According to secular epistemology religious experience should not happen. We are supposed to experience only the phytsical world through the five senses. This creates a problem, as there are people who claim to experience realities beyond the physical world. Here a thinker comes to a fork in the road: does he say that as his theory does not allow for such realities, the experience is not genuine; or does he accept that there are realities and modes of experience that are not covered by his theory, and expand the theory to cope with them. The former places theory first, the latter experience first. Those who take the first path are akin to the people who looked at the moon through Galileo's telescope and declared that the mountains there must be cracks on the lens, so desperate were they to retain their theory.
Religious experiecne has a number of characteristics. However, the root of it seems to be a sense of presence. Beardsmore writing in A Sense of Presence [published by the Religious Experience Research Unit at Manchester College, Oxford] argues that this sense of being in the presence of a holy being is the root of all genuine religious experience. Buber, a Jewish thinker, writing in I and Thou, argued that this experience is a sense of presence/power. It might be experienced as either power or presence or both. For many people the sense of presence is an ennobling and stimulating experience, which deeply enhances their lives.
Writing religious expereicne off as hallucination is not good enough. David Hay, a psychologist of religion writing in Religious Experiecne, correlates religious experience positively with mental health, as those who claim it tend to score higher on mental health ratings than non-experiencers.It is also noteworty that hallucinations are quite grotesque and individual, whereas religious expereicnes have a shared form outlined here and are never grotesque. The proponents of halluicnation are exercising the ignoble art of explaining away the embarrassing experiecnes that don't fit in with their theories
Religious experience has various forms beyond a sense of presence. There are what is known as quasi-sensory phenomena. These are visions of varous kinds, auditory and olfactory phenomena. The churches often take these carefully, as they can be problematic. True visons are quite rare, but there are people who claim to have experienced bright non-physical light in association with religious experience. If you look at the picture above you see the Transfiguration of Jesus when the apostles saw him radiating light. This seems to be an example of this kind of experience. It is associated with a sense of presence and there is also a sense of extreme goodness involved. We can draw parallels with the near death experience, where light and personal presence seem to be strong characteristics of the experience. Auditory phenomena are known. Rolle, the fourteenth century Engish mystic, experienced the divine presence as incredibly beautiful music. Occasionally scents are experienced, but these are rare.
Mystical experiences are known. these are high level experiences in which the subject feels merged with the One. However, not all mysical experiences are religious, as it is possible to have a non-religious sense of merging with the all. Many people have doubts about mystical experiences. However, William James argued that the reliable ones met the following characterstics: transient [they [pass quickly] unitive [the subject feels merged with the ultimate reality] inefffable [cannot be fully expressed in words] and noetic[ they have the feel that accompanies all experiences of the Real.
Supporters of religious experience accept that there are false experiences, but they argue that the key to distinguishing true and false is their personal benefits. As God is good, any contact with God is beneficial. Just as we feel enhanced by the presence of a good person and diminished by the presence of a bad one, so in God's presence we must blossom and grow. One with a bad feel or which leads a person to evil is not to be accepted as genuine. It is wise to take advice if there are any problem experiences.
Those studying religious experiences should avoid these twin faults: there is the Scylla of rejecting in a biased way, trying to explain away what does not fit into one's world-view and which challenges one to change; there is the Charybdis of uncritical acceptance, which can seriously mislead. An open and critical mind is essential. What is the case is that many people are deeply moved and have their lives enhanced by these experiences. William James, who adopted the pragmatic theory of truth, which argues that truth always produces good results, saw this fact as being in favour of religious experience. However, the pragmatic theory is controversial and not universally accepted, though there is certainly something in it.
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