February 10, 2009
Subjective Personal Experiences
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.