Fiat and Doom, Mary and Frodo: Feast of the Annunciation and Destruction of the Ring


Letters from the Edge of Elfland

David Russell Mosley

Feast of the Annunciation
On the Edge of Elfland
Beeston, Nottinghamshire

Dear Friends and Family,

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation. This is the day we commemorate and make present again that joyous moment when the archangel Gabriel told Mary what was to happen to her. Mary’s obedience in this moment is the beginning of the undoing of the disobedience of Adam and Eve. Mary becomes, in a way, a new Eve and her son will be the New Adam. This on its own is of utmost importance. However, there is another event that is celebrated on this day. It was on this day so very long ago, or so we are told, that the One Ring was bitten off of Frodo Baggins’s hand by Gollum and fell into volcanic pit of Orodruin.

Of course, I realise that The Lord of the Rings is not…

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Religious Experience essay by a student (Number Two)

Here is the second of two essays on religious experience by students that were on the A/B borderline. Again in this essay my annotation in italics helps explain my allocation of marks, which I have put at the end. This essay, although slightly weaker in its evaluation and conclusion, is stronger overall, as I think it more directly answers the question and does a better job of explaining James’ theory. I would be really interested to know if other teachers of the OCR Philosophy and Ethics A-Level (or even students!) agree with the marks I have given this and the previous essay – leave your thoughts in the comments box!

Discuss the view that religious experiences must be true because there is a common core to all of them. (35)

Psychoanalyst William James dictated that religious experiences must share in a common cause as they exhibit shared characteristics. He created four criteria.

Firstly, James referred to religious experiences as ‘noetic’, meaning they possess a transformative characteristic that reveals some form of knowledge to the agent. For example, on Damascus Road, Saint Paul’s religious experience transformed his moral outlook. It would appear that all religious experiences demonstrate a revelation of truth, but one could argue that this does not indicate they are true. For example, Grof argued that we create religious experiences as a “projection of the human psyche”; building on Freud’s idea that ‘religious experiences’ are a way of externalising deep, repressed personal truths. In such a view, religious experiences are unverifiable and cannot be thought to prove the existence of God, as they are merely manifestations of the human subconscious, used only to externalise and ‘free’ our repressed thoughts and judgements of Freud’s ‘ego’. Obviously, then, a religious experience would require a noetic quality, as this is the only reason we ‘invented’ it.

The student has taken a strong tack by analysing one by one James’ four characteristics of religious experience. This shows the examiner that she has recognised that James believed in a ‘common core’ theory, and that its strength largely relies on his four characteristics. It would be good to see some reference to other believers in a common core, such as Otto or Swinburne.

Secondly, James states that they must be transient; religious experiences must occur over a short temporal distance and cannot be permanent. Whilst this remains true perhaps for the Toronto Blessing and Saint Teresa of Avila’s religious experience, it seems to neglect the most common religious experience of all: the feeling of God’s presence in one’s life. This is a life-long (or at least prolonged) religious experience, and clearly defies the ‘transient’ criteria of James’ religious experiences. This significantly hinders his initial premise that religious experiences all share common characteristics, and thus his entire argument appears relatively weak.

This is a strong criticism, which reveals James’ emphasis on ‘mystical’ experiences. He seems to disregard other types of experience which don’t fit with his criteria. Here the student could usefully have contrasted Swinburne’s five categories which are broader and include longer lasting experiences.

Thirdly, James requires religious experiences to be ‘ineffable’, meaning ‘unexplainable’. This certainly seems to speak true for many religious experiences, such as the Fatima miracle, but is not so much accurate with regards to Biblical miracles, such as Jesus’ walking on water, which seems easy enough to fathom and explain, but difficult to believe or understand as it defies natural laws. Moreover, this ‘ineffability’ seems to discredit the reliability of religious experiences, as it means they are unverifiable. Particularly when we think of an ineffable and transient event, this seems almost impossible to get exterior agents of a sound mind to corroborate and verify sufficiently.

He doesn’t so much require them to be ineffable, as point out that many do appear to be so. This is a subtle point about the language the student is using, but it would show the examiner the student is more aware of James’ pragmatic and phenomenological method.

However, this ineffable quality does help religious experiences overcome Hume’s conflicting claims challenged, as explained by Vardy, as it suitably explains that differentiation between accounts may occur simply as a result of transmitting their ineffability through the relative cultural constructs of human language. In this regard, their common ineffable core strengthens the plausibility of religious experiences.

There is much more to say here, and some useful criticism of this idea comes from Steven Katz.

Finally, James argues that religious experiences are of a ‘passive’ nature, as in the agent can do nothing to trigger them; they are caused by an exterior agent. This is perhaps the most persuasive of James’ criteria. (Why? The student needs to say.) However, other philosophers have challenged the accuracy of this claim. Freud and Wittgenstein have both argued that we, in fact, ‘invent’ and externally project our subconscious desires for “something greater… that extends beyond the blank wall of human existence” (Wittgenstein), and thus the experience is active and agent-centred, as opposed to a passive , God-given experience. Thus, the most integral of James’ criteria would be fallacious and easily explained in psychoanalytical terms – much like a dream. However, as Jung suggests, even if these ‘experiences’ are merely a product of the subconscious, it remains plausible to conclude that God uses our subconscious minds to communicate with, and thus the experience still originates from God and is passive. This is further supported by Swinburne’s evidence of shared religious experiences; as other agents experience the exact same thing (e.g. Toronto blessing), it seems most simple according to Ockham’s razor principle to conclude that they all share a common core and thus have a like, passive cause.

Not sure if the Toronto Blessing is the strongest example to use here!

Overall, whilst there are some exceptions to James’ identification of core qualities of religious experiences, they remain largely true. It is worth noting that the criteria is relatively vague and ambiguous, and therefore may substantiate many types of religious experience without necessarily identifying a common core. Furthermore, if we regard this criteria strictly, we will simply dismiss some experiences as non-religious experiences (i.e. ones that are not noetic), which would explain the adherence to James’ four basic criteria. However, such examples ought to otherwise be considered as religious experience. Thus, these ‘anomalies’ would dramatically weaken James’ initial premise, as his ‘common core’ becomes unreliable.

Furthermore, even if a common core does present itself, this does not necessarily imply they are true. Equally, they may prove only that we have similar repressed thoughts/needs, and the conflicting claims challenge supports this by demonstrating the influence of our external factors on our religious experiences. For example, no Catholic has reported seeing Brahma at Lourdes. However, as aforementioned, it is possible – as Jung suggests – for God to be using our subconscious minds to communicate, and the common core of these experiences does strongly suggest a direct common cause. Thus, it seems more viable to conclude that such experiences are true.

There do not seem to be strong enough reasons given here to conclude the last line of this paragraph. The student would need to unpack James’ pragmatic argument further (which she starts to do in the next paragraph), or use Swinburne’s principles of credulity and testimony to support this.

Finally, as James dictates, the experience need not be factually ‘true’ in the sense that it originates from God, but rather that “it is true for you”; the noetic quality of religious experience seems to support this. However, as William Lane Craig dictates, this would in some ways imply religious experiences are self-authenticating, owing to their extremely transformative nature; since the effect is so positive and affirmative, it could be argued as evidence for the belief in an omnibenevolent, interventionist God.

In light of all the above, a common core to religious experiences seems to strongly support a common cause – via Ockham’s razor, most probably God, although possibly just the human psyche – and whilst some anomalies occur, James’ criteria seems to establish this common core successfully.

AO1 18/21

AO2 11/14

Overall 29/35


Although slightly weakened by a conclusion that seems a little tacked on at the end, this is still a strong essay, cogently argued, and methodically explained. It lands just on the right side of the A/B borderline.


Religious Experience essay by a student

This is an A/B borderline essay recently done by a student. I have annotated it with my comments in italics.

Discuss the view that religious experiences must be true because there is a common core to all of them. (35)

The view that religious experiences must be true because there is a common core to them postulates that religious experiences are veridical experiences of the divine having roots in the same objective creator. The theist claims the objective core of all religious experience is God.

Note how succinct and clear this paragraph is – how it spells out the assumption in the question to show the examiner understanding of the topic.

The classification of religious experiences by William James, Rudolf Otto and Richard Swinburne all support the view that religious experiences have a common core. James claims that religious experiences occur when one surrenders themselves to the divine; their experience is passive, ineffable, noetic and transient. Otto states religious experiences share a common core in the numinous, claiming that religious experiences take place as a result of our interactions with the numinous world. Swinburne also defines religious experience as an interaction with the divine sharing a common core in the theistic God.

Again this shows good grasp of the topic – clearly the student has understood that all three thinkers supported a common core. It is slightly disappointing that the student doesn’t spend more time analysing the substance of James’ or Otto’s arguments such as the four characteristics of mystical experience or Otto’s concept of the mysterium tremendum, as these are key to the strength of a ‘common core’ approach.

However, many philosophers have problems with the assumption that religious experiences share a common core, and moreover that they are veridical. For example, Hume’s conflicting claims argument refutes James’ idea that religious experiences are veridical because they have transformative consequences. Hume claims that the fact different religions postulate different religious experiences, each claiming to be valid, they cancel each other out. They cannot all be veridical as there can only be one theistic God. This implies that there is no common core in religious experience and thus the argument that they are veridical due to a common core becomes redundant. This argument is not straightforwardly persuasive though. Eg. Swinburne argues religions do not look upon religious experiences in the way Hume suggests; modern moderate religion accepts other faiths as a different interpretation of a deity. Therefore conflicting claims merely support the idea that humans interpret the divine in varying ways, not that religious experiences are fallacious or just an illusion. Wittgenstein supports this view claiming that conflicting claims come about in the conceptualisation of an experience, the experiences themselves share a common core that is interpreted in conflicting ways.

Some arguments against the veracity of religious experience accepts that they have a common core, yet dismiss the idea that this core has objective origins in the divine or numinous. The psychological attack on religious experience is a clear example of this. Freud states that religion as an unhealthy obsessive neurosis, leads to an illusion of religious experience created by our subconscious. For Freud, the common core within our experiences is our inner desire for a father figure that manifests itself from our subconscious in the form of a religious experience.

Notice how this paragraph introduces the possibility of a middle position whereby a common core has a psychological rather than a religious interpretation.

The view that religious experience is simply manufactured by the brain, with no core in the divine, is supported by various psychological experiments. For example, experiments with the psychoactive drug LSD have found similar effects to those found in religious experience, inferring the experience is simply an illusion created by chemicals in our physical brain. Freud’s apprentice Jung rejects this argument stating that a psychological explanation for religious experience does not disprove the idea that they share a common core in God or that they are veridical. Jung is supported in this view by Aldous Huxley who claims the subconscious may simply be a conduit of spiritual reality; we can accept both Freud’s analysis of religious experience and the view that they are veridical, originally in God. However, many atheists see this as logically fallacious. Mackie claims that the psychological explanation of religious experience does not allow for the belief in a divine origin. For Mackie, the psychological explanation disproves the veracity of religious experience.

This really needs explaining a bit further. Huxley essentially believed that psychoactive drugs might work by removing for a while a ‘survival filter’ that our brains usually employ to enable us to function in the world, and that in doing this they allow us more direct contact with spiritual reality.

The sociological attack on religious experience has a form similar to the psychological attack. Inspired by the young Hegelians, Marx claims religion simply acts as an opiate of the masses. Religious experiences are simply an illusion created by the oppressive, alienating and manipulative force of religion. This argument can be clearly criticised as circular, the attack on religious experience is formed from Marx’s pre-existing negative view of religion. Swinburne refutes Marx in this way claiming that religion is more than a manipulative force, as there is a lasting effect on people that transcends the sways and forces of society. Swinburne’s principles of credulity and testimony can also be applied here; we should trust testimony of religious experience unless there are special circumstances that infer we should not. An individual’s testimony cannot be dismissed as inaccurate by sociological challenges. Moreover the frequency and commonplace nature of religious experience in all cultures suggests they are not the result of an unhealthy Capitalist society as argued by Marx.

This sociological challenge paragraph is a bit general and could have been either left out or related more clearly to the notion of a common core.

Therefore it seems, while there are several challenges to religious experience, that claim they are not veridical, whether they share a common core or not, have been successfully refuted by theistic supporters. However, the argument that religious experience cannot lead to logical proof of a theistic deity and thus the veracity of these experiences, still stands.

These sentences are slightly unclear. It appears the student is arguing that although several challenges against the veridicality of religious experiences have been refuted, theists have still not demonstrated convincingly that religious experiences lead to God.  

There seems to be truth in Hume’s original conflicting claims argument as demonstrated by Teresa of Avila. Her claim that religious experiences must fit with Christian teaching supports the view that conflicting claims made from religious experiences cannot all be valid. Moreover her intellectual vision can seem to have been explained and made redundant by the psychological explanations. Therefore it seems one must accept that the argument that religious experiences must be true because they share a common core is not successful.

This is a conclusion that follows organically from what has been written, and is thus a good one. However, it would have been even clearer that common core theories don’t lead to God if more time had been spent actually unpacking James or Otto’s argument. This means a slight lack of AO1 material which brings down the overall grade.

AO1 17/21

AO2 11/14


Overall: 28/35


This is a good attempt which just sits on the A/B borderline as it verges on a more general evaluation of religious experience rather than focusing in on explanation of common core theories. I would bring in a paragraph where I demonstrate for instance how James moves from an ineffable noetic element in mystical experience to a claim that this knowledge somehow is sourced beyond cultural or creedal structures. In other words if you claim that mystics of many different faiths have all had similar noetic experiences characterised by statements like ‘All things are sustained by God’, or an experience of ‘the peace that passeth understanding’, then you are really saying that institutional faith is just an accretion on a more basic universal experience that all humans have of divine reality. There are many problems with this, a good philosopher to use to criticise this is Steven Katz who claimed that all experience is mediated by culture and language, so religious experience cannot be ‘pure’ in this sense.