Religious experience is often described as the ‘primary datum of religion’ and is considered one of the strongest arguments for the existence of God. It is a posteriori; meaning it denotes reasoning and knowledge from observation, as opposed to a priori which is based on logical reasoning (like the ontological argument). It is an empirical argument, it uses evidence to support statements made. One may question its reliability; it may be perceived as supernatural. Usually, those who have had such an experience say they have been granted the opportunity to gain a greater understanding of God and/or feel a closer connection with God. Religious experience features in all world religions, for example in Christianity we have Jesus’ resurrection. The Religious Experience Unit made discoveries on the topic finding 31% of British people and 35% of Americans have ‘felt close to a powerful spiritual force.’
We can categorise religious experience into different types to have a better understanding of what people mean when they claim to have had an experience. The first 2 are public experiences, whilst the rest are private.
1) Everyday occurrences that are interpreted differently by different people such as the beauty of the world.
2) Extraordinary occurrences witnessed by many e.g. the resurrection or, for a modern-day example, someone getting out of a coma when the doctors thought they would die and were about to turn off the life support machine.
3) Usual situations with religious significance like dreams (in this case, the individual is able talk about it)
4) Similar to point 3 but an ‘ineffable experience’, this means that the individual is unable to put into words what they have experienced due to how impactful it was. Only a being so great and powerful could leave one that speechless.
5) A Non-specific experience - one can feel God’s presence without there being a reason or particular feeling.
Richard Swinburne, a theist, discusses religious experience in favour of it. He says, '‘An omnipotent and perfectly good God will want to interact with his creatures out of love for them.' This means that if God is all powerful, and all loving (as he is meant to be in Christianity) then he would want to communicate with people to show his love for them. Swinburne also says that ‘theism is more probable than not’. This is because he believes there is no argument more plausible than for the existence of God. Using the cumulative effect, if one says they have experienced God, there is no such argument to explain that that is not the truth. Just as we cannot prove the experience definitely happened, we also cannot prove that it definitely did not happen. So, if we can’t reject it, then why not accept it? After all, it is not as if there is not support in numbers for the existence of God.