C.D. Broad (1930)

“The Argument from Religious Experience”


1.       Evaluates the argument for the existence of God based on religious experience (=rel exp)


2.       Rel exp argument differs from design argument and moral argument in that unlike the latter two, it does not start from “facts common to everyone”

          a.       Some people wholly devoid of any rel exp

          b.       And rel exp many people do have differs enormously


3.       Religious/musical experience analogy

          a.       Tune/Tone-deaf people (can’t recognize or distinguish the simplest tune) like those who have no kind of rel exp

          b.       Ordinary followers of religion like those who have some taste for music but can’t appreciate the more difficult kinds nor compose

          c.       Highly religious people/saints are like people with exceptionally fine ear for music, but may be unable to compose

          d.       Founders of religions like great musical composers, Bach and Beethoven


4.       Three problems of rel exp:

          a.       One:  Psychological analysis:

                    i.        Does it contain factors that are present in non-rel exp?

                    ii.       Does it contain factors that are never present in non-rel exp?

                              (1)     If not, then psychological peculiarities of rel exp must be the way these factors common in non-rel exp are blended in religious experience

                              (2)     Can we describe this blend?

          b.       Two: Genetic/causal conditions of rel exp

                    i.        Origin and development of disposition in human race and individuals to have such experience

                              (1)     Freud’s focus

                    ii.       What are the causes that produce it in certain situations and not others?

          c.       ***Three: Truth: Does rel exp lead to true, or probably true, beliefs? (Is it veridical or delusional?) “Epistemological problem of validity”

                    i.        Rel exp exists, seems vitally important to those who have it, and produces effects that would otherwise not happen

                    ii.       But it also produces claims of knowledge or well-founded belief about nature of reality

                              (1)     e.g., We are dependent on a being who loves us and whom we ought to worship

                    iii.      Musical exp does not have this feature of making claims about nature of reality


5.       Some psychological and causal accounts of religious experience make it unlikely that it is true

                    i.        Some answers to one and two (above) can cast doubt on a yes answer to three

          b.       If rel exp has no unique elements (all elements of rel exp are found in other experiences)

          c.       This combination of factors (experiential elements) tend to originate or be activated under conditions known to be productive of false beliefs held with strong conviction

                    i.        Hypnosis? Being drunk or drugged

                    ii.       Freud’s wish fulfillment

          d.       Then religious experience is likely illusory


6.       Be skeptical of the views on religious experience of people w/o religious experience (?)

7.       Just as one can (or should) be skeptical about what a tone deaf persons says about music, so to one can (or should) be skeptical about what a person w/o religious experience says about religious experience

                    i.        Applies to Broad himself (p. 121, top left)!

          b.       “If a man who has no ear for music were to give himself airs on that account and talk disdainfully about those who can appreciate music, we should regard him not as an advanced thinker, but a self-satisfied Philistine” (a person smugly indifferent to an area of great importance)

          c.       “People w/o rel exp who regard themselves as being superior to those who have it (because they have not had it), have a silly offensive attitude.”

8.       Not clear one always has to have the experience of something for one’s views about it to be taken seriously

          a.       Examples:

                    i.        E.g., Listening to folks who have never had sex on the meaning and value of sex?

                    ii.       Listening to folks who have never taken drugs on the meaning and (dis) value of drugs?

                    iii.      Listening to folks who have never been to war on the meaning and (dis)value of war?


9.       Great capacity for rel (or musical) exp is no guarantee of high general intelligence

          a.       A person might be a saint or a magnificent musician and yet have very little common sense, poor powers of introspection, unable to see causal connections or make logical arguments, and be ignorant about other aspects of reality (besides musical or religious experience)

          b.       When such a person theories about religions (or music), the theories may be quite as absurd as are the theories of those who have not had religious or musical experience



          a.       They affect not only the interpretation of the experience, but the content of the experience itself

11.     There is a common nucleus to religious experience of people in the various religions over the ages combined with great differences of detail

12.     Interpretation put on these experience will be even more varied than experiences themselves

          a.       Interpretations will depend in large part on traditional rel beliefs under which these people been brought up

          b.       Example: A feeling of unity with the rest of the universe will be interpreted very differently by a Christian who has been brought up to believe in personal God than by a Hindu mystic who has no such belief

13.     Traditional beliefs will also determine many of the details of the experience itself (and not just the interpretation)

          a.       A Roman Catholic mystic may have visions of the Virgin and the saints, while a Protestant mystic pretty certainly will not

          b.       A Christian might have visions of Jesus; not likely that a Muslim will


14.     Outline of traditional beliefs will be determined by rel exp

15.     Details of the belief are fixed for a certain place/period by the peculiarities of the experiences had by the founder of a certain religion

16.     These beliefs become traditional in that religion

17.     They then partly determine the details of the experiences had by later mystics of that religion (and the interpretations given)

18.     When a set of rel beliefs been established, they tend to produce experiences that can be taken as plausible evidence for those beliefs

          a.       Saints example: If it is a tradition in a certain religion that one can communicate with Saints, mystics of that religion well seem to see and talk with saints in their rel experiences and this fact will be taken as further evidence for the belief one can communicate with saints

          b.       This seems like a problem.....

19.     Similar things happen with sense perception

          a.       Beliefs/expectations

                    i.        Largely determine the interpretation we put on a given sensation

                    ii.       To some extent determine/modify some of the sensible characteristics themselves.

                    iii.      Expecting your brother, more likely to think you see him


20.     Are common religious experiences

          a.       Certain intense and common religious experiences have happened to a few men (e.g., founders of the great religions) at all (many) times and places

          b.       Have differences in detail

          c.       Yet contain fundamental elements that are common and peculiar to them

21.     Two responses to common rel experiences over ages: Truth/Delusion

          a.       One: These men in contact with aspect of reality not revealed to ordinary persons in everyday exp

                    i.        Characteristics which they agree on ascribing to reality on basis of these exp probably do belong to it

          b.       Two: They are subject to delusion from which other men are free



                    i.        One: Drunks have perceptual experiences in which seem to see snakes or rats crawling around

                    ii.       Two: Trained microscopist can see stuff through microscope ordinary people can’t see

                    iii.      Three: Race of blind people with a few sighted people who talk about color which seems unintelligible to the blind people but since they can predict things the blind people will experience, the blind people conclude they have access to a dimension of reality they can’t perceive

23.     One: Mystics like drunks? (No)

          a.       Agreement among drunkards a sign of delusion, not revelation because

          b.       Things they perceive not fundamentally different in kind from things we perceive

          c.       Those things are suppose to be in our very presence and yet we can’t see them

          d.       Other things that would be true if the rats were there are not (cats don’t get excited, cheese not nibbled on)

24.     Assertions of religious mystics do not conflict with what we perceive with our senses (as with drunks); so not like drunks


25.     Two: Mystics like trained microscopists? (No)

          a.       Why accept agreement among trained microscopists that what they see is objective fact, even though we cannot get a similar experience?

          b.       We have learned that microscopes reveal minute structure not optical delusions (and know about laws of optics)

          c.       We know of cases were training allows a person to detect something she previously could not see (and often the existence of those things can be also proven by indirect methods)

26.     Religious experience not nearly in such a strong position as this

          a.       Know little about laws that govern rel exp occurrence and nature

          b.       Are standard methods of training/meditation that tend to produce mystical experiences

          c.       Unlike the case of training with microscopes, no good reasons why these methods (meditation) would produce veridical rather than delusional experiences

          d.       Uniform methods would produce similar experiences, whether veridical or delusive


27.     Three: Mystics like sighted people in blind world? (Yes, perhaps)

          a.       ***Founders of religions have introduced ideals of conduct and good life which we can recognize to be good and useful

                    i.        Made ethical discoveries people later realized to be true

                              (1)     e.g., Jesus’ love thy neighbor

          b.       Like the seeing men telling the blind men facts which they later could verify for themselves

          c.       Gives us reason to attach some weight to what founders of religion tell us about things which we can’t understand or verify for ourselves

                    i.        Like the blind men attaching some weight to the sighted people’s unintelligible talk about colors

28.     Broad thinks this argument “deserves a certain amount of respect but uncertain how much weight to place on it”


29.     Broad suggests we should take truth claims of mystics as prima facie true (true unless there is some positive reason to doubt the truth)

          a.       If men at dif times places, traditions agree on certain experiences, and put much same kind of interpretation on truth claims coming from these experiences, it is reasonable to conclude that they are in contact with reality (they are right about what they claim), unless there is a positive reason to think otherwise.

          b.       Take these claims as veridical unless positive reasons to think them delusive.


30.     Possible reasons to think rel experience is delusional:

                    i.        Has Freud given us such positive reasons?


31.     One: Founders and mystics are a bit crazy

          a.       Founders of religions/saints have nearly always had neuropathic symptoms (dis-functional nervous systems) or bodily weaknesses and these likely to produce delusions

32.     Broad thinks this a bad argument because:

          a.       Founders and saints have also exhibited great endurance and great power of organization

                    i.        St. Thomas could have successfully run any organization today

          b.       Few people of extreme genius in science/art are perfectly normal mentally/physically, and some very crazy

                    i.        Not surprising religious geniuses would be less than completely normal

          c.       One might need to be slightly ‘cracked’ to have some peep-holes into the super-sensible world”

                    i.        Some degree of mental/physical abnormality likely to be necessary to come into contact with a world that remains outside contact of ordinary people

          d.       Veridical mystical experience is likely to produce abnormalities in behavior of the people who have had it strongly

                    i.        One eye in one world, another eye in another world (or through a telescope)

                    ii.       Likely that behavior appropriate for one world not for another


33.     Two: Religious experiences originate from and remain mixed with factors like sexual emotion that are likely to produce delusive beliefs/experiences


34.     Three: (125-26) Freud-like, psychological/causal origins suggest a delusion:

          a.       Religious experience of humans originates from mixture of false beliefs about nature and man, irrational fears

          b.       Rel traditions arose from beliefs we now see to be false and emotions we recognize to be irrelevant and misleading

          c.       Religious experience of individual comes from these religious tradition of society, teaching of parents, teachers drilled into children when they can’t really think for themselves (intellectually and emotionally like the savages among whom religion originated)

          d.       Is readily accepted and determines beliefs and emotions that persist long after child has grown up and acquired more adequate understanding of world and himself.

35.     Broad: This argument has considerable plausibility

36.     But Broad offers these criticisms

          a.       Modern science has as humble an ancestry as religion

          b.       Religion progresses: Been gradual refinement and purification of religious beliefs/concepts just as in science

          c.       Persons of religious genius have introduced new ethico-religious concepts/beliefs that have won wide acceptance just as scientific geniuses ( Galileo, Newton, Einstein) have done in science

                    i.        Why regard this as progress in knowledge of material aspects of world and not regard this as progress in religious aspects of world?

          d.       Authority plays a role in all aspects of life, including science and not just religion

                    i.        All of us accept the current common sense and scientific view of world on authority of our parents and teachers at a time we had no power to criticize it

                    ii.       And most of us accept w/o even understanding the difficult doctrines of contemporary physics on authority of those we have been taught to regard as experts.

37.     On the whole, no reason to think that religious beliefs are specially likely to be delusive or misdirected

          a.       Any argument to this effect need to be careful or it will apply to science as well


38.     Religion (like science) will radically change as it develops

39.     Reasonable to think concepts and beliefs of most perfect religions are

          a.       Extremely inadequate to the facts which they express

          b.       Highly confused and mixed with great deal of error and sheer nonsense

40.     If human race goes on and continues to have religious experience and reflect on them, these beliefs will be altered and improved almost beyond recognition

41.     But exact same point applies to science’s theories and concepts


42.     No current religion has final truth

          a.       Claim of any particular religion to have complete or final truth is ridiculous

          b.       But the opposite extreme of holding that whey whole rel exp of humans is a gigantic system of pure delusion seems to be almost (not quite) as far-fetched.