The argument from religious experience is an argument for the existence of God. It holds that the best explanation for religious experiences is that they constitute genuine experience or perception of a divine reality. Various reasons have been offered for and against accepting this contention.

Contemporary defenders of the argument are Richard Swinburne, William Alston, Alvin Plantinga, Alister Hardy, and Dinesh D'Souza.


In essence, the argument's structure is as follows:[citation needed]

  1. There are compelling reasons for believing that claims of religious experience point to and validate spiritual realities that exist in a way that transcends material manifestation;
  2. According to materialism, nothing exists in a way that transcends material manifestation;
  3. According to classical theism, God endows human beings with the ability to perceive – although imperfectly – religious, spiritual and/or transcendent realities through religious, spiritual and/or transcendent experience.
  4. To the extent that premise 1 is accepted, therefore, theism is more plausible than materialism.

As statements 2 to 4 are generally treated as uncontroversial,[citation needed] discussion has tended to focus on the status of the first.

Suggested reasons for accepting the premise

Some principal arguments that have been made in favor of the premise include:

Suggested reasons for disputing the premise

On the other hand, the following reasons have been offered for rejecting the premise:

Alternate formulations

American analytic philosophers Alvin Plantinga and William Alston developed arguments for accepting knowledge gained from religious experience based on drawing analogies with knowledge gained from sense experience.[9] In both cases they apply their arguments to Christian religious experiences, but accept that they may equally apply to other religious experiences.[9]

Plantinga argues that just as the knowledge gained from sense experience is regarded as properly basic despite being unsupported based on foundationalism in the mould of Descartes, religious experiences should be accepted as providing properly basic knowledge of God.[9]

Alston argues that if sets of practices used to form beliefs produce conclusions that are coherent over time both internally and with other belief-forming practices, they should be accepted. He argues this is the only way our ordinary beliefs are justified, and that by the same criteria belief based on Christian religious experience is justified.[9]

See also


  1. ^ Polkinghorne, Belief in God in an Age of Science "the surveys conducted by the distinguished biologist Alister Hardy" Swinburne references David Hay Religious Experience Today (1990) chapters 5, 6 and Appendix
  2. ^ For example the New Testament speaks of Jesus, after his resurrection, appearing to 10 or more people at once (see e.g. 1 Corinthians 15:6, Luke 24, Mt 28, Jn 16, Acts 1).
  3. ^ Swinburne, Is there a God? pp. 133–136
  4. ^ This is broadly Dawkins' line in The God Delusion
  5. ^ a b Walker, Cliff. "Is The Bible Historically Accurate?". Positive Atheism. Archived from the original on 13 June 2010. Retrieved 11 May 2010.
  6. ^ Kraemer, Hendrik (2009). The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World. Centre for Contemporary Christianity. p. 107. ISBN 8190869108.
  7. ^ Smith, Holly (17 September 2014). "Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion". Washington Independent Review of Books. Retrieved 28 January 2019.
  8. ^ Freud, Sigmund, The Future of an Illusion, W. W. Norton & Company, ISBN 0-393-00831-2
  9. ^ a b c d Webb, Mark (2017). "Religious experience". In Zalta, Edward N. (ed.). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 13 January 2018.

Further reading