The Evidential Force of Religious Experience

The Evidential Force of Religious Experience

The Evidential Force of Religious Experience

The Evidential Force of Religious Experience

Synopsis

Caroline Franks Davis provides a clear, sensitive, and carefully argued assessment of the value of religious experiences as evidence for religious beliefs. Much more than an 'argument from religious experience', the inquiry systematically addresses underlying philosophical issues such as the role of interpretation in experience, the function of models and metaphors in religious language, and the way perceptual experiences in general are used as evidence for claims about the world. The author examines several arguments from religious experience and, using contemporary and classic sources from the world religions, gives an account of the different types of experience. To meet sceptical challenges to religious experience, she draws extenisvely on psychological and sociological as well as philosophical and religious literature, probing deeply into the questions whether religious experiences are merely a matter of interpretation, whether there is irreducible conflict among religious experiences, and whether psychological and other reductionist explanations of religious experience are satisfactory. She concludes that religious experiences, like most experiences, are most effective as evidence within a cumulative style of argument which combines evidence from a wide range of sources.

Excerpt

It is only comparatively recently in the history of civilization that there has been widespread scepticism regarding religious experiences. People were concerned to distinguish 'genuine' religious experiences from 'illusory' ones, but the religious framework within which this distinction was made was rarely questioned. Experiences judged 'illusory' would be more likely to be explained in terms of other supernatural factors such as 'the devil' than in the naturalistic terms which so often rival religious explanations today. Just as we distinguish veridical sense experiences from misperceptions and illusions without (except in philosophy lectures) doubting that the experiences judged 'veridical' really do give us some kind of access to a stable external world, and just as the early Israelites had only to convince others that Yahweh was the supreme God, alone worthy of worship, without having to convince them that there were such things as gods, so most cultures have taken it for granted that genuine religious experiences are what they appear to be: apprehensions of the divine. An argument to show that religious experiences in general can be considered evidence for religious claims would have been unnecessary.

With arguments against the plausibility of religious doctrines and reductionist accounts of religious experiences now widely accepted, and with many people leading atheistic lives which are to all appearances perfectly adequate, religious individuals can no longer assume that experiences judged to be 'genuine' by fellow believers are immune from further attack. They are challenged on all sides, by philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, members of other religious traditions, and even by members of their own tradition with widely differing views. But 'arguments from religious experience' have been largely unconvincing, and religious experience continues to be regarded as something rare and obscure, inaccessible to ordinary routes of inquiry. A critical reassessment of the value of religious experiences as support for religious claims appears to be called for.

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