Discuss the view that religious experiences must be true because there is a common core to all of them.

With normal experience, we will be more certain of something if many people can all verify and agree on what it is. So if we can all see a blue table and describe it as such, we are able to confirm the truth of our experience. In rel exps we cannot do this so it follows that we should be less certain of the truth of what has been purportedly experienced. Combined with this ‘private’ element to rel exp is their variety, such that the report of one rel exp often conflicts with the report of another – this is called the conflicting claims challenge, and Hume said that it leads to a complete triumph for the sceptic, as all rel exps cannot be true, as they affirm different and mutually exclusive versions of truth. (eg. The experience of sunyata, or impersonal emptiness of the Buddhist appears to conflict with the personal theistic experience of St. Paul of the Risen Christ, not just in the form it takes, but in the radically different theology that it affirms).

In Varieties of Religious Experience, William James aims to show that the awareness of the divine is primary to all religious belief and as such that there is a commonality to all rel exp – he boils this down to 4 qualities, and in doing so counters the conflicting claims challenge by showing that apparent differences in rel exps are actually reconcilable on the basis that they all contain certain universal  elements.  He claims they confer insight (noetic quality) which is fundamentally beyond language (ineffability), and involve a relinquishing of the normal ego-control of the personality for a short time (passive and transient).

If this is the case then there would be a ‘common core’ to all rel exps which transcends the culture and religion of each, a pure, unmediated experience which like colourless, flavourless water takes on the taste and hue of the tradition of the person who has it, and is expressed in the terms of that tradition. This idea is often called the Perennial Philosophy, and has been proposed as a natural result of deep study of different traditions and the similarities between them. Many philosophers like James have attempted to classify  theistic and non-theistic  experiences and thereby show them to be aspects of one reality, as Karl Jaspers says: “despite all the contradictions and mutually exclusive claims to truth, there is in all philosophy a One, which no man possesses”

The problem for those who claim this is that there do appear to be real differences between different experiences. As Vardy puts it, if you and I both claim to have had the “same experience really” when I’ve had a twinge in my elbow and you’ve had a pain in you’re head, then we might be stretching the definition of the words “the same experience”. Surely James’ 4 qualities are too broad to have any real application to rel exps? It all seems to come down to whether you want to emphasise the differences or the similarities.

Nonetheless, the attempts to show a ‘common core’ get at something important about rel exps, in that they reveal the conflict between the belief that there is a primary experience we have which we then interpret and put into words, and the belief that a significant part of ‘reality’ is actually constructed by the language and culture that we are in, and that all experiencing is really ‘experiencing-as’ (John Hick), ie interpretation is not secondary to experience but is there in the very way we perceive things. As we will see, both views can provide important support to defenders of rel exp.

For example, Steven Katz argues that as all experience is culturally mediated, ie there is no ‘pure’ experience, rel exp is the same. So the experience itself as well as the form in which it is reported is shaped by concepts which the mystic brings to it, and which shape his experience. So as I am trained to see through the cultural lens in which I live I will (if I’m Catholic) have a vision of Mary rather than Kali (which I would have if I was Hindu). But there is no underlying reality outside of the religious context in which I have the exp. Nicholas Lash, in Easter in Ordinary, says something similar – we learn to see the world in a religious way, indeed this is one of Swinburne’s types of ‘public’ rel exps.

This would seem to pose a problem for defenders of a common core approach, and it certainly reveals one of the weaknesses of this stance – we know from psychology that perception and experience are not passive processes – the brain constructs a picture from a very small amount of data given to it by the eye – so it’s surely likely that rel exps are also like this, at least partially constructed by our own brain, perceptual processes, history, culture and so on? James’s stance appears to be the one of the naive realist.

Katz and others have taken rel exps out of the special category in which people like James sought to put them and shown them as embedded within cultures and belief-systems. But to what extent are rel exps like other experiences? And to what degree does the context govern the experience? Taking this theory to its extreme would bring us very close to the conclusion that the context creates the Object itself, and that there is in fact no objectively real Object. The anti-realist view.

Something very similar to this is proposed by Don Cupitt. A post-modernist, thinker and founder of the ‘Sea of Faith’ movement, Cupitt believes that mystics ‘create’ rel exp by writing about them in profound acts of rebellion against orthodoxy. He points out that many mystics have been highly literary figures – poets like John of the Cross or the Sufi Rumi, and writers like Theresa of Avila or Augustine, or Meister Eckhart. Such writing creates the mystical experience for the mystic, and is the primary experience. On this view there is no pure, culture-neutral rel exp such as James tried to find – language forms events, it goes “all the way down” as Cupitt puts it.

So it appears that, by showing that there is a cultural context to all experience, philosophers like Katz and Cupitt destroy the claim that a common core to rel exp can point to its truthfulness.   But they have not shown that the cultural context completely defines the experience, and indeed if it did, it would be hard to see what exactly is being experienced. If language creates experience completely, then our experience is simply a self-referential process that needs no reference to any external reality. Even Wittgenstein, when he said “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent” surely meant that the set of things that one could speak of had a reality of their own outside of language.

So it seems likely that culture and language plays some (perhaps large) partial role in rel exp but this leaves open the possibility of a core beyond the cultural interpretation that is unmediated. This would explain the very real similarities between the different experiences, whilst giving an explanation for the differences.

Finally, John Hick has explored how all experience is really interpretation – this has implications for rel exp in that if there are really no experiences that are not experience-as something, then why should my claim to have had a rel exp not be believed to be true? I believe your claim that you’ve had an experience of a blue table- but I know it is a construct of your brain, culture and so on, so you believe my claim to have had an experience of union with God even though it is a construct of my brain, culture and so on.

The Main Conclusions Drawn by James in The Varieties of Religious Experience

In his final chapter James brings out 5 points. Three beliefs that come from his analysis of religious experience:

1. The visible world is part of a greater spiritual world.

2. Union with that greater world is our true purpose.

3. Prayer or communion with that world lets energy flow from there to our visible world, resulting in psychological and material effects.

These are:

4. A new zest to life which is morally beneficial.

5. An assurance of safety and peace resulting in loving actions.


It is important, this focus on psychological effects, James was a pragmatist and psychologist.


But he is also interested in the cognitive content of the religious experience. Do they have anything to say to us?

He believes there is a common core to al religious experience which can be summarised:

1. An uneasiness – there is something wrong with us as we are

2. Its solution – we are saved from this wrongness by making connection with higher powers.


This ties together many strands of his book – the idea of a divided self and its struggle to surrender the lower self for a higher less egocentric life.


“The conscious person is continuous with a wider self through which saving experiences come”


“That which produces effects within another reality must be termed a reality itself”

or more succinctly,

“God is real since he produces real effects”


However, James admits such subjective experiences as far as they remain as such, don’t really become cognitive


It is when the step is taken that “not only they themselves, but the whole universe of beings are secure in His hands” that a “real hypothesis” comes into play:


James is purposefully using the terminology of science to demonstrate his position – the reality of the spiritual world


Religion in this case, he says, will be a postulator of new facts, rather than ” a mere illumination of facts already given” (as it would be in a non-cognitive sense) – it will be different from a material world, there will be different events in it and different conduct will be required.

Numinous Experience

Rudolf Otto – The Numinous
In The Idea of The Holy Otto characterises religious experiences as feelings of dependence, awe-inspiring, fascinating and terrifying.

Otto was one of the most influential thinkers about religion in the first half of the twentieth century. He is best known for his analysis of the experience that, in his view, underlies all religion. He calls this experience “numinous,” and says it has three components. These are often designated with a Latin phrase: mysterium tremendum et fascinans. As mysterium, the numinous is “wholly other”– entirely different from anything we experience in ordinary life. It evokes a reaction of silence. But the numinous is also a mysterium tremendum. It provokes terror because it presents itself as overwhelming power. Finally, the numinous presents itself as fascinans, as merciful and gracious.

Outline of Otto’s concept of the numinous (based on The Idea of the Holy. Trans. John W. Harvey. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1923; 2nd ed., 1950 [Das Heilige, 1917]):

Mysterium tremendum et fascinans” (fearful and fascinating mystery):

Mysterium“: Wholly Other, experienced with blank wonder, stupor
awefulness, terror, demonic dread, awe, absolute unapproachability, “wrath” of God
overpoweringness, majesty, might, sense of one’s own nothingness in contrast to its power
creature-feeling, sense of objective presence, dependence
energy, urgency, will, vitality
fascinans“: potent charm, attractiveness in spite of fear, terror, etc.

Examples are numerous, especially Old Testament ones. Eg. Ezekiel’s vision of Seraphim – found himself indescribably insignificant and sinful in comparison to the majesty of the vision

Issues related to the numinous:

Can we claim that numinous experiences are veridical – that they are an insight into the divine?

Sceptic might claim they are just feelings
This doesn’t help very much- many feelings are based on judgements and dependent on interpretations of situations eg. – feelings of contempt towards those we have seen acting badly. In other words emotion is never purely internal – it is linked to the external world, so the fact that the numinous has an emotional content doesn’t mean there is no reality behind it

Are numinous experiences cognitive or non-cognitive?
R W Hepburn draws parallels with other experiences – the motion of the sea still felt even when the ship stops moving – it is hard to decide if this is real or imagined, but in numinous there is nothing to help us to decide – concludes it is probably impossible to answer the question.

Similarities with types of aesthetic experience – such as hearing a symphony and being moved, transported – feelings of the sublime in nature, catharsis in theatre etc. Some might appeal to the comparison to lend weight to the veridicality of numinous exp. We know we cannot put our experience of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony into words – we don’t disbelieve in it because we cannot do this – so we shouldn’t with numinous exp.
Unfortunately this still begs the question – cognitive or non-cognitive? Why say numinous exp. is exp of a ‘Wholly Other’ realm – we don’t usually believe the same for the musical experience.

Past Questions on Religious Experience

Discuss the suggestion that it is pointless to analyse religious experiences. (June 2003)
Consider the view that scripture is divinely inspired. (June 2003)
Discuss the view that religious experience must be true because there is a common core to all of them. (June 2004)
‘God is most clearly revealed to humanity through scripture.’ Discuss. (June 2005)
Assess the view that the different forms of religious experience are nothing more than fantasy. (June 2006)
‘Scripture is the word of God.’ Discuss. (June 2006)
‘The best way to God is through religious experience.’ Discuss. (June 2007)
‘Sacred writings fail to reveal God.’ Discuss. (June 2008)
Critically examine the belief that scripture is divinely inspired. (June 2009)
Evaluate the claim that corporate religious experience is no more than an illusion. (Specimen 2008)
Critically assess, with reference to William James, the arguments from religious experience. (June 2010)
To what extent can God reveal himself through sacred writings? (Jan 2011)
“Visions are not caused by God but can be explained by science”. Discuss. (June 2011)
‘Corporate religious experiences prove the existence of God.’ Discuss. (Jan 2012)

The Aims and Main Conclusions Drawn by William James in ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’

Here are some resources for William James:

A BBC radio discussion with Melvyn Bragg about The Varieties of Religious Experience: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00s9ftw

A link to an excellent online ‘Cliff’s notes’ style summary of Varieties of Religious Experiencehttp://www.psywww.com/psyrelig/fonda/jamesvre.htm

The entire book online free: http://www.psywww.com/psyrelig/james/toc.htm

My own summary of his main aims and conclusions:

James begins by distinguishing between two types of inquiry about a subject – first – how did it come about? and second what is its importance now that it is here? He says that the answer to the first will be an existential judgement – a judgement of being – and to the second a proposition of value, and that neither of these can be deduced immediately from the other.

What he is saying is that just because you have an explanation for the origin of a thing does not mean you can derive from that a judgement about its value. This is key to his project.

It is a direct answer to those like Freud and Marx who believed that because they could determine the psychological or sociological origin of religious belief, it followed that they had explained away its importance and it had become ‘nothing but’ a delusion and so on. He called this ‘medical materialism’ and deals very firmly with it in Lecture One .

James says the major flaw with explanations of religious experience which reduce them to medical or biological causes (St Theresa is a hysteric, St. Paul just an epileptic and so on) is that they are self-defeating as explanations (the same argument can apply to any reductionist or eliminative materialist explanation in other topics too – eg. free will or Life and Death) – in other words – all our beliefs, religious or non-religious, would be subject to the same material origin, and therefore the belief that religious experience has a material cause is itself the result of a material cause, unless it can be shown that religious beliefs are the only types of belief that this applies to. But James says medical materialism can point to no reason why it thinks the argument only applies to religious beliefs – he says “It is sure, just as every simple man is sure, that some states of mind are superior to others, and reveal to us more truth, and in this it simply makes use of an ordinary spiritual judgement.”

He goes on to conclude that the only way of making the second kind of judgement about religious experiences (value-judgements or statements of importance) is by looking at their “immediate luminousness”, which he unpacks as:

1. Philosophical reasonableness

2. Moral helpfulness

He says: “The degree in which our experience is productive of practice shows the degree in which our experience is spiritual and divine.”

This is explored fully in the book. James considers seriously all sorts of first hand accounts of experiences and examines different theories of their origin – he is careful to show the cases where religious experience seems to be a type of pathological behaviour (we might think here of the Toronto Blessing!), but he always looks at the question ‘what effect did the experience have on the life of the believer?’ in order to judge its value.

One thing that students commonly do when a question on religious experience or William James comes up is to simply state his 4 characteristics of mystical experience, then go on to say perhaps how Marx or Freud have shown that they could be delusions. What students don’t commonly realise is that James is already well aware of the Freudian critique of religious experience before he gives his lectures, and deals with it in the very first lecture. In doing so, he shows a nuanced and balanced approach to the topic.

Coming up in part two – the conclusions drawn by James.