There is a big difference between having reasons why I believe x and giving reasons why you should believe x. The first concerns my possession of a connection between x and my other beliefs. The second is an attempt by me to create an obligation for you to connect x with your other beliefs. The having reasons vs. giving reasons differentiation applies to all beliefs; however it is particularly problematic for religious beliefs because of the nature, status, and role played by religious experience in the justification of religious beliefs. Following a brief explanation of the nature and status of religious experience I will address 1) Pojman’s conclusion that religious experiences can only justify religious beliefs of the experiencer and 2) Alston’s claim that only a specific kind of religious belief can be justified and only through a reliable process. I will conclude with my claim that religious experiences are not shared in order to create in others an obligation to believe, but to create in others a desire to seek a religious experience of their own.
Religious experiences are “esoteric experiences that are hard to explain but impossible to dismiss as mere nonsense.” They are hard to explain because religious experiences are typically private and often communicated through feeling more than language. In addition, religious experiences are hard to explain because they are viewed from a particular religious perspective and interpreted through that filter. The occurrence of religious experiences is unpredictable; they happen to us, so we have no control over their duration, content, or repeatability. Religious experiences are impossible to dismiss as mere nonsense because they have been reported by many people, in many cultures, in every period of time, and in many religious traditions. This variety of religious experiences make typical or general characteristics such as the ones I just finished describing practically pointless because there are so many religious experiences that don’t fit the generalization.
Religious experiences form the core of every religious tradition. It is through religious experience that we create our personal connection with God or feel directly connected to something larger than ourselves. Religious experiences (those of an individual and those collectively shared as a group of believers) are used to help us understand the attributes of God and communicate our ideas about Him to each other. Religious experiences are important to us because we used them to justify our religious beliefs and practices to ourselves as well as to others.
Can my religious experience be used to justify the religious belief of another person? Louis P. Pojman in his essay A Critique of the Argument from Religious Experience concludes that one person’s religious experiences can justify religious beliefs for the experiencer (A) but cannot justify religious beliefs for the non-experiencer (B). He denies the position of C.D.Broad and Gary Gutting that “the common experience of mystics is strong justification or evidence for all of us for the existence of God.” Mystical religious experience “posits the unity of all reality or the unity of the subject with its object (becomes one with God).” Broad compares religious sensitivity to having an ear for music; but music really doesn’t seem to make any truth claims like religion, so the comparison doesn’t tell us much. Gutting gives us some criteria for veridical religious experiences to meet:
1. They must be repeatable
2. They must be experienced by many in many diverse climes and cultures
3. They must issue forth in morally better lives
These criteria don’t really help us find many veridical experiences because of the unpredictable nature of religious experiences alone. Point 2 seems to add strength to religious experience claims; however Pojman sees it as problematic. One problem is validity –which experiences are true? While it might be true that the experiences took place, it in no way follows that the content is true. Another problem is the lack of commonality in religious experiences. By their nature, religious experiences are viewed and interpreted “within the framework of a worldview.” Even if there were complete agreement in experiences, why would it affect the veracity of the content? Point 3 is troublesome because ‘morally better lives’ is determined subjectively at best.
Pojman further critiques Gutting’s claim that A’s religious experiences can oblige B because religious experiences, by their nature, cannot be confirmed. Pojman cites William James in Varieties of Religious Experiences (1902) and claims that mystic experiences are and ought to be absolutely authoritative over the individuals to whom they come although “no authority emanates from them which should make it a duty for those who stand outside of them to accept their revelations uncritically.” Religious experiences are absolutely authoritative for A by merely having the experience. In summary, Pojman denies that A’s religious experiences can justify B’s religious beliefs because:
a) The content of the many varieties of religious experiences can be contradictory or vague and it is not clear how to separate the valid from the invalid
b) Justification of belief in the truth of religious experiences rest upon premises not self-evident to everyone
c) The truth of religious experience cannot be tested like perceptual experience so we cannot make predictions about it
What I am wondering is why issues a-c don’t apply to A regarding her own religious beliefs? Maybe Mr. Alston has an answer.
In his essay Religious Experience and Religious Belief William P. Alston compares the epistemology of religious experience with the epistemology of sense experience in order to show that the process used to check the truthfulness of religious experiences is as reliable as the process used to check the truthfulness of perceptual experiences. Because religious experiences are involuntary, in order for us to justify any beliefs from the experience we must do all we can intellectually to verify its truthfulness. In order to be normatively justified, we must make sure that we have not violated our intellectual obligations. We still have voluntary control over “moves that influence particular belief formation (such as looking for more evidence), and moves that can affect general belief forming habit or tendencies (such as training myself to be more critical of testimony).” The strength of our epistemic position to form a true belief from religious experience depends on whether or not our process is reliable.
Alston claims both religious beliefs and perceptual beliefs that are based on involuntary experiences have weak normative justification. This means that we are “justified in engaging in a practice [of assuming the reality of experiences] provided one does not have sufficient reasons for regarding it to be unreliable.” Neither belief type can claim strong normative justification meaning that “in the absence of sufficient reasons for considering the practice [of assuming the reality of experiences] reliable, it is not justified.” Alston points out that religious experience often is held to the higher standard of strong normative justification while perceptual experience is accepted at the weaker justificatory standard. He concludes “that CP [religious experience] has basically the same epistemic status as PP [perceptual experience] and that no one who subscribes to the latter is in any position to cavil at the former.” Alston successfully argues that religious experiences can justify religious beliefs if the religious belief was produced using a reliable process; however he admits it only applies to religious beliefs that are directly justified by experiences, “specifically beliefs that God, as conceived in theistic religions, is doing something that is directed to the subject of the experience – that God is speaking to him, strengthening him, enlightening him, giving him courage, guiding him, sustaining him in being, or just being present to him.” His claim does not apply to beliefs that are justified by other beliefs.
According to Pojman and Alston we find ourselves in the following condition:
1) A’s religious experiences cannot obligate B to accept A’s religious belief x
2) Only religious beliefs that are directly justified by religious experiences are justifiably true
Is this a problem for those who have religious experiences? It can be, if A shares the experience with B hoping to create an obligation for B to accept x as true. On the other hand, if A’s religious experience is not shared in order to create an obligation for B to believe x, but to create in B a desire to seek a religious experience of his own, then religious skeptics have nothing to complain about. A is not inferring the reality of a belief; she is inferring the reality of an experience. It may be that A’s religious experience does not directly justify her religious belief x, but the lack of justificatory status alone is not keep her from accepting it as valid in connection with her other beliefs.
I refute the assumption of religious skeptics that the motivation for sharing religious experience is to obligate another person to accept a belief based on the experience alone. I agree with the claims of both Pojman and Alston, but I prefer Alston’s argument. Pojman leaves me wondering why justification is denied to B yet retained for A based on his reasons a-c. Although Alston’s argument limits the kind of religious beliefs that can be justified through religious experience, his logic is compelling and he leaves the heart of religion weaker but still beating.