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The Psychology of Conversion

Posted on: 1 Dec, 2014

Modified on: 1 Dec, 2014

By Vinod Sushil Soreng

The Psychology of Conversion

My central aim is to elucidate the concept of religious conversion and understand what it is and what it involves. I am understanding religious conversion as something that takes place at a certain point in a persons life which can be identified as the point at which the person transformed from being non-religious to being religious. This rules out consideration of anyone who has been religious since and early age continuously. I have so far looked at various features of religious conversion, and various candidates for the necessary and sufficient conditions thereof. William Hill believes that ‘Conversion is not so much a matter of doing differently, as of being different.’ (Hill, ‘The Psychology of Conversion’, p. 46) Thus he locates the defining features of conversion within the convert themselves. I now turn to views that share this focus, to psychological accounts of religious conversion that place the burden of understanding the conversion process onto the psychological processes that constitute it.
I first give an exegesis of William James’s view of religious conversion with reference to his psychological theories and methodological approach. One feature of conversions that I focus special attention on is the occurrence of automatisms in religious conversion experiences, such as hearing the voice of God, or seeing visions. I then discuss whether these features in particular are pathological, with some consideration of other aspects of conversion. I consider James’s response to this, which is that it is healthy whenever the effects are beneficial to the subject, before moving on to a negative response to this. Epitomising the pathological interpretation of religiousness in general, and also to these automatisms in particular is Sigmund Freud. Exposition of this requires some exegesis of Freud’s model of psychology, which is what I then turn to, focussing briefly on some of the explicit remarks Freud makes about religious conversion and elucidating how it is that on Freud’s view conversion is pathological.
I then turn to objections to the psychological accounts of religious conversion. The first such objection concerns the validity of some of the theories on which these psychological models rest (for example the Oedipus theory). Another is a critique on the methodology and scientific credentials of psychology in general.
I raise a theologically motivated question about the consequences that these views have for the role of divine grace. Here I conclude that the notion of the involvement of divine intervention in conversion is not ruled out by these psychological theories. One way in which the psychological account of religious conversion would undermine the notion of divine grace would be if it could show that there is no God. This is the mistaken interpretation that some have made of Freud – in fact he claimed to show no such thing. However, by confusing the origin of a belief with the truth of the belief arguments can be constructed which purport to show that as religious beliefs are illusory, there is no object that corresponds to them. I dispel this fallacy, but place emphasis on the weakness that this does highlight; religious beliefs lack justification when they are grounded on illusion. Likewise, when conversions take place as a result of psychotic visions and other pathological experiences, they too will lack the justificatory force required to make the conversion rational. One possible reply to this is that the experiences are in fact indicative of God, so these experiences do give grounds for the subsequent belief formation and conversion. I consider two arguments to this effect: the argument from credulity, and the argument from analogy. I consider objections too, and conclude that these arguments are unsuccessful.


William James gives an account of religious conversion that focuses on various case studies that he elaborates in some detail. This is an application of his general philosophical methodology, as he cites Professor Agassiz as saying: ‘one can see no farther into a generalization than just so far as one’s previous acquaintance with particulars enables one to take it in’ (James, p. 214). He understands conversion as ‘the process, gradual or sudden, by which a self hitherto divided, and consciously wrong inferior and unhappy, becomes unified and consciously right superior and happy, in consequence of its firmer hold upon religious realities.’ (James, p. 188)
Some conversions are long lived while for other converts a backsliding occurs at some point later, which reverts the individual to something like his former state. James thinks that it would be shallow to thereby dismiss the conversion post hoc as merely ‘hysterics’ (James, p. 251). The point, he says, is not the duration of the change but the quality of it. He uses a useful analogy to strengthen this point, claiming that in love too we do not dismiss it if the love is short lived, but find it interesting and worthwhile based on the quality – intensity, depth, or sincerity – of the experience while it lasts. This is not to say that there is not more merit in love that lasts a life time, or conversions which are permanent, but short lived love is still love and a convert who relapses after a short time still had a conversion, which is still worthy of interest (James p. 252). While he does emphasis the ‘quality’ of the change, there is no cut off point that constitutes a sufficient degree of ‘quality’. There might be converts who have made terrific improvement and greatly increased the quality of their moral lives, who are nevertheless more despicable than another person who has always been pious and had no conversion. He says that ‘If we roughly arrange human beings in classes, each class standing for a grade of spiritual excellence, I believe we shall find natural men and converts both sudden and gradual in all the classes.’ (James, p. 235)
James envisages two distinct kinds of conversion – what he calls the volitional type, and the type by self-surrender. The volitional type is both conscious and voluntary. Volitional conversions are usually gradual, and consist in ‘the building up, piece by piece, of a new set of moral and spiritual habits.’ (James, p. 204) The type by self-surrender is involuntary and unconscious. This type, in which ‘the subconscious effects are more abundant and often startling’ (James, p. 205), is more interesting to James, and I think, a more interesting phenomena in general. These two ‘types’ are not mutually exclusive, as most often there is a combination of elements from both types involved in conversions – for example, in the gradual type there may nevertheless be periods of rapid change that more closely resemble the sudden type, and even in the sudden type there will be aspects under voluntary control.
James comments on the circumstances under which we could predict a sudden conversion to take place that focuses on aspects of the personality of the potential convert. He claims that where three conditions are met, and where the person is exposed to a converting influence – which could be anything from hearing a sermon, seeing a religious symbol, or reading scripture – we can ‘safely predict’ (James, p. 236) that the result will be a sudden (self-surrender type) conversion. The three conditions are: ‘first, pronounced emotional sensibility; second, tendency to automatisms; and third, suggestibility of the passive type’ (James, p. 236).
To understand this better I shall elucidate some aspects of James’s psychology. James discusses a psychological concept that I will call the ‘mental field thesis’. We could think of a ‘mental field’ as the domain of things that might become conscious to an individual’s awareness at any one time or be unconsciously active at that time. Within this mental field there will be central things, and a periphery of non-central things, so that ‘[a]s our mental fields succeed one another, each has its centre of interest, around which the objects of which we are less and less attentively conscious fade to a margin so faint that its limits are unassignable.’ (James, p. 227) Certain things will be part of an individual’s mental field at one time but not at another, or will move between the centre and periphery of his consciousness. For example, when I am in a supermarket, the location of the fruit isle may be centrally on my mind and my weekly food budget in the periphery, but these things are very unlikely to even be in the peripheral reaches of my consciousness when I am in a job interview, or taking a philosophy exam, because in the latter contexts this will be completely irrelevant to all current interests and aims. When in a particular context or mode, certain things are more salient, certain behaviours are more germane, we are more likely to use certain language, make certain assumptions, ignore, or center our attention on different things. For example, in my mode as a philosopher, I will be more likely to focus on the structure of a sentence I read in order to evaluate its logical implications than I will be when I am in the mode of a reader of light fiction. If I look at an object as a consumer I will notice different features than if I look at it as an engineer. I may be inclined as a professional amongst peers to use technical jargon that I would never use in non-professional contexts, and in my hometown I might use colloquialisms I would not use elsewhere. There will for each individual be certain modes that are more ingrained, permanent, and frequently adopted than others. These are referred to by James as ‘the habitual centre of his personal energy’ (James, p. 194) Individuals with wider mental fields are likely to be more intelligent and capable, being able to make associations across a wider field of subjects and draw connections between related theories and suchlike with greater ease.
None of these changes that we go through each day are to be thought of as ‘transformative’ because they are all short lived, and while they are repeatable they are not excluding other modes of being, and do not dramatically change the pattern of our lives. When there is a radical and more permanent alteration, ‘whenever one aim grows so stable as to expel definitively its previous rivals from the individual’s life, we tend to speak of the phenomenon, and perhaps to wonder at it, as a “transformation.”’ (James, p. 193) This is a conversion. Where there is oscillation, we have what James calls a ‘wavering and divided self’ (James, p. 194). But, he says, when ‘the focus of excitement and heat, the point of view from which the aim is taken, may come to lie permanently within a certain system; and then, if the change be a religious one, we call it a conversion,’ (James, p. 194) On James’s view then we might understand a religious conversion as an event whereby the habitual centre of a persons energy permanently shifts to a more religious one.
Many things can account for a temporary shift, and James says the phenomena is partly due to ‘explicitly conscious processes of thought and will, but as due largely also to the subconscious incubation and maturing of motives deposited by the experiences of life.’ (James, p. 227) However, it seems reasonable to suppose that more of an explanation would be required to explain a shift radical enough to be classed as a conversion. James notes that ‘Emotional occasions, especially violent ones, are extremely potent in precipitating mental rearrangements’ (James, p. 196). This is in line with much of the empirical data on conversion, which suggests that times of extreme emotional turmoil precede sudden religious conversions. James claims that there are only two ways of dispersing strong emotions: ‘One is that an opposite affection should overpoweringly break over us, and the other is by getting so exhausted with the struggle that we have to stop—so we drop down, give up, and don’t care any longer. Our emotional brain-centers strike work, and we lapse into a temporary apathy. Now [end p. 209] there is documentary proof that this state of temporary exhaustion not infrequently forms part of the conversion crisis.’ (James, p. 209-10)
For James there are specifiable results we would expect in genuine conversions. His pragmatism focuses largely on results and so these results can be seem as the criteria for conversion – what makes something count as a genuine conversion rather than not is the results that follow from the ostensible conversion – so the results of ostensible conversions have more significance than mere consequences symptomatic of conversions. They might count as definitional of genuine conversions. The elements we would expect are: a sense of well-being and harmony; the perception of previously unknown truths (which he says will often/usually be ineffable); a new and more beautific way of seeing the world (James, Varieties of Religious Experience, pp. 242-3).

There is a danger to bear in mind here. James wants to define the genuineness of a conversion by the results that follow from it. However, if we compare the process of converting to religion and its beneficial effects to the inadvertent placebo effect of psychotherapy we can see where this danger lies. A ‘placebo’ is an effect whereby what has the efficacy in bringing about the change in question is some aspect of the subjects superstitious psychological response to the event or substance in question, not the event or substance itself. Where a subject is more credulous and suggestible, the placebo effect can be stronger and occur in a wider range of circumstances (which is especially relevant given that this is a feature of the personality of sudden religious converts, according to James). A placebo is intended wherever it is administered with the aim of bringing about a placebo effect, e.g. when a doctor prescribes vitamin pills for an incurable disease with the intention of bringing about beneficial placebo effects. A placebo is inadvertent when there is no such intention, for example where a doctor prescribes an ineffective medicine that he nevertheless believes is effective. (Grunbaum, ‘Is psychoanalysis a pseudo-science’, p. 52). Here the placebo effect is still achieved because the patient still expects a positive effect. In the analogous case of religious conversion, the placebo effect would be inadvertent because the convert has not been manipulated, but nevertheless might end up having beneficial results due to the conversion experience that are brought about not as a result of the experience itself but his beliefs or expectations about it.
It would be difficult to establish that this is really what is happening in conversion because the physical effects and the placebo effect need not happen in isolation, so it can be difficult to quantify the comparative effectiveness of the two effects wherever they are both present. For example, take the following cases:

1) A patient takes a pain killer, and expects that it will work.
2) A patient takes a pain killer, and expects that it will not work.
3) A patient takes a placebo, and expects that it will work.
4) A patient takes a placebo, and expects that it will not work.

In all four cases, assume that there are no other causes that have an effect on the amount of pain over the period over which the results are being measured and imagine to that there is a reasonable way of measuring the pain. In 1, we would expect that the pain will reduce, but the distribution of this reduction that should be attributed to the effects of the painkiller and the effects of the placebo involved with the expectation of pain relief will be difficult to calculate. It would seem that the answer is to compare this amount of reduction to a control case where a painkiller is taken with no positive expectation, like in 2. In 2, any pain reduction will be attributable to the effect of the pain killer but there might in this case be a ‘negative placebo’ effect, i.e. might it be less effective in this case than in one where there is a neutral expectation or no expectation at all. The latter would be achievable if the patient was unaware they had taken a pain killer at all, so this would be the control needed to attribute the effects in 1. In 3, we might predict a reduction in pain and any reduction in pain can be attributed to the placebo effect. In 4 we would expect no change to the pain state. In the case of conversion, it will be very difficult to control for the placebo effect, and so it is a risky venture to define conversion in terms of its results until suitable empirical research can be carried out that controls for this. I know of no study that has done this.


I want to move on to discuss a specific aspect of the conversion experiences that James finds particularly interesting, which is present in many of the reports and first person accounts that he considers. Many conversions involve automatisms. Reports include hearing voices, seeing lights, seeing visions, convulsions, physical incapacities, spontaneous verbal behaviour or spontaneous motor behaviour. One particularly common automatism is hallucinatory luminous experiences (called ‘photisms’ in James’s psychological terminology). Examples include Saint Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3) and Constantine’s vision of a cross in the sky. James says that automatisms have ‘no essential spiritual significance’ and that there is no correlation between the presence of automatisms in the conversion experience and the longer-term effects of the conversion – that is a convert without such symptoms may have just as long-lived and beneficial after effects. James claims that ‘On the whole, unconsciousness, convulsions, visions, involuntary vocal utterances, and suffocation, must be simply ascribed to the subject’s having a large subliminal region, involving nervous instability. This is often the subject’s own view of the matter afterwards.’ (James, p. 245) His view on why these phenomena occur is rooted in the personality of the person undergoing the conversion. He says that ‘The most important consequence of having a strongly developed ultra-marginal life of this sort is that one’s ordinary fields of consciousness are liable to incursions from it of which the subject does not guess the source, and which, therefore, take for him the form of unaccountable impulses to act, or inhibitions of action, of obsessive ideas, or even of hallucinations of sight or hearing.’ (James, p. 230)
The frequency of genuine experiences of this kind can easily be over-estimated because often when such reports are made the report should only be taken metaphorically, or sometimes is merely a simile to describe the quality of the experience. In such cases it should not be taken as a report of a genuine hallucinatory vision. Examples are found in these extracted comments from Starbuck’s collection: ‘suddenly the darkness of the night seemed lit up’; ‘Immediately, like a flash of light, there came to me a great peace’; ‘There was no fire and no light in the room; nevertheless it appeared to me as if it were perfectly light.’ (Quotes in James, pp. 248-9, emphasis added). Even once such cases are weeded out, it remains a phenomenon that occurs frequently enough for it to be worth of interest.
An interesting question arising from the discussion of psychological interpretations of religious conversion is whether the psychological processes involved are pathological or not, in particular, whether automatisms are to be regarded as pathological. Dr. Orville Walkers remarked that:

When William James enlarged religious experience to include religious pathology, and Freud extended psychopathology to include religion, the boundaries between normal and pathologic were submerged in the process. In consequence, the psychology of religion has come to appear as a mélange of health and disease without reliable criteria to tell which is which. (Dr. Orville Wakers, ‘Religion and Psychopathology’, Comprehensive Psychiatry, Vol. 5, No. 1, (1964), p. 32)

Certainly when some people have hallucinatory visions, hear voices, and other similar things, they are diagnosed with a mental disorder and treated for their pathological symptoms. In religious cases we sometimes do not, believing instead that there is a divine source for their vision and that the vision is therefore based on reality, albeit a reality not experienced by all subjects – that is to say, we would expect all people in the same church to see the alter, but not necessarily the apparitional vision of the virgin Mary. We can’t claim that just because the subject of a vision is religious in nature that it is not pathological, for there are many cases of religiously delusional folk who have clearly pathological experiences which they claim are religious in nature: in the words of Bertrand Russell, ‘we can make no distinction between the man who eats little and sees heaven and the man who drinks much and sees snakes. Each is in an abnormal physical condition, and therefore has abnormal perceptions’ (Bertrand Russell, Religion and Science, p. 188). So how are we to tell whether a religious experience, in particular the automatisms often experienced in conversion, are pathological or healthy?

In her exegesis of James, Jennifer Radden claims that what counts for him in distinguishing between the pathological and the genuinely religious ‘is the difference such a phenomenon makes for the person who experiences it. If it is a difference that proves consoling, strengthening, or enabling, then the experience can be said to be religious in the positive sense; if it produces anguish, pain, or an intolerable restriction of one's horizons, it is pathological.’ (Radden, p. 315) Religious mysticism and delusional insanity can be distinguished by their effect on the person who experienced them.
Even if we accept this, it is not clear that this solves the problem for James because there is an empirical question about whether conversions are better for the person who experiences it. He would say that the effects of religious conversion for the converts are often good, in that they bring about a feeling of well-being, a strengthening of the will, an improvement in morality, and these things are certainly all good. Cottingham also sees religion as positive, using the phrase ‘comforting illusion’ (Viz, ‘Reply To Cottingham’, p. 148). He instead thinks that being religious is very challenging, contrary to the atheistic life which he thinks is more challenging because, according to his worldview, ‘You can live however you want.’ This simply isn’t true. As many atheists will tell you there are any number of constraints on how one should live that are not divinely ordained – social pressures, secular moral codes, conscience, conditioning, and the law. Aside from the questionable verity of this position, is grossly generalising. What one person finds comforting (his mother tongue) another might find alienating (a foreign language) or even frightening.
However, for Freud, ‘the impact of religious systems is largely detrimental; religion shields the individual from recognizing his own situation by pretending to offer divine compassion, forgiveness, and hope of a better life when in fact no such thing is the case.’ (Radden, p. 318) Before this can solve the problem them it would need to be settled whether the effects of the conversion are, all things considered, better or worse for the convert. This will require some notion of which goods are to be counted, how they are to be weighed against one another, and which of them apply in any given case.
If what James means to say here is that the good effects are simply built into the definition of conversion, then it is a different matter. In this case, whatever we decide about what goods are or are not present, we can know in advance that it will only count as a genuine conversion wherever it is overall better. This makes it a consequence that experiences that are better for the subject cannot be pathological, and this does not seem right. For example, take a homeless person who becomes delusionally insane. The insanity creates a fantasy world in which he is a benevolent King, and he experiences a sense of well-being as a result. He is also put into a mental health institution as a result of his odd behaviour, so his material circumstances and general level of care increase significantly. According to the definition at hand, we would not be able to call his symptoms pathological, even though he is quite detached from reality. I therefore do not think this would be the right move to make.

Freud has a different view, on which there is an analogy to be drawn between the behaviour of obsessive neurotics and the practice of religious behaviours. Far from being superficial, this analogy may lead to inferential conclusions about the psychological processes of religious life based on insights about the origin of neurotic ceremonial behaviour (Freud, ‘Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices’, p. 1901). The similarities are that both kinds of behaviour lead to guilt and anxiety if they are not performed, their separateness from other kinds of activity, and the conscientious attention to details in carrying out the behaviours. For example, a neurotic might never step on the cracks between paving stones, and might feel strong feelings of guilt and/or anxiety if he were to accidentally step on a crack, and might have some kind of ritual-like remedy that he would have to perform in such cases, like step on a crack with the other foot to ‘even it out’, or take a step backwards to ‘undo’ it. Freud thinks that it is similar with certain ritualistic religious actions, for example a religious person may feel the need to make the sign of the cross whenever a certain kind of thing happens. This may also be tied up with feelings of guilt or anxiety if it is not performed, and perhaps if it is not performed they might implement some reparative action, for example praying for forgiveness for the neglect.
Freud then points to some potential disanalogies, namely that: the neurotic behaviours might vary greatly between individuals whereas religious behaviours tend to overlap in large groups of people; neurotic behaviours are conducted in private whereas religious ones are often public, and lastly; neurotic behaviours seem ‘foolish and senseless’ (Freud, ‘Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices’, p. 1903) whereas religious ceremonies are ‘full of significance and have a symbolic meaning’ (Freud, ‘Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices’, p. 1903). Freud doesn’t attempt to dissolve the first two disanalogies, but as he precedes the latter with ‘above all’ (Freud, ‘Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices’, p. 1903) and claims that this latter disanalogy ‘presents a travesty’ (Freud, ‘Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices’, p. 1903) (with the implication that the other two do not) we can assume that according to Freud the former disanalogies are not significant enough to trouble us.
The first disanalogy should not trouble us too much. To conclude that because religious behaviours are conducted by a much larger group of people they must somehow be of more value or be truer would be to commit the ad populum fallacy. Making a fallacious appeal to tradition will serve no better. Whether the behaviour is carried out in public or private has no relevance I can think of, so should not count as a destructive disanalogy. The latter disanalogy does threaten to compromise it though, as this really would be an undermining disanalogy. Freud claims that psychoanalysis can show us that in fact latter ostensible disanalogy dissolves upon proper scrutiny. He points out that in the case of obsessive neurotic behaviours there is usually an individual cause and significance which means that (even if it is not consciously apparent to the subject) there is a deeper, usually symbolic meaning behind the actions. He illustrates with various examples, which if accurate would illustrate his point well. For example, while a woman patient had a neurosis that prevented her from being able to get up from a particular chair, which admittedly does seem foolish and senseless, actually her feelings towards her husband had been displaced onto the chair so that it acted as a kind of symbol for him. Once this had been unpacked via psychoanalysis it transpired that this neurotic behaviour was full of symbolic significance and had an important meaning (Freud, ‘Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices’, p. 1904).
Lets look at a kind of supposedly neurotic behaviour that can be both religious and non-religious so that we can compare certain aspects of the analogy. An example is the ‘omnipotence of thoughts’, whereby the subject believes he has more control of or impact on the world than he really does (Freud, ‘Notes Upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis’, 2176, 2183 and ‘Totem and Taboo’, 2728). Non-religious examples include when our frustration at the failure of our television causes us to hit it in a vain attempt to make it work; thinking we have a psychic ability when someone phones as we are thinking of them; superstitions like touching wood for luck. A religious example might be praying to God.
The difference between these examples may be one of degree. If I ask the television-hitter once he has calmed down whether he really thought hitting the television would make a difference he is most likely to answer “no”. The answer from the superstitious person is less likely to be “no”, perhaps. While, in the case of prayer, a committed religious person may well answer in the affirmative when asked whether or not his praying makes a difference. Here, it could be argued, the kind of difference expected is the crucial point. If one thinks that simply by praying to God one will seriously improve their success, this does seem like superstition. Yet we should note that not all religious people have the kind of conception of God that makes Him a candidate for favouring or punishing human behaviour in this way, and so would not see the act of prayer like this. If one’s prayers are meditative and calming, it is realistic and plausible that the act of prayer will improve, perhaps not your luck, but certainly your ability to handle a situation. Thus the act of prayer, unlike the act of hitting one’s car, is at least a rational way to achieve one’s desired result, and thus not always the result of a neurotic or misplaced attempt to control the world. This of course does not extend to all religious behaviours exhibiting this feature, but it needn’t – if we have shown that not all religious behaviour is neurotic then we have the basis for a healthy religious life.

Freud gives a case study of religious conversion that came to his attention when a physician sent him a letter that described his religious conversion. The physician was previously sure there was no God and expressed this upon seeing a ‘sweet-faced’ (Freud, ‘A religious experience’, 4548) old woman on a dissecting-table, saying ‘if there were a God he would not have allowed this dear old woman to be brought into the dissecting-room.’ (Freud, ‘A religious experience’, 4548) This seems like a typical ‘problem of evil’ type reason for doubting the existence of God. However, a voice ‘spoke to [his] soul’ (Freud, ‘A religious experience’, 4548) and said he should consider better, after which he states ‘In the course of the next few days God made it clear to my soul that the Bible was His Word, that the teachings about Jesus Christ were true, and that Jesus was our only hope. After such a clear revelation I accepted the Bible as God’s Word and Jesus Christ as my personal Saviour. Since then God has revealed Himself to me by many infallible proofs.’ (Freud, ‘A religious experience’, 4548)
Freud thinks that this conversion was based on ‘particularly bad logic’ and so demands an emotional interpretation. He notes that as a physician there must have been many greater evils than the body of an old woman which would have made better examples for a more logical argument for his doubting, and that as his description of this woman suggests that the woman reminded him of his own mother the reason for this trigger is not logical but emotional. As further support for this interpretation he notes that the physician referred to him as a ‘brother physician’. Freud then attempts to explain the connection to the lack of religious faith this aroused by invoking his Oedipal theory and claiming that the reaction to the mother figure on the dissecting table provoked the Oedipal father-hatred, and this was displaced onto the heavenly father – ‘his desire to destroy his father could become conscious as doubt in the existence of God’ (Freud, ‘A religious experience’ 4550).
Freud describes the reported event as a ‘religious experience’ and ‘conversion’ (Freud, ‘A religious experience’ 4550) and the auditory event as ‘a hallucinatory psychosis’. He does say that ‘not every conversion can be explained as easily as this one’, but this does leave open the implication that other conversions can nevertheless be explained in psychoanalytic terms, albeit with more difficulty. What the logical relation between these two ways of describing the events are is not clear. It could be that:
1) The ‘conversion’ is another label for but precisely consists in the occurrence of the psychosis/neurosis. We could say that the psychosis/neurosis is a criterion for conversion.
2) The psychosis/neurosis is a symptom of conversion. Thus when conversions occur, sometimes there is an accompanying psychosis/neurosis.
3) The conversion is a symptom of psychosis/neurosis. Thus whenever a psychosis/neurosis manifests, sometimes there is an accompanying conversion.
4) There is no relation between conversion and psychosis/neurosis, but they sometimes co-occur.

By ‘criterion’ I understand something by which a concept is defined, so that if the criteria are found to be present we can tell that the concept should be applied. If a shape has three sides, and we know that three-sidedness is a criterion for something’s being a triangle, we will know that the shape is a triangle. A ‘symptom’ on the other hand is something that we have learnt from experience coincides with the criteria. We might say that the presence of a certain bacillus is a criterion for angina, and a symptom of angina is that the patient has an inflamed throat: ‘Then to say “A man has angina if this bacillus is found in him” is a tautology or it is a loose way of stating the definition of “angina”. But to say, “A man has angina whenever he has an inflamed throat” is to make a hypothesis.’ (Wittgenstein, Blue and Brown Books, p. 25)

In light of the above it would seem prudent to clarify the terms ‘psychosis’ and ‘neurosis’. Freud defines the difference as follows: ‘neurosis is the result of a conflict between the ego and its id, whereas psychosis in the analogous outcome of a similar disturbance in the relations between the ego and the external world.’ (Freud, ‘Neurosis and Psychosis’, 4065, original emphasis.)
The id (according to Freud) is the unconscious aspect of our personality that concerns mainly our instinctual drives and seeks instant and continuous gratification. It is ‘It is filled with energy reaching it from the instincts, but it has no organization, produces no collective will, but only a striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principle’ (Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis). The ego is the rational part of the personality that attempts to satisfy the id while finding realistic and appropriate ways of achieving this satisfaction. This mediating role between id and reality constrains the otherwise unchecked instinctual libido and appetites. The operations of the ego may be conscious or unconscious. The superego is like a conscience, and has internalised standards of morality and correctness from parental, societal, and religious influences. The superego will often judge the desires of the id as wrong, leading to further conflict as the ego struggles to accomodates the superego’s demands too.
Neuroses stem from the suppression or renunciation of instinctual impulses, including the sexual impulse. When the ego cannot accept some impulse from the id and implements a defensive mechanism, it often lessens the tension between the desire of the id and the impossibility to realise it that reality affords, making life more bearable (at least in the short term). For example, one’s ego might (unconsciously) repress a sexual urge if it deems that the realisation of the urge would be inappropriate. Freud hypothesises that the repressed urge would struggle against this repression and may lead to neurotic symptoms. (Freud, ‘Neurosis and Psychosis’, 4066)
In psychosis the problem occurs between the ego and the external world. In a healthy personality the link between reality and the external world takes an internal and an external form. The external link is via perceptual inputs, thus the ego is privy to the current sensory information. The internal link is via the memories that one has of the external world and all of the past experiences, and these will form an internal picture of the world (Freud, ‘Neurosis and Psychosis’, 4066). In psychotic people these links can be compromised or in extreme cases, severed, so that ‘not only is the acceptance of new perceptions refused, but the internal world, too, which, as a copy of the external world, has up till now represented it, loses its significance (its cathexis) - The ego creates, autocratically, a new external and internal world’ (Freud, ‘Neurosis and Psychosis’, 4066).
According to Freud both neuroses and psychoses are brought about by the same thing (although varying in the specifics): they both arise in response to frustrations or non-fulfillments of some childhood wish. Freud tells us that ‘The pathogenic effect depends on whether, in a conflictual tension of this kind, the ego remains true to its dependence on the external world and attempts to silence the id, or whether it lets itself be overcome by the id and thus torn away from reality’ (Freud, ‘Neurosis and Psychosis’, 4067).
On Freud’s model then, we can understand the automatisms that occur in religious conversion experiences as psychotic because it severs the link between ego and reality – what the ego ‘experiences’ is not representative of reality. Freud says that religion succeeds in ‘distorting the picture of the real world in a delusional manner - which presupposes an intimidation of the intelligence. At this price, by forcibly fixing them in a state of psychical infantilism and by drawing them into a mass-delusion, religion succeeds in sparing many people an individual neurosis’ (Freud, ‘Civilization And Its Discontents’, 1483). We have a subconscious desire for protection against the ‘cruel and inexorable powers of nature’ (Freud, ‘Civilization and its Discontents’). If we accept the ‘omnipotence of thought’ thesis, a belief in God can seem to afford us some protection against this harsh reality (providing we obey him, and pray etcetera). Religious belief can even waylay the ego’s fear of death, which can be transformed into ‘the beginning of a new kind of existence’ (Freud, ‘Civilization and its Discontents’) through expectation of an afterlife.
Freud thought that the religious impulse was a reaction to the harsh reality (thus a rejection of reality = pathological) Freud says: ‘I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection’ and ‘a personal God is, psychologically, nothing other than an exalted father’ (Freud, ). The God-figure is so often symbolised in terms of fatherhood for example in ‘Our father who art in Heaven’ from the Lord’s prayer.
This leaves open a challenge to the effect that while the conversion experience does not represent physical reality, it nevertheless represents some other kind of reality. This might be so, however, as long as we understand the definition of psychosis as a separation from physical reality, this can be bypassed.


I now turn to some objections to the psychological accounts that seem to threaten this interpretation and explanation of religious conversion. One thing that can be said is that much of what Freud argues depends on the Oedipus theory, and this has been widely contested. Even Malinowski, who agrees with Freud that the Oedipus complex is valid, denies that it is universal. In matrilineal societies no such thing is found, and we might assume from this that the same is true for many Western single parent families. Also, permissive cultures (or sub-cultures) where there is little need for sexual repression would also not suffer from the repression of Oedipal desires, at least not with the force we might assume is required for full-blown neuroses to form. Thus Malinowski makes the plausible claim that rather than culture being created by the complex, the complex is created by the culture. It possible that there are instances where religious conversion occurs without an Oedipus complex in play and if so, there will at least be some religious conversions that are not pathological.
One might reply that the lack of universality is not problematic, for of course, the religious phenomenon is not universal either. It is only necessary that there is a correspondence between those who do suffer from the Oedipal complex and those who convert and form religious beliefs, so that in subjects where the Oedipus complex is not present, there are no cases of religious conversion.
If a counter-example could be found that displayed evidence of undergoing a religious conversion, with a lack not only of an Oedipal complex, but also the lack of the other explanatory factors, this would tell against Freud’s pathology claim applying to all instances of religious conversion, leaving room for a healthy kind.


Viz makes some objections to Freud and his work, which are collated to form an overall negative stance towards Freud. However, if we take each separately we can see that they do not meet their aim. One of Viz’s objections is that Freud claims that the need for a protective father is ‘the oldest and most urgent’ wish of mankind, which is belied by the fact that a father figurehead is not central to pagan, Bhudist, Hindu or Islamic religions. However, all this shows is that either Freud’s claim was too strong not necessarily that it is false. We might assume that while these religions are not as concerned with the patriarchal they were not included in Freud’s account of ‘religion’ (he would not be the first to say ‘religion’ and mean ‘Christianity’) or we might challenge his premise and find support for the contrary claim; these religions are motivated also by a desire for a father-figure but in varied ways and to different degrees.
Viz goes to some length to show that the theory of religion Freud presents is merely his own predilection, not a theory of psychology as it has been supposed. What force this is intended to have beyond historical or methodological interest is unclear – it matters to the truth of the theory/opinion not a jot.
Viz also points out that Freud’s views were based on those of Ludwig Feuerbach in his book The Essence of Christianity. What the perceived connection between originality and value or truth is unclear. Likewise, he cited some terms used by Freud which he claims ‘are not psychoanalytic, either in terminology or in meaning’ (p. 134) Again, it is not clear what the bite of this criticism is – after all, it would not be deemed admirable criticism if I pointed to several of his sentences and quipped that they were neither philosophical terms, nor philosophical in meaning.

More compelling is this objection: ‘nowhere did Freud publish a psychoanalysis of the belief in God based on clinical evidence provided by a believing patient’ (Viz, p. 134). This objection raises an important objection to the psychological interpretations of religious conversion in general. Many of the empirical findings that these theories are based upon, and draw support from, including the individual empirical case studies referred to add ballast to individual points, are flawed. There are methodological limitations to the research conducted, typical of any scientific discipline but perhaps more severe in the case of psychology.
There is a distinct lack of diagnostically matched control groups in the research. That is, where there is empirical data detailing certain facts about converts there is often no control group of subjects similarly situated with respect to key variables to which the results can be compared. The failure to account for variables distorts the results, as certain instances of religious conversion might be the result of pathology and another not, but this will not be identifiable unless all relevant variables are considered and accounted for. Another problem with the research is the limited and poorly selected subjects. There are various methodological questions that can be raised here. As he himself says, ‘The human material on which the demonstration has been made has so far been rather limited and, in part at least, eccentric, consisting of unusually suggestible hypnotic subjects, and of hysteric patients.’ (James, p. 229)
Much of the empirical research has been conducted by psychoanalysts who, unsurprisingly, mainly have access to the mentally unsound. Thus it is an unfortunate fact that there is likely to be a bias involved in the research. James defends this by claiming that ‘the elementary mechanisms of our life are presumably so uniform that what is shown to be true in a marked degree of some persons is probably true in some degree of all, and may in a few be true in an extraordinarily high degree.’ (p. 229) How valid this is as a general claim is unclear, but as a defense, it is inadequate. However, these problems have led to some research which has been conducted on converts who are members the general public and with some effort made to use control groups of non-converts who are also members of the general public (E.g.….)
A similarly motivated objection that can be made against the psychologising of conversion is that it places a large explanatory burden onto the unconscious, which is a nebulous and shadowy concept. Clark claims that ‘the modern concept of the unconscious needs to be de-emphasized because of the facile way that so many psychologists are apt to ascribe anything they do not understand to its workings.’ (Clark, ‘William James – contributions to the psychology of religious conversion’, p. 34) If what is going on in these psychological accounts is simply that anything we don’t understand about the mind is simply explained as being ‘unconscious’ (as though this solves the problem) this would be no better than that of attributing all unknown natural causes to God. I don’t think that the psychologist is as facile as this, as there are very strong inductive reasons for positing an unconscious.
The scientific credentials of psychology and psychoanalysis are difficult to establish. We can question the connection between psychoanalysis and mental health just as we can question ‘whether the relatively low incidence of coronary heart disease among athletic adult males shows that physical exercise contributes to cardio-vascular health, unless one can rule out the possibility that precisely those who are otherwise healthy cardiovascularly are the ones who engage in physical exercise to begin with. In other words, both the pursuit of exercise and low incidence of coronaries may be partial effects of a common cardiovascular cause; in that case, exercise is not a cause of low coronaries’ (Grunbaum, ‘Is psychoanalysis a pseudo-science’, p. 66).
There is a good deal of literature discussing the merits and demerits of psychology as a science. The important point to remember is that whether or not we decide to include psychology in ‘science’, science’s ‘purposes are not the only purposes, and that the order of uniform causation which she has use for, and is therefore right in postulating, may be enveloped in a wider order, on which she has no claims at all’ (James, The Principles of Psychology, p. 1179).

A final thought posed by Viz is that if Freud’s ideas are any good, they can equally well be utilised to explain atheism. It is a very interesting point, and if the psychoanalytic approach is to shed light on the basis for religiosity, it can surely be considered a strength that it also sheds light on the opposing beliefs and stances.
This is not really posed as an objection, but Cottingham says that this exposes ‘a vulnerability in Freud’s approach, by showing that it is subject to a devastating tu quoque’ (Cottingham, ‘Reply to Viz’, p. 149) However, as an objection its force is unclear to me – the ability of psychoanalysis to explain the motivation of a neurotic is not undermined by its ability to also explain the motivation of a non-neurotic, likewise psychoanalysis could simultaneously explain any number of incompatible things (like theism and atheism) in any group of subjects. The tu quoque argument offered by Viz does not show that Freud’s account of religion is false. It merely shows that both the theist and atheist positions can be explained in similar psychoanalytic terms, and this takes the sting from the Freudian critique of religion specifically. At most this shows that the critique of both theism and atheism stand or fall together – either the psychoanalytic account can stretch to both, or to neither, but until it is shown that we must choose the latter Freud has not been embarrassed by this point.
In Cottingham’s paper ‘Freud’s Critique of Religion - How Damaging is his Account?’ he correctly points out that Freud’s critique need not be fatal to religion. In fact, the religious person can accept everything that Freud says with no ill effects. Cottingham draws a comparison between the psychoanalytic and religious domains, to the effect that both fall short of certain scientific standards. Nevertheless, as Freud is willing to accept the reasonableness of psychoanalysis, it becomes inconsistent for him to reject religion for failing on the very same grounds. This is very interesting, but it is ad hominem to point out this inconsistency in Freud's views – if this is construed instead as an argument to the conclusion that religion is reasonable, it is invalid. What the argument might show is that we must reject neither or both. Rejecting both seems to be an open option based on the ground covered in the paper. However, Cottingham also points to some further reasons for accepting both – the clinical evidence of the efficacy of psychotherapy for example. However, research shows that in a thirds of cases, people with similar symptoms left untreated recover within two years: this is roughly the same proportion of recoveries reported by patients treated with psychotherapy. (Hans Eysenck, Uses and Abuses of Psychology).
The question that Freud’s work really poses is whether our religious beliefs can be justified, or trusted to correspond to reality, if they are based not on the same criteria as other beliefs but on the projection of our unconscious desires. From this angle, Viz’s critique really shows that atheists are no more or less justified than theists based on these points.


I now turn to a theologically centered question arising from these psychological accounts of religious conversion. If we accept these psychological accounts, a question arises about the role that a divine entity plays in these conversions and also whether the role is different in the two types of conversion James posits. James asks:

Is an instantaneous conversion a miracle in which God is present as he is present in no change of heart less strikingly abrupt? Are there two classes of human beings, even among the apparently regenerate, of which the one class really partakes of Christ’s nature while the other merely seems to do so? Or, on the contrary, may the whole phenomenon of regeneration, even in these startling instantaneous examples, possibly be a strictly natural process, divine in its fruits, of course, but in one case more and in another less so, and neither more nor less divine in its mere causation and mechanism than any other process, high or low, of man’s interior life? (James, p. 234)

James points out that even those who believe that sudden conversions are non-naturally caused ‘have had practically to admit that there is no unmistakable class-mark distinctive of all true converts.’ (James, p. 234) All of the marks of conversion that one may point to could equally be caused naturally, or even by Satan. Zehnder remarks that ‘sudden conversions display much more a need for pastoral attention than they reveal an obvious spiritual presence.’ (Zehnder, ‘Negative Parental Influences on Religious Conversion’, p. 572)
James thinks that the question of what impact conversion has on the life of the convert, i.e. the moral change that this brings about in his life, is more important than the question of whether the change was brought about by some kind of divine providential intervention. For him the question of origin (i.e. whether the conversion originates in divine action of some kind or not) is not of primary importance given, as he thinks, that it is not the case that ‘the worth of a thing can be decided by its origin.’ (James, p. 233) The worth conversions should be deemed as having, resides in its ability to improve the lives of the converts. Perhaps due to this, he does not answer the question of whether there is divine intervention in either case, but he does answer the question of whether there is any difference between the two types on this matter. He suspects that the difference between gradual and sudden converts is not related to a difference in intervention, ‘but rather a simple psychological peculiarity, the fact, namely, that in the recipient of the more instantaneous grace we have one of those Subjects who are in possession of a large region in which mental work can go on subliminally, and from which invasive experiences, abruptly upsetting the equilibrium of the primary consciousness, may come’ (James, pp. 232-3).
This alternative explanation might then ‘rule out the need to attribute the divine hand in an obvious and direct operation’ (Zehnder, ‘Negative Parental Influences on Religious Conversion’, p. 572, emphasis added). However, he sees no reason why this psychological explanation should exclude the possibility of divine presence, as if there were a supernatural influence they may ‘get access to us only through the subliminal door’ (James, pp. 237, 238). If we want to know whether the conversion is genuine or not, we don’t need to know whether it was naturally or supernaturally caused, but whether there is a lasting improvement in the convert’s moral life (James, p. 238). This pragmatic approach reduces the importance of the question so that our inability to answer it becomes less of a problem.
Whatever we do say about the role of divine intervention, we cannot attribute the conversion process entirely to the effect of a divine cause, for this would remove the agency of the convert from the picture entirely. From a religious point of view a legitimate conversion requires some cooperation or initiative or willingness on behalf of the convert, because if he were merely an unwilling puppet at the hands of divine grace he can hardly be fairly praised or rewarded for the conversion. Whether or not the convert realises that they have had a part to play in the conversion, and thus whether or not they report that they made any kind of effort or performed any kind of action to contribute to the conversion is another matter (Young Kim ‘William James and Bernard Lonergan on Religious Conversion’, p. 992). It might be that this knowledge only comes from self-reflection after the fact, or not at all, but it is possible for a person to be unaware of their role in the conversion process in the same way that a person can be unaware of the motives behind their neurotic behaviour, or to pick a more mundane example, unaware that they have a crush on someone until a friend points it out to them.

The pertinent question is whether the acceptance of a psychological account of religious conversion rules out the influence of a divine grace (or similar). I would argue that this is certainly not the case, for anyone wanting to maintain the divine intervention thesis simultaneously with a psychological explanation of religious conversion can simply add the hypothesis that the way that God achieves the intervention is by means of the unconscious. Thus even if we were to manage a fully reductive and detailed scientific account of what occurs in the brain during religious conversion experiences, this would not detract from the possibility of its being caused by God because God might reveal himself via these very mechanisms.
However, some have taken Freudian lines of thinking as arguments to the conclusion that God does not exist – if the account did show this, it would certainly determine that God plays no part in the conversion process as non-existent things do not have causal powers and cannot perform actions. The argument assumed here is something like:

1) We have a belief in God.
2) This belief was generated by our mind, as a result of neurosis.
3) This belief is therefore illusory if it is held about an object (or being) external to our mind (i.e. an actual God).
∴ 4) The religious belief in God is false.

This is not a good argument, as it commits the genetic fallacy – that is, it denies the validity of religious belief by explaining its origins rather than attacking the rational basis for supporting it. The conclusion that religious belief is false is not allowed, as our illusion might match reality and this origin of religious belief is not incompatible with the existence of God, and thus the truth of the belief in Him.
Such a view is a misunderstanding of Freud, who was aware that an illusion (i.e. something ‘derived from human wishes’ (Freud, ‘Cilvilization and Its Discontents’, ) is not a ‘delusion’ (i.e. ‘a false belief, a contradiction of reality’ (Palmer, p. 34) and not necessarily an error. Freud says that ‘To assess the truth-value of religious doctrines does not lie within the scope of the present inquiry’, so is under no pretences about what his claims can establish.
However, we may question what grounds we have for the belief; if we know that the cause of our belief is not connected to the object of our belief, some further reason is needed to justify our belief. Illusions set little store by verification. Unlike empirical assertions, therefore, the assertions of religion are not based on observations of the external world that can either be verified or falsified, but rather on inner convictions that neither seek nor require justification (Palmer, p. 34). The exception to this are religious experiences, so I turn in the final section to the question of whether the conversion experience is indicative of a God and can ground the belief that forms on this basis.


The preceding questions raise a further question in my mind. If we have no way to falsify or verify the divine role in conversions, and conversions typically involve religious experiences that may or may not count as pathological, what inferences should a rational person draw from the occurrence of a conversion experience of their own? That is to say, if a person has a religious experience that leads to the feelings typically leading to a conversion, should they convert? There are several ways one could go about answering this question, and which of these ways we choose will depend on certain assumptions one wants to make. One way to answer the question would be to decide whether the religious conversion experience would improve my moral life in a positive way. This pragmatic approach focuses on the consequences of converting and assumes that if a conversion will have better consequences than not converting, one is justified in converting.
Another way of answering would be to ask the further question ‘Is this religious conversion experience indicative of an object, God?’ If the answer is yes, one should convert. If the answer is no, the experience gives no justification to conversion so one should not convert. Taking this route will be based on an assumption about the role that belief in God has in religiosity, and about the connection between this belief and other important aspects. (For example, one might also think that a moral aspect is important, but only because of certain beliefs about God’s existence and God’s role as moral lawgiver.)
I will give this question some discussion by reference to two general arguments that attempt to show that religious experiences (conversion experiences being among these) are indicative of God. The conclusion these arguments both attempt to establish is that God probably exists, and we are justified in believing that he does. This means that we would be justified in converting on the basis of the automatisms reported in cases of conversion.

The first argument I shall call the ‘argument from credulity’. Richard Swinburne gives what he calls the ‘Principle of Credulity’ (Swinburne, The Existence of God, “religion). The principle states that if x appears perceptually to be present, then probably x was present. This probability would justify believing that x was present. This principle applied to sense experience seems plausible – if I seem to see a tree, then there probably is a tree, (that is, it is more plausible, prima facie, that there is a tree than that there is not). This applies unless there is some sufficient reason to think that there is not a tree, like for example because I know I have just taken a hallucinogen, or because I am on a film set with many fake trees. Swinburne thinks this principle is indispensible short of succumbing to scepticism, as if we could not reasonably believe things to be the way they appear (when there are no strong reasons to think otherwise) we would never be able to know anything on the basis of our experiences. The controversial step Swinburne takes is to apply this to religious experiences too. The principle of credulity applied to religious experiences then, purportedly allows one to reasonably conclude on the basis of the occurrence of religious experiences that there is a God – unless there are reasons to think that the experiences are not veridical.
Plantinga calls the reasons one might give to challenge a perception ‘defeaters’. Defeaters fall under one of two categories – undercutting defeaters and overriding defeaters. An overriding defeater counts as an independent reason for thinking that the perceptual claim is false. For example, the fact that I am on a film set is an overriding defeater for my perceptual claim that there is a tree because this fact makes it unlikely that the claim that there really is a tree is true. In the religious case an example of an overriding defeater for the apparent appearance of God would be a good argument for atheism – for of course if God does not exist, the apparent experience of Him cannot be veridical, and certainly should not lead us to conclude that He does. An undercutting defeater provides evidence that the experience is not indicative of the truth of the perceptual claim made on the basis of that experience. The presence of such a defeater will either lower the antecedent probability of the experience given that the claim is true (i.e. we would not have the experience of x even if x were there) or by raising the antecedent probability of the experience given that the claim is false (i.e. we would have the experience of x even if x were not there) or both. Thus, on the assumption that there are at least some religious experiences of the suitable kind, the enthymematic version of the argument claims that:

P1. If we have apparent perceptions of God (or his messengers) and there are no sufficient defeaters, then probably God exists.
P2. In conversion experiences sometimes there are apparent perceptions of God (or his messengers)
P3. There are no sufficient defeaters.
P4. Probably God exists (from 1,2,3)
∴C3. Our religious conversion experience of God gives us reason to believe God exists.
∴C4. Therefore we are justified in converting.

I think there is a successful objection to this argument. The situation is often more complicated than this argument suggests, for of course the presence of a defeater is not automatically decisive – if I see that the post box is red, then the fact that my companion thinks it is green counts as an overriding defeater because it is contrary to my perceptual claim. However, if I also know that my companion is red-green colour blind this acts as a ‘defeater defeater’ and restores my faith in my original claim. Defeater defeaters are negative construals of what Draper calls ‘enhancers’, (the enhancer in the previous case would be that ‘I am not colour blind’ or ‘I am more reliable in colour perception than my companion’) and there are two kinds: corroborating enhancers (which provide independent support for the truth of the perceptual claim) and reinforcing enhancers (which provide support for the claim that the experience is indicative of the truth of the perceptual claim). So the lack of a defeater is not sufficient, and Draper would require tagging ‘and insufficient enhancers’ onto the ‘unless’ clause of P1, as well as the addition of the premise ‘There are sufficient enhancers’.
Draper’s challenge to the universality of the principle of credulity is reasonable. He claims that, although the principle is a fundamental and important one, as we become epistemologically mature it gets modified to accord with different sorts of perceptual claims and things we learn about their reliability. Many experiences are still treated with a high degree of credulity once this maturity has been reached, but other experiences, due to a high frequency of defeaters or lack of enhancers, we learn to treat with initial scepticism rather than credulity. This is a reasonable reaction, as it would be irrational to be credulous that space aliens abduct people based on people’s claims to have experienced abduction, just because we have not got a sufficient defeater for their claims. In order for such claims to be credible, for Draper, it is not just necessary that they have not got a defeater, but also that the evidence is suitably enhanced.
To distinguish cases where experiences can be treated with initial credulity, and those which require enhancers, Draper makes the following guiding remarks: (1) the more specific the claim, the weaker the evidence for that claim provided by the perceptual experience; (2) the more significant a claim, the more initial scepticism it should be treated with; (3) claims about extraordinary objects are prima facie less probable than claims about mundane objects; and (4) claims made on the basis of an extraordinary mode of perception should initially be treated with more scepticism than claims made on the basis of sense perceptions. As the claims made by those who have religious experiences tend to be specific (highly ramified), significant, about an extraordinary object and perceived by means of an extraordinary mode of perception, Draper argues that the principle of credulity should not apply to them for epistemically mature individuals.
There is some debate about the specificity of the claims made on the basis of religious experiences. Lots of claims are highly specific, but this might be the result of a larger or smaller degree of interpretation of a less specific core experience that is nonspecific enough to allow the principle of credulity to apply. Upholding the second condition seems like the epistemically responsible thing to do – mundane and trivial claims lead to mundane and trivial consequences if they are wrong, but the more that rests on the claim the harder we should work to epistemically support it. It is certainly plausible to claim that God is a more extraordinary o+-object than the objects of sense perception, but it is not certain that God cannot be construed by the theist as a special case of extraordinary object, relevantly unlike aliens or Big Foot. The fourth claim that we should be more sceptical about extraordinary modes of perception is also reasonable, in particular because the experiences this mysterious faculty gives rise to are unpredictable and we are not even sure what conditions are to count as ‘normal’ for the kind of ‘perception’ involved in religious experiences.
The motivation for defending the applicability of the principle of credulity to religious experiences seems to be based upon a sufficient relevant analogy between religious experience and sense experience so that restricting the principle of credulity only to sensory experiences would be arbitrary. So perhaps if there is such an analogy one could rightly claim this as a reason to apply the principle of credulity to religious experiences and scrap the conditions suggested by Draper. It is to the argument from analogy to which I now turn, and I will argue that it does not succeed.

Gale points out that in order for religious experiences of God to have the kind of evidential status required to establish that God exists they must be (A) cognitive and (B) veridical. A mode of experience is cognitive id it can provide true information about an external reality. A mode of experience is veridical if it provides the truth. If a mode of experience is veridical then it must also be cognitive, but if a mode of experience is cognitive then it is not necessarily veridical, but may provide false information about reality instead. I now turn my attention to these two ostensible features of religious experience to establish whether they are either or both.
There are a cluster of tests for the veridicality of sense perception, some combination of which is necessary and sufficient (but none of which is necessary or sufficient alone). Defenders of the argument from analogy argue that these tests apply in an analogous way mutatis mutandis, to ascertain the veridicality of religious experiences. If religious conversion experiences pass a sufficient number of these tests then it will show that they are veridical and also cognitive, and will mean that the subjects of religious conversion experiences are justified in converting on the basis of their experiences. The tests I discuss attempts to include most of the tests applied by the various authors engaged with this topic (a defeating condition can be understood as a flunked test (Gale p. 306)). I will discuss each in turn.

Test 1. Logical consistency with other experiences: If the concept of God is contradictory as some theological arguments try to show, then this condition is not met. If the cognitive content of a religious experience is contradictory (mystics frequently call it ‘paradoxical’) this condition is not met. There is a good case for claiming that there are contradictions between the claims of different experiences too. If religious experience is used to reach competing conclusions of contradictory realities (e.g. by mystics in different religions), then arguments from religious experience cannot properly reach either conclusion (Gellman, p. 157).
Swinburne attempts a reply on the basis that the relevant claims are only contradictory when highly ramified. The solution is to make the claims more general. However, the more general they are the less useful too. If we only allow the claim ‘something appears to me Godly’ or ‘there seems to be an undifferentiated unity’ then this isn’t enough to claim ‘God exists’ in any traditional sense, nor enough to found the basis of a substantial religion. The kinds of experiences reported in religious conversion experiences are not well placed to give rise to the specific propositional content of doctrinal beliefs, so it seems reasonable to assume that these contents are only applied to they already expect, know, or believe about the experience, and what they are later told about it, for example.
This loses its significance on James’s view, because when one sees religion in a Jamesean fashion one can take the emphasis off of the specific content of the doctrines that are adopted. James says that:

The particular form which they affect is the result of suggestion and imitation. If they went through their growth-crisis in other faiths and other countries, although the essence of the change would be the same (since it is one in the main so inevitable), its accidents would be different.’ (James, pp. 198-9)

Even in the cases in which specific theological beliefs are adopted as a result of the conversion process, the content of these beliefs are likely to depend more on the setting, expectations, and external interpretations than on the quality of the experience itself. While James acknowledges that conceptual beliefs are often ‘efficacious and antecedent’ (James, p. 241) they are ‘accessory and non-essential’ (James, p. 241).

Test 2. Empirical consistency with known facts: The primary difficulty is in deciding what counts as a ‘known fact’. It is difficult to cash out in this context, as an atheist will gladly take ‘God does not exist’ to be a known fact, while the theist will not. So exactly which facts need the claims not clash with? Restriction to claims which are ‘known’ by everyone probably excludes all claims, while restriction to facts known by everyone in a particular culture, society, or religious group arbitrarily discriminates against the known facts held true by excluded groups.
Wainwright includes the following two conditions as tests for veridicality which require consistency with known facts:
1. The experiential claim should ‘agree or disagree with orthodox talk’ (Wainwright, ).
2. We must ‘take the pronouncements of authority into account. In some communities the word of the spiritual director, or guru or master is final.’ (Wainwright, )
These conditions are fallacious, and seem to discriminate against the unconventional or minority beliefs. This seems to me to be no guide to truth at all, unless the orthodoxy can be independently justified or shown to sufficiently correlate with truth.

Test 3. Existence of apparent object: To claim that the religious conversion experience is indicative of there being a God because God exists is potentially circular, unless there is independent reason for thinking so, in which case it is redundant.
Alston thinks that a circular justification is acceptable for the following reason. Sense experiences must be verifiable via other sense experiences otherwise we succumb to a vicious scepticism. Then by the principle of ‘parity’ we should apply this same reasoning to religious experiences, and allow that some religious experiences can be verifiable by other religious experiences. However, this parity should only hold if there is a sufficient analogy between sense and religious experiences, and it has not yet been established that there is, and I shall argue that there is not.

Test 4. Reliability of subject: Many of the pertinent reasons that we might not consider a subject reliable fall under the test for 8 and 9, so I will delay further discussion.

Test 5. Agreement between different subjects: Agreement and disagreement between subjects is only relevant when both subjects had the experience under normal or standard conditions. This is difficult enough to ascertain with sense experience, but might include things like healthy organs, no significant deprivations, no significant physiological influences – like drugs or alcohol – white light, suitable situation relative to the object, no holographic equipment etc.
What the normal standard conditions for a religious experience are is harder to attempt an answer to. Things like meditation, prayer, breathing exercises, and asceticism might be included, but unless one rules out experiences which do not occur after these processes, and can find a reason why experiences do not always occur when these processes are enacted, then this is not a good analogy. If under normal conditions we sometimes saw tigers when there were none, and sometimes failed to see them when there were, we would consider this evidence against the veridicality of tiger perceptions, and likewise in every case where two subjects disagreed about the presence of a tiger we would conclude either that one person is not in standard conditions, or that the disagreement is significant. However, for defenders of the argument from analogy, the analogue of this feature of sense experiences does not apply to religious experiences. Wainwright thinks that we should not worry about agreement between those who do not lead the prescribed mystical lifestyle (e.g. a religious life of mystical experience educing practices like meditation and asceticism.) Those people without the necessary ‘discipline’ do not count.
Ruling out most subjects of conversion (i.e. all of the ordinary people, or those who previously lived sinful and excessive lives) is most unsatisfactory, and should be avoided. There seems to be no a priori reason to suppose that God would only reveal himself to those who conducted these extreme practices, so some other reasons need to be forward to explain why the analogy is insisted on in some respects, but not this one. Draper points out that on the assumption that God exists we have just as much, if not more reason to suppose that the distribution of religious experiences would be weighted in favour of those who do not already know or worship Him, and so are more in need of such an encounter.
A better claim regarding the disagreement between subjects involves the perennialist thought that disagreement is simply the result of a difference in the interpretation of an experience, not the experience itself. In the case of sense perception it is certainly possible to have different incommensurable renderings of what we might call the same (in the qualitative sense) perception. If we send metaphysicians into a room containing only a medium sized bag of dried goods we might hear the following descriptions: ‘a concomitance of atoms’; ‘a collection of ideas in the mind made manifest’; ’ a bag-of-dried-goods sized chunk of the great totality of bag-of-dried-goods’; or ’a continuous succession of instances of bag-of-dried-goods-ness‘ or countless others. However, the percept was the same for each. However the metaphysicians would at least concede agreement to a less ramified version of the description e.g. ‘the appearance as if of a medium sized bag of dried goods’, and agree on the tests for verifying such a perception. Likewise the perennialist would claim some common core to religious experiences to which all suitable subjects could agree. The claims that seem to be in disagreement are simply too highly ramified. It is given some plausibility due to the difficulty of expressing the religious experience - despite the fact the experience was the same, there is no easy or straightforward way to convey it and so it is interpreted via the lights of ones familiar context or culture. This, however, is a so far unproven empirical claim. If one is to conclude that religious conversion experiences pass this test more work will need to be done to establish exactly what the common core is that all converts will agree to, and my contention is that whatever this may be will be so impoverished it will not provide any adequate basis for religion.

Test 6. Continuity between contents in some law-like manner: Draper makes a convincing case for failure of this test. Whilst there are law-like regularities in the case of sense perceptions, there are not in the case of religious experiences, and this disanalogy is epistemically significant. Wainwright disagrees with this, as he claims that the mystic can prescribe ‘a regimen, a mode of procedure, which is likely to lead to introvertive experiences’ but I would simply point out that here, the operative word is ‘likely’. One does not usually consider ‘likelihood’ sufficient for a ‘law-like’ governance.
In the case of sense perception, if an object is present, all those suitably exposed to it ought to perceive it, and this experience would be repeatable under the same conditions. However, sometimes different people, or the same person on different occasions, can be in the same position in all the relevant ways (hours of meditation, time since last meal… whatever one might consider relevant) and yet have a religious experience in one case and not in the other. Unlike in the case of objects of sense perception where if there is a table under suitable conditions we do have an experience of it, one may not have a religious experience even if God is present (in some loose sense) and the conditions are fitting. So not having a religious experience is then not grounds for concluding that God is not present. This creates a situation where, according to supporters of the argument from analogy, having an experience of God counts in favour of Gods existence, but not having an experience of God does not diminish the possibility of Gods existence. This ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ situation doesn’t seem like the best basis for a plausible account of religious experiences. This state of affaires counts as an undercutting defeater in both of the two ways discussed (both lowering the antecedent probability of the experience given that the claim is true and by raising the antecedent probability of the experience given that the claim is false).
Wainwright and Alston claim that this disanalogy is not significant because of the nature of the object we ‘perceive’ in religious experiences – as God chooses to reveal himself based on considerations we are not (and perhaps cannot be) aware of, the lack of regularity is exactly what we should expect assuming God exists and is the cause of our experience. The point they seem to be making is that because of the difference in the nature of the object of religious experiences from the objects of ordinary sense perception, we cannot expect there to be the same tests, and so genuine experiences of God would not be supported, confirmed or disconfirmed in the same way. This, however, seems to be simply conceding the vital point – there is a significant and relevant disanalogy between the two kinds of experience and so this counts against the argument that the cognitivity of one kind is reason to believe that the other kind is also cognitive. Also, as mentioned in the discussion of test 5, the actual distribution of religious experiences is what we would ‘expect’ on the hypothesis that God does not exist too.

Test 7. Predictive powers about future experiences: As we have seen, James (and Wainwright agrees) thinks that the most important prediction able to be made from the religious experience is the good effects, or positive moral or spiritual change in the subject of the experience. However, there seems to be no reason that someone who undergoes a veridical instance of the kind of experience typical of a conversion experience must accept the experience and incorporate it into their life at all, let alone in the way James predicts. James does acknowledge the possibility of ‘backsliding’, and we can think of this objection as saying that this backslide might happen almost instantly, and before any such predictive can unfold. Nevertheless, this might have been a genuine revelation and entirely veridical. The assumption here is that the experience does not compel one to believe, as then God’s revelation would count as removing our freedom to believe in God or not.
Despite this failure, there may be other things one can predict on the basis of these experiences than moral improvement. Whatever case can be made, there is a further unconnected problem with this test; clearly non-cognitive experiences pass it, so it seems as though this is not as important as it might first seem.

Test 8. Proper position of subject relative to object: Due to the problems with regularity discussed in test 6, it is not determinable what a suitable position of the subject in relation to the object is in religious conversion experiences.

Test 9. Physiological and psychological state of subject normal: Subjects with abnormal physiological or psychological states tend to have more non-veridical experiences. For example, if a subject has been drugged, they are more likely to have non-veridical sense experiences. So the test requires, in order that it is probably veridical, that no such features apply to the subject, as if a subject has a religious experience whilst drugged, this makes it very likely that the experience is non-veridical by analogy with the sense-perception case.
As we have seen in the reductionist psychological accounts considered here, occurrences of religious experience are ‘explained away’ by pointing to abnormal physiological or psychological features of the subject, and so it follows that if these accounts are right conversion experiences do not pass this test. However, drugged subjects can have both veridical and non-veridical experiences, so there is no conclusive reason why a religious experience could not be veridical – it is simply that we cannot rely on it, and cannot reasonably infer that there is an object causing the experience rather than it simply being some kind of hallucination. This is the same in the case of sense perception, as if we are told by someone on LSD that there is a table, it might well be that this is part of his hallucination, so this reduces our rationality in inferring the presence of a table from the fact that he says there is a table and yet the experience might be veridical, so we should not rule it out.
Other factors affectively alter the subject’s physiology and reduce the reliability of the subject’s perception, e.g. sleep deprivation can cause hallucinations and even lead to psychosis, and severe hunger or thirst can produce hallucinations. Likewise, as we have noted during the discussion so far, certain psychological states can make a person more prone to have non-veridical experiences, and can also greatly increase the chance of a non-veridical interpretation of a veridical experience:

1. Hypersuggestibility
2. Severe deprivation
3. Severe sexual frustration
4. Intense fear of death
5. Infantile regression
6. Maladjustment
7. Mental illness
8. Unusual neurological happenings / physiological states

Under all of these conditions the subject cannot be relied upon to have veridical experiences, and so often, we would dismiss all cases that can be shown to fail this test. However, as we have also noted, it is a complicated empirical matter to determine which cases do fail this test. Many studies have attempted to resolve this question, but the hypotheses drawn from various studies are in competition with one another, and obviously they face the limitations of any empirical study – e.g. limited and possibly unrepresentative samples, uncontrollable or immeasurable variables, biased interpretation of results, and so on.
Although this test is limited by the difficulties is ascertaining when it has been failed, there are certainly clear cases where is has been so as a minimum this test will restrict the pervasiveness of suitable religious conversion experiences – we will be left with far fewer exemplary experiences than we started with.

Test 10. Causal connection between apparent cause and experience of subject: Swinburne and Wainwright both think that this is met in virtue of the fact that God is the cause of everything, and so by extension, even if not directly, God is the cause of all mystical experiences. However, this presupposes that God does exist – unless we have sufficient independent grounds for believing this not based on experiences we may remain unswayed by this. I discussed the idea of the cause of religious conversion experiences being God in the section on divine grace, so will not repeat that here. However, any non-question begging reason for thinking that God is the cause of the experience will also make the question about whether the experience can justify believing that God exists redundant, for we would already have reason for thinking that God exists. So this line of reasoning is circular.

Wainwright argues for the cognitivity of religious experiences with two different versions of argument from analogy:

Version 1:
P1. If the analogy between religious experience and sense experience is very close then we are (probably) justified in regarding religious experience as a cognitive experience.
P2. The analogy is very close.
P3. Therefore, we are probably justified in regarding religious experience as a cognitive experience.

Version 2:
P1. The analogy between religious experience and sense experience is close enough to warrant the conclusion that religious experiences are cognitive provided that we have independent reasons for believing mystics and converts when they assert that they have directly experienced some transcendent aspect of reality.
P2. Some natural theology argument and/or the sanity, sanctity and intelligence of the mystics and converts provides us with such a reason.
P3. Therefore, we are warranted in drawing the conclusion that religious experiences are cognitive.

The weak point is with P2 of each argument. For the first argument the objection would run that the analogy is not close enough to warrant the conclusion, based on a significant disanalogy. The disanalogies are numerous, and have already been highlighted in the preceding discussion about veridicality. The second argument requires that we assume converts are sane and intelligent, which I think the preceding discussion has shown us is certainly in need of argument, and false in at least some cases.

To sum up this section, I considered two arguments that attempted to show that religious conversion experiences are indicative of God. To establish whether or not religious experiences were veridical I looked at some tests for veridicality. Tests 1-3 are eliminative – they cannot tell us that an experience has any more probability of being veridical, so even if the experience passes these test (which they do not) it is insufficient to conclude that God exists, as enhancers are required to support it. The disanalogies piled up in subsequent discussion, and it was established that unlike sense experience, we do not know how to judge the reliability of the subject or their extraordinary faculty of religious ‘perception’ (test 4), there is no law-like governance of such experiences (test 6) nor determinable standard conditions, one can only remove disagreement between subjects by extinguishing the religious import of their claims (test 5), and at any rate, the occurrence of religious experience is probably overstated by most supporters of arguments from experience (test 9). To establish whether or not religious experiences were cognitive I looked at Wainwright’s arguments, but concluded that the analogy he posits between religious and sense experience is taken too far. By modus tollens the lack of cognitivity establishes the lack of veridicality, and once these two features have been denied of religious experience, and once these two features have been denied of religious experience, these experiences no longer justify the belief that God exists because they are not reliably indicative of God.
It is understandable that those who have religious experiences are convinced by them and find them sufficient to draw inferences about God on their basis. Yet the psychotic is equally convinced that alien life forms are tracing his phone calls. So this should only tell us so much – namely that the psychological effects of religious experiences are powerful. But it does not give us any reason to believe that there is a real object causing these experiences, and therefore converting on the basis of the kind of religious conversion experience I have focuses on here is not justified.


I want to finish by saying that I think there is much further work to be done in this area. There are many fruitful comparisons yet to be made between the works of the two central authors discussed here, but there is also a wealth of new research to be done in light of the leaps and bounds made in the region of psychology since these two pioneering theorists wrote. I think that ‘Religion and psychiatry occupy the same country, a landscape of meaning, significance, guilt, belief, values, visions, suffering and healing’ (Fulford, ‘Religion and Psychiatry’ 5, as quoted in Radden, ‘Religion’ in The Philosophy of Psychiatry — A Companion, p. 313) and I think this country should be better mapped.


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