Religious experience workbook answers

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Religious experience


OCR A2 Religious Studies
Unit G581

Philosophy of Religion

This Answers document provides suggestions for some of the possible answers that might be given for the questions asked in the workbook. They are not exhaustive and other answers may be acceptable, but they are intended as a brief guide to give teachers and students feedback. The examiner comments (blue text) have been added to give you some sense of what is rewarded in the exam and which areas can be developed. Again, these are not the only ways to answer such questions but they can be treated as one way of approaching questions of these types.

Topic 1

Religious experience

1 Religious experiences can allegedly be manifest in a number of different ways but their foundation is a belief by those who have an experience that they have somehow been touched by a divine being.

2 The Gifford lectures given in Edinburgh in 1901–02, by William James, were eventually published as the book The Varieties of Religious Experience. They have been described as a masterpiece of religious thought.


  • Passivity. People describe a state of powerlessness as if their own will is in abeyance.

  • Ineffability. People talk of experiences which they have no words to express. James describes this state of mind as ‘negative’ because of the believer’s inability to describe the event/experience.

  • Noetic. This is the name James gives to knowledge beyond any normal experience. He says:

‘They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for aftertime.’

  • Transient. These experiences seem to pass very quickly, though the effects can last a lifetime.


  • Private. These might be described as ‘inside experiences’. These can be compared with feelings and thoughts. Sometimes the experiencers are able to describe in words what has happened to them but others are like James’ noetic experiences.

  • Public. These are ‘outside’ experiences which might be ordinary but are seen as the handiwork of some divine being. Alternatively, they may be what some may call miraculous experiences.

5 The story of St Paul on the road to Damascus could be described as both private and public. Falling off his horse could be seen but only he could hear the voice of God asking him why he was persecuting Christians. The resulting blindness and the miraculous recovery when he meets Ananias would be public. This story also includes the visions of Ananias and his arguing about whether or not he should cure this seemingly dreadful man.

6 ‘“Sun stand still over Gibeon,

and you, moon, over the valley of Aijalon.”

So the sun stood still,

and the moon stopped,

till the nation avenged itself on its enemies.’

7 This question is simply meant for you to explore the kinds of things which various saints have claimed to have experienced. St Teresa for example believed that Jesus presented himself to her in an invisible but bodily form. In another vision she saw a seraph drive a fiery part of a golden lance through her chest, repeatedly causing ineffable bodily and spiritual pain.

8 The easiest of these to find would be those of the Toronto Blessing. You should be able to find YouTube videos of the kinds of things which go on in these meetings. There are others such as Medjugorje where people have alleged a number of corporate experiences. It is worth noting that churches such as the Roman Catholic Church are hostile to some of these sorts of claims.

9 Freud believes that inside us is a fear of the external world and sometimes existence itself, what is sometimes called the existential angst. This leads people to create illusions such as religious experience in order to cope. This made Freud describe religion as a neurotic illness.

10 She argues that, if human consciousness can really leave the body and operate without a brain, then everything we know in neuroscience has to be questioned. If people could really gain paranormal knowledge then much of physics needs to be rewritten.

11 They might reply that there is much more to this world than science can explain. While it is true that much of neuroscience may need to be rewritten, that does not make the assumption right. Roger Penrose, for example, has been researching the idea that consciousness takes place at the quantum level and may have nothing to do with neurons firing in the brain.

12 The easiest ways to explore Hume’s view on religious experiences is to read his views on miracles which, as you will see later, he considers to be the least likely of events. Much of this is due to his being an empiricist who believes that there is no empirical evidence for religious experience and that those who would hold such experiences to exist are generally from a barbarous people or at least mistaken.

13 Here you might begin by exploring what counts as evidence on either side of this issue. If you look at the question from an entirely empirical point of view, taking a reductionist view of humanity, then nothing may count as a religious experience. However, if you take a view that alleged religious experiences have significantly changed the way people live their lives, you could count this as a form of evidence.

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