In the previous post we saw how the argument from religious experience for the existence of God works. It is an inductive argument, meaning that while the premises support the conclusion, they do not prove it to be correct. There are, therefore, alternative possible conclusions.
The previous post ended with the idea that the success of the argument comes down to the question, Are religious experiences really experiences of God?
In this post I want to explain the first piece of evidence that seeks to strengthen and support the argument and its conclusion. That evidence focusses on a particular important word: change.
Simply put, many people have argued that a genuine, veridical religious experience will bring change to the life of the subject. If we think about that, that seems pretty obvious.
If we look at Otto’s idea of the numinous, it would seem that if you really did experience something mysterious, tremendous and fascinating, then how could you not change? If you really did experience the awesome power of God, with its mixture of amazement and fear, then how could you possible ignore that?
Equally, if we reverse this, if someone claims to have experienced God, but nothing in their life changed as a result, would you believe them?
If we look at some examples, we can see how this is the case.
Let’s start with Saul. He arrested, persecuted and murdered Christians, until his experience on the road to Damascus led him to becoming a Christian and being almost solely responsible for the spreading the Christian church across the eastern Mediterranean area, from Palestine to Turkey, Greece and Rome. Many would argue that such a transformation, one that meant he changed his name to Paul to reflect this change to a new life, is clear evidence that Saul really did experience Christ.
And like of Jesus’ apostles (except John), he ended up being executed for his beliefs. St Peter was crucified upside down, St Stephen was stoned to death, St James was beheaded and so on. Even John, who died peacefully, had his visions of heaven and earth while in the prison mines on the island of Patmos.
If their beliefs were based on a false experience, and experience they knew to be a lie, would they have gone to their deaths for that lie?
Surely, they each believed that their experiences of the risen Jesus were true.
Likewise, Moses faced many dangers and threats to his life as a result of his actions in following God’s instructions to him from the burning bush.
Muhammad also suffered threats and intimidation as a realtor what he said and how he acted following his vision. He had to leave his home in Makkah and numerous times he had to fight to defend this beliefs and his life.
The importance of change
Clearly then, people’s lives do change as a result of these experiences. Both St. Teresa of Avila and William James saw change as the key way knowing if an experience was genuine.
St. Teresa established a protocol, a sort of test to help decide if an experience really was a true experience of God. She said that the experience should be discussed with a spiritual adviser and should be within the teachings of the church, but most importantly, the life of the subject of that experience should change.
William James describes what he calls the ‘four fruits’ of religious experience, that is, the effects of such experiences. These include a feeling of elation or of being left on a ‘high’, a feeling of being aware of something beyond the material, physical world and also a feeling of having been in contact with a benevolent, loving power. But again, James also says that these experiences change people, they become more spiritual, charitable and morally aware and they may have a sense of awe and wonder at the universe.
So we know that people do have so called religious experiences, but if these experiences change someone’s life, and the change can be transformational, even to the point of torture and death, then this supports the claim that these are genuine religious experiences, in other word, they really are experiences of God.