February 10, 2009

Subjective Personal Experiences

Posted in Atheism, Personal Experiences tagged , , , , , at 1:51 pm by Andrew

1. Subjective Personal Experiences Do Not Justify An Objective Belief in God.

This post summarizes the first set of answers to potential objections to my Summary Case for Atheism, in which some Christians have contended that personal revelatory experiences provide sufficient direct evidence for belief in God. My ongoing, in-depth treatment of this issue is hyperlinked to the right and can be found here.

As a threshold matter, when one person claims to have had a direct, revelatory experience of God, that claim is direct evidence only for that person. From my perspective, it is hearsay. I can’t evaluate your experience; all I can do is evaluate the fact that you’ve claimed to have such an experience.

Now, I have no doubt that religious believers who claim to have experienced God in some subjective or visionary way are, on the whole, generally sincere about those claims. But those claims are, of course, not restricted to Christians. Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus – people of every religion claim such subjective experiences, and they can’t all be true.

One particularly compelling counterexample comes from Mormons, who believe that seekers should pray about the Book of Mormon to see if they receive a “burning in the bosom” – a subjective verification – that it is true. Here’s how an evangelical Christian apologist evaluates that argument:

What we must understand is that Latter-day Saints (LDS) believe these things for the same reason that people everywhere believe the things they do: they want to believe them. … This should come as no surprise to evangelicals who have read the Apostle Paul’s revelation of the roots of human idolatry in the first chapter of Romans. Fallen humans have affections and inclinations that they then prop up with beliefs, convincing themselves that their systems are true.

Another evangelical is a bit more direct:

Remember also that Paul never asked any potential converts to pray about his message. What he taught was found in the Scriptures and they could verify it and join the group of wise people, if they would repent and submissively place their faith in Jesus Christ to follow him. See Acts 17:11,12 cf. Acts 20:21; etc. … Yes, the devil can duplicate peace. That is what he does in transcendental meditation (TM) and also in Catholicism after one receives the Eucharist. The devil uses these and other experiences to deceive.

Thus, Christians themselves concede that personal, subjective experiences – particularly of the kind promoted by Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and the like – are insufficient to warrant a belief in God! When someone claims to have been visited by God, it is more reasonable to believe that that person is sincerely mistaken, engaged in wish-fulfillment, and so on.

In the most extreme cases, we think people who hear divine voices are suffering from paranoid delusions. Consider the sad case of Andrea Yates, who (apparently) sincerely believed that she heard the voice of God commanding her to drown her five children. On face, her case isn’t any different from what Abraham claimed to have heard directly from God in Genesis 22:1-10. Why, then, does virtually every Christian have no difficulty concluding that Ms. Yates was insane?

I submit that whatever our “worldview” — in day to day life, we are called upon to evaluate claims like this from a variety of religious, spiritual, and other sources. Uniformly, we reject these sorts of experiences, standing alone, as being sufficient justification for the truths of the beliefs asserted in those experiences. For these – and for the other reasons discussed on the in-depth “Subjective Experiences” page, I conclude that this first set of arguments is insufficient to warrant belief in God.


  1. M. Patterson said,

    Cogito ergo sum. The original premise is a personal experience. Reject the original premise, and nothing you say can be trusted.

  2. Andrew said,

    M. Patterson: I think I address this in the first paragraph of this post. Cogito ergo sum means I think, therefore **I** am — not, “I think, therefore, you, you, and that guy over there are.” In other words: personal experiences are valid only for the person who experiences them.

    As I say in the post, I don’t think believers are (for the most part) insincere in their claims of personal experience. I just don’t think those claims are sufficient to warrant belief that the underlying subject matter is true.

  3. M. Patterson said,

    Your argument that subjective personal experiences do not prove the existence of God deals only with the interpretation of the experiences, and ignores the ability of a person to have an experience at all. Descartes, the guy who said, “Cogito ero sum,” came to this conclusion after reasoning that all experiences might be an illusion, even the ones that we deem to be reality uncontestable. However, the original premise is that I am, in fact, experiencing something, though I can never prove it to you. The mystery that I can experience something through this body, but no other, is a line of thought that leads down a path to the existence of God, and absolutely kills the notion of a purely naturalistic universe. It’s a subjective experience, I know, but unless your cognition is not different than that of a robot, then I assume that you have the capacity to understand me.

    It’s a long road of thought, but it does actually lead to God. It does, however, start with a subjective experience and an acknowledgement of that experience, even if the experience, itself, is misunderstood.

  4. Andrew said,

    M. Patterson writes:

    However, the original premise is that I am, in fact, experiencing something, though I can never prove it to you.

    This may surprise you, but I think that’s absolutely right!

    However — as I point out above — yours is not the only set of subjective experiences I have to evaluate. Christians tell me they experience Jesus. Muslims tell me they experience Allah. Mormons tell me they have a burning in the bosom. Hindus and Buddhists and so on — I think they’re (for the most part) all sincere. So the question is: how can I tell if any of them are correct? Why should I credit your experience but discount the Mormon’s?

    I would be very interested in hearing your responses to the Christian arguments against the Mormon burning-in-the-bosom that I link to above. The Christian authors conclude that those kinds of experiences are best explained as “subconscious wish-fulfillment,” “sincere mistake,” and the like. Are they wrong? If so, why?


  5. nonaeroterraqueous said,

    “What we must understand is that Latter-day Saints (LDS) believe these things for the same reason that people everywhere believe the things they do: they want to believe them.” (Henryinstitute.org)

    This is actually quite true. I don’t know if you’ve noticed it, but people use both feelings and reasoning to come to the conclusions that they already want to believe. Highly rational and intelligent people have used reason both to believe in God and to not believe in God. I could use that argument to discredit reasoning, as you used it to discredit feelings. A highly intelligent person can use effective reasoning to find his way to the truth, or he can use it to make an untruth sound quite reasonable. Likewise, a very feeling individual might use emotions or feelings to come to desired conclusions. This works both for Christians and non-Christians, alike. It seems to be the case for the vast majority of people. A Hindu feels something, and it might be God, or it might be a god, or it might be a demon, or it might be his imagination.

    You see that I don’t disagree with you yet?

    You might, then, understand how salvation might come by faith, as holds the Christian doctrine. What you believe is rarely as objective as you think, especially when it comes to God. What you want to believe determines what you believe, and what you are determines what you want to believe. Assume, as I do, that, even now, what you believe is the construct of your desires. Mistrust yourself and everyone else, even me. What do you then know? All that you know starts with the subjective idea that you experience a thought. You aren’t just having a thought, but you actually experience it. A computer has a thought. Your dog has a thought. You experience neither. This is important, because until you can put a name to the thing that makes it possible for you to experience a cerebral impulse, you can never scratch the surface of the spiritual realm. It is there, though. You’ve got that spiritual element, and you can’t prove it to anyone but yourself.

    But that’s how the discovery of God is. You know it when you see it, and you can’t really prove it to anyone but yourself. Even so, all feelings, as you say, should be treated with suspicion. However, one can not be perfectly objective, ever, as all objective thought gets constructed in a subjective mind. True objective thought is humanly impossible. It all starts with subjectivity, much as we hate to admit it. If we completely reject the subjective, then there is no foundation for believing in anything. Cogito ergo sum means that a subjective thought is the beginning of knowing anything.

    1) reject all subjective thought, and cogito ergo sum is rejected; therefore there is no original premise and no basis for ever believing in anything at all, including one’s own existence.

    2) accept all subjective thought, and nothing makes sense, because everyone’s subjective ideas contradict each other.

    You lean toward number one, because you see number two quite clearly. In truth, they both fail miserably. Can you see that something like a 1.5 might be closer to the answer? Can you see that even if 1.5 is closer to the truth, in principle, a person who follows it might still fail to see the truth?

  6. Andrew said,

    M. Patterson — I am very much enjoying your take on things. I think perhaps I haven’t been clear in my position. When you say:

    But that’s how the discovery of God is. You know it when you see it, and you can’t really prove it to anyone but yourself.

    Again, I agree with this statement. I am not interested in talking you out of your God-beliefs or in any way claiming that you’re insincere. All I’m trying to do is say that those experiences are no argument that I personally am not justified in being an atheist. By your own terms — if I understand you correctly — unless and until I have my own subjective experience, I should continue to be an atheist.

    If that’s where we are, then we happily agree. If I’ve misunderstood your argument, please let me know.

  7. Stephanie said,

    There have been quite a few interesting developments in the field of neuroscience, discovering more about what it means to have a thought and how thoughts are formed. But ultimately, for purposes of this blog, I don’t think we have very many areas of disagreement – you’ve agreed that subjective feelings and experiences are insufficient to prove the existence of God.

    This does raise a few further questions for me, however. I, personally, have never had an “experience” of God. Other people believe that they have had that experience. Why would God provide some people with this experience and not others? Such a god would seem capricious at best. One might argue, in response, that I have had such experiences, but I have categorically ruled out the possibility of those experiences being a sign from God. I don’t accept that as fact, but let’s assume it to be true for purposes of argumentation; I’d offer two responses. First, most people would tell you that their theological experiences were life altering, experiences so powerful that they cannot be denied – it would seem to me that God would be able to overwhelm whatever denial I might want to have. Second, if that were the case, then people who have had these experiences were already inclined to believe in God prior to them, which makes their description of the experience and the impact on their life suspect and gets back to the problem of a capricious god.

  8. M. Patterson said,

    The problem is that God is not simply a force. He can do what he wants. You serve dinner to your family and not to the family next door. You treat your spouse one way, your kids another, and the man on the street another way. I don’t argue with a person who seems unreasonably stubborn. I don’t talk to people who hate me. I communicate with people who might listen. I am not just a force, either. I also reserve the right to be my own person. There’s nothing capricious about it.

    “…if I understand you correctly — unless and until I have my own subjective experience, I should continue to be an atheist.”

    What I’m saying is not that you should continue to be an atheist. If I thought that, then I’d be an atheist, too. I wouldn’t have you believe in something that I consider a lie. I am saying, though, that it takes an act of God to make you, or anyone else, believe. This act of God might be an obvious experience, or it might simply be a change of heart. That being the case, I have a duty to let you be what you will, but also I have a duty to give you the opportunity to see what I see. In the end, the choice will be yours, and you will find your reasons to believe whatever it is that you choose.


    This is my most relevant blog post.

  9. Stephanie said,

    M. Patterson –

    That is an interesting set of claims. I’m running off on a bit of a tangent, since I think we’ve come to the agreement that subjective personal experiences do not tend to prove the existence of a deity.

    Now, to work within your analogy, if I had an unlimited supply of food coupled with an infinite power to give it out, and, more significantly, I was the only source of food in the world, then it would seem capricious if I were to pick and choose who received food and who starved to death as I watched. Moreover, I doubt you would find much support if you tried to organize a group of people to not only refrain from condemning my actions, but indeed to venerate and praise me for them.

    You seem to be arguing for a God who has the power to ensure that people believe, the power to condemn them to eternal torment and pain for not believing, and yet one who doesn’t have the desire to spread that belief equally. I’m not sure that’s a very Christian God.

    Again, though, all this seems to boil down to a basic point – subjective, personal experiences are a bad way to go about proving the existence of a metaphysical being.

  10. M. Patterson said,

    Hey Stephanie,

    It’s a paradox, and I make no apologies. I can’t remember the last time anyone read Hamlet and said, “Blast that Shakespere! How could he do that to such a nice guy like Hamlet?” Within the context of the story, there is only free will. From the author’s point of view, there is none. The only reason Hamlet might have been worthy enough to not deserve his fate was because of Shakespere, yet the only reason he received that fate was because of Shakespere. It would be entirely laughable if his uncle shook his fist at the sky and said, “Darn you, Shakespere, for making me the jerk that I am!”

    Calling God capricious is, quite literally, comparing him to a goat. Yet, I think that attempting to relate to him on his own level is crazy enough for a human to attempt, without bringing it down to that level. God can relate to people on their own level. That is easy enough, but for people to put themselves on level with God and judge his actions that way does not sound reasonable. Strictly speaking from a metaphysical level, it’s like a two-dimensional man attempting to grasp three-dimensional space. A three-dimensional man could easily understand two-dimensional space, though. This is essentially the weakness of subjective experience, that forces that come from without (spiritual experiences) are possibly deceptive or misleading. I’m not arguing that we can’t believe in spiritual experiences at all. I’m saying that we have to use caution when understanding them.

    I’m also saying that we deceive ourselves if we think we’re being objective about it, because we’re not. Humans are inherently subjective, and they simply can’t avoid it. They can only attempt to work around it.

    But let’s assume that God were capricious. I suppose you could hate him for it, but that has nothing to do with whether or not he exists. But, that’s what it always boils down to, like I was saying. It’s not really about whether or not he exists, but whether or not people like him and his ways, and whether or not people want him to exist. He could prove his existence by appearing in the sky, and you might live to see him do just that, but though we say that we are saved by what we believe, what we really are saying is that we’re saved by what we want to believe, because what you want to believe says everything about what you are. Believing in a God that you can see won’t change that, and it won’t save you from anything.

  11. Stephanie said,

    M. Patterson,

    I find myself with difficulties responding to your argument. You seem to have defined your God as someone who reveals Himself to some individuals but not others and is a God who is beyond our capacity to understand or evaluate. Essentially, He is completely off limits to some of us. I can’t really argue with that belief, but by the same token, you’ve seem to define a God for which you can’t put forth an affirmative argument either.

    I’m not suggesting you don’t believe in God if you want to do so. That’s your decision and your right. There is a difference between believing in God because you want to, because you “like him and his ways”, and because there is rational evidence for that belief.

  12. […] Andrew argues for atheism (or at least, against a popular argument for theism) in (1) Subjective Personal Experiences posted at Evaluating […]

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