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It’s Nature and Significance
Experience and Inference
Sense experience is “direct perceptual
awareness” of a material being
 Statements can describe or express the content of our
Example: “I hear voices in the hallway.” (Alston, SP)
 An inference is a conclusion drawn from other
Example: “There are people talking in the hallway.”
Religious Faith
Faith shares some qualities with both experience
and inference:
Like experience, it “feels” and/or is accepted as obvious
or certain, although it is not based sensory facts.
Like inference, it is an acceptance of that which is not
itself directly experienced, although some argue that the
object of faith can be demonstrated by reason.
Religious experience
Religious experience (Alston, RE) shares some
qualities with perceptual experience.
 Both religious and perceptual experience are modes of
“direct awareness” of something.
Thus, there is the feeling of certainty that is grounding in
the reality of direct awareness.
 Unlike perceptual experience, however, religious
experience is not “of” natural being; it is directed beyond
that which can be normally experienced.
Philosophical Questions
The Descriptive Task
What are the reported characteristics of religious
experiences, in all their variety?
The Interpretive Task
What can we infer about ultimate reality, based
on the data of such experiences?
Our Readings on Religious Experience
Smart explores both the nature and
significance of religious experience
 Suzuki explains sartori, or the Buddhist
experience of the “ultimate nature of
 Alston and Penelhum debate the
significance of religious experience.
Experiential Dimension
Ninian Smart and the Varieties
and Interpretation of Religious
Externally oriented; of the “awesome and fearful
Other”; dualistic
Internally oriented; of the ultimate oneness and
unity of all
Two Kinds of Religious Experience
Externally oriented
Internally oriented
Shared Characteristics
1. Smallness of self
2. Limits of the ordinary
Exploring the Experience
Some religions emphasize one kind of
religious experience over the other.
No ultimate being or
Ultimate Being
Focus on
attainment of
selflessness, peace and
Outer orientation (before
inner cultivation of
Exploring the Experience
Some emphasize an integration of the two.
Braham – Ultimate reality and objective truth; exists
“outside of” created beings
Atman – Ultimate reality and subjective truth; exists
“within” all beings and is experienced by sentient
Exploring the Experience
The distinction can create conflict within a religion
Mystic visions v. Orthodox interpretations
Christian or Sufi (Muslim) mystics challenge the
orthodox teaching of:
1. the holiness and otherness of God
2. the idea that salvation flows from “God the other”
The Question of Truth
Religion experience has an undeniable
subjective effect. Why think it has
objective significance?
Challenges from psychologists regarding the
causes of these unusual experiences
(Freud, Fromm, Jung)
Brief Comment about Truth
Freud’s theory does not apply universally
Fromm’s critique of “numinous experience” is
insupportably judgmental
Jung reduced religious experience to collective
Common problem (according to Smart):
Each involves judging a (religious) worldview from a
(humanist) worldview – that is, arbitrarily applying the
criteria of one perspective to that of another.
Perceiving God
Alston on the Significance of
Religious Experience
Two Kinds of Perceiving
Sensory perception (SP)
 Rooted
in the physical universe
 Source of claims about the existence and
nature of physical things
Religious experience (RE)
 Rooted
in the putative spiritual universe
 Source of claims about the existence and
nature of God (and other spiritual
Sensory Perception – Direct Realism
1. the theory that “what you see is what you
2. assumes that the object of perception exists
and causes the experience of perception
3. asserts that the perceptual experience
caused by the object of perception reliably
represents the nature of that object.
Religious Experience – “God Realism”
religious experience is a form of experience
as experience, it supports the idea that there
is a (religious) cause of the experience
 Religious
experience reliably represents the
nature of its religious cause: i.e., religious
experience provides evidence for the
existence and nature of God (M-Beliefs)
The Justification Argument
Based on these similarities, Alston argues
 As sense experience justifies perceptual
beliefs (I see a table justifies the claim that
“there is a table”)
 So religious experience (via something other
than sensory qualities) justifies religious
beliefs (I “saw” God justifies the claim that
“God exists”)
Standards of Justification
Shared perceptions are a basis for claims about
objective reality
Perception is supplemented by other shared
means to construct and verify knowledge
Override systems apply those other means
Override systems are themselves derived from
Alston’s Analogy
SP and RE are significantly alike in that
 Are
based on individual “perceptual”
 Support a wider “world view” based on those
same perceptual experiences (doxastic value)
 Have an “override system” (188)
The Epistemology of Religious Perception
(according to Alston)
All claims to knowledge must reference an
experiential basis of belief
 religious experience is such a distinctive sort of
experiential basis for belief, “like” sensory experience
All claims to knowledge must fit into a
distinctive range of belief contents (subject
 Those
who have religious experiences tend to report
religiously acceptable conclusions from their
The Epistemology of Religious Perception
There must be an “overrider system” to
correct unjustified “leaps” from experience
 Not
every unusual experience counts as a religious
experience, by virtue of religious communities’ own
experiences and bodies of belief
It is unreasonable to ask of any
experiential doxastic system that its beliefs
be indubitable.
Yeah, but….
Religious perception seems to assume what it is
trying to prove
I – we are assuming that there is a God to
cause a RE
 Objection II – different people report different and
contradictory claims about what God is or wants
 Objection IV – there are naturalistic explanations of
putative religious experiences
 Objection
Yeah, but….
Religious perception is significantly unlike
sensory perception.
III – sense experience varies according to
the varied conditions of perception
 Objection V – RE is not universally available, and its
inferred claims are vague or obscure
 Objection VI – there is no intersubjective confirmation
of RE claims
 Objection
Penelhum’s Response
The basic problem is that religious experiences –
by Alston’s own criteria – are “religiously
Such experiences can be explained by both SP
(naturalist) criteria and RE (religious) criteria
Alston’s argument seems to put both on a parity, as he
explicitly claims that these “doxastic” systems have
epistemic parity.
Penelhum’s Response
Other observations:
The demand for parity makes us accord
(epistemic) rights to apparently incompatible
religious systems.
The demand for parity makes us accord
(epistemic) right to non-religious systems.
Glossary - Alston
Doxastic – having to do with belief
Compare: aesthetic – having to do with the senses; with
artistic experience
Compare: existential – having to do with meaning; with
the purpose of life
Doxastic practices – having to do with beliefformation
the social and logical conventions and standards
through which beliefs are generated and validated