Review: Religion, Religious Experience and the Nature of God

1. What is Religion?

Basic Issue: Many organizations and practices call themselves "religious." Can we find a definition of "religion" that is sufficiently broad to include the wide variety of beliefs/practices which humans have accepted as religious in character?

Our notes regarding these readings provide a good review of this material. Here is the comparison from those notes:

  Ninan Smart: Complexity in the Concept of Religion Smith: Simplicity in the Experience of Religion
Claims 1. "religion" is not one uniform thing; it should be defined in terms of its constituent elements (7 dimensions) 1."religion" refers to a living experience which should be defined in terms of its personal meaning and its historical traditions
  2. less focus on theistic religions 2. less focus on the idea that there is an theoretical "essence" of religion

Belief systems such as Marxism and Nationalism are "quasi-religious" - that is, it seems hard to distinguish between traditional religions and other emotively and cognitively charged belief systems

1. The content of religious belief is subjective and/or irrational

2. Theology is shallow and misses the essence of religion

2. Notes on Religious Experience.

Religious experience (personal and prophetic both) could be considered the source and very heart of faith and religious institutions/doctrines. To understand such experiences, we need to know what they are like (the descriptive task) and what significance they have in the life of both the individual and the various religious traditions (the interpretive task). Finally, some philosophers also wish to address the validity of religious experience (the evaluative task).

The most common general definition of a religious experience is "an experience in which one is communing with or directly apprehending that which is divine." The emphasis is on the directness of the experience, and it's contrast with ordinary experiences of reality.

Dominant Types of Religious Experience
Enountering the Divine Without
Discovering the Divine Within

A sense of a numinous reality interrupting/overshadowing ordinary perceptions of that reality.

Elicits a sense of a presence both awe-ful and awe-some, that is experienced as "Wholly Other"

A sense of all distinctions fading away, leaving only a "pure consciousness" of oneness with everything.

Arises from a turning within, through (typically) meditative practices designed to still and quiet the mind

Analogous experiences: any experience which sends a "thrill of fear and power down one's back" (p. 154) becoming totally immersed in a musical performance
Interpreting Religious Experience
Tends to give rise to religions which:

emphasize the reality of a Creator-God and our "creatureliness" before that God.

encourages discovering and living the will of this God, thus attaining salvation through God

emphasize the Divinity within all and the unity of all beings

encourages attaining personal liberation, the development of a "still mind" even in the ordinary world

Provides a way to understand religious personalities: the prophet or the preacher would be in the numinous tradition the monk or the nun would be in the mystic tradition

Notes - These dominant types are oversimplifications. As an example, Hinduism seems to reflect a more ambiguous experience of the divine, reflected in their conception of of Brahmin as both the creator-god (as in a numinous experience) and the "true self within." (p. 156)

Evaluating Religious Experience

The key evaluative question is, "do we have objective reasons to think that religious experiences are veridical," or that they arise because there really is something beyond the cosmos/material reality as ordinarily experienced? Otherwise put, to use a metaphor that some mytics have used, "are those who enjoy religious experiences like the sighted in a land of the blind?" - or are they more like the deluded in a land of the sane.

"Religious Experience is Delusional"
"Religious Experience is Veridical"

General Claims:

1. Purely psychological factors and dynamics explain both the ubiquitousness and character of religious experience.

2. Accepting these psychological realities would enable us to live a better life.

General Responses:

1. The "delusional" view assumes without showing that there is no ultimate (non-human/non-material) reality.

2. It is equally reasonable to assume the existence of the divine, and interpret religious experiences accordingly.

Example 1 - Freud: religion feeds the human need to be special, cared for and safe. But it is an illusiory safety; better to develop human ways to provide for these needs.

Critique: Freud's view could not be universally applied - not all religions focus on a father-figure.
Freud's theories were based on currently out-dated information.

Example 2 - Fromm: religion provides a common focus of identity and devotion, thus serving crucial psychological and social needs. But religion has destructive as well as constructive elements, and it is best to eliminate everything in religion that feeds destructive tendencies.

Critique: while religion can fuel destructive attitudes and, therefore, behaviors, it's benefits have shaped cultures in major and creative ways. (counter-claim rather than criticism). Also, religion can sustain individual independence in the face of powerful secular social and political forces.

3. What is a reasonable way to define "God"?

Basic issue: God is usually understood as "ultimate" in one way or another - as ultimately or most real, perfect, true, unlimited, etc. This raises two issues:

  • can any concrete idea of "ultimate reality" make sense, given the limits and conditions of both language and thought?
    note: philosophers try to find a coherent idea of ultimate reality, which often necessitates abandoning more familiar, but perhaps too restrictive, ideas of who/what "god" must be
  • if the idea can make sense, is there a way to decide what such a being might be like in more detail?

In these readings, you are presented with three different ways to think about "ultimate reality"; each tries to move beyond simple repetition of a particular doctrine to grapple with the puzzles that deeper questioning can uncover.

Cobb's Integration of:
Popular Christianity
Basic Concept:

God is a necessary being

All God's perfections flow from the necessity of his existence

The ultimate is Emptiness

Emptiness is a positive reality which "allows" beings to be

There is a universal awareness of rightness or Directivity

Ultimate reality is both perfect and personal



Without one necessary being to create all contingent beings, there would be no contingent being.

A necessary being, and one that is the cause of all other beings, must know all things (that He created), have all power, etc.

The multiplicity of mutually dependent emphemeral beings makes the idea of a separate, defined god both unnecessary and undesireable.

An ultimate source of all beings cannot have its own nature, which would inevitably conflict with the being of at least some.

Both religions and major ethical systems acknowledge an innate drive toward "rightness" in action and experience.

The God of Christianity emphasizes God's will for right behavior and right goals as an essential part of God's sovereignty.

Ultimate reality must be perfect to be worthy of worship.

The three main objections to the idea of ultimate reality can be countered.

Even religions which emphasize the impersonal nature of the divine, include personal elements.

Strengths & Weaknesses

S: demonstrates logical connections between the idea of a maximally perfect being (God) and the "otherness" or metaphysical uniqueness of this being.

W: assumes that there must have been a beginning (a "first contingent or created being") - without which there is no need to postulate a truely first necessary being.

S: in a world of impermanance, the only thing that cannot change and that is consistent with all is that which has no "nature" to change.

W: (for purposes of this class) from alternate perspectives, it is hard to distinguish "emptiness" from non-being

W: appears to be indifferent to the difference between good and evil

S: worship of an ultimate reality does seem to entail that reality is good.

S: the narrative of Christianity is a story of the emergence of good from evil.

W: conflicts with traditional interpretations of the Christian God.

W: some deny the universality of "rightness"

S: Each claim (about perfection and in response to objections) is countered with clear and reasonable arguments.

W: the idea of a "pure" perfection seems designed rather than found to support the conclusion

W: Does not provide clear objections to views that insist ultimate reality must be impersonal (eg, Hinduism)?

Possible Pitfalls

It can be very difficult to even see the point of questioning our definitions of God, for three main reasons based on some assumptions about philosophy and religion. Here are a few responses to those assumptions.

  • We are so familiar with the idea of "God" that complexities in the idea elude everyday thinking.
    • Ask yourself to give a quick definition list of God's nature, and the usual characteristics will probablly appear: all the "omni" words (omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, etc), as well as central moral characteristics (just, merciful, etc). Just thinking about all these characteristics, however, can raise questions.
    • How can they all, especially as usually understood, exist together? How can a Being be omnipotent, for instance, as well as just? If just, a being cannot behave or judge in certain ways; if omnipotent, a being can do anything. Isn't this a conflict? Which brings us to a second source of problems exploring the defintion of "God."
  • It's often said that we humans "just can't understand" God.
    • That may be true, but philosophers can't begin with that premise. To use an analogy, imagine that you, as a child, are a philosopher asking your parents to explain why stealing is wrong. That's like asking for a definition of "stealing." Then imagine that your parents tell you that they just can't tell you, because you're too young to understand.
    • Now there are times when we are, indeed, too young to understand something. And there may also, by analogy, be times when we are faced with realities we can't fully understand. But to begin a conversation about adult concepts with the pre-emptive claim that things just aren't understandable is, in the view of many philosophers, to avoid the issue. Yes, children can't understand many things. But children grow up. The issue here is whether or not adults should accept "you don't understand" as an adequate answer to their questions.
  • Some wonder if questioning the definition of God is questioning the reality of God.
    • God may or may not exist - but that really isn't what is being questioned here. One can believe fervently in the reality of a transcendent and even mysterious God, and still try to understand that Being to the best of one's ability. Of course, some will conclude that if we don't understand what we are talking about when we talk about "God," then we can hardly support our belief that such a Being exists. But philosophically, the issue of God's nature/definition is separate from that of His (Her/It/?) existence.