Groothuis’ "Christian Apologetics" ch.16: The Argument from Religious Experience

Chapter 16 of Groothuis’ Christian Apologetics is on the argument from religious experience.  Several times he repeats that “religious experience claims need to be weighed  against other germane sources of evidence for or against a worldview (like Mormonism)…It should not be made to shoulder the entire burden of apologetics.” (379)

The argument is that various (veridical, or truth-conveying) human experiences are best explained by God’s existence (inference to the best explanation).  According to Richard Swinburne’s “principle of credulity” — “unless there is good evidence to the contrary, if person S seems to experience E, S should believe that E probably exists.” (365)  His “principle of testimony” states that “testimony is usually reliable.” (ibid).


Religious experience claims are either 1) deceptive, 2) non-referring, 3) non-divine, 4) divine.  Of type four, there are three types of arguments:  1) the argument from emptiness and divine longing, 2) the argument from numinous experience and 3) mystical arguments. Dr. Groothuis also will address two naturalistic rejections of theistic arguments:  1) the projection argument, 2) the reduction of religious experience to natural, physiological factors.



The argument from emptiness and divine longing.  “We all experience a deep sense of yearning or longing for something that the present natural world cannot fulfill–something transcendently glorious.” (368) (on C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory”)  “A man’s physical hunger does not prove that the man will get any bread; he may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic.  But surely a man’s hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist.  In the same way…my desire for Paradise…is a pretty good indication that such a thing exists.” — C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory


Numinous experience.  Three parts:  A subject (1) experiences (2) an object (3) that is both transfixing and frightening.  The framework of knowledge does not devolve into mystical nonsense, and the person usually does not walk away unchanged (Paul’s companions in Acts 9 did).  Examples:  Isaiah 6:1-7, Exodus 3, Ezekiel 1-3, Job 38-42, Acts 9, Revelation 1:12-18.  Pascal seems to have had a numinous experience, and it was a numinous experience that brought me back to God.


Transformational experience.  Pascal’s experience changed his life dramatically for the better.  Same with Paul. Same with me and Christians around the world for the last two thousand years.  


But, what of those who have fallen away?  A few options.  1. It was predicted that they would in the NT, and they weren’t Christians in the first place.  2. Their faith was merely experience-based and not genuine, dying when the experiences died.  3.  They thought their experience-based faith was all they needed, and became overwhelmed by doubts it didn’t answer.


Objections to religious-experience arguments.


1.  They can’t be verified.  Answer:  If you see the mountain goat that runs off before anyone else spots it, does that mean you didn’t really see it?  If God is supernatural, how can you verify him as you would the natural (to demand it begs the question against religious experience)?  Two ways to test for veridicality:  1.  Compare it to previously recorded religious experiences.  2.  Rule out contributing factors (drugs, mental illness).


The Projection Objection


Feuerbach said theology is anthropology.  Marx said religion drugs the masses into compliance.  Freud said God and religion are ideas based on wish fulfillment meant to cope with reality by projecting a stabilizing Father figure.  This is all true of false religion, idolatry.  But 1) the projection objection does not answer all the other arguments for theism and Christianity, 2) “The glory of God is man fully alive” (Irenaeus), William Wilberforce was not pacified by his Christianity (brought down slavery in Great Britain), and Freud was highly speculative and even if the religious people he analyzed were neurotic, that does not warrant such a sweeping generalization. 3. A strong wish for X to be true does not count against X being true (and see previous C.S. Lewis quote).  We can come to God for psychological reasons and still hold a true belief.  To say it is false because it is psychologically motivated is an example of the genetic fallacy.  4.  Christianity is not always comfort-inducing and often results in upheaval (numinous experiences are not pleasant).  God is not tame.  5.  The argument can be reversed on atheists:  You erase the concept of a God because of past hurts.  God gave us the parent-father relationship as a way of understanding our relationship to him.


Neurotheology:  A category mistake


Religious belief is a function of the brain.  Answer:  It has effects on the brain, rather than being an effect of the brain.  Are nonreligious beliefs a function of the brain?  Would that make them untrue?


Diverse religious experience claims:  eastern religions


The enlightenment experiences require a negation of individuality, personality and language.  Nirvana means to become extinguished.  Brahman means the self dissolves as individual into a Universal Self.  Language is not supposed to be able to capture nirvana or brahman states, as they leave concepts behind and communicate no knowledge…and so this experience cannot be used in a rational argument toward any worldview…though Ken Wilber does go on about it.  It cannot serve as evidence, and it cannot provide satisfaction:  It eliminates the God-shaped vacuum itself.


(discussion index)

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About Maryann

Maryann Spikes is the past President of the Christian Apologetics Alliance. She blogs at Ichthus77, and loves apologetics and philosophy. In particular she loves to study all things Euthyphro Dilemma and Golden Rule. A para-educator (autism) for five years, she holds a Certificate in Christian Apologetics from Biola University, an AA in Humanities via Modesto Junior College, and moonlights as a freelancer. You can follow her on Twitter @Ichthus77, connect with the Ichthus77 community on Facebook, or look her up on Google+.
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