Religious experiences? True or false?

Religious experiences can be proved true or false by critical perception

If Ultimate Reality is personal, we should not be surprised to find that he/she discloses himself/herself to us. And, in fact, religious experiences are far more common than is generally realised. In Western society two-thirds of people claim to be sensitive to religious realities, and one in ten to have had special religious experiences of one form or another (see: R.STARK and C.Y.GLOCK, American Piety: The Nature of Religious Commitment, Los Angeles 1968; D.GERARD, `Religious Attitudes and Values’ in Value and Social Change in Britain, London 1985, pp. 50-92.). God’s self-manifestations always imply some level of religious awareness in us.

To indicate what we are talking about, here is a typical testimony:

“I could not call myself a mystic, but on half a dozen occasions I have had experiences which for me made me certain of the reality of some supernatural Entity which, or whom, I label `God’. One was among the foothills of the Himalayas near Simla, one at Vauxhall Station, one on a railway bridge at Woolwich, one in the lounge at a Swanwick Conference, and once at a Holy Communion service when the bombs were falling near us and we (the members of the City Temple Friday Fellowship) knelt on the rough boards of an upper room off Fleet Street lent to us by the Vicar of St.Bride’s Church, the City Temple having been burnt to the ground by incendiary bombs . . .

I will try to describe one. Vauxhall Station on a murky Novenber Saturday evening is not the setting one would choose for a revelation of God . . . For a few seconds, I suppose, the whole compartment was filled with light. This is the only way I know to describe the moment, for there was nothing to see at all. I felt caught up into some tremendous sense of being within a loving, triumphant and shining purpose. I never felt more humble. I never felt more exalted. A most curious, but overwhelming sense possessed me and filled me with ecstasy. I felt that all was well for mankind – how poor the words seem! The word `well’ is so poverty stricken. All human beings were shining and glorious beings who in the end would enter incredible joy. Beauty, music, joy, love immeasurable and a glory unspeakable, all this we would inherit . . . All this happened over fifty years ago but even now I can see myself in the corner of that dingy, third-class compartment with the feeble lights overhead and the Vauxhall Station platform outside with milk cans standing there.”
Dr.Leslie Weatherhead in A.HARDY, The Spiritual Nature of Man, Oxford 1979, p. 53.

What to make of this? Can our awareness of God and spiritual realities be trusted? Not all religious experiences are peak experiences as described above, but all, in some way or other, partake of the same directness of contact with Ultimate Reality.

There are people who contend that a direct experience of God is so powerful that it needs no further argument. “The Christian experience of God in the nature of the case must be self-authenticating and able to shine by its own light independently of the abstract reflections of philosophy, for if it were not, it could hardly be the living experience of God as personal” (see: H.H.FARMER, The World and God, London 1935, p. 158; criticised by R.W.HEPBURN in Christianity and Paradox, London 1958, pp.24-48; see also A.FROSSARD, God Exists. I have met Him, London 1970.).

While they have a point, they overlook the fact that no experience happens in a vacuum. Religious experiences usually presuppose that the reasonableness of belief in God has been shown by other arguments. Moreover, there is a danger of self-delusion (see: D.A.PAILIN, The Anthropological Character of Theology, Cambridge 1990, pp. 105-110.).

Religious experience is not a mirage

Wishful thinking often gives rise to self-deception, such as we find in day-dreams, neuroses, myths and superstitions. Our wishful thinking for something like God to exist is undeniable. This psychological need for God does not prove he/she does not exist, yet it should put us on our guard. Awareness of God’s presence could be just the product of wishful thinking. A spiritual experience could be just a flight of fancy (see: J.C. Flugel, Man, Morals and Society, Harmondsworth 1955, p.322.).


We have hit here on a very real problem. Psychological needs exert a strong influence on religion and religion expresses itself first and foremost in our psychology. A religious experience is always of necessity also a psychological happening. A true perception of God’s presence, which stirs us to the depths of our personality, may resemble, at least superficially, the state of mind of a person who is psychologically unbalanced.

For people travelling in the Sahara it is a well attested phenomenon that at times they see on the horizon the vision of a distant oasis. The oasis may look deceptively real, a lake of water surrounded by palm trees. Such a fata morgana is, however, an illusion and weary travellers are ill-advised to leave the beaten track in an attempt to pursue it. How can a traveller distinguish between a real oasis and a chimerical fata morgana? Fortunately for the traveller she need not persuade herself that every oasis she sets her eyes on is a projection of the mind; yet her problem remains: when an oasis comes into her field of vision, how shall she know whether to trust it or not?

Such is the fata-morgana problem of religious experience. Some people maintain it cannot be resolved. If our own eyes deceive us, what eyes have we to correct them with? This is the way C.H. Berg approaches the question (see: C.H.BERG, Mankind. The Origin and Development of the Mind, London 1962, p.17.). Religious experiences may be true or untrue, he says, but whether true or not, the evidence will remain inconclusive. We can always explain them in a natural way without having to invoke external supernatural factors.

If the fata morgana problem cannot be solved, are we then not condemned to go through life with the continuous fear that everything we experience is an illusion?

Critical perception can be trusted

To tackle our problem in a positive fashion, it is necessary to work out the value of human perception. We are gifted with intelligence. Our mind is constructed in such a way that it is geared to perceiving and interpreting reality around us. We do not only reach the outside world through sight, hearing and touch; we also judge persons, objects and events in a continuous process of scrutiny and evaluation. Our survival depends on intelligent perception, and millions of years of evolutionary history have gone into equipping us with the faculty of being able to judge things and to judge them critically.

Of course, our perception is not entirely unconditioned. We do not see things as an indiscriminate blur of colours and lines, we do not hear an unstructured confusion of sounds. Whatever we perceive, we perceive within a frame of reference. This frame of reference is a way in which reality around us is already structured in a relevant manner. The frame of reference in which we perceive things is partly determined by inborn traits, partly acquired when we imbibe culture or order our own experience. The language we have learned to speak helps us to define experience in a particular way. In every perception our memory is present, laying down `the rules of the game’.

See about all this: R.R.BLAKE and G.V.RAMSEY, Perception. An Approach to Personality, New York 1951, pp. 123-126; L.E.ABT and L.BELLAK, Projective Psychology. Clinical Approaches to the Total Personality, New York 1959, p.33.

The frame of reference helps us to interpret the meaning of a situation, but it may also distort perception. Suppose we enter a church filled with people. While our eyes are still getting used to the subdued light inside, we see a person vested in a chasuble approaching the lectern. Immediately our mind jumps to a conclusion, to an interpretation of what is going on: `The local parish priest is going to read from the Bible!’ This `hypothesis’ of what is going on is due to our frame of reference: to the associations we have acquired about church, chasuble, lectern, and so on.

However, as we continue to observe things, we may find we have been mistaken. The person wearing the chasuble may turn out to be not the local parish priest, but an Episcopalian minister, in fact an ordained woman priest. Although she is approaching the lectern, she may not read from the Bible, but from a collection of patristic writings. By continued perception we test the hypotheses suggested by our frame of reference. We either find them confirmed by further evidence, or reject them in favour of a better interpretation of events. This is the way perception works in life.

Critical perception corrects itself

H.M.M. Fortmann, who specialised in studying religious perception and who published a four-volume report on it, suggests the following two principles as a key to solving the fata morgana problem:

  1. Perception as perception is never wrong, although inadequate perception may lead to wrong interpretations.
  2. Perception itself is the norm for judging perception.

See: H.M.M.FORTMANN, Als Ziende de Onzienlijke, Hilversum 1968; see esp. vol. 2, p.44.

When we thought we were seeing the local parish priest on his way to the lectern to read from the Bible, it was not our perception that was wrong, because what we actually saw was the chasuble. The rest was interpretation. To correct our mistake, all we had to do was to continue examining the situation. It was our continued perception that judged the validity of our earlier assumptions.

W.P.Alston comes to a similar conclusion in his studies on `perceiving God’. Critical perception can justify the experience, as long as we keep in mind that each kind of perception has its own rules which Alston calls its `doxastic practice’. We judge things differently when handling a biological test in the lab, when checking the vision of our eyes, when analysing psychological feelings or when examining religious experiences. The experience of the divine should be critically tested according to its own requirements.

See: W.P.ALSTON, `Perceiving God’, Journal of Philosophy 83 (1986) pp. 655-665; `Religious Experience as a Ground of Religious Belief’ in Religious Experience and Religious Belief, ed. J.RUNZO, New York 1986, pp. 31-51; `The Autonomy of Religious Experience’, The International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion 31 (1992) pp. 67-87.).

R.Swinburne arrives at the same point via a different route. Like other experiences, religious experiences should be given a prima facie justification. They have just as much a claim to be taken seriously as sense perception has. However, subsequent examination should eliminate untrustworthy experiences as spurious, and should establish what can be taken to be genuine.

See: R.SWINBURNE, The Existence of God, Oxford 1991, pp. 244-276; see also C.D.BROAD, Religion, Philosophy and Psychical Research, London 1953.).

The world around us is constantly sending messages to us. Who are we to say that these messages should only be taken seriously if they are of a particular kind, if they can be observed by the secular sciences? Reality is speaking to us in many more ways than can be understood by a telescope or a computer. Also, if these messages come to us from reality there can be nothing wrong with them or with our perception of them. We can only go wrong by giving them a wrong interpretation. This should be corrected, not by denying the messages or curtailing them, but by further critical perception. To deny the validity of perception itself is to strike at the root of our human contact with reality.

If, in a particular situation, we have the impression that something unusual is happening to us, that something of greater value is communicated to us, or in other words, if we feel we may have a spiritual experience, we should not react by rejecting the possibility of such an experience. Rather we should critically examine what is happening, being at all times determined to accept the truth. Imaginary experiences will always leave doubts; a correct perception of the Divine stands up to careful scrutiny. Whenever God touches us in some way or other, when God comes face-to-face with us in however passing a fashion, we know it and the confirmation of its truth will ultimately lie in the experience itself. The final confirmation of seeing is seeing itself.

The quality of the experience is the touch stone of truth

Scripture tells us that a prophet knows it is God who is speaking to him because the experience is so overwhelming that he cannot deny its reality even if he wanted to. Amos, who was just an ordinary shepherd in the village of Tekoa (750 B.C.) and who was called, much against his liking, to preach in the country of Judah, explains it as follows:

When a lion roars, who can avoid trembling?
When the sovereign Lord speaks, who can avoid proclaiming his message?
Amos 3,8; see also Jeremiah 20,9.

Just as one cannot help trembling with fear when a lion roars, so one cannot help responding to God when he takes hold of us.


Hallucinations do exist. One way of identifying them is by applying the so-called negative norms, norms that show something is wrong. The woman in the desert who unexpectedly sees an oasis will be wary of trusting her eyes for a number of reasons: she may find that no such oasis is indicated on her map; she knows that light reflected on a mixture of heated air and dust can produce images resembling water. In the same way we will distrust religious experiences if we are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or if we go through a period of emotional imbalance. We will also treat with the greatest suspicion whatever is in conflict with what we know about God and religion from reliable sources. Religious experiences cannot be genuine if they contradict good taste, common sense or sound advice. Experiences that unsettle us, make us unhappy, that rob us of concern for others or peace with ourselves, cannot be from God.

“The spiritual life justifies itself to those who live it; but what can we say to those who do not understand? This, at least, we can say, that it is a life whose experiences are proved real to their possessor. Dreams cannot stand this test. We wake from them to find that they are but dreams. Wanderings of an overwrought brain do not stand this test.

I have severely questioned the worth of these moments. To no soul have I named them, lest I should be building my life and work on mere fantasies of the brain. But I find that, after every questioning and test, they stand out today as the most real experiences of my life.

J.TREVOR in W.JAMES, The Varieties of Religious Experience, London 1963, pp. 268-269.).



The text in this chapter is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.

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