About that personal experience of yours…

Steven here…

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.

Damn it Jesus, I wanted a candid shot!

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.

I write a lot of jokes. Some of them are in this book.
I also host the podcast of the Skepchick events team, Some Assembly Required, and cohost the WWJTD Podcast.
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About geekysteven
  • https://twitter.com/HeatherLynn117 H.D. Lynn

    The pernicious thing about Christianity is that you’re encouraged to attribute any good feeling and event to god. As a non-religious person with religious parents, this is something that’s a constant thorn in my conscious. Your personal experiences aren’t evidence for god, but when you use them that way, you can literally prove just about anything.

  • John Eberhard

    Good job, Steven.

  • Rain

    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?

    This is actually an argument that some believers use to counter the “all religions can’t be true” objection. I.e. they are actually all real supernatural religious experiences, except the other religions are worshiping Satan, but the true believers are worshiping the really true god. The smarter and non-con-artist believers don’t use that argument though, because either they don’t believe an Satan, or obviously it still would apply that they, or indeed even everybody in every religion, might still be being tricked by Satan.

    • Rain

      So in other words it is usually an argument only put forward by con artists or by some of your dumber apologists, such as Jesus or Thomas Aquinas.

      • Rain

        Or most notably by Justin Martyr. (Which would fall under the “con artist” category).

  • Casey G.

    “Religion doesn’t have evidence” more correctly stated would be “Religion doesn’t have evidence I(we) accept” (i.e. empiric evidence)

    • iknklast

      OK, lay out the evidence it DOES have. You see, all the evidence I’ve seen comes down to anecdote and personal opinion. Those are, by definition, not evidence. They are stories and opinions.

      • Casey G.

        Yes, they are not scientific evidence. As I noted below, if that is your standard then fine. I’m just saying that most other people would consider the experiences of others a valid form of evidence. The evidence most Theists would point to would be the collective experiences of those in their faith tradition, personal experience, and the degree to which their worldview is consistent with their experience.

        • Michael Busch

          There is such thing as “non scientific evidence”. Science provides guidelines for how we should treat _all_ of the many different types of information we are exposed to.
          _
          The experiences of others are a valid form of evidence – but _only for what they have experienced_.
          As has been stated above: if someone sincerely thinks they saw a Sasquatch, we don’t consider that evidence of a Sasquatches actually existing – because we’ve investigated a large number of previous similar claims and found them all to be people who were sincere and mistaken. Likewise for someone who “feels God”. Simply put: our brains are fallible and biased in a large number of ways.

          • Michael Busch

            Typo: “There is no such thing as “non scientific evidence”. “

          • Casey G.

            No, he did ignore them. The crux of the argument here is that the personal experiences are all isolated to one single individual and are interpreted by that single individual. I am stating that this is not in fact how this occurs.

            Regarding “non-scientific evidence” I agree, within the naturalist/empiricist worldview there is no non-scientific evidence.

          • Casey G.

            Sorry my two replies got mingled there.

          • Michael Busch

            No. There is _no such thing as non-scientific evidence_, regardless of your “worldview” (I don’t like that word – it is misused very often). Science is a system for organizing and gaining knowledge about the universe. All information can be considered scientifically. The question becomes what a given piece of information is evidence of.
            _
            “The crux of the argument here is that the personal experiences are all isolated to one single individual and are interpreted by that single individual”
            _
            No. That is _not_ a part of Steven’s point at all. A bunch of people may claim to have seen Sasquatch. Doesn’t make Sasquatch real. Several thousand people claimed to have seen a mile-long UFO flying over Phoenix in 1997. Doesn’t mean that the UFO was real (it was a bunch of flares launched from an USAF A-10 on a training exercise). Likewise for people who have a “personal experience” (I don’t like that phrase either, since it is wonderful non-specific).

          • Rain

            No, he did ignore them. The crux of the argument here is that the personal experiences are all isolated to one single individual and are interpreted by that single individual. I am stating that this is not in fact how this occurs.

            Interpreted by that single individual in the context of their religion. So he does not ignore that, and that is how it occurs. But you’re right this article is about appeals to personal experience, so it could be understandable if he ignored other things since it is specifically about appeals to personal experience. But if he is talking about personal experiences, that does not mean it is “isolated” from other things. Personal experiences, or even total fabrications, add up to religions, religious texts, and faith traditions indistinguishable from fantasy. So how do we distinguish from fantasy? Religious texts and faith traditions? Sorry but no.

        • baal

          Collective experience of UFO / alien experiments abductees points out the problem of a field of molehills. i.e. it’s not a mountain.

  • iknklast

    Also, one thing that gets me about the violates free will argument. Believers use this to explain why god can’t provide evidence to all of us that is compelling; then they argue that he has provided evidence to them through these personal experiences. So it’s all right to violate the free will of some individuals, while leaving that of others intact? Sounds rather like special pleading to me.

    • sqlrob

      I don’t get that argument at all. Moses didn’t have free will? Abraham? Solomon? Lot? Noah?

  • http://faehnri.ch/ eric

    “Personal experience” is subjective, uncontrolled data that can’t be replicated. Garbage.

  • Casey G.

    So I am a theist and occasionally I browse through the atheist channel for some thought provoking ideas but usually I find posts such as this which unfortunately mischaracterize the beliefs that theists hold. It is rather shocking since when theists discuss atheism the charge is usually leveled at us that we are mischaracterizing the beliefs of atheists. So let me point out a few flaws in your argument that probably keep theists from engaging with it.

    “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. ”
    -No problem here. The standard you have set for yourself is that something be empirically demonstrable for it to be possibly true. Of course such a standard is a tautology, e.g. “only things that are empirically knowable are knowable therefore all things that are knowable are empirically knowable.” Within that standard you are quite right to reject any faith belief. Just don’t be surprised that theists, who don’t share your premise, don’t share your conclusions.

    “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.”
    -This ignores the fact that most religious groups have some other standard by which they judge these experiences apart from the purely personal. There is usually a faith tradition or holy book or similar that “mediates” these experiences and helps faith communities interpret them.

    “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?”
    -This is a straw man version of Christianity. There are a large number of Christian interpretations of God and the afterlife. If you find this version problematic I would agree. Although it may be popular in some circles it is not the only version of this doctrine. Others take the effects of this doctrine on God’s character more seriously (e.g. annihilationism).

    “god would have a moral obligation to give everyone on the planet such a powerful personal experience”
    -In what way? On what basis do you make this argument? I’m not saying I disagree, I am just saying that is not evident.

    “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.”
    -I’m not sure that is true. So far your argument seems to hinge more on the moral problems of one religion than the reality of a deity. In fact your argument so far seems to be based around the “problem of evil” argument with Christianity as your main focus.

    “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. ”
    -Again, most faith communities have some other sources of “truth” that mediate these experiences. Believe it or not, they also use reason!

    “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. ”
    -That would be because they’re pretty bad, and are based on mischaracterizations of their beliefs.

    You might have more success if you engaged with those who are religious and their beliefs based on the things they actually believe. Just a suggestion.

    -Casey

    • invivoMark

      Casey, I think you don’t understand what the term “straw man” means. Believe it or not, “straw man” does not mean any description of Christianity that doesn’t fit your specific, personal version of it. There are many versions of Christianity (arguably as many versions of it as there are Christians), and Steven’s post accurately describes many of those versions. Just because it doesn’t accurately describe yours does not mean that it doesn’t accurately describe any.

      Believe it or not, most of the atheists here do regularly engage with the religious. That is because it’s very easy to find people who are religious (Christians are upwards of 90% of the US population, depending on how you count). Had you engaged with the same Christians that Steven has engaged with, you would certainly understand his post a lot better.

      However, just because your personal reasons for belief aren’t specifically targeted by Steven’s post, don’t take that as evidence that your beliefs are intellectually justifiable. They almost certainly aren’t. For instance, take the standard by which you claim you can judge the validity of an experience. You say:

      “-This ignores the fact that most religious groups have some other standard by which they judge these experiences apart from the purely personal. There is usually a faith tradition or holy book or similar that “mediates” these experiences and helps faith communities interpret them.”

      The strangest part of this statement is that it comes right after an accusation of tautology. Because the logic you are using is nothing but tautology: How do you know that an experience is real? Check scripture! How do you know scripture is real? You had a personal experience!

      So if your personal beliefs are based on a tautology, how reliable could they possibly be?

      • Michael Busch

        “(Christians are upwards of 90% of the US population, depending on how you count)”

        -Closer to 70%; quite a bit higher if you include people who used to be Christians.

      • Casey G.

        No, I’m pretty familiar with a straw man argument. It seems that we are arguing here against the validity of personal experience. One of the “proofs” offered is that the Christian version of God is immoral and the characterization of Christianity given would not be generally accepted by Christians. It is a straw man.

        Regarding tautology, I’m not saying that a tautology is wrong, I’m just saying that you shouldn’t be surprised that theists don’t engage with your argument when you reject their premise. Unless they accept yours they are unlikely to see your point.

        • Glodson

          It seems that we are arguing here against the validity of personal experience.

          No. Let’s look again at the original.

          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.

          It isn’t that we aren’t saying it isn’t valid. We are saying we don’t know what the experience. We don’t know that it happened, we don’t that it happened like it was claimed, we don’t know the source of the experience. Absent any outside proof, we just have the say-so of one person. They can be lying. They can be mistaken. They could have hallucinated. They could misremember it. It could have just been a dream. It could have been God. It could have been Satan. It could have been Loki having fun. It could have been any number of deities. It could have been the Smurfs.

          Without the outside evidence, we have nothing with which to judge their claim. They have the burden of proof to show the experience happened. And even if we elect to believe they had the experience, like trusting them in this, we still have no reason to conclude that it has anything to do with the supernatural when we have a list of mundane explanations for it.

          e. One of the “proofs” offered is that the Christian version of God is immoral and the characterization of Christianity given would not be generally accepted by Christians. It is a straw man.

          If there’s a Hell, if people are denied heaven for the sake of their beliefs, that god is immoral. Hell, look at the Bible again. How many people die in the Flood? How about some of those laws in the Bible? Slavery? Marrying your rapist? Killing your kid? Murdering a woman on the doorstep of her father? That’s pretty bad stuff. If this isn’t god’s will, why is it in the Bible? Why would god allow it in?

          Regarding tautology, I’m not saying that a tautology is wrong, I’m just saying that you shouldn’t be surprised that theists don’t engage with your argument when you reject their premise. Unless they accept yours they are unlikely to see your point.

          No. When looking at a premise, we have to see if it true or not. This isn’t about seeing what the theist sees. It is about looking at reality. If you have proof for your god, present it. Otherwise, don’t be surprised when we dismiss assertions out of hand.

        • invivoMark

          It’s not a straw man if many Christians actually believe it.

          Moreover, the Euthyphro dilemma (the problem of evil) is entirely separate and unrelated to the discussion of the validity of personal experience as a form of empirical evidence.

          Regarding tautologies, you seem to have missed the point entirely. A tautology isn’t necessarily wrong. But if an argument is tautological, then it is not supported. So when you defend your personal experience by saying that it meshes seamlessly with religious doctrine, and then you try to use personal experience as evidence for that religious doctrine (which many Christians will do), then your argument is tautological. It is unsupported. When the goal of using personal experience is to support your belief in religious doctrine, then your argument has failed.

          What Glodson said about premises is absolutely true. A premise isn’t something that you just choose to take on faith or not. A premise, in the logical sense, must be supported, by evidence or logic, unless all parties in the discussion agree to accept the same premises.

    • Rain

      This ignores the fact that most religious groups have some other standard by which they judge these experiences apart from the purely personal. There is usually a faith tradition or holy book or similar that “mediates” these experiences and helps faith communities interpret them.

      And somehow those do not counts as ” paranormal testimony of someone from another religion”, or
      “stories about gods and angels”. A “faith tradition or holy book” are somehow not second hand information. And if it is a “faith tradition or holy book” , then nobody has to “demonstrate what sets the (relatively mundane)hairy hominid experience apart from stories about gods and angels.” Okay, I’m sorry that atheists “mischaracterize the beliefs that theists hold. ” It must be tough.

      • Casey G.

        Hey, I’m just pointing out the flaws. You seem frustrated that theists don’t take your perspective seriously. It seems you don’t take theirs seriously. That’s fine, but probably one of the sources of your problem.

        • Rain

          I was a bit thick with the sarcasm but basically I was saying he didn’t ignore any of the things you say he did. They were all right there!

        • Glodson

          Hey, I’m just pointing out the flaws. You seem frustrated that theists don’t take your perspective seriously. It seems you don’t take theirs seriously. That’s fine, but probably one of the sources of your problem.

          I don’t take homopaths seriously. Or psychics. Or astrologers.

          Why? Because they lack empirical evidence, and when they make claims, reality often counters those.

          The same applies to religion. See, just because a theist mistakenly believes they can reject a valid premise is not the same as refuting an argument.

        • H.H.

          No, you have it backwards. YOU have to convince US. The fact that your faith doesn’t hold up to critical scrutiny is not our problem, it’s yours. If you don’t care to be taken seriously by rational adults, then don’t worry about it. You won’t have credibility, but you’ll still have your faith!

    • Mike W. Laing

      ” There is usually a faith tradition or holy book or similar that “mediates” these experiences and helps faith communities interpret them”
      In other words, by acting like they are real experiences, “mediating them” translates into ‘validates them.’ Sorry, but it is this type of surreptitious, and ubiquitous, reinforcement that transforms whimsy into belief.
      Before you get on about mediating is indeed about separating whimsy from reality, it is the act of mediating that falsely confirms that there is something real to mediate between. The apparent, and very pronounced, reality is that there is nothing to mediate. It nis a mediation between one whimsical experience, and whimsical interpretation.

      • Casey G.

        “The apparent, and very pronounced, reality is that there is nothing to mediate. It nis a mediation between one whimsical experience, and whimsical interpretation.”

        Again, this is a conclusion that follows from your premise, a premise which theists don’t share.

        • Michael Busch

          No. It is a conclusion that follows from a very large body of objective evidence about how human brains work, and that the holy books of all religions make a large number of unsupported and entirely false claims about the universe. This means that you are starting with a premise that leads to an absurd conclusion, and you should go back and change it.

        • John Evans

          The premise – the heart of science – is simply that the universe is consistent and knowable. It can be measured, it can be understood, through the application of observation, reason, and testing.

          If you’re going to propose that there is a method of obtaining accurate information about the composition and function of the world separate from that, that’s fine. But if you want an individual who does not currently hold your position to accept that you are right, you’re going to have to demonstrate unambiguously that your alternate way of knowing works.

          What sort of facts about the world is this method able to provide? By what mechanism does an individual use this method to obtain facts? What facts about the world (if any) can this method not provide?

          For example, if I wanted to know what was in a closed box, the scientific approach would be to open the box and look inside. (Or arguably use a more roundabout method, like x-raying the box). Can your method be used to identify the contents of the box?

    • Tel

      [i]No problem here. The standard you have set for yourself is that something be empirically demonstrable for it to be possibly true. Of course such a standard is a tautology, e.g. “only things that are empirically knowable are knowable therefore all things that are knowable are empirically knowable.” Within that standard you are quite right to reject any faith belief. Just don’t be surprised that theists, who don’t share your premise, don’t share your conclusions.[/i]

      That’s a misrepresentation, and I’ve really no idea where you got it from. The quote is saying that when something is not properly and objectively proven and will never be properly proven (anecdotes are tricksy things like that), people are under no obligation to accept it as true. No tautology or circularity involved.

      [i][M]ost religious groups have some other standard by which they judge these experiences apart from the purely personal. There is usually a faith tradition or holy book or similar that “mediates” these experiences and helps faith communities interpret them.[/i]

      Helps them fit the evidence to their conclusion and helps create the experience in the first place, you mean.

      • Casey G.

        “That’s a misrepresentation, and I’ve really no idea where you got it from. The quote is saying that when something is not properly and objectively proven and will never be properly proven (anecdotes are tricksy things like that), people are under no obligation to accept it as true.”

        I don’t think I represented it. If anything your explanation misrepresents it. The fundamental argument here (as exposited in the piece) is not that _persons are not obligated to accept anecdotes as true_ but that they _should never be accepted as true_ because they are unlikely and unprovable.:
        “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.”
        The piece goes on to explain why these anecdotes must be categorically rejected. There is never an option presented for belief (because such an anecdote could not be demonstrated to be true). I think that is brought home by the conclusion where it is stated:
        “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.”
        It certainly seems the intention is to convince a theist that their experiences are not true religious experiences.

        • Casey G.

          Sorry, “I don’t think I misrepresented it”

          • Nate Frein

            If you’re going to keep engaging here, please start using blockquote tags.

        • Glodson

          The piece goes on to explain why these anecdotes must be categorically rejected. There is never an option presented for belief (because such an anecdote could not be demonstrated to be true).

          Let me introduce you to the null hypothesis. If a claim is made, it is on the person who made the claim to prove it. Failure to do so will result in a failure to reject the null hypothesis.

          You’ve not presented a case as to why we should reject the null hypothesis in light of personal experiences. Why should we make a special pleading for religion?

    • Pulse

      “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. ”
      -No problem here. The standard you have set for yourself is that something be empirically demonstrable for it to be possibly true.

      This is not quite accurate, and you would do well not to misrepresent the naturalist position. The standard I have is that something be empirically demonstrable for it to be compelling. I fully accept the possibility that some things may be true yet aren’t empirically demonstrable. I just have no compelling reason to believe in those things. I may change my mind as evidence is forthcoming.

      If I desire to have true beliefs and to avoid error, then relying on that which is empirically demonstrable is a safer bet than believing every story that has an air of possibility.

      • Casey G.

        “I fully accept the possibility that some things may be true yet aren’t empirically demonstrable”

        I’m sure that is a better explanation of your position. It certainly seems to be the tone of the piece, that with regards to these experiences, that it is unreasonable for theists to find experiences compelling that are not empirically demonstrable. Again, I only wish to point out that Theists would reject the premise that “only data that is empirically demonstrable should be compelling.”

        I could restate it that “Only knowledge about truths that are empirically demonstrable are compelling, and I will only be compelled by empirically demonstrable truths.”

        • Pulse

          I could restate it that “Only knowledge about truths that are empirically demonstrable are compelling, and I will only be compelled by empirically demonstrable truths.”

          And restated in this way, it is no longer a tautology. It is not a self-reinforcing or necessarily true statement. It is simply defining a rule of thumb (stated in two ways) whereby many people assess truth claims.

      • Casey G.

        And I’m sorry. I’m sure it is unpleasant when someone misrepresents your position to make a point.

    • Glodson

      -No problem here. The standard you have set for yourself is that something be empirically demonstrable for it to be possibly true. Of course such a standard is a tautology, e.g. “only things that are empirically knowable are knowable therefore all things that are knowable are empirically knowable.” Within that standard you are quite right to reject any faith belief. Just don’t be surprised that theists, who don’t share your premise, don’t share your conclusions.

      That’s absurd. We say empirical evidence because we are specifying a type of evidence. One that can be objectively evaluated and evidence we should be able to see. Tangible evidence. If I said that a certain drug had a certain effect, you wouldn’t take my word for it. You would want to see the evidence, the hard data, that shows this. If I said that a material I produced reduced friction to an absurd amount, you would want to see the evidence to back the claim. If I said I produced a room temperature superconductor, you would want to see the evidence I have for that. In all these cases, one would want empirical evidence, not my anecdotes relating my ground breaking discoveries.

      We are holding supernatural claims to that same test, to that same level of scrutiny. Want to reject the call for evidence as you did? That’s fine, just don’t expect anyone to give a moment’s pause before laughing at such a statement.

      This is also a strawman. It isn’t that all knowledge is based on empirical evidence, it is that empirical evidence is objective. When I make a measurement, produce a real result, or see a physical process, I have evidence left over apart form my own experience with the event. It is tangible evidence that I can use to show that my claim was true. You have a gross misunderstanding of what empirical evidence is, and even how said evidence is used to back a claim. The evidence is often used to confirm a prediction made, or explain an observation. We use this to deduce what reality is.

      -This ignores the fact that most religious groups have some other standard by which they judge these experiences apart from the purely personal. There is usually a faith tradition or holy book or similar that “mediates” these experiences and helps faith communities interpret them.

      What? Above you wanted to call our call for empirical evidence a tautology, and then there’s this. Aside from the fact that your argument was a strawman, now you are trying to say that religions evaluate evidence for their religion by using their religion.

      It all begs the questions: how do we even know the person actually had the experience, how do we know that the religious tradition is right in the first place, and how can we trust the religious books without colobrating evidence for their supernatural claims? Wouldn’t falsehoods in those teachings cast a dubious light on their trustworthiness as a source?

      -This is a straw man version of Christianity. There are a large number of Christian interpretations of God and the afterlife. If you find this version problematic I would agree. Although it may be popular in some circles it is not the only version of this doctrine. Others take the effects of this doctrine on God’s character more seriously (e.g. annihilationism).

      Really? A strawman version of Christianity? Here’s a time for the Bible.

      If thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire. -Matthew 18:8-9

      And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. –Luke 16: 22-24

      The hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation. –John 5:28-29

      In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction. –2 Thessalonians 1:8-9

      And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire. –Revelation 20:14-15

      Sounds like Hell is present in the Bible. So either the Bible is wrong with these verses, or there’s a Hell. But let’s talk about annihilation. That’s just shifting the goalposts. So instead of being tortured forever, god will just destroy a those he deems unworthy? Ah… how moral. Instead of showing us direct evidence for his existence, interceding in such a way that we see him, he hides. And if we don’t please him, he kills us. Let’s not beat around the bush, this is the same thing as Hell, just slightly nicer. Which isn’t saying much.

      The same problems with Hell arise with annihilation, like the idea that God is either a sadist who psychologically tortures souls with the threat of hell or destruction at judgement, a petty tyrant who justifies his own righteousness by taking it out on us or God is so indifferent to the suffering his mockery of justice will cause for the sake of stoically enforcing his own law on us.

      The net effect of these teachings are the same, to instill terror in the believer, a fear of Hell, or death.

      “god would have a moral obligation to give everyone on the planet such a powerful personal experience”
      -In what way? On what basis do you make this argument? I’m not saying I disagree, I am just saying that is not evident.

      If god cares about us, and our acceptance of his teachings is the crux of our salvation, a god that hides away so that only those with blind faith in the right religion(religions most of us are born into) will go to this heaven is a bastard of a god. If god wants us to believe, to worship, but hides, he’s created a test. A test we have no hope of passing rationally.

      Further, looking at the harm caused by sectarian differences between religions, even denominations within a religion, even if our salvation didn’t hinge on this, a god would have a moral obligation to reveal his presence. Failure to do so, which would be easy for any entity worth calling a god, means this god is partly responsible for those tribal conflicts which could be ended with little effort on the part of the god.

      It is like watching someone clinging to life and not helping when they are at arm’s length. You can easily help them, but if you instead watch them plummet, you failed in your moral obligation to that person.

      “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.”
      -I’m not sure that is true. So far your argument seems to hinge more on the moral problems of one religion than the reality of a deity. In fact your argument so far seems to be based around the “problem of evil” argument with Christianity as your main focus.

      The problem of evil, and theodicy in general, is a problem with religion. Problems with religions and the nonexistence of god are related but distinct. We talk about the problem of evil not to disprove god, but show the problems with accepting a religion. The problem of evil is a problem for any religion with a powerful and benevolent god. We point that out.

      Our rejection of god is not hinged on this as there are other religions without the problem of evil because of how those religions play out. This is a specific problem for the Abrahamic religions. In general, we just reject the notion of god. Talking about the problem of evil is talking about the problems in the foundations of three of the world’s major religions.

      “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. ”
      -Again, most faith communities have some other sources of “truth” that mediate these experiences. Believe it or not, they also use reason!

      No, they don’t. They rationalize, they aren’t rational.

      “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. ”
      -That would be because they’re pretty bad, and are based on mischaracterizations of their beliefs.

      You’ve not shown it. In fact, your reply to this post is inline with the theistic rationalizations we’ve come to know. Most of us were religious. And we’ve rejected it. I’ve yet to see anything offer any evidence for god. I’ve read many bad arguments for god. Even when I was Christian, I cringed when people say “other sources of ‘truth’” without bothering to explain why the ‘truth’ of one religion trumped the ‘truth’ of another. If there’s no objective way to distinguish, that casts doubt on both. Having an objective way to distinguish would involve empirical evidence. Which we already know is severely lacking.

      You might have more success if you engaged with those who are religious and their beliefs based on the things they actually believe. Just a suggestion.

      Tone trolling. And again, many of us were raised as Christians. And those of us who weren’t likely already have gotten much of the religion shoved down their throats. We know the religion. We know the theology. We know the theodicy. And we’ve rejected it for lack of evidence, and the self refuting nature of it all.

      • Casey G.

        “That’s absurd.”

        I agree.

        “We say empirical evidence because we are specifying a type of evidence. One that can be objectively evaluated and evidence we should be able to see. Tangible evidence.”

        So there’s more than one kind of evidence? Your colleagues here don’t seem to think so.

        You go on to quote the bible and make a number of comments about hell. I am not here to debate Christianity at all. You may have very good reasons for rejecting Christianity and that is fine with me. I am only pointing out that most Theists do not see these issues through your lens.

        I’ve yet to see anything offer any evidence for god.

        I’m not interested in doing that. My goal is not to prove god to you, but rather to offer perspectives on why theists would not find this argument convincing.

        • Glodson

          So there’s more than one kind of evidence? Your colleagues here don’t seem to think so.

          Anecdotal evidence is a kind of evidence. Circumstantial evidence is a kind of evidence. Neither are objective. Empirical evidence is. It is something that we can experiment with, it is tangible.

          You go on to quote the bible and make a number of comments about hell. I am not here to debate Christianity at all. You may have very good reasons for rejecting Christianity and that is fine with me. I am only pointing out that most Theists do not see these issues through your lens.

          You made a claim about strawmaning Christianity. I quoted the Holy Book of the religion to show that no one straw manned Christianity. What has been said about the religion is accurate. I am not discussing the religion, I’m refuting your claim of a straw man presentation of Christianity.

          And, again, we already know the point of view of a theist. Up until relatively recently, in the past two years or so, I was a Christian. I know the viewpoint. It is one in which one substitutes rationalizations for rational thought.

          I’m not interested in doing that. My goal is not to prove god to you, but rather to offer perspectives on why theists would not find this argument convincing.

          First, I don’t care why they don’t find it convincing. It is because they’ve bought into their religion. It is a function of gullibility and special pleading for the claims of their religion. I know this as well as anyone else.

          Second, I’m going to repeat the bit that has really pissed me off.

          I’m not interested in doing that.

          We don’t care why theists would reject the argument. We know why, it is because the argument cuts into their ability to justify their belief. And we both know this sentence was bullshit. You don’t have evidence. If you did, you would present it.

        • Rain

          I’m not interested in doing that. My goal is not to prove god to you, but rather to offer perspectives on why theists would not find this argument convincing.

          It’s pretty much, “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.”, and that it is inconsistent to be more credulous about one’s own religion than about other religions.

          Theists would not find this argument convincing? What about it is not true!

          • Rain

            What about it is not true!

            Bad grammar. I mean which part of it isn’t true?

    • Art Vandelay

      -This is a straw man version of Christianity. There are a large number of Christian interpretations of God and the afterlife. If you find this version problematic I would agree. Although it may be popular in some circles it is not the only version of this doctrine.

      Yes, it’s almost as if Christians take the divinely-inspired words of the omnipotent creator of the universe and then twist them enough to conform to their own pre-existing worldview. What good is a deity that’s so poor at communicating with his creation that he allows for endless versions of his character and desires to be taken out of the ancient text that he inspired?

    • Michael Busch

      “In fact your argument so far seems to be based around the “problem of evil” argument with Christianity as your main focus.”
      _
      Do not mistake Steven’s taking apart the idea of a “personal experience” as common in some current Christian sects here for atheists being specifically anti-Christian. At the present time, Christianity is the most common religion in North and South America, Australia, and Europe, so it gets the largest share of criticism by atheists in those groups, but people on this blog and elsewhere can and do go after Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Sikhism, Jainism, Judaism, and the hundreds of other current religions.

  • invivoMark

    I once encountered someone who wasn’t a Christian (or a member of any other religion), but who said he had had personal experiences (obviously very moving ones) with various forms of pseudoscience and crackpottery. That in itself isn’t extraordinary, but what struck me was how emotional he got over even the mildest requests for evidence, or any suggestion that I had reason to be skeptical of his claims.

    For instance, he related an experience where he was with a bunch of people with a “dowsing expert”, and said that they came upon one spot where he could “feel energy flowing through him” (and of course, in that spot, the dowsing rods were “spinning like crazy”). He knew that I’m a scientist, so he asked me what could cause that (he asked specifically for a “scientific explanation”). At the suggestion that his use of the word “energy” was sloppy and inaccurate, he flew into a rage and slung a dozen insults my direction!

    He didn’t care that what he was describing wasn’t thermal, kinetic, or electromagnetic in nature, or that it couldn’t be measured in joules – it HAD to be energy, and no other word would do.

    While this person wasn’t religious, his mindset was exactly what you would expect from someone who was. They are so caught up in wanting to believe their experience that they can’t entertain the smallest alteration of their story. They want the story to be added to, not subtracted from, and in any conversation about their story (even a “science-based” one), they will automatically reject anything you say that subtracts from their story in any way, no matter how minor.

    I wish I had a punchline to this story, but unfortunately this one didn’t have a happy ending. This guy still slings insults my way, and gets petulant when I suggest that I still don’t believe him. I don’t know how to get someone to allow subtractions to their favorite stories when they so desperately want to believe them.

  • http://chatpilot-godisamyth.blogspot.com David Cortright

    As a former theists who has had these experiences I am convinced that no words could change the mind of someone who is convinced that they have had a visitation from God or angels. I’ve had very vivid dreams, visions, and have even seen what at the time I believed was Christ himself. I now know that these were all delusions caused by my deep commitment and indoctrination to my beliefs.

    It’s interesting to note that most people from other religions always have similar experiences but with their deities and what they picture him/her to be like. How does a Christian know that his experiences are of God and not from Satan? The standard biblical reply to this would be found in the bible:

    1Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. 1 John 4:1-3 New International Version.

    Hence the Christians belief that only their religion is the truth as opposed to all other religions. What theists don’t realize is that they are just as deluded as all the others from other religious faiths that claim supernatural experiences.

    • Michael Busch

      “no words could change the mind of someone who is convinced that they have had a visitation from God or angels”
      _
      Dan Barker had such experiences, and is now a very vocal atheist. But you’re right that there are no magic words – it takes time, education, and the person concerned taking the time to think about things in considerable detail. Oddly enough, Barker can _still_ have such experiences – even though he understands quite well it is just his brain doing something that it doesn’t usually do.

      • http://chatpilot-godisamyth.blogspot.com David Cortright

        I’ve always said on my blog that the only thing that can change ones mind is oneself. After having read the scriptures in their entirety from cover to cover I had more questions than answers and more doubts about my faith than assurance. It took my willingness to explore those questions and doubts objectively and follow the evidence to wherever it may lead.

        I was able to duplicate the experiences of the presence of God through Taoist meditation methods, I can still speak in tongues at will, and I literally researched every field of study I thought would be relevant to my experiences. I read up on psychiatry, psychology, hypnosis and trance states, etc. Leaving the faith is a personal choice and a journey that one must be willing to take on their own. It took me about six years to get over the fear of leaving the faith. I always wondered what would happen if I die as an atheist? Would I go to hell? The fear of death and hell were very real to me and it was this aspect of my former beliefs that was the hardest to overcome.

    • Tel

      Hm, but then what was it that convinced you your experiences were false, if not words?

      • http://chatpilot-godisamyth.blogspot.com David Cortright

        The simple answer: lots of research. I sought out ways of duplicating all of my experiences through other methods. For instance when I was a believer I used to have what you may call night terrors. I would be lay9ing in bed and then I would suddenly feel a bad presence in the room and then a strong pressure on my chest as if someone was sitting on top of me holding me down. I was unable to move or scream and these episodes lasted from a few seconds to a minute or two. When discussing this with my pastor he would say that those were demonic attacks against me for bringing souls to Christ.

        When I left the church I still continued to have similar experiences and decided to look for answers. With a little research I stumbled across a sleep disorder called hallucinatory sleep paralysis and the symptoms matched my experiences perfectly. It wasn’t so much words that convinced me that my experiences were false but rather my replacing ignorance for knowledge outside a religious context.

  • Mike W. Laing

    some other sources of “truth” that mediate these experiences. Believe it or not, they also use reason!
    And suddenly, truth loses all meaning and degenerates into subjective validation. Not inter-subjective verification, but that all subjective experiences are truth. Ergo, the circle continues, and we see that, in spite of all the posturing and pretending that you are acting rational, it still results in removing all standards of objective validation. All you accomplish is to remove critical thought.
    I have had two overwhelming existential experiences/moments that were profound in their emotional impact. Funny, they were a sudden understanding of ‘truth’ and everything made sense to me. One was on a brilliant clear day, etc., etc., and I suddenly ‘saw’ that everything – existence – was perfect and connected on a meta-physical level, right down to the most subtle intricacy. It cemented my knowledge that there was no God, that God could only flaw the perfection.
    Of course, profound as it was, by reliving it over and over, I only served to make it into a memory that was much larger than the feeling at the time. I also realized that these profound revelations are nothing more than intense expressions of what we already believe, in our unexamined mind.

  • Sven

    I think Sagan put it best with his allegory of the dragon in the garage.

    • Art Vandelay

      Really, the entire book (DHW) is a fantastic testimony to the unworthiness of personal experience.

  • Nate Frein

    I’ve read too many studies that show just how easily duped the human mind is to believe any personal testimony of faith. The ease with which which situations can be manipulated to produce the exact cognitive effect desired is downright scarier, and the notion of skilled manipulators taking advantage of that fact in order to bend less educated or less skeptical people to their will is scarier.

  • Tel

    Dr Valerie Tarico has an eight-part series about Christianity and cognitive science, including this article http://www.huffingtonpost.com/valerie-tarico/christian-belief-through_b_216364.html about the born-again experience. It explains the known and natural reasons for people having religious or otherwise “transcendent” experiences, and how they are not unique to Christianity (or any other religion) despite what leaders may say. For me, it was (a) the last piece in a process of losing my faith, despite having had many “encounters with Jesus”, “experiences of God”, “times being filled with the Holy Spirit”, or whatever you want to call them, and (b) the gateway to finding an online community of atheists, and things like this blog! I recommend it as a resource for giving to people who testify about religious experiences — maybe what they learn from it will plant or water a seed of doubt, since their experience was not necessarily supernatural.

    • Michael Busch

      She also wrote a chapter about Christianity and cognitive science for the “The Christian Delusion” collection. It’s pretty good stuff.

    • Glodson

      I would say this is a great reason to call out experiences like this, just like Steven did here.

      It might not work on all, and it likely won’t work in the moment. But getting a person to see their experience for what it is, to really consider the alternate explanations which are backed with science and evidence, can be a great tool for getting a religious person to examine their own beliefs critically.

      I know that it is my hopes that someone reading my comments on religion and the belief in god will be effected in such a way that they question their religion. It is a great start down the road to freeing one’s self of the needless beliefs.

  • Casey G.

    Hey guys, been fun. I do in fact have other things to do today but I’ll keep an eye on your stuff. Have a nice day!

  • Ken Browning

    Suppose that we were going to write a new Sherlock Holmes mystery that went something like this: Holmes makes a series of brilliant deductions, the magistrates and detectives get together and all touched in their hearts while affirming his brilliance and therefore decide that a strong confluence between Sherlock’s deductions and inductive evidence is unnecessary. They decide to forthwith save money on forensics, detective foot work, etc and hang the perp. Not a very entertaining story unless it’s told as some kind of dark satire.

    This, in a nutshell, is the problem that atheists have with theists. The safeguard that deductive, intuitional or tradition beliefs are grounded in reality is through their confluence with induction. If the matter is of no great import or if we are not so concerned about how “real” something is, then use of deductive and intuitional shortcuts or the dependence on traditional sources can be useful but the high grade value is the harmony between deductions and corresponding induction. Possibility is definitely not probability and probability can only be measured through evidence.

  • Hamilton Jacobi

    Near-death experiences may indeed be very powerful. But how does one assert with certainty that it must be a message from the creator of the universe, and it is certainly not a hallucination caused by the brain being deprived of oxygen?

  • http://twitter.com/fengardice Fabio García

    “Your logic will have better mileage when you mix it with empathy”. A great takeaway from this post. Too many people I know are too focused on winning arguments rather than understanding and helping their fellows.

  • amycas

    I’m confused. The top of the post says 65 comments, but I’m only showed one here. :-/

    • John H

      64 trapped by the mod filter perhaps? Or issues with the new Disqus system?

    • Glodson

      It seems to be the new commenting system. I know, because I had several long responses in this thread. Which is too bad.

  • John H

    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.

    Indeed we would. I originally started identifying as an anti-theist without hearing of any other use of the term to communicate that, while I found the possibility of any gods existing vanishingly small, were any of the proposed religions to turn out to actually be correct (more or less), I would actively oppose the influence of their deeply immoral gods over humanity.

    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.

    When dealing with a believer discussing in good faith, mental illness and hallucinogens are relevant to the discussion around personal experience and may help hir see why we need things like verifiable evidence and can’t simply rely on personal experience. Those of us with mental illness (who have learned coping techniques and/or are taking medication that allows us to be high-functioning), for example, have learned that our thinking mechanisms are broken in certain ways such that we can’t always trust our own perceptions and experiences. This is true for everyone, but by definition, mental illness entails a deviation from normative though processes that is severe enough to cause problems in day-to-day life, so we’re far more likely to have found it necessary to confront and reconcile the fact that we can’t always trust our brains. Same goes for anyone who has ever used hallucinogens (interestingly, having already dealt with devising a system of coping mechanisms for my bouts of depression, I’ve been able to weather the couple of bad trips I’ve had using similar techniques, especially the recognition that what I’m experiencing is not an accurate reflection of reality) – we know our brains don’t always process information in a way that reflects reality. I’m not (necessarily) equating religious belief with mental illness or tripping balls (I’d suggest others refrain from doing so as well), but these can serve as more concrete, relatable examples of why we can’t necessarily trust our own brains/perception and must rely on third-party verification when making truth claims.

  • http://facebook.com/rain.atherstone Rain Atherstone

    :)


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