(This post is part 8 of the series entitled “Contesting Christianity.” Please see the index for the other posts in this series.)
The next argument I would like to deal with concerns personal experiences. While this argument is widely used by Christians and believers of other religions, it is difficult to pin down and make explicit. It is odd that something which seems to be one of the primary factors for religious belief is so notoriously hard to put into words. Often it comes down to, “I just know God exists.” But I find that a deeply unsatisfying answer when there is nothing to back up that knowledge—other than perhaps a vague feeling. Nevertheless, considering the impact it evidently has on believers around the world, I think it is important to deal with it. As I have already written about prayer and miracles, those topics will not be covered here. Instead, I would like to talk about three things: visions and other strange occurrences, the “changed life” phenomenon, and personal feelings.
Visions and Coincidences
Not all Christian denominations recognize visions as messages from God. However, in the tradition in which I was raised (Pentecostal), I often heard people talking about receiving a “vision” from God which would provide them with some important information. In addition, visions are mentioned numerous times in the Bible, especially in the prophetic books, where fantastic images of strange beings with a mixture of human and animal characteristics are found. If a Christian takes these books to be accurate, then he or she must acknowledge that some of their beliefs rest on information from visions.
Of course, the modern scientific mind is immediately skeptical of such experiences. Are these visions messages from God, or indications of mental disturbances? Considering the number of visions that were recorded in the past, when such people would not necessarily be diagnosed with mental illness, it seems likely that at least a fair number of these stories are describing people with schizophrenia, which can cause visual or auditory hallucinations; or temporal lobe seizures, which can also cause visual and auditory sensations, out-of-body experiences, or feelings of the “presence” of others. Visions can also be produced with the aid of drugs, from dehydration or other extreme deprivations, or fatigue. While these may not explain every case, it seems as though some (or many) may be explained by these factors. A schizophrenic prophet wandering through the desert without sleep is in ripe conditions to see visions.
But regardless of whether science can or cannot explain every case, there is a more important reason to be skeptical of visionary claims. Visions have occurred throughout recorded history, and in a dizzying variety of human cultures around the world. From tribal shamans, to mystic Sufi Muslims, to Buddhists and Christians (both Protestant and Catholic) and Hindus and Jews and Greeks and Romans and Egyptians, it is more unusual to find a culture without descriptions of visions than to find cultures with them. This is fascinating from an anthropological perspective, but it can pose some problems for theology. If one listens to a Christian describing a vision they had, how does one differentiate between that and an Native American describing their “vision quest“? It seems like a double standard to take the Christian vision at face value and immediately discredit the vision of the Native. If the Native is simply hallucinating, then perhaps the Christian is as well. And if one claims that the Native is under the influence of demons, perhaps it is instead the Christian who is being influenced by evil spirits. Without some objective way of determining which one is “true” and which is “false”, one cannot assess the validity of either vision. It seems that one should either accept all visions as valid, or none.
A similar conundrum is found for other strange occurrences. I have heard many people claim extraordinary events as being cases of God’s intervention: “God kept me safe in that car crash,” “It was a miracle that the falling tree missed our house,” “He said something about me that no one could have known unless God had told him,” “God brought us together at just the right time,” etc. These are all fortunate coincidences—and somehow all the good ones get attributed to God, and the bad ones get chalked up to “bad luck” or “just a bad break” or “it just wasn’t in the cards.” But of course, coincidences happen all the time, every day, to people around the world. They don’t indicate anything; they’re just coincidences. Instead of embracing the fact that randomness is a part of our lives, however, some believers claim that it must have been God. If they are prepared to claim that the fortunate coincidences happening to a Hindu are also the result of God’s actions, then fine. But otherwise, why believe that the good things happening to non-Christians are just coincidences, but God is looking out for them? And why believe that the good things happening to them are from God, but the bad things are just unlucky coincidences? These seem like double standards, meant to convince themselves that the world is an orderly place, rather than an actual, justifiable explanation. Instead, it makes more sense to just embrace randomness as a fact of life and understand that life is unpredictable—for better or for worse.
The “Changed Life” Phenomenon
Anytime one hears the testimony of a Christian, one is almost virtually certain to hear a form of the “Changed Life” Phenomenon. Let me provide a short (fictional) example to show you the basic form:
I was raised in a Christian home. However, in high school, I started drinking with my friends, and I experimented with drugs. I started sleeping around as well. As I got older, I decided I didn’t want anything to do with God, and I started spiralling down into depression. I got into harder drugs, and my alcohol consumption became an addiction. Eventually, I got to the end of my rope. I cried out to God and asked him, if he was there, to help me somehow. One day I wandered into a church and the pastor talked to me about Jesus. I broke down and told him the whole story of my life, and the pastor told me that Jesus loved me, regardless of my past. That very day I accepted Jesus into my life. Since that time, I’ve cleaned up my drug habits, and I haven’t touched alcohol in six months. God has given me such joy and peace, and I trust and serve him completely. Hallelujah!
The details often change, but the form is almost always the same: Person spirals downward until he can go no further, and then God steps in and miraculously changes his life. Growing up in the church, I have heard countless variations of this theme. And on the surface, it seems clear: If God changes lives for the better, then how could it be wrong?
But such a theme is not only present in Christianity. One can find stories of the changed lives of Muslims (here and here), Hindus (here and here), and Buddhists (here and here), and more. These people experience the same things: A broken life, then an entrance (or a return) to a religion, then a much better life filled with joy and peace. Is the Christian God responsible for these changes as well? It doesn’t seem likely. If one is going to explain this “changed life” phenomenon with appeal to God, then one must accept that Christianity has no monopoly in the market of changed lives. In other words, there is nothing special about Christianity.
The truth is that people experience “changed lives” for all sorts of reasons. Any major decision or life event can cause feelings of “starting over” or “becoming a new person.” People talk about miracle cures or doctors or therapy groups or new hobbies as “changing their lives,” and it doesn’t seem that entering a new religion would be any different. If one is hurting and broken, and then makes a significant life change (along with a decision and concerted effort to change their previous course), it is likely they will feel it has made a difference. When that change also involves entrance into a loving and supportive group, the effects are amplified. Who wouldn’t feel more joyful when they finally feel like they have someone who loves them? Who wouldn’t feel more peaceful when they found some place they “belonged”? It’s nothing supernatural—it’s a part of being human! Humans are social creatures, and we thrive on being connected to others. We are also creatures who like having answers; any life change which gives us answers (whether right or wrong) is bound to feel good. There is simply nothing inherent in the “changed life” phenomenon that must be explained by some supernatural being or revelatory truth. It is just human nature in action.
The final issue I want to talk about is the most vague issue of all. It’s the argument one sometimes hears when discussing religion with Christians: “I may not have all the answers, but deep down in my heart, I know God is real.” This sense of “knowing” that God is real seems to come from some vague feeling, like the sense that one “knows” that one’s parents are really one’s parents, or that one “knows” what chocolate tastes like. It is, of course, incredibly difficult to put such feelings into words, and so I don’t want to dismiss it as “just a feeling” with no merit to it. Much of what we do in our lives are motivated from feelings—some intuition or subconscious judgment about what the best course of action is. We don’t know our family members by a strict set of definitions: nose is such-and-such a shape, eye colour is blue, height is five feet ten inches, and so on. We just know them because we feel some connection to them or recognition of them when we see them. So far be it from me to say that such “knowing” is not real; I don’t want to discount the possibility that someone out there could possibly have such “knowledge” of God. But I want to offer some reasons why we can’t depend on it for the truth of God’s existence.
To begin, “know” is a word with multiple meanings. I may know that the pyramids are in Egypt, but that is a different sense of knowledge than the idea that I know who my parents are. One is a factual claim, and another is one of recognition. I could also say that I know what chocolate tastes like, which is similar to a claim of recognition, but has more of an idea of recollection. I can recall the taste of chocolate without actually having it in my mouth at the time. We can use the word “know” to refer to perception or understanding of a subject (I know calculus), or to an ability to perform a task (I know how to ride a bicycle). All of these are legitimate senses of the word “know.” But which one are people using when they say, “I know God is real”? Well, if one examines the object of the claim—“God is real”—then it seems that it is referring to a factual claim. In other words, to say “I know God is real” is to say that I am aware that the proposition “God is real” is true. But how does one “know” this sort of a claim? If I say, “I know the table in front of me is real,” I can refer to specific sense experiences—sight, touch—that back up my claim. If I say, “I know electrons are real,” I may not have direct physical evidence of their existence, but I can point to measurements and scientific experiments to back up my claim. But how does one back up the claim that God is real? We certainly can’t sense him directly. As I showed in the article about prayer and miracles, it doesn’t seem that we have indirect measurements of his existence either. So how does one support the claim that God is real, if one does not have direct or indirect evidence? In what other area would such a claim be accepted? You (presumably) wouldn’t accept my claim that “I know unicorns are real” if I had absolutely no evidence other than a vague feeling that unicorns were real. You’d dismiss me as crazy, or stupid, or both. So why should anyone accept the claim that “I know God is real” if there is the same lack of evidence there?
But perhaps this is not convincing to you. That’s fine. Perhaps you are willing to accept the reformed epistemology school of thought that essentially accepts direct knowledge without evidence.1 However, even if this is accepted, one still has the difficulty of dealing with the fact that people all over the world have these same feelings. While Christians say that they “know” Yahweh is real, Hindus say that they “know” Brahma is real, Muslims say that they “know” Allah is real, the ancient Greeks said that they “knew” Zeus was real, and so on. Each religion has individuals who would say they “know” that their God is the true God, and each bases it on exactly the same vague feeling. So how does one distinguish between the “real” feeling and the “fake” feelings? Without already knowing which God exists independently of these feelings (based on some sort of evidence, presumably), it seems impossible to figure out which feeling is the real one and which ones are just wishful thinking. Otherwise, one would have to accept that the feelings of each religious believer are equally valid. This, I’m sure, will not appeal to many Christians.
I’ve tried to deal the best that I can with these vague feelings and indefinable “evidence.” However, when it comes to subjective experiences, what I think best to remember is that most, if not all, religious believers have these sorts of experiences. Since this is the case, there is no basis for distinguishing which ones are “true” and which ones are “false.” My argument does not conclude, “Therefore they are all false.” Rather, I am trying to conclude, “Without additional evidence, there is no reason to conclude that any one particular subjective experience is true. Therefore, no one is justified in claiming ‘knowledge’ based on these experiences alone.” In other words, I am rejecting subjective experience as a basis of knowledge, and arguing that one must provide actual evidence for God’s existence if one is to be justified in believing in him. I understand that for many religious believers, this is really all they have to go on. The only real reason they believe is that they have some indefinable feeling that “there must be something up there.” But I think it is reasonable to conclude that such a feeling is not a valid basis for claiming the actual existence of God.
- Holy Visions – A short article about whether visions and “God experiences” are really the result of God, or brain functions.
- Temporal Lobe Epilepsy – Information about temporal lobe epilepsy, the symptoms, and how it is treated.
- Challenging the Restorative or Sustaining Powers of a Belief in God – Forum post about one atheist’s answer to the “God changed my life” argument.
- The Non-Existence of God: Reformed Epistemology – Index page to a three-part critique of reformed epistemology (listed under “Chapter 2”), summarized from a book by Nicholas Everitt.
- I am aware that this is an extremely simplified description of reformed epistemology. My intent is not to present a full explanation of it, but rather to acknowledge it as an existing theory that would deal with my previous objections. [↩]