Introduction (Excerpt – The Chapters)
- We possess a variety of descriptions of religious experiences, and a set of prospective claims that various religious traditions have related to these experiences, claims that these traditions characteristically, by way of description or evidence or inference, derive from these experiences. We thus, as it were, have a sampling of prospective legitimizers and prospective claimants. We do not possess much by way of general agreement, in precise terms, concerning the meaning of "religious" or "experience" or "religious experience." Thus our opening chapter, by way of definitions, examples, and a very modest typology, indicates what is meant here by "religious experience." Chapter 2 adds to the perspective begun by Chapter 1: It sketches in broad outline some of the central concepts of the theory of knowledge, or epistemology, as they relate to our overall enterprise. In Chapter 1 I discuss some of the salient characteristics of the structure and content of religious experiences, and in Chapter 2 I present some of the structure and content of epistemology of religious experience.
- In Chapters 3-5 I discuss two sources of skepticism about the possibility of religious experience providing evidence. Both radically empiricist and positivist theories of meaning and zealous defenders of divine mystery proclaim the inaccessibility to language or concepts of what is religiously important. The claim is widely made that philosophical and religious considerations support the thesis that religious experience is ineffable. What is ineffable cannot be described. Since experience is evidence only under some description, ineffable experiences, on this view, cannot be evidence for anything. Unless these challenges can be defeated, the short answer to our overall question is negative; religious experience does not provide evidence for religious beliefs. Radically empiricist and positivist theories of meaning yield this result by denying that there are any religious beliefs, and hold that our question is misleading insofar as it suggests otherwise. Some detailed arguments for such views are presented and assessed.
- Chapters 6 and 7 deal with the question of whether social science and other nonreligious explanations of religious experience are not both obviously available and evidentially sufficient to cancel any evidential force that religious experience might be thought to have. Thus the notion and the consequences of non-epistemic explanation of religious belief require exploration.
- Some have maintained that the subjects of religious experience enjoy a privileged status regarding not merely the content but also the cogency of religious experiences so that subjects are viewed as unchallengeable experts as to what their experiences are evidence for. Or, differently, some have held that religious experience, conceived as having evidential force, should be dealt with in the context of certain of the practices that define the religious tradition within which they occur (and which are constructed to favor those experiences). A sharply contrasting view contends that such experiences, imprisoned as they are in the conceptual cages of particular religious traditions, are thereby robbed of evidential significance. The first two sorts of views argue from the allegedly sheltered character of religious experience (its individual privacy or its occurrence within practices loaded in its favor) to its evidential power. The third sort of view argues from a differently conceived sheltered character of religious experience to its evidential impotence. In Chapters 8 and 9 I argue against all of these views.
- Perhaps the philosophical core of the volume is formed by Chapters 10-12. The focus is on how best to formulate a defensible principle of experiential evidence — a clear and defensible answer to the question of what conditions must be met by an experience in order for it to constitute evidence for a proposition. Various candidates for the correct principle are considered, and while one version is defended in the context of the argument in Chapter 12, other versions could serve the same role in yielding the conclusion that the argument defends. Then, this question being answered, it is asked whether strong numinous experience provides evidence for the existence of God. Chapter 13 raises the same question regarding enlightenment experience, and the final chapter briefly considers the relevance of conceptual experience, or philosophical reflection and argument, to our topic.
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