At one point in my life I took the position that one’s religious experience gives that same individual prima facie justification/reason to think God exists. Now, however, I’m not quite sure what to think of the matter. In other words, I’m not sure we should treat religious experiences as innocent until proven guilty. And even if religious experience gives one prima facie justification to think God exists, I’m also not sure how significant that is.
A popular criterion of what epistemic practices count as ‘innocent until proven’ is the notion that we should treat practices as innocent if and only if they are universal and practically unavoidable.
One objection to not taking the ‘innocent’ approach is something like the following:
You’re imposing a double standard on religious experience when you demand that it be universal and (practically) unavoidable like sensory experiences!
Not really. The reason we trust things like sensory experience is for investigation to even get started in the first place. And if we want to get at the truth, we’re not just going to accept any ‘tool’ as being innocent until proven guilty. Sensory experiences are universal and unavoidable, which is not the case for religious experience; that’s just a (sad?) fact! Therefore, our criterion isn’t imposing a double standard; rather, the standard is consistent across the board.
Furthermore, we now know that sensory experiences can get things wrong just like religious experiences; however, we also know that our senses are just reliable enough for us to trust them. We no longer just treat our senses as an innocent faculty, instead, we now know that our senses are a reliable faculty. On the other hand, we do not know if having a sense of the Divine is reliable. In fact, many cognitive scientists of religion (and philosophers) think that the existence of the hyperactive agency detection device poses potential problems for religious beliefs/experiences.
A follow-up objection will say something like the following:
But we will end up with global skepticism. We won’t have any justified beliefs, or at least we can’t claim justification.
Again, no. If we are interested in investigating reality, which we should be for the sake of surviving and thriving, then we will follow the truth. In addition, if you don’t want to get eaten by a lion, you should probably trust your senses. It’s also important to note that most religious experiences don’t have the force that sensory experiences have. With sensory experiences, most of the time, they are not vague or ambiguous. Not to mention, we don’t usually have total disagreement. It’s one thing to claim that religious experiences are innocent until proven guilty, but it’s quite another thing altogether to demonstrate that claim.
Granting the point
Even if we grant that religious experiences are innocent until proven guilty, the next thing to do is look in the world and see how many people’s experiences have been defeated.
A popular defeater of religious experiences is religious disagreement, as previously mentioned. But, also, there is a defeater in the form of giving naturalistic explanations of religious belief. For instance, one can have religious experiences while on drugs or while fasting. In addition, one can have religious experiences while having seizures.
One response to this says that even if you have a naturalistic explanation for religious experiences, that doesn’t mean God isn’t behind the causal chain! (Checkmate?) There is too much wrong with this reply, but let me focus on pointing out that there is a problem…even if we can’t figure out exactly what the problem is. I’ll do this by way of illustration.
Imagine that you get high on some drugs and you believe/see that unicorns are in your room. Next imagine that someone repeats the above objection: “Just because we’ve explained your unicorn experience with drugs doesn’t mean that unicorns weren’t behind the causal chain!!” Convinced? Obviously not. As you can see, the objection is deflecting from the matter of epistemic justification and moving to the issue of the actual existence of unicorns, and the objector also doesn’t understand Ockham’s razor. Nor do they understand the specific fact that the drugs are inducing an experience of unicorns whether or not unicorns exists!
Of course, even if someone’s religious experience is rationally justified and never defeated, that doesn’t rationally obligate somebody else to believe that the person’s experience/belief matches reality. And even if some person can be rational or justified in believing that something exists, according to particular theories of epistemic rationality/justification, that does not mean that the entity in question actually exists. For example, it is entirely understandable that some individuals in history thought the earth was flat.