Philosophy of Religion

Chapter  5 Arguments for the Existence of God: Experience

Section  4. Mystical Experiences

If the heart of religion is in the religious experience, then at the heart of all religious traditions are those experiences in which individuals not only encounter the supernatural but experience a total loss of self  and loss of individuality and are in union with the divine, the absolute, the deity, the supernatural. It is a numinal experience, individual and esoteric.

 The MYSTICAL experience is a particular variety of religious experience in which the subject is transformed and reports the loss of individuality, the oneness of all reality, union with the deity, the unity of the subject of the experience with the object of the experience.

READ: Encyclopedia of Religion and Society, Anthropology of Religion.  William H. Swatos Jr.

The commonalities in such experience around the world is termed the consensus mysticum.

It has been described by Rudolph Otto as involving an experience characterized as being tremendum et fascinans

William James has described such experiences as having the following characteristics:

       Ineffable noetic

       Antinaturalistic transient

       Passive pantheistic


James held that such experiences are powerful and lead the subject of such an experience to a belief in a supernatural entity.

James held:

  1. Mystical states are authoritative over the individual who has the experience
  2. Mystical states have NO authority over individuals who have not had such an experience
  3. Mystical states break down the authority of ordinary consciousness and sense knowledge. Such states offer hypotheses which others may ignore

Such religious experiences have consequences for those who encounter them. They issue into feelings and actions.

Notes on William James, Varieties of Religious Experience

The text of Varieties of Religious Experience

Notes on Rudolph Ottoís Experience of the Holy

Notes on Martin Buberís I and Thou

Not all who learn of the reports of such religious experiences accept them as conclusive evidence for the existence of a supernatural reality or spiritual beings. Many have attempted to give alternative accounts of such experiences that do not involve acceptance of the existence of any supernatural entities or reality.

Naturalism is an approach to religious experiences which explains them as being the result of natural forces. It accounts for such phenomena in natural terms without recourse to anything that is beyond the physical realm. In general, all reality and all experiences can be accounted for (fully explained) in terms of physical processes.

There are different explanations for the origin and nature of religious experiences. What they have in common is the rejection of a supernatural source or object and the attempt to offer a full explanation in empirically verifiable terms.

 Psychological explanations have been offered by several theoreticians, including Sigmund Freud. Sociological explanations have also been developed by several other scientists, such as Emil Durkheim. What they have in common is the refusal to accept religious experiences as being truthful, accurate, or believable in so far as the existence of any supernatural reality. One of the principle reasons for withholding acceptance of the reports is that the experiences can not be verified and what they report encountering can not be verified empirically.  

Is this mystical religious experience veridical? Is it truthful? Is it a report which others can accept as being Correct? Truthful? Accurate?  

Suppose we accept that humans should accept religious experiences as being veridical UNLESS there exists positive grounds for thinking otherwise, for thinking that the reports are not truthful, accurate or correct.

Some do claim that there are positive grounds for rejecting the reports of such experiences, i.e., against their being veridical experiences

1.     mystics are abnormal: they tend to be sexually repressed

2.     mystical experience is always mixed with other elements such as sexual emotion or imagery

In response to these observations some offer that perhaps the human being must be in an altered state of consciousness in order to have the experience of the greater (supernatural) reality which the ordinary consciousness can not contain or reach. Sexual abstinence may be a necessary but not a sufficient condition for having such an encounter.

C.D. Broad notes that reports or descriptions of these religious experiences involve concepts and beliefs that are:

1.     inadequate to the facts

2.     highly confused

3.     mixed with error and nonsense

4.     subject to change in time

Broad notes that these features are also true of scientific concepts and beliefs and that they have and do change in time.

Here is a skeptical view of the mystical experiences that offers a series of explanations of what may induce such experiences and presents then as hallucinations of a particular nature.

READ: How to have your own mystical experience by  Massimo Pigliucci

"There has been a lot of talk about the neurological basis of religious experiences lately, with both secular and mystical interpretations of the available results. It turns out that it is now possible to actually replicate mystical experiences with a variety of methods, even under strict laboratory conditions."


Perhaps mystical experiences are not pure delusions or illusions. Perhaps religious experiences are only encountered by those who have an ability to experience them. Perhaps there are people, even many people, who are "deaf" to such experiences.

Wallace Matson maintains that if the subject of a religious experience is to be believed there are certain requirements to be met. Any perception of an individual should be publicly confirmed. No private experience can establish the existence of God. You would first need to establish the existence of God by other means on order to confirm that what was experienced was both God and True.

In relation to mystical experiences, consider that:


No indescribable experience can be publicly confirmed


No mystical experience can be publicly confirmed.


Mystics appear similar to people who are deluded, or mentally ill, not adjusted to reality. Their claims can not be accepted without evidence. But you can not have evidence without a prior belief in God.

To confirm what any subject is experiencing there must be "checkable" statements. Consider a blind person who hears what sighted persons are reporting is present but the blind person can not see them. Similar to a blind person confirming what a sighted person sees there should be a method by which those who do not "see" or experience the deity can nevertheless confirm what those who do claim to see the deity are saying is accurate or truthful.  With the mystical experiences there are no such "checkable" statements, so there can be no confirmation. Hence, they can not serve as a proof of the existence of supernatural entities because they are not veridical.

Gary Gutting claims that in order to establish the veridical nature of religious claims there are three criteria to be met:

1.     many should have the experience

2.     it should exist in different cultures

3.     the experience should produce a major transformation involving ,in part, the moral life of the individual

Gary Gutting claims that the three conditions are met by reports of mystical experiences and so they do provide a justification for belief in a supernatural being, a deity, God.

On the other hand Louis P. Pojman is not so confident.  He claims that there is both a strong justification and a weak justification to be offered that Religious experiences do provide evidence of the existence of a supernatural entity, a deity.

Strong: this argument would be so strong as to oblige all people to believe in God.

Weak: this justification provides rational support only for those who have had such an experience (or already accepted the world view that holds such experiences are possible)

 Pojman argues against such a strong argument because

1.     the reports are too amorphous

2.     they reports are circular- acceptance of them depends on background belief in God

3.     reports are not capable of being confirmed as with perceptual experiences

thus, they are not checkable, not predictable

If one has no had a mystical experience how can one reach a conclusion as to whether or not such an experience exists as reported? is truthful? Is accurate? Is sufficient grounds to conclude that there is a supernatural realm? that there is a deity?  That there is a Supreme being? 

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© Copyright Philip A. Pecorino 2001. All Rights reserved.

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