The question of the epistemology of religious experience deals with the issue whether information obtained through religious experiences can be considered valid knowledge. For a brief introduction into different forms of religious experience, see my paper on that subject.
Information obtained through religious experiences, which I shall further refer to as Revelation, is not considered valid knowledge in contemporary society mainly because the information obtained through revelation can not be verified. Religious experience is thus a very personal experience and unique knowledge, only available to the person receiving the revelation. The receiver of the information is the only one who is able to interpret the revelation and communicates it as thus to the wider world.
In pre-industrial society power was vested in the intermediaries between the transcendent and the immanent. The Latin word Pontifex (priest) illustrates this beautifully as it also means ‘bridge’. The priest as bridge builder between the material and the spiritual worlds.
Knowledge gained through revelation is unique and invests power into the person receiving that knowledge as they are the only ones capable of interpreting the information. Knowledge in this sense is esoteric, only available to a small group of people.
Empirical philosophy has, in combination with rationalism, revolutionised human knowledge of the material world. This combination has been an important and powerful tool. Where does this leave revelation? Can we simply say that revelation is not relevant and that religious experiences are mere delusions?
Because revelation is always esoteric knowledge, every experience is interpreted different, depending on the cultural and psychological dispositions of the person receiving the revelation. An important question to be asked is why a Hindu does not receive revelations concerning Jesus Christ or any other cross cultural experiences?
Religious experiences are particular and esoteric. In a society where knowledge is available to anyone through empiricism (although this is not completely true as we do not all have a particle accelerator in our backyard) the Pontifex has lost his power over society as the sole interpreter of knowledge.
The consequence of this, however, is that we have thrown the baby with the bathwater by ignoring religious experience as a valid source of knowledge.
I believe that religious experience can be a valid source of information to make decisions about non material things. It can people guidance about their life, which can have a very profound impact on their lives in the ‘real’ world. Religious experiences also have an effect on how we interpret the material world which shapes our world views.