Thinking Skeptically about Atheist Explanations

Thinking Skeptically about Atheist Explanations November 24, 2010

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.

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  • I think this is the fundamental flaw with most arguments against / for religion, each side tends to implicitly assume they must reject all of the conclusions of the other side. This of course is less overtly the case with Christians than with atheists, since there is a long history of dealing with issues of doubt in Christianity (and presumably other religions). But I often find with the less than thoroughly rigorous Christian debaters a subtext of complete rejection of any atheistic ideas, almost like a 'fruit of a poisoned tree' type feeling. On the atheist side a complete and total distrust and dislike of all things religious is often worn as a badge of honor (even among some intellectually rigorous folks). I know that I certainly wore this badge for quite some time. I think you bring up the excellent point that as a 'true' 'scientific' atheist one doesn't have to reject everything, nor does one have to implicitly dismiss all religious claims, simply stating that the atheistic hypothesis fits the criteria 'better' is enough. Of course on the 'religious experience' front I've said here before that I find the argument that the religious world is more interesting, if you will, the most compelling.

  • DanDare

    I don't see any argument about religion/atheism in Richard's comment. He identified the experience as common and said that people apply frames of reference to the experience. Since many frames of reference get applied to the sort of experience described then the frames themselves are not necessary, i.e. superfluous.That is not an "atheist" explanation. Its a description with a reasoned inference, nothing more.

  • DanDare

    P.S. Richard does not explain the events in the comments, nor suggest a source for them. That would be an interesting discussion but would require some neuroscience study I think.

  • Richard Wade

    Hi Leah, it's Richard Wade.I ran across your blog quite by accident. I am honored that you read my post. I only wish that you would simply read it, rather than read into it all sorts of meanings of your own invention that you had fun knocking down. If you’re going to argue with an imaginary atheist who offers “atheist explanations” for things, please don’t use my name for him. Much of your review is so densely erudite that I can’t understand what you’re saying. I read that stuff about data points three times, but I can’t make head or tails of it. So I’m sorry if I’m missing some important point there. I had written a long clarification of what I actually had said, but Dan Dare’s clear and concise summary made that unnecessary. (Thank you, Dan.)I think it’s a great idea to think skeptically about all explanations, including atheist ones and including my own. If some day you actually come across an explanation of mine, please apply plenty of skepticism. However, remember that offering fanciful explanations just to oppose an atheist explanation is not how skepticism works. Skepticism is about refraining from offering explanations of any kind until sufficient and credible evidence is found, and also challenging whatever explanation is offered to show its supporting evidence. This was the gist of my advice to the letter writer about the vivid experiences themselves. In the absence of evidence, leave the explanation blank. It takes courage, discipline and intellectual honesty to not jump in with some contrived label to wrap up unusual experiences and make them fit all comfy amidst the rest of our assumptions, views or beliefs. In my column, I'm not really trying to make “cases for atheism.” I'm trying to help people who are in pain because of other people's intolerance, and I’m trying to find solutions that will minimize the suffering on all sides of religious conflicts, not just for the atheists. I hope that you continue to visit Friendly Atheist and to read my articles. Your blog is very interesting and I will do the same.