1.8.3 Conflicting Religious Experiences

The Argument from Religious Experience: Conflicting Religious Experiences

One of the problems with the argument from religious experience is that members of all different religions can appeal to religious experiences as validating their beliefs. Christians may claim to have had experiences of the triune God, or of Jesus; Hindus may claim to have had experiences of Vishnu, or Ganesha; Buddhists may claim to have experienced transcendence, or unity with the universe.

Surely each of these claims to have experienced religious truth stands on an equal footing; if any of them is valid, then all are valid.

They cannot all be valid, however, for these various religions are mutually inconsistent, and so cannot all be true.

If not all of these claims are valid, though, then none of them is valid. No claim to have validated a religion through a religious experience, then, establishes the truth of that religion.

Religious Experiences Must be Interpreted

As a defence against this objection to the argument from religious experience, an appeal may be made to the role that interpretation plays in any religious experience.

Anyone who has a religious experience brings certain preconceptions to it. One raised in a Christian environment will tend to have Christian preconceptions; one raised in a Hindu environment will tend to have Hindu preconceptions, etc.

These preconceptions shape the way that religious experiences are interpreted. Two people may have the same experience, and the first, who has Christian preconceptions, describe it as an experience of the triune God, and the second, who has Hindu preconceptions, descibe it as an experience of Vishnu.

The fact that adherents of different religions appeal to religious experiences as validating those religions, then, does not imply that religious experiences are not experiences of an objective religious reality. It may be that the experiences are the same in each case, and that it is only the interpretations of those experiences that differ.

Defending the argument from religious experience in this way, however, involves making a major concession. The objectivity of religious experience is defended by allowing that the same experience may be described in many different ways, depending on one’s religious preconceptions. This means, though, that the specific religious interpretation of any religious experience is not a part of that objective experience but rather is a subjective response to it.

The problem of conflicting religious experiences may be solved, but a new problem is raised: the problem of conflicting interpretations of religious experiences; how are we to distinguish legitimate from illegitimate interpretations of religious experiences?


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