atheists shouldn’t trust their feelings

atheists shouldn't trust their feelings cartoon by nakedpastor david hayward
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So why do people with religious experiences assert that their feelings of God’s presence are valid and believable, but when another person who has never experienced God admits this, they are told that they shouldn’t trust their feelings, the implication being that their feelings are lying to them about the reality of God’s existence and personal presence in their lives?

I’m intimately familiar with this line of reasoning. I used it.

There is no proof of God. For some reason I’ve always known that. But I’ve had experiences. These might mean something to me, but they provide no proof for others. And now, I realize, for me. In fact, I now know that our experiences can be shaped by our preconceived ideas. I respect the fact that our minds can concoct the most amazing experiential cocktails imaginable. Then these experiences confirm these preconceived ideas and construct more elaborate edifices upon them. Truly, the mind has the remarkable ability to create a closed loop of religious belief and experience that is completely convincing to the subject. These experiences I’ve had I catalog in the “Mystery” section.

These two friends will continue their philosophical discussion for a little while longer, talk about a couple of books they’re reading… one by Rob Bell and the other by Slavoj Žižek… and then they will return to work.

PS: I was interviewed by The Claremont Journal of Religion on sexuality, gender, LGBT, etc. You can read it HERE.

The online community The Lasting Supper is full of people who talk about this stuff every day with each other in a peaceful, non-confrontational space. I invite you.

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  • Good point.

    That is why we Lutherans do NOT trust in our feelings of being saved. We don’t look to any internals along those lines.

    But to the external promises of Word, water, bread and wine. Places where the Lord has made promises to us, and that we can trust in, through faith, totally apart from anything that we do, say, feel, or think.

    It’s very liberating. NO more religious projects. Freedom.

  • Adam Julians

    The problem is not just that the one arguing for the presence of God is saying that they feel his presence but that both are arguing for truth based on feelings.

    Feelings are like weather fronts, they come and go, but the sun is always there.

    It can be difficult to get the balance right. I’ve been in churches where to not have your happy face on means there is something wrong with your walk with Jesus. And with others which feel like a morgue while talking of having joy in the Lord. But like all of us and all institutions there is good and bad.

    Thankfully I have and am having some wonderful experiences in church and Christian communities through making wiser choices than I used to and having learnt some hard lessons.

  • Michelle Langley

    If I were the second guy, I’d have said, “Jesus promises that if you seek you will find.” It’s absolutely true.

  • watcher_b

    I spent a few months talking with a few Mormon missionaries about their faith. It was SO important to them that I have this “feeling” that the Book of Mormon was right and that what they were saying was of God. They wanted me to, and I obliged, read the Book of Mormon every day and then when we met they would ask how I felt.

    At first I would just tell them my feelings were irrelevant to whether or not this was truth or not. But they wouldn’t let it go. So I obliged again and paid attention to my feelings and found (unsurprisingly) that I “felt” like this was wrong. I got this exact line, that I could not trust those feelings.

  • watcher_b

    wait, so are you saying that if you seek then you have that feeling AND THEN your feelings are a valid form of evidence for God?

  • How about us Ex-Christian Atheists?

    I felt God’s presence for years. Then I realized how I tricked myself

    I still feel wonderful, deep things. But I no longer attribute them to spooks, demons, ghosts or gods.

    I have had tons of weird experiences to tempt my continued belief. As you said, the mind can create amazing cocktails

    l’chaim !

  • Brigitte Mueller

    Where does that leave me? I don’t “experience” God and still believe.

  • The problem is if you dismiss feelings because they are like the weather you have no basis for belief at all because there is no rational basis for belief in invisible beings.

    If I were to look at my feelings throughout my life, I always had a gut feeling that people in church were making all this stuff up. I just didn’t pay attention to it because everyone was scaring the shit out of me.

    If I were to say that belief was based on feelings I would say it is based on fear because fear is a really powerful feeling.

  • Atheists call it gut feeling, instinct, conscience, women’s intuition etc.
    Christians call it the Holy Spirit.

    Both parties feel the same thing, just one calls it something different. The real problem is neither party likes the other’s term.

  • Sven2547

    I sought. Found nothing.
    Not even joking. For about 6 years I tried to find a reason to remain a Christian. No success.

  • Al Cruise

    Question here, After you decide which way you are going to believe, as an Atheist or believer in God. What comes next for your life.

  • Atheists have the same primary inner experiences as believers. Atheists merely are better at guarding against falling for various cognitive biases when the experiences are interpreted. I may find some lost object and marvel at the improbability of finding it. A believer finding something may conclude that the Holy Spirit directed them to the location. In both cases, a sense of wonder exists. The believer, though, employs cognitive biases in interpreting the inner experience by equating two separate mysteries: that of finding the object and the concept of a Holy Spirit. The human mind likes to find (or make) associations even when there are none there.

  • klhayes

    This reminds me of a conversation I was having during a Bible study many, many years ago. We got on the topic of near death experiences and it was interesting b/c not only have Christians has near death experiences, but so have non-Christians (not atheist but Buddhist, etc). So many in the group simply dismissed ALL experiences b/c they could not explain the peacefulness that a non-Christian was experiencing….it was really arrogant.

  • klhayes

    Good point, Adam…..facts (i.e., truths) are not based on feelings. As much as it gets done, it never works.

  • Dennis Irwin

    I don’t recall “feelings” being a main focal part of scripture. Instead: Romans 1:20 -” For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse”

  • Christian culture practices a lot of things that aren’t in scripture. I would say that scripture may not specifically talk about feelings, but it does use a fair amount of fear.