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A Comparative Doxastic-Practice Epistemology of Religious Experience

A second challenge to religious-experience claims comes from Wittgensteinian accounts of language. Wittgenstein (1978) muses at some length on the differences between how ordinary language is used, and how religious language is used. Others (see Phillips 1970, for example), following Wittgenstein, have tried to give an explanation of the strangeness of religious language by invoking the idea of a language-game. Each language-game has its own rules, including its own procedures for verification. As a result, it is a mistake to treat it like ordinary language, expecting evidence in the ordinary sense, in the same way that it would be a mistake to ask for the evidence for a joke. “I saw God” should not be treated in the same way as “I saw Elvis.” Some even go so far as to say the religious language-game is isolated from other practices, such that it would be a mistake to derive any claims about history, geography, or cosmology from them, never mind demand the same kind of evidence for them. On this view, religious experiences should not be treated as comparable to sense experiences, but that does not entail that they are not important, nor that they are not in some sense veridical, in that they could still be avenues for important insights about reality. Such a view can be attributed to D. Z. Phillips (1970).

While this may account for some of the unusual aspects of religious language, it certainly does not capture what many religious people think about the claims they make. As creationism illustrates, many religious folk think it is perfectly permissible to draw empirical conclusions from religious doctrine. Hindus and Buddhists for many centuries thought there was a literal Mount Meru in the middle of the (flat, disc-shaped) world. It would be very odd if “The Buddha attained enlightenment under the bo tree” had to be given a very different treatment from “The Buddha ate rice under the bo tree” because the first is a religious claim and the second is an ordinary empirical claim. There are certainly entailment relations between religious and non-religious claims, too: “Jesus died for my sins” straightforwardly entails “Jesus died.”