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Religious Experience is Nothing but Fantasy Essay

The above criticism to religious belief was proposed by Sigmund Freud; who thought that the origin of relig exp (religious experience) is rooted in the unconscious and that they are a product of eschewed psychosexual development. Freud rejected any appeal to the supernatural to explain these occurrences as our mind regularly deludes itself, pointing to dreams as an obvious example. The materialistic approach to explaining relig exp has led scientists to pinpoint specific physical causes of this phenomena; St Paul of Tarsus is thought to have possessed a form of epilepsy. In this case, Paul’s relig exp would be a fantasy but perceived as real experience.

A theistic challenge to materialism is that God and organic explanations of religious phenomena. In this way our brains may be wired up to experience God; materialism does not necessarily deem all relig exp fantasy. But how does one explain those who do not experience religious phenomena? Are some people born with Gods calling card? This in my mind is where atheists and theists will never agree; theists will say God only chooses some to be his messengers and atheists will say that our genetics and upbringing predispose some of us to superstition. In this way we cannot know whether each and every religious experience is fantasy; a conclusion reached by Bertrand Russell who reasoned that the fundamental truth that we cannot get inside someone else’s head and verify the experience deems this argument irresolvable.

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William James set out specific criteria for a religious experience. For example, the experience must be transient i.e it is temporary and therefore cannot be sustained. This conveniently prevents science from examining the psychological causes of the experience; further evidence that this argument is irresolvable. James based in conclusions in part on Pragmatism; the doctrine that truth is the acceptable conclusion for whomever concerned; in this sense, religious experiences are very much ‘true’ to the believer. This would be seconded by Ludwig Wittgenstein who indentified religion as a closed language game; proposing that the experiences are fantasy is not an accepted move and is only know to the outside observer. Ergo, to say religious experiences are fantasy excludes the one accepted explanation upon which religion is based; God did it.

The term fantasy is vague; does this indicate a belief that we want to be true and know is false or rather a true deception ourselves. The former seems plausible in the case of Mass Hysteria e.g The Toronto Blessing, where our desire to fit in overtakes our desire to be right; what psychologists call Normative Social Influence.

As James pointed out, these psychological explanations do not necessarily reject God. However, they do give us no reason to believe in him via Occam’s razor (believe in the most simple of the explanations) and thus reckon religious experiences as fantasy. This brings to mind Anthony Flew’s ‘Death by 1000 qualifications’; constantly changing the goalposts for the definition of God so that the eventual result is an idea that possesses no verifiable or falsifiable claim. Thus God cannot be counted in or out of existence, or even on the fence.

Kant objected to the term religious experience; calling it a contradiction. How can we experience that which is fundamentally beyond our sensory capacity? We experience people and trees and the world around us because it is finite; as are we. We can level the challenge that we experience the universe, which is infinite, but that we experience finite sections of the infinite set. Similarly we can count numbers but not count to the ‘be it and end all’ of real of the numbers. God we can experience in short, transient bursts but cannot experience the sum of him; this is not logically impossible. Kant’s reasoning is not the reason to reject religious experience as fantasy; as with religion there can only be one wholly true explanation of religious phenomena.

Only one religion can be wholly true as they make incompatible claims; and so we must dismiss most religious experiences as fantasy. And if we reject most religious experiences, then those remaining must be of the same psychological nature so they too can be dismissed as fantasy. James’s pluralism is merely another get out clause; another ‘death by 1000 qual’ which offers no explanation to how faiths are linked, and is infinitely less simple than materialism.

In conclusion, not every criticism levelled against religious experience is sound. However, only one is sufficient; that because we can track the experience of God to psycho/physiological phenomena, there is no reason left to believe in God even though the two are not mutually exclusive. Since the debate cannot be resolved ala Russell, we must assume the answer is not the theistic one.

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