Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Does Religious Experience trump all skeptical arguments?

Does Religious Experience trump all skeptical arguments?

Posted: 03 Oct 2010 09:37 PM PDT

I was speaking recently to a Christian fundamentalist friend of mine. I’ll call him Jo. He was telling me about an interview which he once gave to Richard Dawkins for a British TV series. After the cameras were turned off, Jo told Dawkins that even if Dawkins had the seemingly better arguments, he lacked what Jo had: Experience. And once you’ve experienced God, you’re at the mercy of no-one’s argument.

But do the experiences which religious people believe that they have had possess any evidential value when debating the existence of God?

There are two relevant types of experience.

The first is best illustrated by what Jo has frequently told me: He was leading a godless, unfulfilled life. As an adult, the Holy Spirit suddenly came upon him. Now he has a personal relationship with God. His love for Jesus is passionate; it’s rather like being in love. Jesus is his friend as well as his Saviour, and he is contented beyond anything which a non-Christian can understand.

I’ve known many Christians who have said this kind of thing, some of whom are well-educated and in good professions.

The second type of experience is the momentary but intense experience which some religious people enjoy. These experiences are commonly claimed by those in the charismatic and Pentecostal wings of the Christian church.

Several years ago I was standing in the congregation of a charismatic church, deafened by the Dolby Surround Cacophony of about a hundred people speaking in tongues: The language of angels which the Holy Spirit supposedly gifts to some of the faithful so that they can praise God unbounded by the inadequate vocabularies of earthly languages. In an instant, and for no discernible reason, a group behind me erupted into guffaws of laughter. I later learned that they had been “laughing in the Spirit”. And there’s more. Many Christians believe that you can be “slain in the Spirit”, “groaning in the Spirit”, even “drunken in the spirit”. These are all-consuming experiences in which believers ostensibly lose control of their bodies and minds, all to the greater glory of God.

Another form of what I am calling momentary and intense experience involves having visions or hearing voices (usually God’s voice – who else?). This may involve an exciting incident on a road to Damascus or, say, Abraham preparing to slay his son because he thinks that the voice of God has told him to do so.

It’s easy for an atheist to read about these experiences and to put them down to a combination of wish-fulfillment, egoism and mental instability. But what if a believer is sitting opposite you? I know that it has happened to me, he tells you. Nothing has ever felt so real. And I’m the one who has had the experience and not you. Are you really qualified to give his account short shrift?

Yet if you are sceptical about what he is telling you, your opinion of how much weight to place upon religious experience is actually not very different from that of the believer. After all, many religions place great store on personal experience. A Christian may claim that his experience helps to prove the existence of his God and the validity of his religion. But he won’t accept that the experiences of, say, a Buddhist demonstrate the validity of that religion. Nor should he; after all, not all religions can be true. In that case, the Christian will consider that it is perfectly valid to disregard someone else’s experiences. The atheist is unimpressed by the experiences of those in all religions. Christians are unimpressed by the experiences of those in all religions bar one.

Besides, there are many celebrated examples of brain-induced trickery from optical illusions to hypnotism to Jesus supposedly ordering Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, to kill women.

And if a believer thinks that a universe-creating God takes a special interest in him, it’s hardly a surprise that he feels spiritually contented as a result – whether or not that God in fact exists.

If these intense charismatic experiences really did emanate from God, one would expect that those who have had them would know it and so would never stray from the faith. If only. Many of my friends who had these experiences later gave up their belief in God altogether.

Some Christians may refer to a very different type of intense experience in support of their belief: Near Death Experiences (NDEs).

The most comprehensive study of this phenomenon is that undertaken by those at the Near Death Experience Foundation. In their 2010 book Evidence of the Afterlife, Long and Perry explain that over 1,300 people who claimed to have had NDEs were given detailed questionnaires by the Foundation. The authors believe that the similarities of the answers given by those questioned amounts to mutual corroboration of their accounts – and that this offers convincing evidence that many of them had had a glimpse of the afterlife.

Yet this so-called evidence would barely stand up in a bar-room discussion – not to mention in a courtroom.

Volunteers who claimed to have had an NDE filled in questionnaires packed with leading questions. If you say to someone – as the Foundation did – “Did you see a light?”, you can hardly be surprised if a majority reply that they did.

Further, some of the so-called “identical answers” enter a realm of hazy vagueness better suited to the rhetoric of a politician running for office. There is virtually no evidential value to the fact that 76.2 per cent of those questioned answered very positively to the question, “Did you have a feeling of peace or pleasantness?”

Long and Perry present even the negative results as though they support their case. They don’t seem concerned that it was actually a minority (33.8 per cent) who answered Yes to the leading question of whether they passed into or through a tunnel. Similarly, only 22.2 per cent experienced a review of past events in their lives.

And of course the statistics take no account of the thousands upon thousands of people who nearly die but who don’t experience anything unusual before regaining consciousness; those people are hardly going to ask the Foundation for an NDE questionnaire.

As with all experience which believers rely on, NDE’s are subjective and solipsistic – and with an evidential value to match.

What makes debating the value of experience so difficult is this. Sometimes a believer will try to justify his belief with arguments which can be debated using reason and evidence. Such arguments may concern, say, the origins of life or Intelligent Design. And he’ll know that other reasons for his belief are subjective and based on faith. Yet experience-based arguments are difficult to categorise. To someone who has had the experience, it is entirely reasonable that it be afforded great evidential weight. To the sceptic, the experience is nothing more than a non-event coupled with a subjective and self-serving interpretation of its significance.

Almost no believer who claims to have had a divine experience will be persuaded otherwise by someone who did not share it. On the other hand, unless Dawkins hides it well, he wasn’t convinced by Jo either.

Related articles:

1.       Near-Death Experience = Overdose of CO2

2.      In Brief: Religious accommodationism at Evolution 2010

3.      CFI and Military Religious Freedom Foundation Express Concerns over Treatment of Soldiers


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