Can religious experiences help us to establish truths about religion? That was the question participants wrestled with during the most recent session of Everyday Religion in a World of Many Faiths.
“Religious experience is typically a private matter,” Professor Adnan Aslan said in his opening remarks, which helped to frame the class discussion. “Someone claims to have an experience in which she senses that she is one with the divine, say. Or, someone else claims to experience God or an angel speaking to him.
“Is a person justified in inferring from a religious experience knowledge of objective reality?”
“What are we to make of such claims? Is a person justified in inferring from a religious experience knowledge of objective reality, which is the object of that experience?”
Participants hesitated to draw wide-ranging conclusions from deeply personal experiences, other than noting such experiences hold deep meaning for individuals—and sometimes, for larger groups of believers.
Stephanie Mirza underscored how such experiences can create meaning. She recalled that almost a decade ago, when she was living in California, members of her local community gathered to pray for rain amid drought conditions. The forecast called for more dry weather, and no relief was on the horizon. But that night, as she drove home, she saw clouds forming. Rain followed.
“Some would say the explanation was just scientific,” she noted. “But for the people who were there, the explanation was spiritual. And for the people who were there, that experience was very meaningful.”
Aslan built on the class discussion to lead participants through several arguments about religious experience. William Wainwright, he said, offers an argument from analogy: A person experiences a tree and believes it exists, and similarly they experience God and believe God exists. The idea, he said, is that there are enough relevant similarities to warrant belief in God.
At the same time, Aslan noted that there is a lack of verifiability for religious experience. For instance, if a person believes they saw a certain animal in their yard, it’s easy enough for another person to check. But the same is not true for a personal experience of God, so one might argue that personal experience cannot be a justification for religious belief.
There is also a circularity objection, Aslan said. The idea is that experiences depend on assumptions that are not self-evident to everyone and yet are then utilized as controls or limitations on the experience: “It seems that most religious experiences reflect the belief and values germane to the religion, or worldview, of the experiencer.”
Perhaps, participants said, it’s helpful to look at how a particular religious experience affects someone in their everyday life. If it yields a positive outcome, that’s worth noting.
“If a religious experience helps someone to become a better person and change their life in a positive way, that’s a sign that God is at work.”
“Religious experiences do happen,” Rev. Tina Velthuizen said. “And I believe that God speaks to us through dreams. I don’t think that gives me or anyone else the authority to make a doctrinal statement. For me, the proof is in the pudding. If an experience helps someone to become a better person and change their life in a positive way, that’s a sign that God is at work.”
Aslan agreed, recalling an earlier class discussion that dealt with philosopher John Hick’s perspective. Hick argued that the fundamental aspect of religion is personal transformation, and religions are on a par with each other insofar as they produce saints—people who move from self-centeredness to reality-centeredness.
“You cannot make a doctrine out of your own experience,” Aslan said, “but consider the fruit.”