Natural theologians argue for God by pointing to bacterial flagella, physical constants, and other natural features readily accessible to people of all philosophical persuasions. In contrast, appeals to private experience tap into internal evidence to which others aren’t privy.
A Gallup poll found that 23 percent of Americans had heard a voice or seen a vision in response to prayer.[i] 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]
A believer might pray for God to guide her through an important life decision, after which she hears the audible voice of God giving her personalized advice. He speaks in her native language and avoids words beyond her vocabulary. Rather than simulcasting advice to everyone who could potentially benefit from it, he beams the words directly into the individual believer’s head in a way that’s inconspicuous to outside observers.
Alternatively, the believer may have received a subtler sign from God, perhaps in the form of a significant word from a stranger. The stranger unwittingly makes a statement the believer interprets as having a profound secondary meaning understood only by God and by the targeted believer. The stranger is in this circumstance unknowingly acting as an instrument of a stealth communication.
God might provide a sign in the form of a meteorological event, perhaps a tornado that destroys a nearby elementary school. While most citizens watching the news on television interpret this tragedy as a manifestation of well-established atmospheric principles, the believer recognizes it as a divine intervention to send her an encrypted message.
Suppose a believer is awakened by a light beaming through her bedroom window, illuminating some family photos on her dresser. Her attention is drawn to the silver-framed photo of her dad, who is ill. She glances out her bedroom window. The light is from a car turning around in her driveway. The next morning, she gets a call from her mother, who conveys the sad news that her father passed away during the night. The believer may presume that the illuminated photo was a sign from God that he was repossessing her father.
Even if we take a report of a private experience at face value, the interpretation of that experience remains open to question. An appeal to private experience must provide not only a clear and credible description of the alleged experience, but also a reasonable chain of inferences tracing 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 explicit messages. It is the far more audacious claim that they are engaged in an ongoing two-way communication.
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.[iii]
Meyer frequently quotes God verbatim for her book-buying audience. I wonder if Meyer’s book editor ever corrects God’s grammar.
Some Christians confess that their personal experience of God is the sole basis for their belief. They steadfastly abjure any claims to objective evidence that might justify their belief to a critical observer. They’re too well informed, and members of their social circle are too well informed, to permit them to claim with a straight face that there’s real world evidence adequate to justify belief.
These Christians earn respect for being forthright. Claiming that their beliefs are rooted solely in private experience has the added benefit that it stymies their skeptical critics. One cannot scrutinize the inscrutable.
Reliance on private evidence is a double-edged sword. While “going private” insulates the purported evidence from skeptical scrutiny, it also deprives 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 private? If the basis for belief is a purely private experience, and if, in the absence of this private experience, there’s no basis for belief, then nonbelief is the only rational state of mind for those who haven’t had the experience. Belief is justified only if it derives from direct personal experience.
It might be argued that if I trust the judgment and sobriety of my religious next-door neighbor, my own lack of similar experience shouldn’t be an obstacle to belief. After all, I take my neighbor’s word on other matters beyond my ability to verify. If a sizeable percentage of my neighbors and relatives are in general agreement about their private communications with God, surely it’s reasonable to accept this consensus as probable evidence of God’s existence.
No. It’s not. My neighbor’s general character as a trustworthy witness must be weighed against the inherent implausibility of his testimony. I might readily accept my neighbor’s claim that he spoke with a mutual acquaintance. I might even 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’d justifiably reject my neighbor’s claim that he talked to Lincoln, someone whom I know was real, why would I accept his claim to have ongoing telepathic chats with an unevidenced magical being whose attributes, such as omnipotence, involve numerous logical contradictions?
As for my neighbors’ corroborating testimony, they offer no concrete evidence or sound reasoning. They often don’t even know the names of the natural theology arguments. Furthermore, they’re offended when I question their claims, suggesting emotion-driven imperatives behind their claims.
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. This tells me that they don’t even believe these experiences themselves, not down deep in their hearts. And don’t tell me that they’re fallible mortals who backslide into familiar ways. Individuals convinced that they’re 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’d have to be daft to trust their reports over the testimony of my own senses.
Even in their fleeting moments of passionate conviction, believers can’t agree among themselves. Listen to them squabble. Witness them ravage the theological ruminations of their fellow believers.
Widen the compass of witnesses to include people from adjacent precincts and from nations around the globe. Admit testimony from different historical eras. You’ll 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.
Alleged God-whisperers tell us on Monday that God endorses socialism. On Tuesday he champions laissez faire capitalism and repeal of the estate tax. On Wednesday he demands lifelong celibacy. On Thursday he sanctions polyamory, bigamy, and the marriage of forty-year-old men to nine-year-old girls. On Friday he noodles peaceniks. On Saturday he ignites the war-mongers. On Sunday he just sits around the house all day in his underwear.
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.
Theologians dismiss the diversity as human-induced noise. They urge us to distill the true meaning embedded in these conversations, what businessmen call the take-away message.
It’s undeniable that private experiences share core similarities. First, they never impart super-human insights, such as how to build a teleportation chamber. Second, they regularly impart elaborate sectarian conclusions with no trace of intermediate logic. 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 didn’t 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 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’s 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’s 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 is largely false. Granted, current brain-scanning technology doesn’t enable us to identify whether the private evidence was accurately reported or pharmacologically induced. 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 doesn’t 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?
Taking religious experiences en masse, their mutual incompatibilities make them all dubious. We can’t formally deduce that any particular religion is false. That would be the genetic fallacy. But the “personal experience channel” seems to be all noise and no signal.
[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] This passage might seem like something pulled out of context to distort Meyer’s perspective and to make her sound unreasonable. If you think that, then I encourage you to read her book. It’s riddled with comments like the one quoted. She insists that reasoning is not the normal state of mind and is not something Christians should strive for. A few paragraphs after the quoted passage, Meyer continues, “I don’t know about you, but I want God to reveal things to me in such a way that I know in my spirit that what has been revealed to my mind is correct. I don’t want to reason, to figure, and to be logical, rotating my mind around and around an issue until I am worn out and confused. I want to experience the peace of mind and heart that comes from trusting in God, not in my own human insight and understanding.”
[iv] PhilPapers has published a survey of academic philosophers online at www.philpapers.org/surveys/results.pl