The argument from religious experience is the argument from experiences of God to the existence of God. In its strong form, this argument asserts that it is only possible to experience that which exists, and so that the phenomenon of religious experience demonstrates the existence of God. People experience God, therefore there must be a God; case closed. In its weaker form, the argument asserts only that religious experiences constitute evidence for God’s existence. This form of the argument has been defended by Richard Swinburne with an appeal to the principle of credulity.

Are Religious Experiences Perceptual?

Both types of argument from religious experience assume that religious experiences are a type of perceptual experience, i.e. a type of experience in which the person having the experience perceives something external to them.

Some, though, argue that religious experiences involve imagination rather than perception, that the object of the experience is not something that exists objectively in the world but rather is something that exists subjectively in the mind of the person having the experience. This suggestion might be supported with an appeal to the possibility of fabricating artificial experiences of God.

Conflicting Religious Experiences

A further difficulty is the problem of conflicting experiences: adherents of all religions claim to have had experiences that validate those religions. If any of these appeals to experience is valid, then surely all are. It can‘t be, however, that all of these appeals are valid, because the various religions are mutually inconsistent; they conflict. None of these appeals to experience is valid, therefore.

The Subjectivity of Experience

Objections may also be raised along lines suggested by traditional philosophical scepticism. There are powerful philosophical arguments that our experiences of the external world, i.e. of the familiar everyday objects around us, are insufficient to justify belief in their existence. Descartes‘ argument from dreaming is the best known of these, though external world scepticism can be traced back at least as far as ancient Greece and Pyrrho of Elis.

The problem is that all experience is subjective and any subjective experience is logically consistent with any number of objective states of affairs. No matter how I perceive the world to be, there are any number of ways that it could be; I could be dreaming, or hallucinating, for example. If our familiar and lucid experiences of the external world are insufficient to justify belief in its existence, though, then how much more uncertain must be the connection between barely tangible religious experiences and belief in God?