The Argument for God from Experience

The Argument for God from Experience October 22, 2012

By Jeff Cook:

The Argument from Religious Experience

How much does “experience” factor into your belief in God? What kind of experience? 

Number 9 in my list for the best arguments for God’s existence is the argument from religious experience. Lots of ways to formulate this, but I find the structure below compelling.

  1. Millions of trustworthy, mentally healthy people of different eras and of widely different cultures claim to have had an experience of the “divine.”
  2. At least one of the experiences from the millions of trustworthy, mentally healthy persons of different eras and of widely different cultures is likely authentic.

There is something divine.

This problem is structured like the logical problem of pain. Just as the logical problem of pain requires just one instantiation of meaningless suffering that a good God would prevent, so too if just one of the countless millions of people who report that they have encountered something transcendent through their worship, through their prayers or meditations, through their suffering or provision is accurate—something transcendent exists. One must deny premise two for the argument to fail.

I find this a strong proof against materialism, but it doesn’t show us much else. The primary problem with the argument is that there are clear contradictions between the kinds of things people report. The “varieties of religious experience” may create more problems than they solve.

However, a counter argument to such skepticism is worthy of note. There are vast differences of opinion between those who engage morality, engage historical events, engage truth itself. Shall we say that because there is no uniformity of opinion about morals, events and truth that morals, historical events and truth itself are each illusions? Quite the opposite. Differences of opinion can be strong evidence for something real—yet not completely known. What that “something” is, needs more work—but, if embraced, the argument disproves materialism.

 

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • SteveSherwood

    “I was blind, but now I see.” Certainly, one can make too much of experience, but I think often in academic theology and rational apologetics, we make too little.

  • Tim

    I’m all for arguing for the existence of God based on experience, but the structure of this argument is weak. This becomes readily apparent when you substitute another word for “divine” and see where the argument takes you.

    1) Millions of trustworthy, mentally healthy people of different eras and of widely different cultures claim to have had an experience of the “paranormal.”
    2) At least one of the experiences from the millions of trustworthy, mentally healthy persons of different eras and of widely different cultures is likely authentic.

    There you have it, solid argumentation for the existence of the paranormal. Who knew?

  • DMH

    Tim #2 I would have perhaps replaced “divine” with “bigfoot”. Jeff does go on to address your concern I think. How would you have stated things differently?

    Rather than trying to make “experience” into a strict argument leading to God, why not just see it as the context/motivation for thinking and wondering about these things?

  • DMH

    To continue… Experience is a (if not “the”) major factor when it comes to belief in God, all of our thinking/reasons revolve around it… though a good rationalist may not like to admit it.

  • Again, for new, it all comes back to the kind of God we are arguing about. This in turn will affect what sorts of “experiences” fall under the criterion of this question. Referencing the other commenters above, I think that their point is valid for this “proof”. We need to distinguish between the kinds of experience one would expect if God is an active being “up there” exerting power from beyond this world into our midst and the sorts of things that would be expected if God is not an external all powerful being. For instance, what if God’s fullest manifestation isn’t in miraculous power, but in miraculous hope? What if he is primarily with us and empowering us by sharing in our suffering and weakness, not in erasing it?

    What if gods fullest manifestation among us, in Christ, is that of a God who allows himself to be overpowered, ridiculed, stripped naked, and rendered powerless? What if the Love that enabled Christ to willingly do this, for no apparent political, social, or personal reason, is the only way that Gods power is manifested today?

    The greatest evidence of the power of a crucified God, th ONLY evidence, is the power of those who are lead by love to be weak, alone, and powerless. Who would be willing or able to do that in our world unless something exists that grounds her being elsewhere?

    I’m not talking about dying for the church, or dying for ones friends and family, I’m talking about seeking solidarity with outcasts and enemies, solidarity that will get one crucified by his own church and family.

  • Tim (2). You wrote, “The structure of this argument is weak. This becomes readily apparent when you substitute another word for “divine” and see where the argument takes you.”

    If you are able to substitute “paranormal”, “Aliens”, “Hobbits” etc into Premise 1, it actually would not make Premise 1 less of a proof for the divine. It would then give you a reason to believe in the paranormal, aliens or hobbits.

    Of course, I don’t think the numbers work quite in the same way you are implying. I get the sense that vastly more people think they have had a special experience of God than say they have seen a ghost–but again those two ideas are not mutually exclusive.

  • MatthewS

    “Differences of opinion can be strong evidence for something real—yet not completely known. What that “something” is, needs more work—but, if embraced, the argument disproves materialism.”

    This is part of what the word “phenomenological” means to me in terms of our approach to God. We are all guilty to some degree of trying to re-create God in our image but it is desirable to approach him with with the same sort of curiosity that drives scientists.

  • MatthewS

    Just batting this around:

    Using the word “paranormal” instead of “divine” doesn’t necessarily change the argument. Someone who perceives the divine to be impersonal might call it one or the other.

    Using bigfoot doesn’t seem to me to weaken it. The specific yeti bigfoot craze that was started in the 1950s does not truly have “Millions of trustworthy, mentally healthy people of different eras and of widely different cultures claim to have had an experience” with it; in fact, it was claimed to be a hoax by families involved.

    The wiki page on bigfoot says that almost all continents have some sort of wildmen legend. It is possible that there have been some sort of giants or other beasts to give rise to such legends (I wonder if it could possibly also be really evil people who were exaggerated for effect in some cases). Legends often do point back to something that was grounded in reality, though legends are not necessarily the same thing as claims made by “Millions of trustworthy, mentally healthy people of different eras and of widely different cultures.”

  • Tim

    Jeff Cook (6),

    Substituting cartoonish examples such as aliens and hobbits doesn’t, I feel, take my argument seriously.

    Neither is a good point of comparison for broadly held, cross culural beliefs and experiences such as those touching on the divine. They are rather hiighly fringe (and in the case of hobbits perhaps nonexistent).

    The number of individuals who believe themselves to have had some experience with the paranormal could, however, run in the tens of millions in this country alone.

    This could include such things as lights going on and off seemingly unexplainably, being attributed to the presence of a deceased loved one. Or a sense of residual evil or pain hanging over the site of a murder. Or a 6th sense if impending dread right before a tragedy. These type of experiences are very common. One of my own inlaws reported watching their niece laughing and giggling unexplainably right in the chair where her deceased grandfather used to tickle her.

    And of course this says nothing of the purported experiences of the paranormal in far more superstitious times when witchcraft and terrors were seen as an ever-present reality.

    So I would suggest that the paranormal is a good point of comparison. And I don’t see how the logical premises 1 & 2 ought be any more compelling for the divine than they would be for substitutes such as the paranormal.

  • Morbert

    This is actually an argument I very very rarely come across, and I think for good reasons. That so many cultures would develop a concept of a deity/deities is unsurprising to atheists. By extension, that so many people would interpret some of their expriences in the context if such culture is also unsurprising.

  • Adam

    Tim(9)

    Look at the second premise of the argument. “At least one of the experiences…is likely authentic.” So, if at least one experience of hobbits is authentic, then hobbits exist. If at least one experience of the paranormal exists, then the paranormal exists.

    What you have to prove is that 0 experiences of hobbits or the paranormal exist and eliminate the “at least one” clause. Which means, the onus is on the unbeliever to prove that 0 experiences of the “divine” exist.

    This argument is valid because it is unlikely that so many millions are ALL wrong.

  • Tim

    Adam,

    This is a complete flipping of the burden of proof. No one acts this way in real life, and it does’t fly in the sciences either. We don’t feel the need to disprove every claim to avoid accepting the position of others. I don’t, for instance, feel obligated to disprove every claimed instance I’d ESP to feel intellectually honest in not accepting ESP.

    As far as the “millions aren’t likely to be wrong argument”, that doesn’t work for me with paranormal claims, or astrology, etc., so unless your position is that it in fact should, I think you may want to reexamine the logic of your argument.

  • Jeremy

    Tim – I’m no friend of lame arguments for God, but I’m not really seeing how you’re getting where you are. While the argument doesn’t get us any closer to who or what the “divine” is, the burden of proof is on the person that rejects the original assertion. The evidence is in part 1. If you accept that millions of people are claiming to have personally experienced the divine, it’s up to you to provide the evidence to the contrary.

    Jeff’s point wasn’t to insult you, but seems to be a reductio ad absurdum. You CAN, in fact, switch out whatever you want and it still works. The hard part is making that switch valid. Good luck finding millions who’ve claimed to have met a hobbit.

  • Jeremy

    Tim – I’m no friend of lame arguments for God, but I’m not really seeing how you’re getting where you are. While the argument doesn’t get us any closer to who or what the “divine” is, the burden of proof is on the person that rejects the original assertion. The evidence is in part 1. If you accept that millions of people are claiming to have personally experienced the divine, it’s up to you to provide the evidence to the contrary.

    Jeff’s point wasn’t to insult you, but pointing out that the argument survives a reductio ad absurdum. You CAN, in fact, switch out whatever you want and it still works. The hard part is making that switch valid. Good luck finding millions who’ve claimed to have met a hobbit.

  • Tim

    Jeff,

    So I am to assume then that you feel the burden of proof is on yourself anytime you wish to reject any claim made by others? ESP? Homeopathy? Psychic healing?

    If I claim I have a magic sandwich that cures cancer, the burden of proof on you to prove I don’t?

    No one operates this way.

  • Tim

    #15 was supposed to be addressed to you Jeremy (not Jeff). Sorry!

  • Jeremy

    You’re right, no one operates that way. Fortunately, that’s not the argument. You’re off by a not-insignificant order of magnitude.

    Another way of putting it maybe: Have you ever held a duck-billed platypus? How do you know they actually exist? (Note: I’m extremely good with photoshop and could make one up) I think you’re in serious danger of proving too much with your counter-argument. Large bodies of witness testimony, especially that which spans time, culture and geography (not so much with the dbp, but hey), is given serious weight by just about everyone.

  • Tim

    Jeremy,

    There is plenty of “witness testimony” for purported paranormal experiences as well. Across numerous countries, cultures, and times. Hence my using it as a point of comparison. Are we to be equally credulous of these claims as well? Are we applying this logic consistently, or only selectively when it suits our purposes?

  • Jeremy

    Yes, we should, which is exactly what Jeff said the first go around.

  • Tim

    Jeremy,

    So your point is that we should be credulous of both divine claims as well as paranormal ones?

  • David Cheyne

    As I read the “debate” up to this point I find them missing the the point. I see the battle of the intellect verses a personal experience. If my beliefs are founded on theological points only then all I have accepted is a way of thinking. (Thus we have the denominational wars. “My God is better than your God.”) Jesus made personal experience the most important commandment. We must have a personal love experience that involves our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Our Love “Experience” with God results in the experience of Loving our neighbor. I have found God to be an Essence that I constantly experience. I ask, where do the arguments about the paranormal or other outside ideas have any bearing on the reality of my LOVE EXPERIENCE WITH GOD.

  • Morbert

    The notion that 1. constitutes some form of proof that atheists must disprove can be dismissed out of hand. Without any repeatability, or demonstrative ability, or any ability to exhibit the supernatural, they are not compelling no matter how many claims are made.

    Of course, this does not mean they are untrue, and I must make it clear that I am not committing an equally unhelpful non sequitur: I am not saying the lack of any demonstrative capability means they are therefore untrue. I am simply saying the nature of these claims means we cannot infer any probability of a single claim being true.

  • Adam

    Tim,

    You’re flipping terms around. I didn’t say millions are right, I said out of millions it is likely 1 is authentic.

    This is a valid premise because of the vast breadth of incidents. If only people from the same town claimed to have seen ghosts then we would assume it was something with that town that caused the incident, or if it were only people who watched the same tv show, etc… But we don’t have that. We have a huge collection of incidents across time, location, personality, culture, and everything else. There is no common denominator in this, so the cause of “divine” experience is highly likely to be external to human control, ergo “authentic”. And if but 1 of billions is authentic, then the divine must exist.

    So, the burden of proof is why ALL these experiences are not divine, including the 1. What is the cause of such experiences? If the divine truly does not exist, why do people (who have no connection to each other) spontaneously report experiences of the divine?

  • Jeremy

    Tim – Sorry, “credulous” slipped by me. The point isn’t that we have to be gullible. There are no rock solid proofs for anything dealing with the non-material. Contra what Morbert asserts, however, it means we cannot simply dismiss them out of hand. You don’t get to declare a widespread human experience false simply because you don’t like the results.

  • T

    Here’s an angle I find interesting on this argument. The millions and millions argument is only mildly persuasive, if that. In real life, I think we care more about particular experiences of people we trust than the millions we don’t know. Think of the difference: (i) millions report experiencing “x” (whom we cannot know or question); one’s wife/friend/etc. whom is known, respected, and with whom one can discuss these matters, reports an experience (like woman at the well or some experience in line with the gospel accounts). For me, the second is far more significant and persuasive, especially as I grow more suspicious of statistical reports.

    Of course, this meshes well with the charge we Christians are given, namely, to be Christ’s “witnesses.” I think, unfortunately, we, at least in the West, prefer to skip reporting (or even having) our experience with/of Christ, and prefer to move right to teaching the supposed right things about him. But we neglect entering, remembering and telling our experience of him to our loss. Teaching and bearing witness could be integrated into a seamless whole, sharing both our experience and the experience of the Church, especially as recorded in the gospels, but they rarely are, again, to everyone’s loss.

  • T

    sorry, meant to include a “(ii)” before “one’s wife.”

  • Morbert

    We absolutely can dismiss them. It is a clear non sequitur to say if there are many claims to the supernatural, it is likely that one is true. Similarly, there are countless claims of ESP abilities, yet whenever prize money is offered to demonstrate ESP, nobody steps forward. There are countless claims of astrological influences on daily life, yet any study of horoscopes with an ounce of rigour shows no such influence. There is nothing unusual about millions believing in things that are untrue, even when it comes to direct experience.

  • Tim

    Jeremy,

    Got it. Extending your reasoning further, one would feel compelled to conclude that the likelihood of at least one experience among the millions upon millions of persons who believe themselves to have some encounter with the paranormal (e.g., perceived presence of apparitions or their effects, residual psychic energy, some 6th sense/ESP, etc.) would be authentic. Ergo Paranormal phenomenon are real.

    I will certainly agree then that to the extent I find this type of argument convincing for the existence of the Paranormal is equivalent to the extent I find it a convincing argument for the Divine.

    Perhaps Jeff Cook should make this link apparent in his articles, such that any intellectually responsible reader can realize what sort of claims they’ll be obligated to accept under this type of argument.

  • Adam

    Morbert,

    So, explain what all these people (who experience the divine) are experiencing or have experienced? You can’t dismiss this out of hand, you have to provide a counter explanation. Arguments of “you’re wrong” are not arguments.

  • Morbert

    Arguments of “you’re wrong” are indeed not arguments, which is why nobody is making such arguments. Instead, I am saying “claims of supernatural experiences are not compelling unless the supernatural is demonstrated or exhibited, and inferring a high probability of one being true, or any probability, from the number of claims is a non sequitur. It does not follow that one claim is likely to be true if lots of them are made, just as it does not follow that astrology is true if lots of people vouch for it, or that homeopathy is true if lots of people say it works.”

    Now, to be fair, some have attempted to demonstrate it. Particularly those “cured” by places like Lourdes. But to this day, no successful demonstration has been shown.

  • Tim

    Jeremy,

    #28 should have been addressed to Adam. Typing these from my new iPhone and the names got flipped scrolling through. Sorry.