CREDULITY & TESTIMONY
we ought to believe that things are as they seem to be, until we have evidence that we are mistaken - Richard Swinburne
(in the absence of special considerations), if it seems ... to a subject that x is present (and has some characteristic), then probably x is present (and has that characteristic) - Richard Swinburne
(in the absence of special considerations) the experiences of others are (probably) as they report them - Richard SWinburne
Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
men, of such unquestioned good-sense, education, and learning, as to secure us against all delusion...
such undoubted integrity, as to place them beyond all suspicion of any design to deceive others...
such credit and reputation in the eyes of mankind, as to have a great deal to lose in case of their being detected in any falsehood - David Hume
Alister Hardy was scientist who founded the Religious Experience Research Centre (RERC) at the University of Oxford in 1969; since 2000, it has been based at the University of Lampeter. The RERC has collected well over 1,000 testimonies over the past 50 years. Research asks members of the public the 'Hardy Question':
Have you ever been aware of or influenced by a presence or power, whether you call it God or not,which is different from your everyday self?
Vauxhall station on a murky November Saturday evening is not the setting one would choose for a revelation of God... The whole compartment was filled with light. I felt caught up into some tremendous sense of being within a loving, triumphant and shining purpose. All men were shining and glorious beings who in the end would enter incredible joy. In a few moments the glory had departed, all but one curious, lingering feeling. I loved everybody in that compartment. I seemed to sense the golden worth in them all - Dr Leslie Weatherhead
Recently, in a 2009 Pew survey in the USA, nearly half of all respondents (49%) said they had a religious or mystical experience, defined as a “moment of sudden religious insight or awakening.”
This seems to support Swinburne's view that religious experiences are ordinary, not extraordinary, experiences - and they should be treated as such and trusted.
However, when asked the same question back in 1962, only 22% of Americans responded positively; asked again in 1976 that number had jumped to 31% and in 1994 Newsweek reported 33%. By 2006, Ipsos found that 47% have had religious or mystical experiences and now it's 49%.
Testimony about religious experiences should be treated just like testimony about other important things, like crimes or accidents. We should only dismiss testimony if there is a particular reason to distrust the person reporting it, such as a history of lying, drug problems or mental illness. This is Swinburne's Principle of Testimony.
Not only is religious experience ubiquitous (it appears in every culture in history), it is also surprisingly common. Surveys suggest that 36% of people have religious experiences and a recent American survey puts this at 49%. This means religious experiences are not extraordinary events and we should not be sceptical about them. Instead, we should apply normal rules for judging people's testimony.
The Principle of Testimony is far too optimistic. David Hume had a better understanding of people, who are often confused or ignorant or else have a reason to lie or exaggerate. Claims about supernatural encounters are extraordinary and Carl Sagan says that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidences.
Surveys into religious experiences cannot be trusted. Back in the '60s, only a fifth of people reported religious experiences but this has risen every decade. This is because the 'Hardy Question' is too vague: anything could count as a religious experience and people are exaggerating or else treating ordinary experiences as special in order to appear to seem spiritual and 'deep'.