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The Nature and Value of Religious Experien

J.P. Moreland, "Naturalsim Part III" in Promise (July/August 1996), 42-45.

If you take a poll in a typical Christian congregation, you will discover that the majority of church members have had very deep encounters with God. Most have had at least a few occasions of dramatic answer to prayer, some have seen physical healings of various sorts, and many have had moments when God was intensely real to them. Moreover, these phenomena happen not only to individual believers, they also occur when Christians gather together in community. Speaking more generally, it is safe to say that millions upon millions of people worldwide have had some sort of religious experience at one time or another. What should we make of these facts? Do they provide evidence for the existence of God? For the truth of Christianity? How is a naturalist supposed to take these facts?

In parts I and II of this series, I characterized naturalism as the view that the spatio-temporal universe of physical objects, properties, events, and processes that are well established by scientific forms of investigation is all there is, was, or ever will be. There are three major components of naturalism. First, naturalism begins with an epistemology, a view about the nature and limits of knowledge, known as scientism. Second, naturalism contains a theory, a causal story, about how everything has come-to-be. The central components of this story are the atomic theory of matter and evolution. Third, naturalism has a view about what is real: physical entities are all there are. Given these insights into naturalism, it is obvious that a naturalist cannot accept the evidence for God’s existence or the truth of Christianity that comes from religious experience.

Typically, naturalists make two claims about religious experience that serve to rebut its evidential value. First, a naturalist will say that adherents Of various world religions have different and, in fact, contradictory religious experiences. Therefore, these different experiences cancel each other out, so to speak, and provide no evidence for the truth of a specific religion or even for the reality of a Supreme Being. Second, a naturalist will give a reductive analysis of religious experience, e.g., religious experience is nothing but psychological projection that expresses the need for a father figure, religious experience is nothing but a culturally relative form of group behavior expressing a certain conception of transcendence, and so forth. In this way the naturalist can treat religious experience as nothing but a natural psychological or sociological phenomenon.

I want to defend the evidential value of religious experience for both the existence of God and the truth of Christianity by looking at skepticism in general, analyzing different types of religious experiences, and offering two arguments for the existence of the Christian God based on religious experience.

Dealing with Skepticism in General

Since the naturalist claims above are an expression of skepticism about religious experience, it will be useful to begin our exploration by taking a brief look at skepticism in general. A skeptic raises doubts about claims to have knowledge or justified belief in various areas of our intellectual life. A skeptic will point out that in the past, our senses, our memory, our moral insights, or our religious perceptions and so forth have been mistaken. In light of this, surely it is possible, he will say, that our current experiences or beliefs are faulty. How, then, do we know that our senses, memory, or moral and religious beliefs are not misleading us right now? By raising these doubts, the skeptic is trying to get us to believe two things. First, we cannot have particular examples of knowledge unless we can answer the broad question of how we know things in general. For example, I cannot know that there is a computer before me unless I can say how it is that I know in general that my senses are reliable. Second, the skeptic wants to place a burden of proof on the person who claims to know something. Particular knowledge claims are guilty until proven innocent.

Now neither of these two approaches to knowledge is correct. If I have to know how I
know things generally before I can know something in a specific case, the I will be involved in a vicious infinite regress. Why? Before I can know that p, I will have to know how I know that p, but before I can know how I know that p, I will have to know how I know how I know that p,…. The fact is, we start the enterprise of knowing with specific items of knowledge and go onto formulate criteria for knowledge based on the specific cases. I know there is a computer before me right now. I know a rug is on the floor. I go on and formulate general criteria for knowledge (if something appears to be in front of me, then I should believe that it is in front of me unless there is reason to doubt such a claim, e.g., I am on drugs or the lighting is bad). If God appears to be present to someone, then one should believe that He is, in fact, present unless there is reason to doubt my faculties at this moment (e.g., this experience contradicts what some certified form of revelation says about God.)

What about the burden of proof issue? Why should we let the skeptic tell us that the burden of proof is on the one who claims to know? After all, we all do, in fact, know many things before we ever consider the skeptic’s questions. We should place the burden of proof on the skeptic: Our beliefs are innocent unless there is reason to think they are guilty. By way of application to religious experience, we only need to rebut the skeptic (show why he has not demonstrated that his skepticism is correct), we do not need to
hire him (show that he is in fact wrong before we can claim to know something). We can approach religious experience without some heavy burden of proof against us before we are allowed to proceed.

Types of Religious Experience

There are at least three main types of religious experiences.1 First, there are sensory experiences in which the person claims to have actual sounds or visions present to him. Second, there are numinous a experiences in which the object is experienced as overwhelmingly powerful, willful, and active. Numinous experiences are accompanied by a sense of dread, awe, and astonishment. Finally, there are mystical experiences in which the person is caught up in a different form of awareness that produces a deep joy, exultation, ecstasy, and a sense of union with God.

Two important observations should be made about these different types of religious experiences. For one thing, sensory experiences are by far the more culturally relative and conditioned of the three. In fact, numinous and mystical experiences have elements that transcend culture and are more uniform worldwide. This is not surprising when we recognize that the God of the Bible is not a sense-perceptible object, but rather, the type of being reported in most numinous or mystical experiences. Further, sense perception is the most relative part of more ordinary forms of mental life. For example, two people can be thinking of the very same object, say London, but because of differences in background, one may be using a mental image of a foggy scene to help focus his mind on London, while the other may be using the image of Big Ben. The two are not thinking about these images, they are thinking with them about London. In this case, the images are relative to one’s background, but the object of thought is not.

Second, in numinous and mystical experience, people worldwide report three different things: an experience of a personal God, an experience of an impersonal It, and an experience of nothing. How would a Christian analyze this? One thing to say is this: When a mystic experiences an impersonal It, he may be experiencing God’s impersonal, metaphysical nature (e.g., his infinity, his self existence, his immutability). When a mystic experiences nothingness, he may be experiencing his own empty ego. When a mystic experiences a personal deity, he maybe experiencing God Himself.

But should a Christian hold that people in other religions experience the true God? That depends. A believer will not say that such people experience the true God because of but rather, in spite of their religion if, in fact, God is being experienced at all. Further, the Bible teaches that God is evident to all and that all people have some sort of awareness of God Himself. Remember, a genuine experience of God who, after all, exists is not the same thing as having a salvific experience of God. So there is no reason to think that people in other parts of the world outside the Christian faith never experience God at all, though there are good reasons to say that such experiences are not means of salvation.

Still, any experience of God can be filled with errors and may not even be an experience of God at all. To see this, consider the act of seeing a hat on a table. There are four aspects to such an act. For starters, there is the conscious sensation of the hat inside the mind of the perceiver. If you are having a sensation of a hat, no one else can see your private mental sensation. Second, there is the phenomenological object, i.e., that part of the hat directly present to you. Two people seeing the same hat will have two different phenomenological objects, two different parts of the hat present to each, e.g., one sees the top of the hat from above, the other a side of the hat. Third, there is the apparent object, the entire hat of which the phenomenological object (the top, the side) is but a part. One does not have the entire apparent object directly present in acts of seeing, e.g., the back side is hidden from view. Finally, there are interpretations given to the act of seeing the hat, e.g., “I am seeing my uncle’s hat” or “I am seeing a stolen hat.” Now each component of seeing is a source of error. My sensations can be defective because I am color blind. The phenomenological object may not be the way it appears to me because the lighting in the room is wrong. It may be red but appear orange to me due to lighting. I may hold mistaken beliefs about the whole object based on my angle of seeing. If there are no buttons on the surface of the hat I am seeing, I may infer that there are no buttons on the hat at all, but there maybe some on the back surface. Finally, I can interpret the experience wrongly. This may not be my uncle’s hat after all.

Now an experience of God can go wrong in all these ways and more. Sin may have made my faculty of experiencing God so defective that my experiential awareness of God may be hallucinatory and He might not be present at all. I will not draw our further parallels since they should be obvious. Moreover, the devil can cause problems in experiencing God and God Himself can simply hide His presence for reasons He does not share. All of this means that religious experience can go wrong and we should not build an entire case for God or an entire theology on religious experience. Still, it would be equally wrong to conclude that no one can have a veridical experience of God.

How, then, should religious experience actor in to a case for God’s existence and the truth of Christianity? I suggest the following. We start with knowledge of God from creation based on arguments for God in natural theology.’ For example, we know that the universe began to exist, that there are too many types of design in the universe to be explained without an intelligent designer, we know that objective value exists and a personal God is the best explanation for this fact, and so on. I cannot develop a case for God’s existence here, but if such a case is successful, it means that we have a strong basis for believing in monotheism prior to our consideration of religious experience. Second, we have an objective revelation of God in the Bible that offers us tests for judging the authenticity of religious experience. But why accept the Bible instead of, say, the Koran? My answer would appeal to things like the uniqueness of the Bible, along with indications of its supernatural origin from historical evidence, miracle, and prophecy. Given this background, religious experience forms additional confirming proof that God exists and Christianity is true. Religious experience by itself carries some weight, but it is even more powerful if used in the way just indicated. This means that we can form arguments for Christianity based on religious experience and these arguments can serve as additional indicators of the truth of the Christian faith.

Two Different Arguments from Religious Experience

There are two different ways of using religious experience to help justify belief in the Christian God: the causal argument and religious perception.3 Let us begin by looking at the causal argument. Very often, we either cannot or have not seen some thing, but we nevertheless are justified in believing in its reality because postulating the existence of the thing in question can explain a range of data that needs explaining. For example, no one has seen an electron. But there is a range of observational effects associated with electrical phenomena that requires explanation. If we postulate electrons as the things that are causing these effects, then we have an explanation of the facts. Similarly, in religious experience, there is a range of effects that no one can deny — a new power to lead holy lives, specific answers to prayer, an new ability to sacrifice for others, etc. William James’ work The Varieties of Religious Experience contains the classic statement of this argument: “When we commune with it [God], work is actually done upon finite personality …. God is real since he produces real effects.”4

Philosopher Patrick Sherry has advanced a communal form of this argument. Sherry argues that if one examines the church through history, specifically those parts of the church where authentic spiritual practices were flourishing, and compares the church with any other community (e.g., Marxist, Buddhist), then the church i in the regular moral saints and heroes with a higher quality of spiritual power and devotion to God and others, often in the face of martyrdom and other forms of opposition.5 Sherry’s argument does not claim that the church has not had periods of hypocrisy or that there are no moral heroes outside the Christian church. But he insists, rightly in my view, that there is a superior number, quality, and depth of such heroes produced by authentic Christian practice. These real effects, says Sherry, have a real cause — the Holy Spirit.

The strength of the causal argument depends on how well the postulation of God explains the data compared to naturalistic explanations. Suffice it to say here that naturalists will have a difficult time explaining the actual religious power and lives that fill church history and the specific answers to prayer that many of us have seen. Imagine what world history would be like if the church were taken out of it compared to what would be the case for world history if some other community were excluded.

The second approach to religious experience goes something like this: In normal sensory experiences of tables, chairs, etc., if something seems to be present before us, then even though we could be hallucinating, we are justified in believing that something is, in fact, in front of us as it seems to be unless we have reason to think otherwise. Now, religious forms of awareness are closely analogous to normal sensory perception. Therefore, if a being who is good, personal, holy, etc. seems to be present to someone, then we ought to believe that such a being is, in fact, present unless we have reason to think otherwise. This approach is not really an argument at all. Rather, it is a report that we sometimes directly experience God Himself and others may do so as well if they follow the correct procedures that are relevant to being aware of God (e.g., repentance, humility of heart, seeking God).

To understand the force of this approach, compare the difference between having a pain vs. having an experience of an apple. A pain does not present itself as an experience of something outside us, say of something on a table. Rather, it is experienced as something totally within our own self. But the apple experience is different. Put of the experience itself is the awareness that the object experienced is outside of us, say, on a table. This is not an interpretation of the experience, it is an aspect of the experience every much as real as the color or shape of the perceived object. Similarly, in experiences of God, the externality of the object (God) is not an interpretation of the experience. It is a part of the experience itself, just as much as the awareness of holiness, personhood, etc. Here the believer invites the naturalist to do certain things, e.g., seek God in the name of Jesus and on the basis of His gospel, humble one’s heart, and God Himself will be experienced directly as real in the same way that we can invite someone to do certain things (e.g., turn the light on, look in a certain direction) and see an apple.

To be sure, we cannot predict the nature or even the occurrence of an awareness of God with the same degree of accuracy as we can in a prediction of an experience of an apple if certain things are done. But this is not surprising for two reasons. First, our faculties of awareness become more distorted the closer we get to perceiving things deeply related to our sinful lifestyle choices, e.g., moral values and God Himself. This explains the greater diversity of moral or religious awarenesses compared to sense perceptions of apples or tables. Second, God is a person, and an uncontrollable, infinite one at that. And persons (finite or infinite) can hide themselves, fall to show themselves, and in general, refuse to cooperate with our efforts to know them due to reasons they may not share with us. Thus, we can do certain things conducive to being aware of a person, but there is no guarantee the person will cooperate. By contrast, physical objects like tables are inert, passive things and our experiences of them are not dependent on their cooperation. That’s why we can predict experiences of tables with greater precision than an experience of another human person or God. Note that if tables or apples were like quantum entities — they disappeared randomly and showed up at unpredictable locations moments later — then we would not be able to predict with accuracy our experiences of “normal” objects either.

On the basis of these various facets of religious experience, we can follow the advice of Talbot philosopher Douglas Geivett and recommend that a sincere naturalist who is a seeker of truth perform a devotional experiment. First, we talk to the naturalist about the existence of God in light of arguments that are part of natural theology. Then we get the naturalist to consider the human condition in its alienation from God, one another, and our own self, our sense of guilt and shame, and our desire to have objectively meaningful lives and life after death. We then invite the naturalist to consider the evidence for the authority of scripture based on its uniqueness among all the world’s literature, the historical evidence for its miracle claims and accuracy in general, and its cases of fulfilled prophecy. Then we invite the naturalist to consider the two approaches to religious experience just discussed. Finally, we invite him to engage in a devotional experiment: accept the gospel as best you can, try to live as though Christianity were true with all the sincerity of heart you can muster, and see what happens. After all, that is how many of us entered the Kingdom of God. The naturalist skeptic needs to be careful however. This strategy has worked for twenty centuries and the naturalist camp has lost a number of adherents in this way, myself included. The Bible says that if you seek God with all your heart, you will find Him. And while religious experience does not stand on its own as we have seen, at some point the naturalist must stop arguing and seek, if he has the courage to do so. What he will find, of course, is that God has never been far away because in Him we live and move and have our very being.


  1. For a brief treatment of these, see William Wainwright, Philosophy of Religion (Belmont, CA.: Wadsworth, 1988), chapter five.
  2. For a similar approach to the problem of evil, see Douglas Geivett, Evil and the Evidence for God (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993).
  3. See J. P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986), pp. 231-42; Cf. 5. J. P. Moreland, Kai Nielsen, Does God Exist? (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus, 1993), pp. 233-36.
  4. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (N.Y.: Modem Library, 1902), p. 506-7.
  5. Patrick Sherry, Spirit, Saints, and Immortality (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984), pp. 31-63.