The religious experience (RE) argument is an a posteriori argument based on empirical evidence which investigates the existence of God using peoples’ experiences whether they be mystical, numinous or corporate. A mystical experience describes one that’s of direct contact with God whilst numinous refers to the feelings of awe felt when in the presence of God. A corporate experience is a RE that happens to numerous people in the same place. Trueblood describes religious experiences to be the “primary datum of religion”. This is because every major world religion has a basis of RE, e.g Judaism with the burning bush and so, religious believers are much more likely to claim something is a RE and associate it with God.
Richard Swinburne examines the key features of a RE and states that there are 5 types which are organised into two categories - public and private. A public RE is one that’s corporate or subjectively numinous. This is where a theist would associate God with an ordinary scene whereas an atheist wouldn’t e.g a sunset. A private RE however would be one that could either be: described in normal language, an ineffable mystical experience or seen as a way of life for theists. 31% of Brits and 35% of Americans have claimed to have a RE, according to Oxford University Research Unit. Swinburne puts forward the premise that, “an omnipotent and perfectly good God will want to interact with his creatures out of love for them”. He emphasises on the principle of creduity as if something seems to be so, then it is acceptable to assume that it is so otherwise life would be chaotic because we’d lack security and always be doubtful. Someone who has an RE is under no obligation to prove it to sceptics. This is because a RE is no different than another experience. With the principle of testimony, Swineburne says we should believe any claims with the use of principle of testimony, he says that people claiming to have a RE should be believed unless someone has a good reason to lie or isn’t sober.
William James believes that there are “Varieties of Religious Experience” (1902) and that these have four characteristics. James states that a RE is passive and a “loss of control” to a more powerful being. This idea supports the existence of God as an omnipotent and omniscient God logically would make a human, who does not possess these characteristics, not feel in control. Another characteristic is the ineffability of the experience. When recalling the RE, Gilbert says that, “there is difficulty in discussing non-empirical concepts in terms of intellect”. An experience may have a noetic quality, which is the information gained, as it would have provided an insight into truths that aren’t found in ordinary books. Lastly, these experiences are transient. A RE, even though they may last a few minutes or a few hours, can have great significance. The enormity of the impact from such a short experience can be used as evidence of God as his power is being shown, as it is in regard to the noetic quality of the experience as well. James views religious conversions, e.g Saul becoming Paul, as “real effects from real causes” and this can be a strength in the argument for God.