“From time immemorial, human beings have had experiences that produced or sustained religious beliefs” . These experiences have been viewed as a “distinctive justifier for religious belief” as they come from a first person perspective . What we might call “religious experience” can be defined as a perception of or encounter with a supposedly divine/ultimate reality that can include both overwhelming experiences as well as “a more humble though insistent sense of a Divine presence” . How might this work? Consider the words of apologist William Lane Craig regarding Christianity:
Fundamentally, the way we know Christianity to be true is by the self-authenticating witness of God’s Holy Spirit…A person does not need supplementary arguments or evidence in order to know and to know with confidence that he is in fact experiencing the Spirit of God…Thus, although arguments and evidence may be used to support the believer’s faith, they are never properly the basis of that faith…Should a conflict arise between the witness of the Holy Spirit to the fundamental truth of the Christian faith and beliefs based on argument and evidence, then it is the former which must take precedence of the latter, not vice versa .
Craig argues that the basis and foundation of a Christian’s faith is built upon experiencing an apparently divine reality, and should remain so even if it looks like argument and evidence aren’t in favor of Christianity. This is similar to what is often called “Reformed Epistemology”, and is quite a claim indeed. According to Reformed apologists, how do we know that God exists in the first place? We don’t need arguments because “the existence of a personal creator is plainly evident” . How can I know that Christianity specifically is true? By direct perception that God is speaking to me through the Bible . The proponents of this position can “know its author is God because of its own self-testimony. In short, the Bible is self-attesting” . This is par for the course, as the Reformed tradition has always grounded the certainty of faith upon the foundation of subjective assurance. This isn’t to say that arguments don’t matter, only that they are secondary in the eyes of the Reformed tradition. Regarding the Bible:
Our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts [WCF 1.5]
The epistemology recommended thus far can be illustrated by the following image, with religious experience serving as the foundation:
To be clear, some religious people evaluate their subjective experience as a piece of the evidential pie without taking this strong of a stance – but I want to address those who attempt to build atop the “unshakable” ground of religious experience. The epistemology illustrated creates a host of problems. If taken seriously, it is unfalsifiable – making this method of “knowing” especially vulnerable to human fallibility. These observations don’t “prove” that religious experience can’t work as a foundation, only that it seems best to be highly skeptical of such an endeavor given what we know about human nature and the fact of religious diversity.
Let’s start with an example – some Christians ask atheists what kind of evidence it would take for them to become a Christian. This question is designed to expose that the atheist is more closed to evidence than she is letting on. But how easy would it be to reverse the question and ask the Christian what type of evidence it would take for them to abandon their faith? To the degree that they are subjectively certain that Christianity is true – and that certainty serves as the foundation of their faith – the answer would be that no evidence could do so. This way of thinking has no “built-in corrective mechanism. That is, faith claims have no way to be corrected, altered, revised, or modified. For example, if one has faith in the claim, ‘the earth is 4,000 years old’, how could this belief be revised? If one believes that the earth is 4,000 years old on the basis of faith, then there’s no evidence, reason, or body of facts one could present to dissuade one from belief in this claim” . A Christian may claim that if someone found the bones of Christ, they would have sufficient evidence to abandon their faith. But what kind of evidence would it take for them to believe that someone has actually found the bones of Christ? To the degree that they are certain that Christianity is true, an archaeologist could find the bones of Christ – but there is no amount of evidence that could make a convinced Christian believe that they were the real deal . Consider the consequences of believing in this way – anyone can “know” anything in a discussion.
If a Christian, a Muslim, a Mormon, and a Hindu converse with one another about which religion is true (and hold to the epistemology we are discussing), at the very bottom it is ultimately one person’s subjective, epistemic certainty against all the others. This isn’t an exaggeration, as prominent defenders of Reformed Epistemology have admitted that their method can be effectively used by other religions [See here]. There is nothing incoherent per se about the idea of subjective religious knowledge, but it puts an incredible amount of weight on a person’s epistemic certainty. If you subscribe to this sort of epistemology, do you really know that what you believe is true, or are you just “pretending to know things you don’t know?”  “How would you differentiate your belief from a delusion? We have unshakable testimony of countless people who feel in their heart that the Emperor of Japan is divine, or that Muhammad’s revelations in the Koran are true. How do you know you’re not delusional?”  How do you know that your certainty isn’t explained by a combination of religious upbringing, social pressure, traditions, and emotion?  What happens when you lose that certainty or it falls into question? After all, people from other religions report the same sort of subjective certainty that you have. It seems that “the more closely we examine this matter of religious diversity, the more dubious religious experiential belief must come to appear” . Think about the following scenario: Imagine a Christian who decides to witness to a Muslim in order to convert them, and this particular Muslim has had their life transformed by Islam and feels awe and reverence in “Allah’s” presence. They believe Allah has “opened their eyes” to see the evidence for Islam and communicates with them through the Qu’ran. If the Christian began making various arguments against Islam that were countered by appeals to religious experience, I imagine that the Christian would be frustrated.
“The strength of my arguments are meant to get you to question your religious experience!” He might say. And this is exactly right. But he should not unfairly expect people of other faiths to allow argument to call their religious experience into question if he will not let it do so to his own. Put another way, if Muslim’s ought to let arguments against Islam call their religious experience into question, than Christians ought to let arguments against Christianity call their religious experience into question too. “Ah”, the Christian might say, “but my experience is fundamentally different from the Muslim’s because I have the Holy Spirit!” But for anyone inclined to skepticism, it really isn’t that hard to question this internal certainty. Is this person’s experience really as forceful as they are claiming? Is it really as “basic” to them as their other “basic beliefs”? What about the possibility of misperception on their part? How could they possibly know that their experience of certainty and relationship with the divine is any different or more certain than anyone else’s? What criteria would they use? Put another way, how could they know “what the other sides have got” so to speak, or be in any kind of position to make a judgement about the merits of other people’s religious experience? . It might be claimed that none of this should bother believers because they have a first person justification that somehow looks different from the inside . Philosopher J.L. Schellenberg writes of this kind of response:
Of course one might insist in the face of all this that one’s own experience was veridical and all the others unveridical and misleading, but this only brings to mind the child who, presented with evidence contrary to his apparent perception, stubbornly repeats that he ‘heard what he heard’ or ‘saw what he saw’ completely unwilling to admit that he could well be mistaken, not recognizing that he is responding with the very evidence that has been challenged…If so many religious experiential practices are unreliable, then why not this one? If powerful experiences full of apparent meaningfulness and illumination may come to persons of intelligence and virtue and yet be completely delusive, then what reason do you have to suppose that such is not the case here? 
Especially Vulnerable to Human Fallibility
Now let’s turn to fallibility. Human beings have a tendency to exhibit characteristics like “hubris, greed, dogmatism…and loyalty” . Each of these attributes can negatively effect truth-seeking in a variety of ways. Take pride, for example. We might find ourselves impressed with our own information and experiences, profoundly overestimating our own abilities when it comes to deciding upon what is true . Related is the concept of intellectual greed – the inclination to want gratification and answers to ultimate questions as soon as possible when we might have incomplete information . “We do not suffer ignorance gladly”, and it isn’t difficult to see how this tendency could negatively effect inquiry . It is also apparent that people exhibit the propensity to believe that they are correct without being sensitive to the possibility of being mistaken – often leading to an emphasis on protecting deeply held beliefs with great zeal. Call this propensity dogmatism . This attitude can sometimes bring about intellectual hostility and rivalry – being bound up with “tendencies toward misrepresentation, ridicule, bitterness, jealousy, possessiveness, or unwarranted resentfulness or indignation” . Additionally, consider our incredible capacity for loyalty. Religious belief is wrapped up with concerns of ultimate value, and so frequently is accompanied by fierce loyalty and complete devotion . This attitude is further strengthened in people by loyalty to members of their religious community, as well as the authorities within .
“But what this means is that, once having formed a belief on ultimate things, the religious person is unlikely to be stirred from her position” . There are also psychological factors to consider, such as forming a deep emotional attachment to a particular religion over time. This emotion inevitably affects a person’s psyche, chiseling out a path that becomes comfortable. Since these positive emotions and everything they touch in an individual’s life depend on belief, they may become very resistant to losing it . After all, “the more attached one becomes to one’s beliefs, the more difficult it is to remain open to their falsity” . Maybe an example will suffice. Suppose someone comes to be truly convinced that they have won the lottery and delays collection a few weeks, spending time celebrating and thinking about how they might use their money. Now imagine that right as they go to collect their winnings some evidence is produced that suggests that their belief is false. But what if this evidence could be doubted? If so, wouldn’t most of us be tempted to hold onto the belief that we won the lottery as long as we could find a way to doubt the evidence against it? Who wouldn’t? .
Now apply all of this to religious belief. The religious believer repeatedly experiences as really the case a state of affairs involving an ultimate reality and an ultimate good, in which she is privileged to be able to participate…Clearly such a belief must be quite close to the center of what matters to her, and thus…may be expected to be a belief to which she is rather deeply attached. If we add that the need to retain a religious belief can be fairly easily accommodated, because where ultimate matters are concerned evidence is more easily manipulated than in cases like the lottery example, we can surely see how investigation of religious belief and the project of straining toward possibly higher levels of understanding may suffer .
In summary: We tend to be overconfident in our own experiences and ability, dislike uncertainty and prefer to have answers sooner rather than later, become dogmatic about deeply held beliefs – frequently unable to see where we might be wrong, and are fiercely loyal to ideas and communities that we form deep emotional attachments to. Though many of the human traits mentioned so far can cause problems when trying to get to the truth in any sphere, they are especially problematic when the beliefs in question cannot be falsified. There is nothing to stop these traits from running their course if a person relies on religious experience as their foundation for belief.
But who am I to decide which belief forming practices are reliable? For example, don’t we have an element of “faith” in our ability to reason and use sense perception? Of course! But “although we must utilize some practice to get going in inquiry, there is clearly still a question as to which one(s)” . In pursuing our intellectual goals, “the only way we are able to get started toward them – if indeed any progress is possible for us – is by trusting those most basic and unavoidable belief-forming and revising mechanisms and processes” . As it stands, trusting our cognitive faculties to some degree is unavoidable. Take reason for example – if you try to doubt your ability to reason reliably you have to use your reason in order to do it! So trusting reason (broadly speaking) is an unavoidable starting point for every person and can’t even be doubted effectively.
If we are really would-be investigators, concerned for the truth and seeking understanding, then we will ascribe epistemic innocence – even an initial innocence – only where we have to: assuming that we have to pick certain belief-forming practices as innocent until proven guilty to get started, we will still pick only what we have to pick, in order to minimize the extent to which non-inquiry-based factors influence the direction of inquiry .
Put another way, if you aren’t required to grant epistemic innocence to a belief forming practice (like we are with reason at least in a broad sense), then it’s reliability should be questioned. If a person doesn’t have any reason to doubt a belief-forming practice, then they are justified in assuming it’s reliability. But there are plenty of reasons to doubt the reliability of religious experience as a belief-forming practice, as I have attempted to show. This isn’t to say that religious experience can’t count as a piece of evidence, but only that it doesn’t serve as a good foundation for belief.
Obviously one could retreat to a more obnoxious presuppositional defense, but I have addressed this here.
- J.L. Schellenberg, The Wisdom to Doubt: A Justification of Religious Skepticism, p. 160
- James Fodor, Unreasonable Faith: How William Lane Craig Overstates the Case for Christianity, p. 4-6
- James Anderson, Why Should I Believe Christianity, Ch 4
- Ibid, Ch 5
- Anthony Bryson, Calvinism, Self-Attestation, and Apathy toward Arguments from Evil. See “Calvinism and the Problem of Evil”, p. 275
- Peter Boghossian, A Manual for Creating Atheists, p. 16
- Ibid, p. 48
- Ibid, p. 7
- Ibid, p. 70
- A.C. Grayling, The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism, p. 13
- J.L. Schellenberg, The Wisdom to Doubt: A Justification of Religious Skepticism, p. 175
- Ibid, p. 163-165; 182-183
- Ibid, p. 176
- Ibid, p. 165-176
- Ibid, p. 72
- Ibid, p. 73-74
- Ibid, p. 73
- Ibid, p. 74
- Ibid, p. 77
- Ibid, p. 85
- Ibid, p. 77
- Ibid, p. 80-81
- Ibid, p. 84
- Ibid, p. 81 – I changed a few details of the story, but the idea didn’t originate with me
- Ibid, p. 170
- Ibid, p. 171
- Ibid, p. 170