Essay – Corporate Religious Experiences

November 9, 2018
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Corporate religious experiences are less reliable than individual religious experiences. Discuss (40 marks)

This essay was written in forty minutes in the actual exam in June 2018 and obtained full marks (40/40). PB

It can be argued that corporate religious experiences are less reliable than individual religious experiences such as mystical, numinous or conversion, as they can be subject to mass hysteria. William James would agree that they are less reliable as he strongly argues that conversion experiences can be proven for validity, therefore are reliable. On the other hand, scholars such as Schleiermacher and Swinburne would argue that all religious experiences are equally reliable, as this is an extremely weak view to take as religious experiences should be taken on case by case basis and it is dangerous to make blanket statements such as one is more reliable than the other. In fact it can be even argued that no religious experience is reliable and can be proven and explained by psychology. Therefore it is wrong to claim that corporate religious experiences are less reliable than others, as they should all be judged case by case.

Notice how easy it is to reconstruct the question from this opening paragraph, even if we didn’t have it in front of us – the sign of a potential top grade answer.

 Corporate religious experiences are those that happen to a group of people as a body. An example of a corporate religious experience is the story of Pentecost as the crowds all felt the same mighty winds and aw the same fountains of fire. In addition a more recent corporate experience is the Toronto blessing, where people all felt the same euphoric sensation and experienced uncontrollable laughter. A case can be made that corporate religious experiences such as these are reliable as there is more than one person claiming that this happened, although this is an extremely weal argument, as who says they aren’t all lying? This can be seen with the corporate religious experiences of six teenagers and children in Medjugorge (former Yugolsavia, June 1981), where they claimed to keep seeing the virgin Mary and she would deliver messages to them such as ‘the world needs more prayer’. However, the Catholic church itself is extremely sceptical of this religious experience and warns others to be as well., therefore demonstrating that corporate experiences perhaps are less reliable. However, these explanations may have a neuropsychologcial explanation particularly the Toronto blessing, as Michael Persinger’s God helmet demonstrated that experiences can be caused by being in the presence of magnetic fields and not bought about by God. Thus demonstrating corporate religious experiences are not reliable. But this objection can be sued for individual religious experiences, highlighting that all types if religious experiences are equally as reliable or unreliable as each other.

Friedrich Schlieremacher takes the extremely controversial view that all types of religious experiences are self-authenticating therefore receive absolutely no testing to see if they are reliable or not. Thus meaning he would completely disagree with the claim that corporate religious experiences are less reliable as they are all reliable in his eyes. However, this is an extremely dangerous view to take as it means that those experiences which may have occurred from drugs or other theories are considered valid religious experiences, when actually they contain no religious origin at all. Furthermore, the Catholic church presents a strong critique of Schleiermacher’s view stating that religious experiences do need to be tested in some way, perhaps against Scripture or biblical teachings, to make sure religion is not damaged by those caused by other means. This adds validity to the idea that different types of religious experiences are not more or less reliable than each other but the reliability should be taken on each individual experience.

On the other hand, William James would  argue that conversion experiences are perhaps more reliable than corporate religious experiences, as James argued that with conversion experiences you can see a direct change in the subject after the experience therefore meaning it can be proven to be reliable. As James wanted to take an objective account to see if conversion experiences were reliable, therefore strengthening his conclusion. In addition, James identified five main characteristics of religious experiences that we can identify in the subject. These are: ineffability, unable to express it in our everyday language, noetic quality, containing a sense of a truth, transience, lasts a short time but effects are lasting, and passivity, so it happens outside yourself. This therefore means that James has provided a framework in which we can test people’s religious experiences against.  However, this does still not mean they can be 100% reliable as those experiences caused by psychological factors may also portray the same four qualities, therefore may prove an experience has taken place even though it is not necessarily religious. However, James would argue against this and say that we can see if it was religious or not by seeing if the person now portrays characteristics of the holy spirit, such as listed in the Bible , ‘the holy spirit is joy, love, peace’, therefore if you can now see those characteristics in a person, which you could not before, suggests that a religious experience has taken place nd it can be said to be reliable. Although James’ argument that conversion is more reliable because we can observe the effects is convincing it doesn’t completely rule out any other explanations. For example, some people may be more prone to these experiences if they have had a traumatic upbringing. Therefore psychology has an answer and not James.

Feuerbach puts forward a convincing argument to disprove the concept of religious experiences as he states that people often invent this God figure in their own minds in order to fill the gap. For example, if someone didn’t have a father figure growing up they may invent a parental ‘god’ like figure in their heads to fill that gap. Thus weakening James’ argument that conversion experiences are reliable, as people may think its God talking to them but really it’s their own human nature. This therefore demonstrates that James’ is wrong in claiming individual experiences are any more reliable than corporate as they are about as reliable as each other.

In judgement, corporate religious experiences are not less reliable than individual ones, as it depends on the individual unique experience and you should judge its reliability solely on the experiences and not whether it is a corporate or individual one. In addition, perhaps no type of religious experience is reliable due to the psychological explanations which are now available.














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