The myth of religious experience

Religious Studies 40 (1):1-22 (2004)


I argue that people do not and cannot have religious experiences that are perceptual experiences with theological content and that provide some justification for the belief in God. I discuss William Alston's resourceful defence of this idea. My strategy is to say that religious perception would either have to be by means of one of the ordinary five senses or else by means of some special sixth religious sense. In either case insoluble epistemological problems arise. The problem is with perceiving God as God, which we need to do if reasons to believe in God are to be generated. To do so, we would have to perceive the instantiation of His essential properties – being all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good. But perceiving the instantiation of these properties of God, even by some special sixth religious sense, is impossible. Hence, God cannot be perceived either by the ordinary five senses or by a sixth religious sense. Religious perceptual experiences are a myth. (Published Online February 17 2004).

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Nick Zangwill
University College London

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