1. Subjective Personal Experiences Are Insufficient

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

This post is an ongoing, in-depth analysis of the first set of answers to potential objections to the Summary Case for Atheism, in which some Christians have contended that personal revelatory experiences provide sufficient direct evidence for belief in God.

A. Subjective Experiences Are Hearsay
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.

B. Subjective Experiences Can’t All Be True
Because all sorts of believers have the same sorts of experiences — and they can’t all be true — we resort to methodological naturalism (see part 4) to evaluate these sorts of claims.

Critically, even Christians themselves use these techniques to evaluate claims of personal subjective experience when raised by non-Christians. 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 all of these reasons, I conclude that this first set of arguments is insufficient to warrant belief in God.

8 Comments »

  1. [...] think I answer this directly on my Subjective Experiences page. I do not assert that we necessarily live in a “purely material world” and I think many [...]

  2. lehmancafe said,

    I have never heard of or read about one of Jehovah’s Witnesses as being visited by God, having seen God, a revelation given to them by God, or having God talk to them.

  3. I’m leaving an official non-comment, which is to say I thought about commenting and figured “WHY???”

    Subjective experiences that are only effective “for that individual” — yes, I’d call that “life.” But what the hey….

    While you’re canning the subjective experiences of faith, you might as well can subjective experiences for “everything else.” Which reminds me of my original point. So, good luck with that and “Adieu.”

  4. Hylomorphic said,

    It’s not quite accurate to say that they can’t all be true.

    It’s certainly true that the interpretations which many religious people put on their experiences are inconsistent. A religious experience by a Jesuit will probably be interpreted to entail the falseness of Hinduism.

    But that’s not to say that the experience was not, in fact, an experience of a spiritual reality. It could have been incorrectly interpreted, for instance.

    Several approaches to religion–those found in Hinduism, ancient Paganism, modern Paganism, Shinto, the New Age, Huxley’s perennial philosophy, etc.–provide a coherent framework for dealing with religious experiences outside their own tradition without the sort of special pleading that Christians so frequently indulge in.

    • Andrew said,

      Fair point. I should say, “those claims all can’t be actual evidence.” You are absolutely correct that there could be real experiences that people then tend to view through the filter of their religious upbringing. (This reminds me of Loftus’ “Outsider Test for Faith.”)

      In any event, it’s still “evidence” (if at all) for only the person who has the experience. To everyone else — including me — it’s just hearsay.

  5. [...] exclusive religions). So, I recognize the emotional reality of spiritual experiences, but to me, these do not seem to point to the objective existence or truth of a god. So I think Seth has some honest worry…if I do any proselytizing as an atheist (hah! the [...]

  6. Leće said,

    fantastic, i can say only that!

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