36. How can we verify religious experiences?


This session asks students to think about how and whether it is possible to verify that a religious experience has actually happened. This session leads on from the sessions on what is real and true as well as whether religious experiences prove God. This session covers ways in which we may verify miracles and mystical experiences. It asks students to think of their own verification criteria, to assess the criteria of other philosophers and to reflect on why it is so hard to verify religious experiences.

Warning: the section on near death experiences may contain upsetting themes for students. The suitability of this section session will be left to the judgement of the session leader.

Part One: Miracle Detectives


Ask students to make a list of things they know are real and not real. After this, ask them to justify how they actually know this.

Explain that in this session students will be investigating the events that have taken place at Lourdes in France. The Virgin Mary is said to have appeared there to 14 year old Bernadette Soubirous on a total of eighteen occasions in 1858. Since then Lourdes has become a place of Christian (mainly Roman Catholic) pilgrimage and of miraculous healings. Students will have the opportunity in this session to decide what might count as a real and true miraculous healing and what might not.


Ask students to imagine they are miracle detectives and to come up with two or more criteria that would make a miraculous healing a ‘real’ event. What would need to happen to call this a true miracle healing in their opinion?

Play the following clip that explains recent miracles at Lourdes and how they verify that it really is a miraculous healing: www.youtube.com/watch?v=AgVnjJLarwk 

Explain the following criteria that the Catholic Church uses to verify a miracle. Criteria One: the sickness of a person is judged incurable, however complete recovery is noticed or the reconstitution of vital organs or broken bones are healed. Criteria Two: recovery from an illness may happen instantaneously.

Ask the students to respond to such questions as:

  • How similar are these criteria to your own?
  • If a healing event was to satisfy all of your criteria would you believe that a miracle had really taken place?

Part Two: Near Death Experiences

Explain what a ‘near death’ experience is. These are sometimes referred to as a mystical experiences in that some people who have been close to death have recovered or been saved and have reported a sudden awareness of God that they could not easily explain or articulate.

Provide students with the following views on how we might verify whether someone has actually had a near death mystical experience.

William James
(philosopher and psychologist)

The experience appears to include:

  • Passivity: a strong sense of being taken over.
  • Ineffability: a state of experience unlike anything else and the experience is too difficult to describe.
  • Noetic quality: experiences reveal insights that are beyond human reason and understanding.
  • Transience: experiences don’t last long and are sometimes imperfectly remembered.

Paul Tillich
(philosopher and theologian)

The experience appears to include:

  • An objective event / encounter followed by a special understanding of that event, revealing its religious significance.
  • Sense of a divine union with God.
  • Loss of self-awareness.
  • A sense of ecstasy in being with God.


Ask students to watch the first seven minutes of the following clip made by an American Christian Broadcasting company and apply James’ and Tillich’s criteria. Do they judge that the experience being described would count as a ‘mystical’ experience according to the criteria?

Warning: the following clip details a car crash scene. Judge the suitability of this video for your students: www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9xDY2M0Qwo

An alternative description of a near death experience can be found as part of a discussion at the New York Academy of Sciences in February 2014: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x53guiS7oe8 ‘Lani Leary’s Near-Death Experience’.

Tell students that many people believe that such experiences have physiological causes, while others say there may be a ‘fifth dimension’ that ‘consciousness’ can access in altered states of mind.

Ask the students to respond to such questions as:

  1. How do these experiences, such as visions of angels bringing people out of a car accident, or being brought back from ‘death’, measure up against James and Tillich’s criteria?
  2. Do you think this is a genuine experience of God’s intervention?
  3. Can you think of an alternative explanation for what has happened here?
  4. Is the experience as documented the most convincing and plausible explanation for this event in your opinion?


Show students the NDERF (Near Death Experience Research Foundation website: www.nderf.org which collects people’s stories of near death experiences and has the sub-title ‘Where Science and Spirituality come together’ and has a mission ‘to spread the word of love, peace and global unity.’

Linking back to the overall question of this session, ask them to reflect on the following questions:

  1. Will the NDERF ever gain a full understanding of near death experiences?
  2. Can we with certainty verify a religious experience?
  3. Do you think there is a reason that religious experiences are hard to verify?
  4. Are some things supposed to remain a mystery?
  5. Why do people want to verify religious experiences?
  6. Should people bother trying to verify religious and mystical experiences?

1.  Happiness Part 1: status anxiety
2.  Happiness Part 2: religion and happiness
3.  Happiness Part 3: what is happiness?
4.  Morality Part 1: what is morality?
5.  Morality Part 2: should we live by ‘moral laws’?
6.  Morality Part 3: where does our sense of morality come from?
7.  Are You Religious?
8.  What Is a Religion and what is a Cult?
9.  What does it Mean to be Religious Today?
10. Religion in Numbers Part 1: how many people on Earth?
11. Religion in Numbers Part 2: how many people are ‘religious’?
12. Religion in Numbers Part 3: how did believers got to where they are?
13. Are All Religions Equal?
14. Transactional Analysis: learning how to feel equal
15. Bloom’s Taxonomy
16. Harry Potter and God
17. Without Fear or Favour Part 1
18. Without Fear or Favour Part 2
19. It’s Not Fair
20. Mind, Memory and Justice
21. Karma, Memory, Freedom and Justice
22. The Religion of Ordinary Life Part 1: Religion Without God
23. The Religion of Ordinary Life Part 2: God and Morality
24. The Religion of Ordinary Life Part 3: Is Life Beautiful?
25. Can Atheists learn anything from Religion?
26. What do Buddhists Believe about God?
27. Is Seeing Believing?
28. Are We Being Hypnotised?
29. Sex and Relationships
30. Truth, Proof and Evidence
31. How should we deal with the range of different opinions in today’s world?
32. Is Religion a Force for Evil or Good?
33. Do Religious Experiences Prove God?
34. What Is Evil?
35. God and Evil
36. Can we verify Religious Experiences?
37. How Spiritual are You?
38. What is Philosphy?
39. The Power of Words
40. Art and Beauty

A printable (pdf) version of this session can be found here

© Sea of Faith 2018

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