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A Lockean View on Religious Experience

Is personal experience a good basis for religious belief? Nathan Rockwood investigates.

On what do we base our religious beliefs? Some turn to personal experiences they’ve had, others to logical argumentation. In a lecture given on January 19, 2023, Assistant Professor Nathan Rockwood (Early Modern Philosophy and Religious Epistemology) drew inspiration from the positions of philosophers John Locke and Richard Swinburne to argue that logic and experience can go hand in hand. The lecture was titled “Locke on the Evidence from Religious Experience.”

The Experiential View

Philosopher Richard Swinburne
Philosopher Richard Swinburne

Rockwood began by summarizing the position of Richard Swinburne, Oxford professor emeritus. Swinburne’s argument follows from a long-standing debate in philosophy about how much we can trust our sense perceptions. Some have argued that we can trust our sense perceptions as a basis for knowledge (for example, if I feel a table with my hand, I can know that the table exists), whereas others have argued that we have to confirm sense perceptions as a reliable basis for knowledge before we can trust them (I feel a table, but I have to be sure my senses are not deceiving me in some way before I know the table exists).

Swinburne agrees with the former regarding our religious experiences. “Swinburne’s take is that we should trust our religious experience,” Rockwood said, “unless we have been given what he calls a ‘special consideration’—some good reason for distrusting.” Essentially, the subjective religious experiences we have are sufficient grounds for our religious knowledge, and we should trust these experiences unless they are proven unreliable (for example, if we have nonsensical or contradictory “religious” revelations while under the influence of a mind-altering drug).

Locke’s Rebuttal

On the other side, Rockwood discussed philosopher John Locke and why he would have taken issue with Swinburne’s position. Rockwood explained that Locke would have called Swinburne’s reliance on subjective religious experience a “groundless presumption” because it lacks logical evidence.

Painted portrait of John Locke
Philosopher John Locke
Photo by Godfrey Kneller, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

For example, consider two people receiving inspiration from a higher power—one from God, the other from the devil. Both might think that the inspiration comes from God, but one of these people is deluded. According to Locke, the possibility for error in our perceptions and our assumptions makes them a bad basis for knowledge.

However, Rockwood argued, a Lockean view doesn’t preclude religious belief. Locke was an empiricist, meaning that he believed that knowledge comes from observation of the world and reason. For example, Locke believed in a set of religious principles that can be known through observation and reason, called his “natural theology”:

  1. God exists and created the world. 
  2. God is good, omnipotent, and intelligent. 
  3. God wants us to act in certain ways (e.g., be obedient, follow the commandments). 

Lockeans believe that using reason can in fact lead to religious understanding. But how can we reconcile this logical approach with Swinburne’s experiential view?

Rockwood’s Synthesis

Rockwood argued that religious inspiration can also be a legitimate basis for religious belief, but this depends on our ability to discern between spiritual experiences and delusions using a Lockean approach. “We can use natural theology as a kind of check for determining which religious experiences we’re going to accept and which we’re going to reject,” he explained.

In addition to Locke’s natural theology, Rockwood proposed that we have two other reason-based sources of evidence we can use to vet our own religious experiences: scriptures and a reliable track record of religious experiences. The idea is that these three sources of reason, when taken together, can help us consider our religious experiences as a good basis for knowledge.

For example, if someone had what they thought was a religious prompting to fly a plane into a building, it would violate the previous track record of religious experiences—no one has ever been prompted by God to commit an act of terrorism. Their past religious experiences would hopefully convince them this was not a prompting from God, but they could also refer to the scriptures (e.g., the imperative to not kill) and the principle that God is good.

Using Locke’s principles as guidance, Rockwood argued that religious experiences can be evidence for our beliefs—but they shouldn’t be the only thing. “Locke’s view, at the end of the day, is you just add up all the evidence and put it into balance,” Rockwood said. “If we can add religious experiences to the evidence we have, the argument is more likely to be successful.” For religious people of any denomination, Rockwood’s argument can prove useful for creating a foundation for beliefs.