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  3.1.2 Case Against Religious Experience

3.1.2 The Case against Religious Experience

A. The Psychological Challenge

Dr Persinger

The psychological challenge against religious experience is that all experiences originate in the brain. Dr Persinger argued that all experiences were brain experiences and argued that religious experiences may well be ‘miss-firings of the brain.’ He did research on the ‘God-helmet’ which bombards the temporal lobes with magnetism in order to induce ‘religious’ experiences which can then be compared to ‘authentic’ mystical experiences.

Ben Shermer is part of the sceptics’ movement and argues that while religious experiences are real, they are not external events but rather internal events. This being the case, religious experiences are not genuine religious experiences as they have no external source.

Exercise A1

i) What is meant by ‘miss-firings of the brain’?

ii) What is the purpose of the God-helmet?

iii) What is Ben Shermer’s position?

Sigmund Freud

In The Future of an Illusion, Sigmund Freud argued that religion was itself a psychological neurosis. In which case religious experience, as a by-product, has no authentic value.

Religion is comparable to a childhood neurosis. Our knowledge of the historical worth of certain religious doctrines increases our respect for them, but does not invalidate our proposal that they should cease to be put forward as the reasons for the precepts of civilization.

Exercise A2

i) What does it meant to call religion a neurosis?

ii) What is the association between the need for religion and childhood neurosis?

iii) How does undermining the authenticity of religion undermine religious experiences?

Timothy Leary

Timothy Leary conducted studies in the 1960s comparing accounts of ‘religious experiences’ with accounts of those having consumed hallucinogens. The accounts were indistinguishable.

Huston Smith, in Do Drugs have Religious Import?, commented on the distinction between these types of experiences. While the accounts may be similar, the long term effects on a person taking hallucinogens is vastly different from the long term effects on a person who claims to have had a ‘religious experience.’

Drugs appear able to induce religious experiences; it is less evident that they can produce religious lives. It follows that religion is more than religious experiences.

Exercise A3

i) How might Leary’s studies undermine religious experiences?

ii) How might Smith’s argument defend the authority of religious experience despite the psychological challenge?

iii) How successful is the psychological challenge against religious experiences?

B. The Physiological Challenge

The case of Phineas Gage

In Harlow’s account of Phineas Gage, he was described as a well-liked, happy and competent foreman who suffered the tragedy of having a metal pole through his head. After this experience, part of the pole was removed but part remained. He went from being happy to angry and competent to not being able to do his job at all.

This case study shows us how the brain and actions that affect the brain affect our characters and our experiences. Therefore, if the brain can be physiological affected through health etc. it affects our experiences.

Exercise B1

i) Who was Phineas Gage?

ii) Research his experience.

iii) How does this influence that argument that religious experiences are caused by physiology?

Physical health

The physiological challenge is that physiological problems and health problems etc. cause the brain to create or interpret experiences in a particular way that they appear as religious experiences. In this way, the physiology of the person affects the way their psyche interprets experiences.

This might explain why many of the mystics, Teresa of Avila, Bernadette of Soubirous, Julian of Norwich etc. were very sick, often on their deathbed. Perhaps their experiences were induces by their sickness, perhaps by the medication they took.

Exercise B2

i) Research the health of the following: Teresa of Avila, St Bernadette, Sister Faustina, Julian of Norwich.

ii) Why might it matter that mystics were often sick?


Landsborough argued that St Paul may well have been epileptic, and that his blindness may have been caused by the epilepsy affecting his temporal lobes. While there is no certain proof of this, it would undermine the authority of his conversion on the road to Damascus as it may have been the by-product of stress and his medical condition.

Exercise B3

i) How might St Paul’s conversion be otherwise explained?

ii) Stern disagreed with Landsborough’s conclusions arguing that there was no way that we could ascertain whether or not St Paul had temporal lobe epilepsy based on a few passing comments. To what degree is Stern right?

iii) Can St Paul’s example be used to disprove the authenticity of religious experiences?

C. The Sociological Challenge

Karl Marx

The sociological challenge is presented by the work of Karl Marx and suggests that all things influence our minds and behaviour, including our society. This being the case, it is no wonder that Christians see visions of Mary and Hindus of Vishnu. We are conditioned by our societies to want to see things in a certain way.

Marx argued that religion was the ‘opium of the masses’ and that religion was a construct which oppressed the people. For this reason it was suspect and so any experiences that a person received would have been part of the form of social control over the people.

Exercise C1

i) What is the sociological challenge?

ii) Why did Karl Marx call religion the ‘opium of the masses’?

iii) How does the sociological challenge seek to undermine the authority of religious experiences?

iv) Was Marx correct about the negative impact religion had on society?

v) To what extent was Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa of Calcutta oppressed by the Church?

vi) “A person’s religious experience is conditioned by their culture in the same way that a dream is always translated into a person’s language. This does not make it false.” Discuss.

3.1 Essay Skills

Types of questions

Questions on this topic might focus on the William James or Richard Swinburne directly, or perhaps on one or more of the types of religious experiences. Alternatively, the question might focus on the challenges to religious experiences. There are many avenues that an examiner might take to assess a candidate’s knowledge on this topic. Candidates should remember to include the arguments for religious experiences as well as evaluating against it. There must be a sense of dialogue between the two positions.


What it is asking

Critically analyse the conclusions drawn by William James in Varieties of Religious experience.

Here you need to look at what James argues about religious and mystical experiences, including the four characteristics, and particularly evaluate his position that religious experiences are psychological experiences.

Assess the claim that voice experiences are nothing more than the mind.

You need to give examples of voice experiences, their characteristics and then consider how they can be explained from a psychological perspective.

Religious experiences are neurosis.

This is a psychological challenge essay. You need to present the case for experiences before presenting the challenges posed. Remember to try to respond to these challenges but know your thesis statement and keep it balanced.

Religious experiences are the best argument that God musts exist

This question is asking about how genuine religious experiences are for the recipients particularly and whether or not we can use their experiences as evidence for the rest of us that there is a God.

Exercise 1

Analyse this question: ‘Religious experiences as psychological experiences.’ Discuss.

Essay Skills – Hooks at the start of your paragraphs

Each paragraph needs to stand by itself and tell a part of the overall essay, but they must also work together as a constant train of thought. One way to make sure that all paragraphs feel like they are part of the same essay is to use hooks which connect the paragraph to the previous paragraph and signpost why this paragraph is being mentioned at all.

Examples of good hooks are:

William James wrote about his research into religious experiences in Varieties of Religious Experiences.

This hook makes clear who this paragraph will be about and mentions their main work.

In response, Richard Swinburne presented his principles of Credulity and Testimony.

This hook shows that the paragraph comes right after the previous one for a reason, as Swinburne will respond to whatever challenge was just raised.

Freud challenged the notion of religion which in turn undermines religious experience.

This hook attempts to move the essay in a different direction having introduced Freud to the essay.

Exercise 2

Look at an essay you have written on religious experiences and write hooks for each paragraph. Then take the essay title from exercise 1 and write hooks for five paragraphs you would write.