attributes?

Swinburne’s Principle of Credulity
I’ve struggled to figure out how much this makes sense. Martin spends a good 20 pages on it.

(PC) If it seems (epistemically) to a subject S that x is present, then probably x present (p. 166).

Swinburne argues that rejecting PC leads to skepticism, and that there is any avoidance of applying PC to religious experience is arbitrary. Four cases can limit its application.

  1. The person is unreliable, or the experience of x occurs under circumstances that have been unreliable.
  2. Similar experiences lead to contradictory conclusions as to what exists.
  3. There is strong outside evidence that x does not exist.
  4. The perception of x can be accounted for (better) in other ways.
One strategy Martin uses to answer Swinburne is to use the NPC:
If it seems (epistemically) to a subject S that x is absent, then probably x is absent.

Swinburne’s response is that we cannot apply NPC to situations where we don’t know what experience reasonably entails the absence of x. Martin counters by saying that if we don’t know what experience entails the absence of x, this equally erodes our ability to say what entails the existence of x. Now it’s starting to get hard to wrap my head around. How good are the responses? Still thinking about this one. . .

Gutting comes in (p. 175) with the example of seeing one’s deceased aunt. If this is a stand alone experience, it can avoid all four limitations of PC, but we still would find the experience likely not veridical. With further corroborating evidence though, the experience can be verified. I think this boils down to background evidence/ prior plausibility. The prior plausibility of seeing a dead grandma is very low. That means it takes more than just a sober experience to justify belief. We have plenty of background evidence to justify the general reliability of our senses. We lack that with religious experience. Maybe that is the best response.

Interestingly, Gutting thinks that there is corroborating evidence possible for experiences of God, for example the leading of “morally better lives” by those who experience God. Martin asks “Do those who experience a very wise, powerful, and good being tend to live better lives than those who do not believe in God or have never had a religious experience? I am not aware of any evidence that supports a positive answer to this question. . .” (p. 176-177). Luckily, I think the answer is now clear. No, believers in God, and experiencers of the “divine” are not morally better. Mixed bag. Sorry Gutting.

Martin argues that some religious experiences are very contradictory, contrary to Swinburne’s claim of general compatibility.

There’s a good parallel drawn between drug induced experience and religious experience on p. 184.

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