(1) Religious experiences tend to be culturally specific. Christians experience the guiding hand of Jesus, while Muslims experience Allah. Just like experiences of alien abduction (reports of alien abduction pretty much stop at certain national borders), the character of religious experiences often changes at national borders. In Catholic countries, the Virgin Mary is often seen, but not over the border in a predominantly Muslim country. This strongly suggests that to a significant degree religious experiences are shaped by our cultural expectations—by the power of suggestion. And once we know that a large part of what is experienced is a result of the power of suggestion, we immediately have grounds for being somewhat suspicious about what remains.
(2) Religious experiences often contradict each other. George W. Bush’s gut told him God wanted war with Iraq. However, the religious antenna of other believers—including other Christians—told them God wanted peace. Some religious people claim to know by virtue of a revelatory experience that Christ is divine and was resurrected. Muslims, relying instead on the religious revelations of the prophet Mohammad, deny this. Religious experience reveals that some gods are cruel and vengeful, some even requiring the blood of children (the Mayan and Aztec gods, for example), while others are loving and kind. The religious experiences of some Buddhists reveal there’s no personal God, whereas those of many Christians, Jews, and Muslims reveal that there is but one personal God. Other religions have a pantheon of gods. Take a step back and look at the sweep of human history, and you find an extraordinary range of such experiences. Religious revelation has produced a vast hodge-podge of contradictory claims, many of which must, therefore, be false. Even those who believe they have had things directly revealed to them by God must acknowledge that a great many equally convinced people are deluded about what has supposedly been revealed to them.
Some Noteworthy Features of Religious Practice
Suppose, then, that having immersed themselves in such a lifestyle, someone claims to ‘just know’ that there is indeed such an ineffable transcendence? Is it reasonable for us, or for them, to suppose they’ve achieved awareness of Armstrong’s ‘sacred reality’? I don’t believe so. As Armstrong acknowledges, religious practice takes many forms involving a variety of activities. An interesting feature of many of these activities is that we know they can induce interesting—sometimes rather beneficial—psychological states, even outside of a religious setting. Let’s look at some examples: