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
Our notes regarding these readings
provide a good review of this material. Here is the comparison from those
Smart: Complexity in the Concept of Religion
Simplicity in the Experience of Religion
is not one uniform thing; it should be defined in terms of its constituent
elements (7 dimensions)
refers to a living experience which should be defined in terms of
its personal meaning and its historical traditions
||2. less focus on theistic
||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
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.
Types of Religious Experience
the Divine Without
the Divine Within
A sense of a numinous
reality interrupting/overshadowing ordinary perceptions of that
Elicits a sense of a
presence both awe-ful and awe-some, that is experienced as "Wholly
A sense of all distinctions
fading away, leaving only a "pure consciousness" of oneness
Arises from a turning
within, through (typically) meditative practices designed to still
and quiet the mind
||any experience which
sends a "thrill of
fear and power down one's back" (p. 154)
||becoming totally immersed
in a musical performance
|Tends to give
rise to religions which:
emphasize the reality
of a Creator-God and our "creatureliness" before that
and living the will of this God, thus attaining salvation through
emphasize the Divinity
within all and the unity of all beings
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)
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.
Experience is Delusional"
Experience is Veridical"
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.
1. The "delusional"
view assumes without showing that there is no ultimate (non-human/non-material)
2. It is equally reasonable
to assume the existence of the divine, and interpret religious experiences
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
|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.
a necessary being
All God's perfections
flow from the necessity of his existence
Emptiness is a positive
reality which "allows" beings to be
a universal awareness of rightness or Directivity
reality is both perfect and personal
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.
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.
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.
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
demonstrates logical connections between the idea of a maximally
perfect being (God) and the "otherness" or metaphysical
uniqueness of this being.
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.
in a world of impermanance, the only thing that cannot change and
that is consistent with all is that which has no "nature"
purposes of this class) from alternate perspectives, it is hard
to distinguish "emptiness" from non-being
to be indifferent to the difference between good and evil
worship of an ultimate reality does seem to entail that reality
narrative of Christianity is a story of the emergence of good from
with traditional interpretations of the Christian God.
deny the universality of "rightness"
Each claim (about perfection and in response to objections) is countered
with clear and reasonable arguments.
idea of a "pure" perfection seems designed rather than
found to support the conclusion
not provide clear objections to views that insist ultimate reality
must be impersonal (eg, Hinduism)?
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
- 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