Criticism of the Religious Experience Argument – Anthony Flew: God and Philosophy

Happy New year, Philosophers. I know it’s always tough getting back into the swing of studying after a fortnight of Christmas drinks! We are kicking off the new year with a blog on Anthony Flew: God and Philosophy.

Antony Flew’s position is summarised in his book God and Philosophy

i) There is a crucial ambiguity in the word ‘experience: It refers to what the subject is undergoing but also implies that there must be an actual object as well.

ii) There is no doubt that people have enjoyed vivid experiences; the question is whether any such private experiences can be furnished with adequate credentials. The importance of this question is realised when we take notice of two facts:

a) religious experiences are enormously varied, apparently authenticating innumerable beliefs which contradict one another or even themselves; and

b) the character of the experiences seems to depend-on the interests, background and expectations of those who have them rather than upon anything separate and autonomous. Hindus do not have visions of the Virgin Mary.

iii) We are not entitled, therefore, to conclude that because a person has religious experiences that what they experience is objectively the case. A dramatic change in behaviour and beliefs does not demonstrate the power and workings of whatever God or gods may be in question. To make the existence of God dependent upon human beliefs is to turn him into a sort of Tinker-bell – someone entirely a function of these beliefs. Rather, it is facts we require, not beliefs.

iv) The question which arises is this: ‘How and when would we be justified in making inferences from the facts of the occurrence of religious experience, considered as a purely psychological phenomenon, to conclusions about the supposed objective religious truths?’ The fact that certain things are believed does lead to the conclusion that they are, therefore, true. It is impossible to make direct and self-authenticating inferences from the character of the subjective experience to conclusions about the supposedly corresponding objective facts. The impossibility here is logical.

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