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Religious Experience Essay

2425 words - 10 pages


A2 Philosophy of Religion

What is Religious Experience?

• A religious experience is a non-empirical occurrence and may even be perceived as supernatural
• It can be described as a “mental” event which is undergone by an individual and of which that person is aware.
• Such an experience can be spontaneous or it may be brought about as a result of training and self-discipline.
• Recipients of religious experiences usually say what has happened to them has drawn them into a deeper knowledge or awareness of God.
• It is very important to remember that the experience itself is not a substitute for the Divine, bit a vehicle that is used to bring people closer to ...view middle of the document...

• Speaking in a completely different voice or language.
This could lead one to the conclusion that although many people try to control the experiences, they are, in fact, beyond human control.


James suggested that this is the most easily recognised characteristic of a mystical experience. This is in spite of the fact that it is inherently negative. Religious experiences are private events and the recipient goes through sensations that are beyond verbal description: they are unutterable.

There is an awareness that there is something to be described but no way of doing so. St Theresa of Avila stated:
“I wish I could give a description of at least the smallest part of what I learned but when I try to discover a way of doing so, I find it impossible.”

Sometimes descriptions are offered but these tend to be meaningless to the listener, who has no experience of such occurrences. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1809 – 1892 (who was the poet laureate!)wrote in a letter:
“I am ashamed of my feeble description. Have I not said that the state is utterly beyond words?”
In conclusion, we can say that a person cannot truly understand what is beyond their own experience.

Noetic quality

Even if such experiences are ineffable, recipients are quick to point out that they do provide insights into unobtainable truths…but NOT through the intellect. Knowledge seems to be grasped through intuition and perception it is a revelation.
The noetic quality of a religious experience therefore, is the ‘knowledge’ or information that is gained, although not in a conventional manner.


It would appear that most religious experiences last between a few minutes up to approximately two hours. However, the significance and effects of the experience are out of proportion to its physical duration.

This can be easily considered if we consider dreaming. It is perfectly possible to spend five minutes dreaming about a scenario that appears to take hours or even days. However, unlike many dreams, those who have undergone such experiences claim that the experience is well remembered.

The aims and main conclusions drawn by James in “The Varieties of Religious Experience.

The main arguments put forward by James are as follows
1. The spiritual value of religious experiences is not undone even if we can find a psychological explanation for the experiences. James particularly rejected the view that religious experience was the result of perverted or repressed sexuality, which was an interpretation being put forward by Sigmund Freud. James felt that this was an attempt to discredit religion by those who started off with an antipathy to it. Studies of religious life have shown that the context of religion is disconnected from that of sexual consciousness.
2. James did not agree that there was a single feature of religious experience that defines it, but he understood it to be
“The feelings, acts and individual experiences of men...

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