Religious Experience and Visions

The Argument

  • Some people have had religious experiences, such as feeling the presence of the divine, perceiving the order and rightness of the universe, feeling totally dependent on a greater power, having a vision of God, feeling at one with the divine, encountering a wholly-other reality, hearing the voice of God, feeling the presence of a transforming power.
  • The subject believes he/she is encountering the divine.
  • The only plausible explanation of such experiences, therefore, is that the subject truly encountered the divine

Criticism: Analogy with Dreams

  • Having a dream, no matter how vivid, doesn’t mean that the events in the dream really happened. Dreaming that God spoke to you, for example, doesn’t mean that God actually spoke to you.  But there’s no difference between dreams and religious experience in this regard. Thus, having a religious experience in which God speaks to you doesn’t mean that God actually spoke to you. 
  •  “As Thomas Hobbes succinctly put it, when someone says that God has spoken to him in a dream, this ‘is no more than to say he dreamed that God spake to him’” (Leviathan, Pt. III, ch. 32)

Criticism: More Likely Natural Explanation

  • Walking in the woods of Manchester, NY in 1820, Joseph Smith had a vision of God the Father and Jesus hovering above him and telling him the doctrines of existing churches were wrong.  So what really happened in the Manchester woods in 1820? Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the vision actually happened.  (Smith gave different accounts of the vision over the years.
  • Three possible explanations:
    1. Smith’s vision was “real” in the sense that God the Father and Jesus were physically present (so that someone nearby would also have seen God and Jesus).
    2. Smith’s vision was “real” in the sense that God the Father and Jesus actually appeared to him in the vision but only in the vision (so that someone nearby would not have seen God and Jesus).
    3. Smith’s vision was an hallucination induced by natural phenomena, such as fasting, lack of sleep, stress, drowsiness, self-hypnosis, prolonged fixation of attention, psychosis, or psychedelic drugs. Or perhaps Smith’s vision was a vivid dream.  
  • The plausibility of the hallucination hypothesis (#3) means that Smith’s experience doesn’t establish the vision was real in either the physical sense (#1) or the subjective sense (#2).
    • If a hypothesis is plausible, no competing hypothesis is beyond a reasonable doubt.