C. D. Broad: “The Argument from Religious Experience” [pp. 193-200]


Comparison: capacity for religious experience with ear for music.

Thus: the atheist is tone deaf, and so on up to the “founders of religions” [assuming, of course, they have religious experiences] to “great musical composers, such as Bach and Beethoven” and Outkast, of course.


Religious experience raises three problems [194.1]:

1.     What is the psychological analysis of religious experience?

2.     What are the causal conditions for having religious experiences

a.     In the human race?

b.     In each individual?

3.     Are the religious experiences representative of something true or probable?


Obviously problem 3 is not one that you have for an ear for music: musical experiences are not taken to be representative of an alternate reality.  [But why not?  Why can’t we take them as evidence for “the music of the spheres” or something?]


What the analogy illustrates:

  1. We shouldn’t take the atheist’s dismissal of all religious experiences any more seriously than the tone-deaf person’s dismissal of music (or his theories about music/religious experience).
  2. A “great ear” doesn’t entail a “great brain” – just because you have religious experiences, we shouldn’t assume you can analyze them well.


Common core but differences in detail [195.2]

How do we explain the differences in detail about religious experiences by members of different religions?

(i)     Each tradition offers theoretical interpretations, so that an experience will be interpreted differently, even if every person has the same experience

(ii)  The experience itself will be felt differently depending on your religious background.


This is true of all kinds of sensations, says Broad:

When I am thinking only of diagrams a certain visual stimulus may produce a sensation of a sensibly flat sensum; but a precisely similar stimulus may produce a sensation of a sensibly solid sensum when I am thinking of solid objects. [196.1]


Two alternative attitudes to someone who claims to have religious experiences:

1.            We may suppose that the person has genuine contact with an alternative reality.

2.            We may think they’re deluded.


Three cases to illustrate:

1.     The trained microscopist [196.1]
People trained in the use of microscopes (or X-Rays) can see things through them that untrained users can’t.  Are they making up what they see?  We don’t believe so.  Why?  Because “we have learnt enough, from simpler cases of visual perception about the laws of optics to know that the arrangement of lenses in a microscope is such that it will reveal minute structure, which is otherwise invisible, and will not simply create optical illusions.” [197.1] 
“Religious experience is not in nearly such a strong position as this.” [197.2]

2.     The habitual drunkard [196.1]
The reason we don’t believe the drunkard when he reports snakes and rats on his bed, is that we’re used to rats and snakes and we can see that they’re not there.  In contrast, however,

the assertions in which religious mystics agree are not such that they conflict with what we can perceive with our senses.  They are about the structure and organization of the world as a whole and about the relations of men to the rest of it.  And they have so little in common with the facts of daily life that there is not much chance of direct collision. [197.1]

3.     The once-blind, now sighted beings, trying to communicate with their still-blind fellows. [196.2]
If we were the still-blind fellows, we should believe what the newly-sighted ones say about this mysterious thing “color”, because those people can also make predictions about when we’re about to feel something in our path (because, unknown to us, they can see it first).  Can mystics make similar testable predictions?

many ideals of conduct and ways of life, which we can all recognize now to be good and useful, have been introduced into human history by the founders of religions.  These persons have made actual ethical discoveries which others can afterwards recognize to be true. [197.2]


Should we believe the religious mystics?

When there is a nucleus of agreement between the experiences of men in different places, times, and traditions, and when they all tend to put much the same kind of interpretation on the cognitive content of these experiences, it is reasonable to ascribe this agreement to their all being in contact with a certain objective aspect of reality unless there be some positive reason to think otherwise. [197-198]

Examples of such positive reasons:

1.     Neuropathic symptoms or bodily weaknesses (often attributed to founders of religions) [198.1]

a.     Founders have also shown great organizational skills.

b.     Geniuses are usually a bit cracked.

c.      You’d need to be strange to see into another world

d.     And if you weren’t already, the seeing would make you strange.

2.     The experiences are tied up with other factors, like strong sexual emotions [198.2]

a.     This doesn’t mean that the experiences are thereby rendered false (maybe the other factors are “gateways” to ensure viewing another world [compare Native American spirit quests, involving fasting and ingesting hallucinogenic drugs]).

b.     Science, just as much as religion, had dubious beginnings – the one in the “primitive rain-maker”, the other in the “primitive witch-smeller”