The natural theologian can argue for God by pointing to the bacterial flagellum or the universe’s physical constants, natural features accessible to humans of all philosophical persuasions. In contrast, the proponent of private experience is tapping into internal or personal evidence to which others are not privy.
For example, the believer may have prayed for God to guide her through an important life decision, after which she heard the audible voice of God giving her explicit advice. God typically doesn’t simulcast advice to whole neighborhoods or to collections of people who could benefit from the advice. Instead, he beams the words directly into the individual believer’s head in a way that is inconspicuous to outside observers.
Alternatively, the believer may have received an even more subtle sign from God, perhaps in the form of a significant word from a stranger. The stranger unwittingly makes a statement that the believer interprets as having a profound secondary meaning understood only by God and by the targeted believer. The stranger is in this circumstance acting, not as a free agent, but as an unknowing instrument of a stealth communication.
Likewise, God might provide a sign to the believer in the form of a meteorological event—perhaps a tornado that destroys a nearby elementary school. This weather event, interpreted by a sober observer as a manifestation of well-established atmospheric principles, is recognized by the believer as a divine intervention to send a skillfully veiled or encrypted message to the perceptive believer. The key point in all such cases is that the believer’s natural experience is interpreted in a way that confirms the believer’s supposition that she is communicating with God.
Despite the believer’s sincerity, we skeptics have reason to question the accuracy of these accounts. For example, psychological conditioning may lead some people to report hearing the voice of God.
I am not talking about schizophrenics. A Gallup poll found that 23 percent of Americans had heard a voice or seen a vision in response to prayer.[i] Atheists who feel tempted to shame believers for these delusions might pause to reflect that, as these percentages indicate, it’s inherent in human psychology to believe such things, especially within particular social environments. Stanford University anthropologist T. M. Luhrmann, after studying evangelicals who have heard the literal, audible voice of God, observed as follows:
I eventually discovered that these experiences were associated with intense prayer practice. They felt spontaneous, but people who liked to get absorbed in their imaginations were more likely to experience them. Those were the people who were more likely to love to pray, and the “prayer warriors” who prayed for long periods were likely to report even more of them.[ii]
Suppose a believer reports that she was awakened in the night and realized that a light was beaming brightly through her bedroom window, illuminating some family photos on her dresser. Her attention was immediately drawn to the silver-framed photo of her father, who was ill. She looked out her bedroom window to see that the light was coming from a car that was turning around in her driveway. The next morning this believer got a call from her mother, who conveyed the sad news that her father had passed away during the night. The believer would likely presume that the illuminated photo was a message from God that he was repossessing her father.
As this example illustrates, even if we take a report of a private experience at face value, the interpretation of that experience remains open to question. We might challenge the reasoning used to link the private experience to God. An appeal to private experience must provide not only a clear and credible description of the alleged experience, but also a clear and credible chain of argument leading from the private experience to the conclusions that (1) God exists and (2) God is communicating in the manner represented.
The claim commonly made by believers that they have private conversations with God is not merely a claim to have received a veiled sign from God or even a sequence of very explicit messages. It is the far more audacious claim that they are engaged in an ongoing two-way communication.
For example, the televangelist Joyce Meyer writes in her book The Battlefield for the Minds of Teens: Winning the Battle in Your Mind, “I once asked the Lord why so many people are confused and He said to me, ‘Tell them to stop trying to figure everything out, and they will stop being confused.’ I have found it to be absolutely true. Reasoning and confusion go together.”
God apparently speaks to Meyer on a fairly regular schedule, in modern American English, so that she can quote him verbatim for her book-buying audience.[iii] And, fortunately for us, Meyer has consulted her own experience, vetting comments from God so she can assure her audience that God’s statements are “absolutely true.”
Some Christians, particularly the more scientifically and philosophically astute, confess that their personal experience of God is the sole basis for their belief. They steadfastly abjure any claims to objective rational evidence that might justify their belief to a critical observer. They are too well informed, and the members of their social circle are too well informed, to permit them to claim with a straight face that there is real world evidence to justify belief.
Admitting the absence of objective evidence allows them to appear intellectually respectable and forthright—as, indeed, they typically are. Claiming that their beliefs are rooted solely in private experience has the added benefit that it stymies their skeptical critics. The private nature of such a believer’s evidence blocks the skeptic from directly confronting and challenging the evidence.
But this reliance entirely on private evidence is a double-edged sword. While “going private” insulates the purported evidence from skeptical scrutiny, it also deprives these Christians of the means by which to convince a rational critic that God exists. How can one impress upon others the rectitude of one’s beliefs when the foundations of those beliefs are exclusively and incorrigibly private? If the basis for belief is a purely private experience, and if, in the absence of this private experience, there is no basis for belief, then nonbelief is the only rational state of mind for those who have not had the experience. Belief in God can be regarded as justified only if it derives from direct personal experience.
It might be argued, however, that if I trust the judgment and sobriety of my next door neighbor, and if he professes to have private experience of God, then my own lack of similar experience should be no obstacle to belief. After all, I take my neighbor’s word on other matters beyond my ability to verify, and if a sizeable percentage of my neighbors and relatives are in general agreement about their private communications with God, surely it is reasonable to accept this consensus as probable evidence of God’s existence.
This argument fails by assuming that my neighbor’s general character as a trustworthy witness is the only pertinent factor. We must also consider the actual content of the testimony and its inherent implausibility.
Sure, I might readily accept my neighbor’s claim that he spoke with a mutual acquaintance. Under some circumstances I might accept his claim that he spoke with the president of the United States. But I assuredly would not accept a claim that he spoke with Abraham Lincoln, which would require some extraordinary science fiction scenario. Given that I would justifiably reject my neighbor’s claim that he talked to Lincoln, someone whom I know was real, why would I accept his claim to speak on an ongoing basis, using some form of mental telepathy, with an invisible being who possesses magical powers such as I have never known, whose existence is unattested by any objective evidence whatsoever, and whose alleged attributes, such as being all-powerful, involve numerous logical contradictions?
My neighbor’s testimony might be corroborated by other neighbors and relatives who tell of similar private conversations. So what? The credentials of these other witnesses are as follows. First, they consistently demonstrate an inability to reason soundly on the topic; in fact, they don’t even know the names of the natural theology arguments. Second, they often are offended when I dispute their claims, suggesting some emotion-driven imperative behind their claims. Third, they aren’t nearly as impressed by their own personal experiences of God as one would reasonably expect.
Let me elaborate on that last item. If I ever become convinced that I have personally conversed with God, the whole world is going to hear about it. Forget mowing the lawn or watching television. I’d be the biggest proselytizer you ever met. The fact that essentially everyone who professes to have ongoing conversations with God continues to work overtime, visit shopping malls, book vacation trips, vacuum their carpets, and otherwise live mundane lives tells me that they don’t even believe these experiences themselves, at least not down deep in their hearts.
And don’t tell me that they are fallible mortals who backslide into familiar ways. Individuals convinced that they are in ongoing conversations with God cannot backslide. They live ordinary lives only if they’re not really sure they’re talking to God. If they, as indoctrinated and uncritical as they are, doubt the authenticity of their experiences, I would have to be unspeakably gullible to trust their reports over the testimony of my own eyes and my own reasoning.
Another problem with these corroborating witnesses is that, even in their fleeting moments of passionate conviction, they can’t agree among themselves. Listen to them squabble. Witness them ravage the theological ruminations of their fellow believers. It sounds like a political debate, only with more venom.
Widen the compass of witnesses to include people from adjacent precincts and from nations around the globe. Admit testimony from different historical eras. You will find that the smorgasbord of tenets certified by private evidence becomes increasingly heterogeneous and mutually incompatible. The witnesses’ ideas about the divine diverge in all directions, promoting monotheism, polytheism, henotheism, pantheism, panentheism, and the worship of entities too nebulous to even classify.
The witnesses conversing with God attribute to him opposing views ranging from endorsing socialism to championing laissez faire capitalism, from noodling peaceniks to igniting the war-mongers, and from lifelong celibacy to mullah-sanctioned marriages of forty-year-old men to nine-year-old girls. Every opinion a person can conceivably entertain has been confirmed through divine chitchat. To credit all these claims of God-human conversations would require us to postulate a massive swarm of gods flying overhead, each indiscriminately stamping approval of every human fallacy as quickly as some self-righteous moron utters it.
But to be fair—nay, to be decidedly charitable—perhaps all the diversity is just human-induced noise. Filter out this noise and we could perhaps distill the true meaning embedded in these conversations, what businessmen call the take-away message.
On examination, I have found that these private experiences do, indeed, share three core qualities. First, they give rise to elaborate sectarian conclusions with no trace of intermediate logic. Second, they never impart super-human insights, such as how to build a teleportation chamber. Third, they bear every appearance of having emerged from the relationship of the believer with his or her social circle rather than from a relationship with any invisible agents.
Religions did not always place so much emphasis on private experiences or personal relationships with God. That changed with the demise of natural theology. And make no mistake, natural theology is dead. Modern theologians try to prop up the corpse and jiggle its floppy mandible, but it has been deceased, or at least moribund, for nearly two centuries. Its recent resurgence on the speaking circuit of traveling evangelists such as William Lane Craig, Frank Turek, and Dinesh D’Souza might give the false impression that it is alive and well, but over 85 percent of modern philosophers view natural theology as an intellectual museum piece.[iv]
C. S. Lewis, in his 1940 book The Problem of Pain, came close to denying that natural theology was ever viable, “The spectacle of the universe as revealed by experience can never have been the ground of religion; it must have always been something in spite of which religion, acquired from a different source, was held.” Listen carefully and you can hear Lewis giving the Bronx cheer to the apostle Paul, author of Romans 1:20, in which Paul boasts that nature proves God so plainly that “people are without excuse.”
If Lewis was right and the source of belief is not natural theology or something “out there,” then the source must be internal. Having a source of conviction that is safely tucked deep inside is wonderfully convenient for those who never cared to expose their cherished convictions to any form of fact-checking. Advocates of personal experience, when probed by a thoughtful questioner, deflect the assault by screeching, “Nobody can disprove any belief founded on private evidence!”
That claim, by the way, is false, or largely so. Granted, current brain-scanning technology does not enable us to identify whether the private evidence was accurately reported or whether the experience was induced artificially or pharmacologically. In that sense, private experience is beyond testing. But if private evidence culminates in a statement about the real world, we can test the accuracy of that statement, barring practical obstacles. A private religious experience that does not culminate in any statement with real world consequences must forever remain beyond the reach of real world tests, but who cares about a statement that has no real world consequences?
Religionists can’t empirically verify that they are privately experiencing God or intercepting his communiques. Taking religious experiences en masse, their mutual incompatibilities make them all dubious. I do not mean to say that we can formally deduce that any particular religion is false. (That would be the genetic fallacy.) I’m just pointing out what everyone already knows: people under the influence of religion are apt to get carried away. Whether consciously or not, they make shit up. The “personal experience channel” is crammed so full of static and noise that we’d have to have tiny little gerbil brains to trust anything we hear on that channel.
[i] Billy Hallowell, “Has God Ever Spoken to You Directly? The Blaze Wants to Know About Your Most Intensely-Religious Experiences”, (The Blaze, Posted 1/16/2013 9:43AM, Cited 9/12/2013), www.theblaze.com/stories/2013/01/16/has-god-ever-spoken-to-you-directly-theblaze-wants-to-know-about-your-most-intensely-religious-experiences/#
[ii] Tanya Marie Luhrmann, “Is That God Talking?”, (New York Times, Posted 5/1/2013, Cited 9/12/2013), www.nytimes.com/2013/05/02/opinion/is-that-god-talking.html?_r=0
[iii] An even more striking case is that of the Christian mystic and medium Vassula Rydén, who claims to convey messages from such notables as Jehovah, the Virgin Mary, and the Old Testament prophet Daniel. Rydén performs what’s called “automatic writing,” where some third party—say, the prophet Daniel—communicates directly to Rydén’s hand to control the pencil. The odd thing is that the prophet Daniel appears to use the same vocabulary and phrasing as Rydén and he even misspells the same words in the same way.
[iv] PhilPapers has published a survey of academic philosophers online at www.philpapers.org/surveys/results.pl