Are Religious Experiences “Innocent Until Proven Guilty”?

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. 


6 thoughts on “Are Religious Experiences “Innocent Until Proven Guilty”?

  1. A thought-provoking post, as usual.

    I don’t see much of a problem with taking experiences of the Divine as evidence (falling short of proof) that God exists. There should be some relationship between experiences and the beliefs for which we think they provide evidence. Experiences of the Divine are usually ineffable. Since God is believed to be transcendent and incomprehensible, it’s a pretty good match: Experiences we can’t articulate are taken as evidence of something we can’t understand. In some ways, it’s not much of a claim to make, but it might be the most accurate description of the situation.

    You wrote that we take sensory experiences as reliable for two different kinds of reason. First, you offer a reason I would not dispute: that knowledge must start somewhere, and that assuming the reliability of sensory experience is a good place to start. That’s basically Thomas Reid’s argument. Second, you offer a reason that I’m not completely sure I follow, so forgive me if I do not. You say that we regard sensory evidence as reliable because it is universal and unavoidable.

    It seems to me that sensory experiences might or might not be universal. Their content is private and ineffable, just like experiences of the Divine. No one can explain what his or her experience of redness is like except in terms of *structures* we share in our public experience. In other words, I can’t tell you what I sense when I see a red object. What I can tell you is that it’s the *same* experience as I have when I see fire trucks, strawberries, and “red” paint. From that information, you can identify the things that I consider red without ever knowing what my private experience of redness is like. As for universality, well, five percent of men are red-green colorblind. My high school roommate was tone-deaf, and could not learn to sing no matter how much I tried to coach him. Even the structures found in sensory experience aren’t totally universal.

    Finally, you wrote that “If we are interested in investigating reality, which we should be for the sake of surviving and thriving, then we will follow the truth.” I agree in a limited sense.

    The phrase “surviving and thriving” can mean various things. It can apply to individuals, groups, or both. Religious faith probably isn’t much help for individuals’ physical survival, but it can promote group solidarity and cooperation that contribute indirectly to physical survival. Moreover, “thriving” need not be only physical. Many people derive a sense of serenity or a solid foundation for their morals from religious beliefs.

    As for Ockham’s Razor, I’d suggest that it is a prudential principle, not a metaphysical one. The simplest explanation takes fewer risks than a more complicated one, so we think it’s more likely to be true, but it’s not necessarily so. IMHO.

    1. Philosophy of Religion blog (Does God Exist?)

      Thanks. You have some goods thoughts here. I do think the general fact of religious experience favors theism over naturalism.

  2. Actually I don’t hear much of religious experiences to speak of. What I hear and read about are religious interpretations. The person involved experienced something, I think, but they are telling me they saw an angel or heaven or god or….

    When we see a dog we refer to it as a dog without needing a translator or species consultant. If you say you “saw god” in a vision, I am curious as to how you knew you were seeing god and not some similar entity (Odin? Ahura Mazda?). I read that people say that they just knew it was god, but knowing a dog is a dog is based upon seeing a shitload of dogs from when we were young onward. How many times have they seen this god? Who told them it was god (like our parents teach us about puppies and dogs) so they could recognize it the next time they saw it?

    If they are interpreting an overwhelming experience/feeling and interpreting the vision based upon the feeling, well there are a great many things that can cause an overwhelming feeling. Even the Vatican insists that “miracles” witnesses must be debriefed before the “miracles” can be certified.

    So, what someone “feels” or experiences is one thing. I am curious as to how they got to their interpretation.

    1. Philosophy of Religion blog (Does God Exist?)

      That’s actually an interesting problem. Like you said, they typically say they just “see” or immediately know.
      But, is the religious interpretation/upbringing influencing or causing the experience? And why would someone fall back solely on their own experience when they know people have conflicting experiences?

  3. WildOliveGentile

    Treating religious experiences as “innocent until proven guilty” is dangerous in my opinion. One could say that just because they experienced a vision in which God told them to murder people, that they know God exists and should therefore go ahead and do it.

    I wouldn’t go as far as to say religious experiences are definitively “guilty”, but I lean more to that side than the other.

    Like you pointed out there are so many factors at play. Not only is the person experiencing such phenomena unjustified in believing their god exists, but so is everyone else who they may try to convince of the reality of their experience.

    1. Philosophy of Religion blog (Does God Exist?)

      I’d imagine that defenders of religious epistemology would grant that the person in your case is indeed acting in an irrational manner, and the person plausibly has malfunctioning cognitive faculties.

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