Religion doesn’t have evidence, so it must rely on other means to persuade people to adopt it. One of those is the appeal to personal experience. Believers will tell you that Jesus has appeared before them, perhaps in a vision. Or that something miraculous happened to them which convinced them that there is a deity at work.
I actually wouldn’t dismiss the meaning that such an event might have for a believer. Taking something such as a near-death experience at face value, would indeed be a powerful experience. The problem is that this kind of evidence for the supernatural doesn’t lend itself to testability. While the faithful may find it very compelling, skeptics cannot accept such data. Without having had the experience ourselves, the claim is indistinguishable from a fabrication. That doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen, just that we have no way of knowing. Unless the believer thought to get their camera and take a picture of Jesus or something.
This appeal is also inconsistent. Most religious people do not trust the paranormal testimony of someone from another religion, or that of alleged alien abductees. If they do not find stories about bigfoot as compelling evidence for the existence of bigfoot, they have to demonstrate what sets the (relatively mundane)hairy hominid experience apart from stories about gods and angels.
It actually gets worse for the appeal to personal experience when you move past religion generally and arrive at Christianity specifically. Within Christianity there is an allegedly loving god that created a giant torture pit and some kind of pleasure room. And he puts you in one or the other based on whether or not you notice him and decide to tell him he’s awesome. Then he hides. If this god is appearing to people, and providing one-off proof of his existence to a select few, in what way is that fair to the rest of the participants in this game of hide-and-seek?
Beyond fairness, it would also be immoral. Ignoring the problem of creating the torture pit and the rules that govern entry in the first place, this god would have a moral obligation to give everyone on the planet such a powerful personal experience. The common rebuttal is that this would violate Free Will, but that doesn’t go anywhere either because I would still reject such a deity for making the aforementioned torture pit even with evidence of his existence, as would countless others. Loving Lord Planet-Maker is independent of whether or not he exists. The other refrain is that non-believers and other lost souls have been given such revelation, but are consciously lying about not believing. Let me reassure you, many of us atheists are motivated by moral problems of religion that are independent of whether a god is real or not. If we believed in God, but just didn’t like him, we would let everyone know. Loudly.
Unfortunately for the Christian, this argument deteriorates further. Not only is this not compelling to an outsider or the behavior or a moral god, but if they believe in the Devil, they shouldn’t believe their experience either. If a powerful being appears before them and claims to be God, how do they know it’s not just God’s gambling buddy fucking with ‘em? They could say that they feel the truth of it in their heart or their soul, but what’s to stop the Great Deceiver from deceiving them there as well?
When you debate with a theist who has had a deeply moving experience, remember that the arguments I’ve laid out here are not likely to budge them, at least not right away. Even when they are open-minded and willing to look at the evidence and the logic that stands in the face of their beliefs, there will be this nagging memory tugging them back to superstition. This is not an easy thing to discount if it happened to you, and we need to be patient when we are attempting to guide someone out of a belief. This isn’t just a syllogism for them, it’s a part of who they are. Something real happened to them, even if the mythological and paranormal elements that colored it are not mapped to reality. I’m not suggesting letting the claim stand, but just remember that there is no one answer to how to approach this argument. Every single believer is different and you won’t reach them unless you tailor your argument to who they are, and acknowledge that while you have good reasons not to believe, that doesn’t diminish the effect the event had on them. Your logic will have better mileage when you mix it with empathy.
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