A very common argument for the truth of religion is religous experience. This can be in the form of personal revelation, less specific feelings of a divine presence or presences, experiences of the afterlife or the living world while near death and other various experiences that are claimed by some as evidence of the truth of their religion. What weight should such experience be assigned as evidence, and what is it evidence of?
The claim made by some is that such experience is evidence of their religion’s truth. A significant problem with this is that there are many religions, most of which hold the others to be false. Without some argument by which one particular faith may be favored and the experiences of the followers of others nullified, this presents a great difficulty: on average, for any one religion, religious experiences are evidence that that religion is false. Pick any “one true faith”, and a majority of people who witness miracles, feel divine presences, have near-death experiences or are granted insights through revelation find that their religious experience proves it to be false. In fact, even religious and non-religious atheists have also had these experiences, despite their beliefs not including a personal god at all.
If most claims of a spiritual reality are not consistent with most spiritual experiences, what explanation is consistent? It could be that a semipotent divine being or beings or universal consciousness is responsible, in other words that there is some sort of spiritual reality. To explain the variety of spiritual experiences, it must be that if a being is responsible, it is unable to communicate clearly and unmistakably with us. This would rule out the omnipotent and perfect divinities, but leaves room for less personal or less perfect beings or for a sense of feeling connection to the order of creation.
The apparent common source of spiritual experiences could also be natural in origin, a manifestation of one or several elements of our minds. These experiences alone can’t weigh for or against this explanation, so other evidence must be considered. There are arguments for and against materialism, and there have been a number of experiments regarding neurological and psychological causes of these experiences, although a specific cause has not yet been identified with certainty. I tend to favor the psychological explanation, in large part because I feel that arguments and evidence favor materialism.
This post was inspired in part by this one, which analyzes religious experience as Bayesian evidence against religion.