The Friendly Atheist runs a regular feature called “Ask Richard” — an advice column penned by atheist Richard Wade. This week, a former Christian wrote in with an unusual problem. Before he lost his faith, the writer used to experience what he described as profound moments of spiritual rapture, moments he used to experience as evidence of God’s existence and love. Ever since he became an atheist, he still experiences these moments of overwhelming awe, and he wrote in to ask Richard if these were common experiences, and what Richard thought might be the cause of these feelings.
Richard wrote back (excerpted):
[J]ust about everybody has sudden, spontaneous, and powerful experiences like those you described. They are not usually frequent in our lives, but they are common to human beings. Some people have them more often than others, some more vividly than others, but I’m sure that most people reading your letter will recognize what you’re talking about from their own experiences…
The second point is that the label is superfluous. We want to add a meaning, a purpose, a point, a message to these experiences, to frame them in a context, as if to capture them in our cameras and keep them with us, because their physical, sensual experience is so fleeting. So we draw upon whatever system of thinking we have handy at the time to enclose it, explain it categorize it, record it, annotate it, interpret it, augment it. If you’re a Christian at the time, you might attribute it to the Holy Spirit moving through you. If you’re a Buddhist, you might characterize it as a glimpse of enlightenment. Whatever your current interest, religious or secular, there’s a frame and a label that you can put around the painting.
But those are all contrivances. They are all unnecessary add-ons. The experience needs no “meaning” outside of itself.
Richard is correct that most people interpret ‘spiritual’ experiences in the frame of their preexisting religious beliefs, but he doesn’t make a persuasive case that atheism is the better frame, or that the letter-writer shouldn’t be troubled about this phenomenon. In fact, Richard’s explanation, in which everything is contextual, doesn’t provide any sense about why these experiences should be considered positive, or if these experiences reflect the intrinsic value of their triggers, or whether such experiences could be wrongly directed and ought to be opposed.
Reading Richard’s explanation, the atheist explanation of these emotional events, taken in isolation, is no more persuasive than the Christian one. And that’s no surprise.
It’s not impossible to come up with several possible theories to explain currently existing evidence. Looking at any isolated data point, every contending theory ought to have an equally persuasive case to explain it, or they need to hire new PR flacks. The test is whether their explanations of different events can cohere into a plausible system that isn’t a wretched, tortured mass of contradictions. Bonus points if this system can make predictions about yet-to-be-observed phenomena which turn out to be accurate. It lowers the odds that your metaphysics have been skating along on the strength of clever apologists.
Richard would have done better to tell the advice seeker to consider the evidence that had led him to reject Christianity. Do his spiritual experiences make him doubt that evidence? Why? The letter-writer might reasonably conclude that his spiritual experiences constituted weak evidence for Christianity, but that they were not enough evidence to outweigh whatever other evidence led him to atheism. Or he might have decided he was wrong to leave his former faith.
Atheists don’t need to believe that there is no evidence that supports the opposing side or that no evidence is ambiguous, merely that atheism is the best explainer of the evidence considered in toto. We go wrong when we assume that, if we are correct about the larger facts, we ought to be able to win each smaller argument. Richard is too certain that he and the letter-writer are correct to take the alternate hypothesis seriously.
That kind of thinking can lead us to overstate the evidence in a particular data point, if we bring our beliefs about the larger system to bear on a small case study. It’s better to judge the relative probabilities of each explanation being true conditional on our newest data point in isolation before we try to reconcile that conclusion with the beliefs and evidence we already have. Otherwise, our arguments become sloppy and unpersuasive.