Answering Austin Cline's Argument Against Religious Experience

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  This article is a followup to Cline's argument against religious experience as a God argument. He attacks the concept of mystical experience: "Argument from Mysticism: Can Mystics and Mystical Experiences Prove God's Existence?"By

Cline Begins by establishing the idea of a professional mystic.

An important form of the Argument from Religious Experience focuses on the issue of mysticism - it might be called the Argument from Professional Religious Experience. What is claimed is that, throughout time, in various cultures and places, there have existed particular individuals who have somehow had direct, personal experiences with God.
Like the general Argument from Religious Experiences, it is claimed that these experiences should be given the same credence as other experiential claims and should not be rejected out of hand. But unlike the general argument, it is observed that mystics spend a lot of time working on understanding and reaching God - they are professionals, in a sense, and their observations and conclusions should be treated like those of other professionals.[1]

 This is one of the reasons why I think he's been reading my arguments. I don't know of any other argument where it could be said that mystical experience should be given the same credence as ordinary perception, except in a misquote of my Thomas Reid argument. That would be a misunderstanding I don't know of any other arguments that makes such a misunderstanding possible. No one says mystics are professionals. The argument is made that all people have a level of mystical experience, but in various degrees and some very slight. I discuss this in the Trace of God. I carefully distinguish between the kind of navigation enabled and point out that I'm not talking about the kind of five senses perception we have of the world walking down the street, but our emotional ability to cope with the vicissitudes of life. [2]

Cline begins his attack with the false assertion that religoius experiences are all different and incompatible: "How should we respond to this argument? The first thing to note is that, as with general religious experiences reported by others, there is a tremendous amount of variety in the reports by religious mystics over the millennia. Not only are the reports from different religions mutually incompatible, but not even all the reports in a single religious tradition are compatible." That is repeated endlessly but no proof is ever given. In my book the Trace of God I show that Ralph Hood's work with the M scale dispells this myth. The differences are in the names of deity and in the explainations of meaning assigned the experiences. The experiences themselves, when these differences are adjusted for, are remarkably the same.[3] The point is made much better by the man who did the original research, Ralph Hood Jr.[4]

Cline makes the standard assumption that most atheists make, "If they can't all be true, how do we differentiate the incorrect reports from the correct reports?" There are numerous ways with which this has been dealt in modern theology. One of them is Paul Knitter's approach,, which is to say we don't need to differentiate, we know up front that religious experience is relative to truth. It's not false, it's not all true, but it's relative.[5] My own approach is similar. we have an aversion to relativism so I would just say one reality stands behind all the traditions. The differences are the result of cultural constructs, which must be used to filter the experiences since all we have to community through is culture. It's the cultural aspects that make religions different, not the thing behind belief.

Cline then presumes to uncover the origin of religious experiences. He is willing to take the mystic's word for it far enough to use that against them, and he draws conclusions form their own words, assuming their methods are similar even though he argues that their experiences are not. What is the explanation? "The usual recipe for these experiences is some sort of deprivation - going without food, water, and often sleep, sitting in the heat of a desert or sweat lodge, isolation from human contact, the repetition of chants or prayer, and even the use of drugs." Several studies contradict this view, the Council of Spiritual Practices states, in speaking of Greely's study, "Furthermore, Greeley found no evidence to support the orthodox belief that frequent mystic experiences or psychic experiences stem from deprivation or psychopathology. His ''mystics'' were generally better educated, more successful economically, and less racist, and they were rated substantially happier on measures of psychological well-being."[6]

Mystics in the old days tended to belong to ascetic movements and lived in monastic settings in which deprivation was a way of life. That is argument from sign, just becuase some people in these settings have mystical experience does not mean that is the standard cause of mystical experience. Modern studies show this tends not to be the case. Gackenback summarizing several studies shows that  mystical experience can't be compared to mental illness or pathology.

Scientific interest in the mystical experience was broadened with the research on psychoactive drugs. The popular belief was that such drugs mimicked either mystical states and/or schizophrenic ones (reviewed in Lukoff, Zanger & Lu, 1990). Although there is likely some physiological similarity as well as phenomenological recent work has shown clear differences. For instance, Oxman, Rosenberg, Schnurr, Tucker and Gala (1988) analyzed 66 autobiographical accounts of schizophrenia, hallucinogenic drug experiences, and mystical ecstasy as well as 28 control accounts of important personal experiences. They concluded that the: "subjective experiences of schizophrenia, hallucinogenic drug-induced states, and mystical ecstasy are more different from one another than alike" (p. 401).

(Ibid) "Relatedly, Caird (1987) found no relationship between reported mystical experience and neuroticism, psychoticism and lying while Spanos and Moretti (1988) found no relationship between a measure of mystical experience and psychopathology.[7]
Cline asserts the validity of claims such as those made by Michael Presinger who claims to have produced genuine mystical experience by stimulating brain cells.

Dr. Michael Persinger in Canada can produce mystical visions in people with a mechanical device and what people see is heavily influenced even just by the sort of things he has in his office. When he plays music with an Eastern theme, people tend to have Buddhist-type visions. When he hangs crucifixes in the room and plays Christian chants, people have Christian-type visions.
Such claims are exploded by Philosopher John Hick who points out that such researchers use no control to establish the basis of a mystical experience. Thus they are just assuming that anything to do with God is a  real mystical experience. I draw upon the research of Hick and discuss this more fully in chapter six (6) of the Trace of God. [8] Cline asserts that "because there are possible physical and natural explanations for these mystical experiences, and because they can actually be produced at will in very natural ways, it becomes incumbent upon the supporter of mysticism to help us differentiate between the naturally induced experiences and those which allegedly have a supernatural origin." It is possible that the chain of causation stops with the brain chemistry, but it's not likely. That's what the tie breakers are for in chapter seven (7). They show why it's not reasonable to just assume that brain chemistry is the final cause of the experience. It could just as easily be part of God's delivery system that  created into humanity so we can find the Trace of his presence. The tie bakers show why it's more reasonable to think that this is the case. One hint, why is teh experience always positive? How did nature arrange to have a life transforming accident that has no long term debilitating draw backs?

Part 2 of Cline's argument

One curious issue with the claim that mystics' experiences of God provide good reasons to believe that God really exists is the question of just how a person can claim to recognize God. What arguments or evidence, without resorting to question begging, can a person use to claim that whatever they experienced is necessarily that of the god they believe in?
Perceptual recognition is something which can merit skepticism even in mundane matters we encounter in everyday life. Consider how easy it can be to make an error in recognition when it comes to the voices or faces or writing styles of people we know very well - but how would we "know" the voice or face or speaking style of "god"?
Michael Martin offers the example of someone claiming to have spoken on the phone with a person who seemed to be the strongest man of County Cork. How on earth could such an identification be made merely on the basis of a voice? Perhaps if the person was an expert on Irish accents at least a small part of the claim could be justified - but only a very small part.
These same problems occur with the claims made that someone has spoken with God or even just "experienced" God. This claim cannot be taken at face value: we need to know what part of this experience justifies the conclusion that it involved "God" - with all of the qualities and attributes alleged for this god, like omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence, etc. - and not an experience of something else, even if it is another supernatural being.
 This could be a good argued if used by someone who understands the concept of mystical experience. In making the argument Cline demonstrates his ignorance. Again he's thinking of it like metting a person, he's reducing God to the level of a thing in creation.  First of as said before, mystical experience is a step up to a higher level of consciousness, it is not like meeting a stranger at a bus stop. It's the big light bulb where you suddenly understand what it's all about. It is beyound words, thoughts or images. It's not "someone has spoken with God;" it's not like speaking with another person. It's like suddenly understanding the meaning of everything.

Here is an example of a mystical experience described by a blogger (Wordgazer) in her review of my book. It's much like an experince described in the book:

I was standing in our tiny back yard behind the kitchen door, under a sky filled with stars. I think it was about 10 or 11 pm.  I was alone. For some reason more stars were showing than usual; maybe some of the street lights were out.  It was very quiet.
I looked up into the stars and thought of God.
And then. . .  
Something indescribable fell away from my ordinary sense of things.  Perhaps it was the careful, reasoned categories I was accustomed to use to frame my thoughts.  I had a sensation of being lifted up and up, though I also knew I was still standing solidly in the night-sweet grass.  Over the horizon the moon swept up; it was a gibbous moon, about two-thirds full.  And I saw. 
Saw that all things were part of a serene and purposeful whole.  Saw that I myself was a valued and necessary part of that whole, as were the trees, the grass, the stars, the moon, and the minuscule flying creatures that brushed my face.  Felt a tender, loving purpose guiding it all towards some unknowable but beautiful end.    
"All is well. All is one.  I am here."
It wasn't a message spoken in words, but an indescribable knowing that was frankly impossible to doubt or question.  I didn't question it.  I breathed quickly, flutteringly-- completely astonished yet completely at ease, completely accepted and accepting. 
Slowly, slowly the feeling faded, drained away.  I was left there in the dark grass again, myself again, and I turned and drifted back through the door and into bed and sleep.
But I have never forgotten, and I have never been the same.  The memory of joy-- joy present in part now and expectant of fullness in time to come, has ever since held in peace the foundations of my soul. [9]

The answer to the overall issue is "we know it's an experience of God because it does what belief in God claims to do., it's like transforming."  Why is that of God? Because that's what religion promises to do in the first place. The reason we have religion at all is because there is a sense of the numinous that gives us a notion of the holy. The historical association between these two ideas, the sense of the holy (which is part of the real experience is the thing experienced) and God, this is the relationship of co-determinant. I discuss this in length for most of chapter two (2) in the book.

A traditional question based upon this dilemma is, "Are you so sure that you can't be fooled and it wasn't Satan who spoke to you?" You don't have to be a believer in God or Satan to recognize the importance of such a question. The point is, no one has offered a sound basis for differentiating between an experience of "god" and of something else entirely.

 I find this argument totally disingenuous. An athiest talking head activley seeking to destoryt he faith of others, totally unfarid to align himself with not only unbleif but mocking and riducule of belief itself, yet he expects someone to seriously disregard life transfomration when it's proved by peer reviewed studies, just becuase he can ask a fearling question that we know he doesn't take seriously himself. There is no way to go back in time and prove that prehistoric man had mystical experience, but we do have reasons to assume they did. Anthropologists dont' just wander about the world thunderstruck and refusing to speculate for fear of getting it wrong. Many anthropological theories that give a reasonable probability to the association bewteen the sense of he numinous and religious bleief and the creation of religion. It's possible these associations go back to the stone age, the at least go back to the early days of human writing. I discuss all of this at length and make the argument fully in chapter two (2). I show there are native rituals that indicate the ancient hunter gatherer people did have such experiences.[10]

The Trace of God provides the chruch with a valuable resource that puts real teeth in argument form experience.

[1] Austin Cline. "Argument from Mysticism:Can Mystics and Mystical Experiences Prove God's Existence?" Online material, no date indicated.
Accessed 7/3/14.

 [2] Joseph Hinman, the Trace of God: A Rational Warrant for Belief. Colorado Springs: Grand Viaduct Publishing, 99.

 [3] Ralph Hood Jr. “The Common Core Thesis in the Study of Mysticism.” In Where God and Science Meet: How Brain and Evolutionary Studies Alter Our Understanding of Religion.  Patrick Mcnamara ed. West Port CT: Prager Publications, 2006, 119-235.

[5]Paul Knitter, No Other Name? A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes Towards the World Religions. London: SCM Press, 1985.see introduction.

[6] Council on Spiritual Practices, "States of Unitive Consciousness." website,
accessed 7/3/14.
CSP statement about their own nature and mission:
The Council on Spiritual Practices is a collaboration among spiritual guides, experts in the behavioral and biomedical sciences, and scholars of religion, dedicated to making direct experience of the sacred more available to more people. There is evidence that such encounters can have profound benefits for those who experience them, for their neighbors, and for the world.
CSP has a twofold mission: to identify and develop approaches to primary religious experience that can be used safely and effectively, and to help individuals and spiritual communities bring the insights, grace, and joy that arise from direct perception of the divine into their daily lives.
[7] Jayne Gackenback. Transpersonal Childhood Experiences of Higher States of Consciousness: Literature Review and Theoretical Integration (this paper was published on her own website, spirit watch, 1992)
accessed 7/2/14

[8] John Hick quoted by Hinman in The Trace of God...op cit, 363-264.

[9] Wordgazer, "Book Recomendation: The Trace of God by Joseph Hinman," Wordgazer's Words blog,May 31, 2014.
accessed 8/7/14

[10] Hinman, The Trace...op cit., 67-81.


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