Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Epistemology of the Religious Experience

I was recently involved in an interesting discussion that focused on how we can make claims about what exists.  One of the things theists claim is that they have a certain cognitive facility apart from perception of sensory information that gives them knowledge about God.  This facility manifests itself as "religious experience", and is supposedly on a par with sensory experience as an epistemological mechanism.

My own position, of course is that religious experiences are emotional events that serve to reinforce the beliefs we already have.  There's strong evidence for this.  The "truth" that people realize from these experiences is generally consistent with their existing beliefs.  A Christian experiences feelings of the presence of his Christian God.  Hindus experience a feeling of one of the gods from their own pantheon or (very often) the Brahman (not a god) and its identity with the self.  Buddhists have a sense of insight about the corrupt and impermanent reality of the physical world, and the absence of self.  Atheists, too, may experience similar feelings of awe, but do not attach religious significance to them.

It is undeniable that these experiences are common to humanity, regardless of their religious beliefs.  They are subjective, and they are interpreted in a way that is consistent with the beliefs of the person who has the experience.  In other words, they are not direct experiences of God, but they may be seen as an experience of God.

An interlocutor wants to know:
And you know this how, exactly? On what grounds do you claim to know what other people have experienced better than the people who have actually experienced it?
I don't claim to know exactly what experience anybody has had.  But I do know in a general sense what kind of experiences we humans have.  I understand that these experiences are not unique to Christians, and that they reveal different (and often contradictory) "truths" to different people.

But perhaps this interlocutor thinks that the Christian religious experience really is different from what the rest of humanity experiences.  Perhaps he thinks that Christians have unique knowledge that is not available to the rest of us.  What he doesn't seem to understand is that many non-believers were Christians at some time in the past.  Many were fervent believers.  As such, they had the same Christian experiences that other Christians have.  They didn't suddenly forget what they knew as a Christian.  They didn't lose the special knowledge they once had.  Nor did they stop having the same kind of emotional experiences we all have.  They simply changed their beliefs.  And in doing so, the way they interpret these experiences changed as well.

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