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.

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

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.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