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This concerns a problem I myself have with Scheler, and am not sure where to go with it. Scheler argues in On the Eternal in Man that one cannot dismiss religious experience (or as he calls it, "revelatory experience") wholesale. That is, revelatory experiences are sui generis, and are to be judged on their own internal standards, and not to be dismissed on the standards we apply to sensory experiences. His argument is a classic phenomenological move, in treating different kinds of experiences as having their own "sense" or "logic" to them.

The problem is, and this is probably a leftover empiricist bias on my part, are religious experiences really that different from other experiences that we cannot judge religious experiences from a standpoint external to them? My concern is that Scheler is deeming religious experiences as unique and irreducible to any other kind of experience on a priori grounds that may not be formulated clearly enough (at least it isn't crystal clear to me).

However, Scheler has a point: if we dismiss religious experience wholesale, is this move not unlike the radical skeptic who dismisses sensory experiences?

Question: Is there another way between the dichotomy of Scheler's view that religious experiences have an a priori integrity to them, and a skepticism that rejects all such experiences? If so, how would one formulate this "third way" while recognizing the merits of both Scheler's position and the skeptic's? How do we balance the need to meet different experiences on their own terms while still wanting a synoptic view and comparison of them?

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    It's not so much a question of sui generis as of etic-emic. Eg. See Ramakrishna practicing Islam and Christianity. In short, Religions only mean anything emically not etically. Etically you'll find eg. Christians celebrate Sunday, Jews Saturday, Muslims Friday. Yeah right... So???
    – Rushi
    Sep 11, 2023 at 17:47
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    @Rushi That’s an excellent distinction, and has a decent history in the philosophy of the social sciences (e.g., Dilthey)! Scheler seems to muddle this distinction when it comes to religious experience (which is odd given his essay on the three kinds of facts). Might be a basis to critique Scheler while still honoring religious experience.
    – Hokon
    Sep 11, 2023 at 17:49
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    @Rushi If you’d be willing, I’d love to read you post a proper answer along these lines. Will at least upvote if not accept it as the definitive one.
    – Hokon
    Sep 11, 2023 at 17:52
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    Tnx Hokon but v tight for time for a couple of weeks — conference on Gurdjieff coming up, who's incidentally a trenchant author on the emic value/content of religion
    – Rushi
    Sep 11, 2023 at 18:09

2 Answers 2

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An important nitpick: skeptic atheists don't "dismiss" religious experience, as such. We accept that someone had an experience, we just don't accept the explanation someone gives for that experience.

If you classify religious experiences as unique in principle, this seems to already accept (or at least strongly bias you towards) a supernatural explanation for them.

If this classification is a conclusion, that may be reasonable (in theory, anyway). But if that's your starting point, that would just be a very flawed epistemology.

If we care about believing as many true things and as few false things as possible, we should consider various explanations and determine which one best explains the data. This may involve:

  • Not (starting from) classifying religious experiences as unique.
  • Considering what those experiences actually demonstrate. If you just see some light, that doesn't really tell you much of anything.
  • Considering how they relate to other non-religious experiences. People have had experiences outside of any religious context that they consider comparable to religious experiences they've had, which brings into question the religious element.
  • Considering how this would be compatible with religious experiences from other religions or from those who hold religious beliefs that contradicts yours. If someone has a religious experience which validates to them that apples are evil, and someone else has one which validates that apples are good, then all that would show is that those experiences are unreliable for determining what's true.
  • Considering how any given explanation fits into reality as a whole, as we observe it.

With these (fairly basic) considerations, one should reasonably conclude that religious experiences are supernatural, if they were indeed supernatural. But we don't seem to have gotten there yet.

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  • You capture extremely well my concerns with Scheler’s position here, but I couldn’t formulate it very well. +1, but will ponder this and see how others respond.
    – Hokon
    Sep 11, 2023 at 0:53
  • Accepting your answer. I think any further elaboration will be too opinionated and controversial. You provide a decent starting point, so again, thanks.
    – Hokon
    Sep 27, 2023 at 2:57
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I don't know about Scheler, but your question seems to allow me to respond anyway. But my answer focuses on your final question "How do we balance the need to respect different experiences while still wanting a synoptic view of them?"

The fundamental issue is the question in what ways, if any, religious experiences are special. Obviously, they must involve reference to a God or at least some supernatural phenomenon. And they are certainly special to the experiencer. So the question becomes whether we should also treat them as special.

Certainly, there's room for scepticism about which, if any, of them actually come from God. But it is also clear that discussing the issue is unlikely to be constructive.

But that may be because the self-certifying certainty they carry with them makes people very persuasive when they talk about them. So they are clearly special not only in their association with religious beliefs but also in the importance that those who have the experiences attribute to them.

The tricky bit is that religious experiences often carry religious beliefs with them.

(At this point, I wonder whether Scheler includes all "mystical" experiences as religious? Or only those that specifically involve God? That might make quite a difference because ineffable experiences arguably won't lead to beliefs.)

Still, one has to respect other people's beliefs, even if one does not accept them and even if they are not held on rational grounds. (But such respect needs to be mutual.)

So part of the answer is that insofar as the experiences lead to effable beliefs, it should not be a superhuman project to develop some sort of synoptic view of them.

Indeed, in a way, given that the experiencer, presumably, is living in a world that contains other people, we have to develop a way of living with them.

Things get more complicated when religious experiences lead to actions - and many of them do.

However, I don't see a problem with the orthodox approach which is not to intervene unless the person is a danger to themselves or others.

In fact, I'm not sure it is entirely clear that, if someone is a danger only to themselves, one has a right to intervene. But it is hard not to.

I am sure that if someone is a danger to others, one has a right to intervene. If people I am close to or myself were threatened, I think I would not worry whether I had a right or not. (But self-defence trumps most other rights.)

Often these beliefs don't result in direct harm, but do lead to mission to spread the word. Those are tricky, but again, it is a question of whether there are harmful results.

Underlying all this is, of course, the question of what is harmful and who decides, which is very difficult indeed. But it is a problem in other spheres as well, not just in the case of religious experiences, so perhaps it doesn't need an answer for the purposes of this question.

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  • Scheler heavily restricts what counts as a revelatory experience. One quality is it must concern something utterly transcendent, so yes God without using that term. I think my use of the word “respect” threw you off, didn’t mean it morally (I take it as a given that we shouldn’t trample on others with different beliefs). I meant respect in an epistemic way: don’t invalidate these experiences a priori.
    – Hokon
    Sep 11, 2023 at 16:25
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    Oh, that makes a lot of difference. My answer was deliberately written from a common sense stand-point. Your comment walks to the border-line of common sense. So everything gets much more complicated and hard to talk sensibly about. I stand by the principle that one must distinguish those experiences that are worthy of respect and those that are not, and that can only be done by watching the results - what is said, and what is done. There are people and writings that are taken seriously by serious people and I have my own intuitions on the matter.
    – Ludwig V
    Sep 11, 2023 at 18:23
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    No definite conclusions follow, but a willingness to take some accounts seriously. Put it this way, it would be a mistake to try to invalidate a poem a priori and some prose requires to be read in the same way as poetry - I'm sure you know that there are such things a prose poems as well, but I'm thinking wider than that. BTW. In general, I'm inclined to be very sceptical indeed about visions of the Virgin Mary and visions of the day of judgement. Now I'm drifting into nonsense, but I can't possibly do better in the formats available here.
    – Ludwig V
    Sep 11, 2023 at 18:31
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    Do you think Scheler would take this example seriously? I'm guessing not, but for myself I'm not sure.
    – Ludwig V
    Sep 11, 2023 at 18:35
  • Scheler wouldn’t classify that as a revelatory experience whatsoever. Scheler did distinguish the ego from the person, but he never reduced the ego to merely our inner monologue. Personally, I find experiences like that interesting.
    – Hokon
    Sep 11, 2023 at 18:48

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