The Argument from Religious Experience

This is the eighteenth in a series of posts responding to a list of 20 arguments for the existence of god from this article. To be fair, the article does state that these arguments don’t make a case except when taken all together, using the metaphor of a rope, but I am analyzing them individually so I have responses when I encounter the argument later in other sources.

It is difficult to state this argument deductively. But it might fairly be put as follows.

  1. Many people of different eras and of widely different cultures claim to have had an experience of the “divine.”
  2. It is inconceivable that so many people could have been so utterly wrong about the nature and content of their own experience.
  3. Therefore, there exists a “divine” reality which many people of different eras and of widely different cultures have experienced.

Number 2 is just flat wrong. I’m conceiving of exactly that right now. This is the bandwagon fallacy.

Does such experience prove that an intelligent Creator-God exists? On the face of it this seems unlikely. For such a God does not seem to be the object of all experiences called “religious.” But still, he is the object of many. That is, many people understand their experience that way; they are “united with” or “taken up into” a boundless and overwhelming Knowledge and Love, a Love that fills them with itself but infinitely exceeds their capacity to receive. Or so they claim. The question is: Are we to believe them?

There is an enormous number of such claims. Either they are true or not. In evaluating them, we should take into account:

  1. the consistency of these claims (are they self-consistent as well as consistent with what we know otherwise to be true?);
  2. the character of those who make these claims (do these persons seem honest, decent, trustworthy?); and
  3. the effects these experiences have had in their own lives and the lives of others (have these persons become more loving as a result of what they experienced? More genuinely edifying? Or, alternatively, have they become vain and self-absorbed?).

Suppose someone says to you: “All these experiences are either the result of lesions in the temporal lobe or of neurotic repression. In no way do they verify the truth of some divine reality.” What might your reaction be? You might think back over that enormous documentation of accounts and ask yourself if that can be right. And you might conclude: “No. Given this vast number of claims, and the quality of life of those who made them, it seems incredible that those who made the claims could have been so wrong about them, or that insanity or brain disease could cause such profound goodness and beauty.”

It is impossible to lay down ahead of time how investigation into this record of claims and characters will affect all individuals. You cannot say ahead of time how it will affect you. But it is evidence; it has persuaded many; and it cannot be ignored. Sometimes—in fact, we believe, very often—that record is not so much faced as dismissed with vivid trendy labels.

Again, I cannot refute an incredulous stare. It is indeed possible that some of these experiences are real connections with something divine. Unfortunately, there’s no way of proving that; we can only point out that it is often the case that such experiences come at a time of emotional duress and are therefore likely to be hallucinatory in nature. After all, auditory hallucinations are extremely common.

However, for Christian theology specifically, this argument has a much bigger problem, in that such experiences are not universal. If belief in a god is necessary or even helpful for salvation, and most Christian denominations would say it is, then those who have received such experiences are at an unfair advantage over those who have not. Indeed, as admitted in this “argument”, for such individuals, nothing else is needed. Many atheists I know have asked for such experiences and have not been given them. Some of us are atheists partly on that basis, myself included, at least retroactively. In order for this argument to be convincing from a Christian apologist, he must show why god denies us these type of experiences, and putting the blame on us is not good enough. Why? There are two main reasons. First, the Christian apologist cannot give me better instructions for asking god for a sign than those I have already followed, and therefore there is no way to know whether their god actually does give to those who ask (which the Bible surely claims). Second, the god Christians tend to preach is a god of perfect love, and a god of perfect love would not give some people a free pass on the most basic requirement for eternal happiness and refuse it to others, at least not for no discernible reason. In other words, if god existed, he would help anyone who asked for help believing in him, just as he did for Thomas in the gospel.

I personally find “there is no god, and those with religious experiences are simply wrong or actively deluded” a more credulous conclusion than “there is a god who loves me but hides from me despite my asking for him to show himself and despite his requirement that I believe in him or suffer eternal torture”. It’s true that’s a bit of a false dichotomy, but Peter Kreeft is a Catholic apologist; he accepts Catholic theology, not some nebulous theism, and this argument cannot prove the Catholic god, given my personal experience. Indeed, my experience is enough in my own mind for me to deny any loving deity on that grounds alone, and my life contains no suffering next to what millions around the world face on a daily basis.

2 thoughts on “The Argument from Religious Experience

    1. I get that sense, as well. This one in particular is just a more specific version of the argument from miracles. It seems as though he was desperate to stretch to 20 arguments, perhaps in an attempt to overwhelm those who disagree.

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