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Philosophy and Atheism

One further epistemological worry accompanies religious experience. James claimed that, while mystical experiences proved authoritative grounds for belief in the person experiencing them, they cannot give grounds for a person to whom the experience is reported. In other words, my experience is evidence for me, but not for you. This claim can be understood in a variety of ways, depending on the kind of normativity that attaches to the purported evidential relation. Some (see Oakes 1976, for example) have claimed that religious experiences epistemically can necessitate belief; that is, anyone who has the experience and doesn’t form the corresponding belief is making an epistemic mistake, much like a person who, in normal conditions, refuses to believe his or her eyes. More commonly, defenders of the epistemic value of religious experience claim that the experiences make it epistemically permissible to form the belief, but you may also be justified in not forming the belief. The testimony of other people about what they have experienced is much the same. In some cases, a person would be unjustified in rejecting the testimony of others, and in other cases, one would be justified in accepting it, but need not accept it. This leaves us with three possibilities, on the assumption that the subject of the experience is justified in forming a religious belief on the basis of his or her experience, and that he or she tells someone else about it: the testimony might provide compelling evidence for the hearer, such that he or she would be unjustified in rejecting the claim; the testimony might provide non-compelling justification for the hearer to accept the claim; or the testimony might fail to provide any kind of grounds for the hearer to accept the claim. When a subject makes a claim on the basis of an ordinary experience, it might fall into any one of these three categories, depending on the claim’s content and the epistemic situation of the hearer. The most natural thing to say about religious experience claims is that they work the same way (on the assumption that they give the subject of the experience, who is making the claim, any justification for his or her beliefs). James, and some others after him, claim that testimony about religious experiences cannot fall under either of the first two categories. If that’s true, it must be because of something special about the nature of the experiences. If we assume that the experiences cannot be shown a priori to be defective somehow, and that religious language is intelligible—and if we do not make these assumptions, then the question of religious testimony doesn’t even arise—then it must be because the evidential value of the experience is so small that it cannot survive transmission to another person; that is, it must be that in the ordinary act of reporting an experience to someone else, there is some defeater at work that is always stronger than whatever evidential force the experience itself has. While there are important differences between ordinary sense-experience and religious experience (clarity of the experience, amount of information it contains, presence of competing explanations, and the like), it is not clear whether the differences are great enough to disqualify religious testimony always and everywhere.