Personal Experience – Part 1

Personal ExperiencePerhaps the most commonly-encountered argument for God is the personal experience argument. That is the argument for God’s existence based on the believer’s personal or private experi­ence of God.

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2cpOaVHfaLA

[iv] PhilPapers has published a survey of academic philosophers online at www.philpapers.org/surveys/results.pl

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *