Twenty Arguments for God – Eighteen – The Argument from Religious Experience

This post is one of a serious that picks apart the arguments for god that can be found at the link below. This post addresses number 18:

If you don’t want to click over there to read it, the full argument goes like this:

18. The Argument from Religious Experience

Some sort of experience lies at the very core of most people’s religious faith. Most of our readers have very likely had such an experience. If so, you realize, in a way no one else can, its central importance in your life. That realization is not itself an argument for God’s existence; in fact, in the light of it you would probably say that there is no need for arguments. But there is in fact an argument for God’s existence constructed from the data of such experiences. It is not an argument which moves from your own personal experience to your own affirmation that God exists. As we said, you most probably have no need for such an argument. Instead, this argument moves in another direction: from the widespread fact of religious experience to the affirmation that only a divine reality can adequately explain it.
It is difficult to state this argument deductively. But it might fairly be put as follows.
Many people of different eras and of widely different cultures claim to have had an experience of the “divine.”
It is inconceivable that so many people could have been so utterly wrong about the nature and content of their own experience.
Therefore, there exists a “divine” reality which many people of different eras and of widely different cultures have experienced.
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:
the consistency of these claims (are they self-consistent as well as consistent with what we know otherwise to be true?);
the character of those who make these claims (do these persons seem honest, decent, trustworthy?); and
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.

It’s not new or surprising that people who are religious have expereinces that they interperet in support of that religion. Often these experiences are very important to them. In some cases you could even say that they treasure them. People with vastly different religious creeds will use similar experiences to support their own beliefs.

Can these experiences be explained in any other way? Well yes, the human mind is very good at seeing patterns, especially patterns that do not exist, it is so easy to do this that a great many illusions are based specifically on this attribute. In addition, the human mind will interperet things according to it’s own biases. That is, if something can’t be explained easilly, then the mind will jump to its default unexplained bias. This could be religious, conspiracy, aliens or any number of other imagined explanations. The sheer number of experiences that people are prepared to attribute to these isn’t an argument for the existence of any of them but a clear demonstration of how lazy our cognitive functions are. Investigating and testing for the actual explanation requires a darn sight more effort than assuming your superstition of choice is correct. Which is exactly why these kinds of experiences are seen by the religious as confirmation of their religion.

In my time I’ve had a fair number of experiences that were interpreted as religious. To be completely frank and honest, there is one very significant one which I have no explanation for, does that mean the Christian god is real? Of course not. Way back at the beginning of my journey away from Christianity I learnt about the scientific explanation for an experience that matched one of my own (Sleep Paralysis). It was this moment that caused me to seriously question my religiously interpreted experiences. It was only when I questioned them in this manner that I realised that I had been duped all along.

Religious experience, by it’s very nature, is a very subjective thing and when mixed with a spoonful of bias, it becomes highly unreliable. This is exactly why we should not trust religious experience and it should not be taken as confirmation of anyone’s preferred god.