I think that how one reacts to a prima facie religious experience in one’s own case has much to do with one’s existing basic metaphysical framework. If one is already a religious believer, then the experience will probably just reinforce this existing belief. If one is not a believer, but is inclined to be credulous, then the experience might encourage religious belief. However, if one is of a sceptical nature, then I think that one would likely try to rationalise the experience.
For example, I would be inclined to rationalise any such experience in myself as follows:
• I am aware that the brain is capable of creating hallucinatory and other experiences that can seem to be extraordinarily authentic. So is it intrinsically more likely that my experience was a product of some mental state or other, or that it was God communicating with me? That is, which of these prior probabilities is the greater?
• I am aware that many people throughout history and in all cultures have claimed similar experiences, but have attributed them to different gods (or devils, spirits etc). What reason have I for thinking that my particular experience is veridical (other than the fact that I am the one experiencing it), when it may conflict with many of these other experiences (mutually exclusive gods etc)? Would it be just special pleading on my part to say that mine is veridical, where many of these others are not?
• Is there anything about my experience that I can verify or test in some other way? Have I been given any information that I didn’t know beforehand, and that I couldn’t have possibly come to know by any other means? Some previously unknown scientific or mathematical knowledge, for example. The more extraordinary and counterintuitive the information the better for testing this. After all, it should be no problem for God to give me such information, although theists might argue that by doing so He would be giving me less opportunity for faith. However, even if we were to even grant that this argument coheres, it doesn’t help me to decide for myself whether the experience is veridical or not. Also, if God wanted to give me the greatest opportunity to have faith (by providing me with no evidence), then He perhaps shouldn’t have communicated with me at all, as any such communication might be interpreted as constituting evidence.
In my case, I feel that my current worldview (Metaphysical Naturalism) has a strong foundation – both epistemologically and empirically. This I have determined not by taking it to be self-evidently true, or by having some dogmatic attachment to it. Rather, I have sought to test it as thoroughly as I am able, in order to see if it fails – which it so far has not done. So, if I was to have a prima facie religious experience, I would not be inclined to change my whole worldview to the Christian one (for example), based upon that one experience. To me, this would be analogous to throwing Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection out of the window if one fossil was found that is apparently out of sequence in the rock strata. The evidence for Darwin’s theory is so strong that I would want to subject this apparent contradiction to very stringent tests and analysis before making any such decision. And so it would be for my prima facie religious experience.
It might be superficially tempting if I had such an experience to presume it to be veridical. However, as I feel that the Christian worldview makes a number of extraordinary claims (existence of God, resurrection of Jesus, existence of the soul, afterlife etc), I would have to decide if my apparent religious experience constitutes the extraordinary evidence that I would need in order to completely re-structure my worldview. In my case, I think it is unlikely.
If I was to consider my religious experience as being good supporting evidence for the Christian worldview (for example), I think that I should be prepared to examine the worldview as a whole, and consider all of its implications before making such a decision. The point is that the Christian worldview comes as a package deal. Whilst there are variations between the beliefs of the different denominations, there are still certain basic core beliefs that need to be signed up to if one is to be considered a Christian at all. Therefore, before taking my religious experience to be veridical, I should be able to justify belief in these other tenets too, or my worldview would be in danger of being incoherent or inconsistent.
For this reason, I think it would not be reasonable for me to adopt the Christian worldview, without further analysis, based on a prima facie religious experience. Even if we could somehow discount the possibility of my experience being due to a mental aberration, it might have been some other god, or a Cartesian demon, or somebody communicating with me telepathically, or it might have been a glitch in our universe-running simulation, and so on. Not that I think that these possibilities are at all likely either, but rather that there is much room for doubt and rival interpretations here.
After all, how can I know for sure that it is the Christian God that I am hearing, rather than any of these other possibilities? I think that for me to profess certainty in such a situation would be irrational. After all, in such a case, what would ever convince me that my religious experience has some other explanation? If I am absolutely impervious to any contradictory evidence or reasoned argument, then I think I could justifiably be accused of being doubly irrational. Firstly, in admitting no doubt that the voice I hear in my head is that of God, rather than any of the other multitude of possibilities. And, secondly, the refusal to consider the hypothesis falsified in light of contradictory evidence or argument.
And another point. Would the claims of somebody that God told him to murder women be considered veridical? How about if no other signs of psychosis could be found? What would Christians such as Stannard make of such claims, I wonder. Presumably he would consider them to be false - but how would he justify that opinion without being accused of special pleading, by suggesting that his voices are real, but any contradictory ones are false?
He might say that the murderer’s claims couldn’t possibly be true, since God would never command such a thing, as God is perfectly loving. However, there are several problems with that type of explanation:
- It might all be part of God’s bigger plan that the murderer kill these women. We are not in a position to judge what such a plan might be, or why this might be to the greater good. This excuse is amongst the standard repertoire of Christian apologetics when attempting to explain failed predictions in the Christian hypothesis (too much suffering etc).
- God is described in the Bible commanding many atrocities, so there is some precedent here.
- It begs the question, since it assumes the voice is God’s if it conforms to what he would expect God to say, and cannot be God's if it does not. But that all hinges upon one assuming that God exists and has such a character in the first place. What if Stannard is mistaken about these?
And, as outsiders, how are we to judge the merits of these competing claims? Are Stannard’s claims intrinsically more veridical than the murderer’s? On what grounds might we ever make such a judgement in a non question-begging way? Of course, one hypothesis is that people think that they hear God tell them exactly what they want to hear. So, nice people such as Stannard only hear nice things, but violent deranged people hear these types of things from God. And, in the latter case, such utter lack of doubt that God really has told them these things is extremely dangerous. However, their argument for acting on these supposed commands from God is no more nor less coherent than Stannard's own.
And I should further point out that there have been studies that have attempted to verify the power of prayer. However, one of the biggest of these (and one that Stannard referred to, before the results were out) did not have a good result for the Christian hypothesis. See this
Yes, I know, excuses can be found. Nevertheless, one has to admit that so far we have nothing substantial to go on other than what believers tell us is going on in their heads.