In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Religious Experience

  • Introduction
  • Types
  • Effability and Ineffability
  • Self-Authentication
  • Arguments for Theism
  • Critiques of Arguments for Theism
  • Cognitive Science

Philosophy Religious Experience
Keith E. Yandell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 December 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0206


There is no general agreement about what “religion” means. Nonetheless, in constructing a bibliography on religious experience, some characterization is useful. Without claiming more than utility for present purposes, we will use the idea that “a religious tradition is an integrated set of beliefs and practices that offers salvation or enlightenment to its members” as a point of reference for readings. A religious experience, we will assume, is one or more conscious states to which a religious tradition attaches importance relative to its notion of salvation or enlightenment. Thus “experience” is used here, as typically in the philosophy of religion, as it appears in the sentence “Moses had a religious experience at the burning bush,” rather than “The religious experience of the Roman people has attracted attention.” Quite different views are held, for example, as to the structure and content of religious experiences, the degree to which they can be described, and what sort of insight into reality, if any, they provide. These and related topics determine the references given.


In spite of the complexities noted in the introduction, there seems to be a surprising agreement as to what counts as a religious experience at a preanalytic level, where the structure, content, and significance remain to be decided. While mystical experiences are regarded as religious experiences, not all religious experiences are mystical. Further, “mystical” may be used where what is meant is “religious,” as in William Alston’s phrase “Christian mystical practice.” A broad sampling of reports of religious experiences follows.

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