Personal Experiences

30 January 2006

Many theists, including Christians, have claimed that they have had personal experiences involving God. Non-theists generally shrug these claims off as mere mental delusions or evolutionary “memes” in action. Are the nonbelievers right to dismiss the claims of theists? What should we make of the issue of personal experiences, and what place do they have in rational thought?

Personal experiences, by their very nature, cannot be shared with other persons. A personal experience isn’t something that can be analyzed scientifically or put into a test tube. Therefore, personal experiences cannot be considered scientific evidence for God’s existence, and they cannot be considered evidence to anybody except the individual that has the experience. Some go further and say that personal experiences can’t be evidence for anyone.

However, for the person that has had the personal experience, it is by far the best and most convincing evidence one could have. If you sat down and had a conversation face-to-face with another person, then you would have no reason to question whether or not he/she exists. In fact, you would probably flat out ignore supposed evidence to the contrary. So, if an individual has a personal experience with God, it seems they are justified in claiming that they know God exists for certain.

Objections Considered

Of course, there are many lines of attack atheists take on the issue of personal experiences. It is claimed that personal experiences are inconclusive or merely emotional. It is also argued that personal experiences can be explained by means of evolutionary “memes” or brain-induced phenomena. Finally, atheists claim that the wide variety of claimed personal experiences contradict eachother and thus are an unreliable guide to truth. I will evaluate each of these objections in turn.

1. Personal experiences are inconclusive.
2. Personal experiences are merely emotional, not logical.
3. Personal experiences can be explained by evolutionary “memes” or brain-induced phenomena.
4. The wide variety of contradictory personal experiences contradict eachother and thus are an unreliable guied to truth.

1. Personal experiences are inconclusive.

If personal experiences are inconclusive, that must mean that personal experiences alone cannot justify belief in God, even to the person with the experience. But, since the atheist does not and cannot experience the same event, there is no way for the individual to know whether or not the personal experience is inconclusive. In reality, the conclusiveness of the personal experience can and should only be determined by the individual who has the experience.

Also, it seems ridiculous to claim that a personal experience cannot be conclusive. As I stated before, having a conversation face-to-face with another person is usually all the evidence one requires to conclude that the person exists. Thus, it seems at least possible for a personal experience to be conclusive. It may be true that most personal experiences are not as impressive as a literal face-to-face conversation, but the point is that, in theory, personal experiences do seem to be a valid method of obtaining rational grounds for a belief.

2. Personal experiences are merely emotional, not logical.

If personal experiences are merely emotional, that means that they cannot be used to intelligently or logically determine that God exists. If personal experiences are merely emotional, then they are fairly useless as any means of coming to the conclusion that God exists. However, personal experiences are more than just emotional. In fact, they are quite logical. I will demonstrate using an analogy.

Let’s imagine that Dr. Jack has determined that unicorns exist. He has come to this conclusion because of mounds of evidence. He has found unicorn tracks, he has analyzed unicorn dung, and he has heard credible eyewitness stories of those who have found unicorns. On top of this, he has seen photos of unicorns taken by eyewitnesses. Based on this mass of evidence, Dr. Jack has decided that it is true that unicorns exist.

Is Dr. Jack’s belief justified? Absolutely. He has used all of the evidence at his disposal to come to a firm conclusion. He has considered everything. Moreover, he has overcome the fairy-tale stigma that has surrounded unicorn research for years. Dr. Jack is therefore perfectly justified in believing in the existence of unicorns.

Let us consider another individual, named Jim. Jim has never spoken to a unicorn eyewitness, he has never seen the pictures, and he has never analyzed unicorn dung. Jim, however, has done something quite different. Jim has seen a unicorn himself, at close distance. He watched for a half-hour as the unicorn grazed on grass, and he stared in amazement as the unicorn dashed off into the wilderness. Jim is quite amazed at what he has just witnessed (given the fact that civilization has repeatedly mocked unicorn-believers in the past). Despite this, Jim sees no reason to suspect that his senses tricked him, and he comes to the conclusion that unicorns exist.

Is Jim’s belief justified? Absolutely. He has used his senses to determine that unicorns exist. He has done more than compile evidence of the existence of the unicorn. He has seen the unicorn with his own eyes. Using the only thing at his disposal, his five senses, he has come to a firm and immovable conviction that unicorns exist.

Now, if the question of whether or not unicorns exist were to come under rational scrutiny, which person would stand a better chance of convincing the scientific community that unicorns exist? Dr. Jack would obviously fare much better. He could write a scientific paper compiling all of the evidence even though he has never seen or experienced the presence of a unicorn himself. Jim’s case wouldn’t be given much credibility without other evidence.

However, should Dr. Jack therefore be more firm in his conviction than Jim? Not really, since Dr. Jack has merely compiled evidence, while Jim has actually seen a unicorn. Dr. Jack’s evidence is evidence for everybody, and Jim’s evidence is evidence only for himself. But Jim’s evidence is more convincing to Jim than Dr. Jack’s evidence is convincing to Dr. Jack. Even though Dr. Jack has mounds of evidence, there is still a nagging doubt because he has never seen or experienced a unicorn for himself. Jim, however, can be positive of the existence of unicorns even if all of the evidence Dr. Jack compiled eventually fails under closer scrutiny.

So, although the evidence may corroborate Jim’s case, Jim doesn’t really need the evidence in order to have a positive conviction that unicorns exist. All of the evidence becomes superfluous at that point. Therefore, it seems as though Jim is even more justified in his belief in unicorns than is Dr. Jack.

3. Personal experiences can be explained by evolutionary “memes” or brain-induced phenomena.

It is true that the brain may play tricks on people. Certain individuals have hallucinations, delusions, etc. Therefore, why should we not suppose that “personal experiences” are mere brain delusions?

First, it must be mentioned once again that the individual that has the experience must determine the validity or invalidity of the personal experience. Others may be able to rightly suggest that the brain is playing tricks on you, but ultimately it is up to you to decide whether or not your experiences are reality or fantasy. This is the case for all mental experiences.

That said, I think a few points can be made against the idea that all personal experiences are brain tricks or hallucinations. It is important to note that otherwise perfectly sane individuals claim to have had personal experiences. Many highly educated Christian scholars claim to have had personal experiences. Quite a few profess to have had their entire lives changed around as the result of a personal experience. It is important to note that it is not just mentally sick individuals who claim to have had personal experiences with God.

4. The wide variety of contradictory personal experiences invalidates them.

Perhaps the most frequent attempt to rebut the personal experience claims of Christians is to point out that those of other religious persuasions have claimed to have had personal experiences with their god. Naturally, two different gods cannot exist unless Christianity is false. Therefore, the atheist tries to claim that the use of personal experiences as evidence to oneself also opens the door to acceptance of other unwanted beliefs.

Unfortunately, the Christian is in no place to examine the personal experiences claim of another individual. Once again, personal experiences are only a matter of individual conviction. Therefore, the claimed personal experiences of individuals with another god have no impact whatsoever on the Christian’s beliefs.

What Should Christians Do?

The majority of Christians believe in God for the reason of personal experiences. These individuals are not necessarily irrational, as I have previously argued, because personal experiences are a valid and conclusive way for a person to know God. That does not mean, however, that these Christians should expect others to believe that their personal experiences are genuine evidence for the existence of God. Furthermore, they should be prepared to give evidence for God that transcends their own experiences. The evidence for Christianity serves to further supplement belief and refute the claim that the experiences are delusionary.

Conclusion:

It seems that all atheistic counters fail and, therefore, Christians are perfectly within their logical rights to declare that personal experiences have assured them of the existence of God. It is thus also reasonable for Christians to know that God exists even before they look at the evidence, pro and con, for His existence. In fact, it is reasonable for Christians who have had sufficient personal experiences to believe in God in spite of any evidence an atheist may provide that God does not exist. Fortunately for the Christian, external evidence also corroborates belief in God. However, whether or not this is the case, Christians who have had personal experiences have every logical right to believe in the existence of God.


Recommended Further Reading

1. Reasonable Faith, Chapter 1: Faith and Reason: How do I Know Christianity is True? (Pages 17-50) See book review.






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  1. I came to this conclusion as well, as an atheist. It strikes me as near-trivial; it is rational to assemble our beliefs from our experiences, and some Christians claim to have a strong, even persistent, “sense of God.” Therefore, it is rational to believe in Christianity – whether or not they are actually mistaken.

    It is possible to induce sensations of “religious awe” in a reproducible manner using brain stimulation; this suggests a naturalistic explanation for these experiences. However, it does not mean that they are illusionary any more than the induction of optical illusions means that all that we see is illusionary. Occam’s Razor suggests, to one who has not had such an experience, that these experiences are dubious – but to one who has had one, Occam’s Razor seems downright pitiful!

    I do not believe one can dictate another’s experiences. If I think it absurd to be told that “I feel empty because I have no belief in God,” I should consider it equally silly to say, “You don’t really feel God – you hallucinate!”


    Paul    Apr 21, 08:48 AM    #
  2. I agree with Paul, and have a bit to add to it, actually.

    The stimulation of “religious awe” has (as far as I know) been documented. While some may argue that a natural development of “awe” discredits religious experience, I believe it would be reasonable for God to place a gland(?) in the brain to create the feeling; as humans, we are physical as well as spiritual.

    I hope that made sense.


    Kyle    Oct 14, 11:03 AM    #
  3. No offense, but articles like this don’t make you appear very skeptical of anything – I don’t see you wrestling with any charitable objections.

    1. Obviously personal experiences can count as good evidence for a claim, but the question is whether the most common sorts of religious experiences count as good evidence for religions. To answer that, you have to actually examine what the religious experiences are purported to be. And once you do this, you’ll find the personal religious experiences most people appeal to take the form of wholly internal feelings of the “sublime” (for lack of a better description), or a mysterious connectedness with God, or whatever. It’s hard to see how this could count as conclusive evidence for the existence of an external being!

    2. Your response wasn’t to the point at all. Yes, one can have compelling “first person-only” evidence for a claim such as by perceiving something when you’re alone. But a great deal of, if not most, professed religious experience takes the form of emotional outpouring, which have no obvious link to reality. Can I legitimately believe in unicorns by vaguely sensing their presence in my heart? That’s the question you need to deal with.

    3. Saying “Ultimately it is up to you to decide whether your experience was valid” makes it sound like you can’t be wrong, or like you can’t reach your conclusion on insufficient grounds. No one else can prove or disprove the occurrence of your experience, of course; but the objection is that, since there is a growing body of naturalistic explanations of how other people’s religious experiences occur (see http://www.psych.uiuc.edu/~bhidalgo/litreview.htm), you shouldn’t place much credence in supernatural readings of your own. What is wrong with this reasoning?

    Anyway, the notion that only insane people have religious experiences induced by “brain tricks,” as you call them, is silly. Anyone, scholar and mystic alike, is capable of entering into things like religious trances. It’s a very human thing.

    4. You’re again misstating the force of this objection. We can’t be absolutely sure that other people have religious experiences of their own, but we have no reason to doubt them. We’ve even linked them to activity in the temporal lobe! It’s as clear as it possibly could be that people of all religions have special, transformative experiences. This consequently makes it rather awkward for someone to claim exclusive divine sponsorship for his own.


    mag    Nov 23, 07:43 AM    #
  4. Great thoughts. You seem to be advocating empirical deism, which, unfortunately, is one of the most misunderstood aspects of theism/deism.


    Empirical Deism    Jan 19, 09:55 AM    #
  5. mag, the point of the article was not to attempt to prove the existence of God, but to prove that other people can’t make judgments and in some ways try to disprove a person’s personal belief in God because of a “personal experience”. Also, one could argue that a sense of “sublimeness”, to use your own word, is in fact a personal experience, and therefore, based off of the arguments of the article, are still conclusive evidence of God’s existence, at least, to the person who has those feelings. Lastly, (I’m sorry to be so harsh on you, meg, but..) who is to say that God does not use “naturalistic” phenomena to cause religious experiences?


    Dakota    Jan 21, 02:18 AM    #
  6. I don’t doubt that a personal experience can validate one’s belief in God, or at least some higher power. But how can one say that it is their reason for being a christian? I would need much more evidence to support the faith of Christianity as a further explanation for the nature of God than an experience.


    Amy    Jun 19, 01:36 PM    #
  7. I do agree with the author of this page for a personal level, but I do also agree with Mag. One shouldn’t claim that a religious experience was not real for another individual, because to them it may have been as real as it gets. But at the same time, there are Schizophrenics that have face to face conversations with people who aren’t even there! It’s gotta be darn convincing, but nevertheless a conjuring trick of the brain.

    I have grown up a Christian and while I tried to be devout, I never actually had a personal experience. I often got those feelings of “religious awe” as described above, feeling the “presence of god” and whatnot. I know it was in my head. Alot of times it was something like a weird feeling running up and down my back and the hairs on the back of my neck standing up. But that happens in other situations as well, and when people tell me THAT is the feeling they get that they’re sure is “the presence of god”, I have my doubts. I do think it is interesting that these experiences always seem to happen (from my experience) with music going, people wailing, meditating, and getting deep down into their feelings (or something like that). In other words, there is a very specific mood set in which these experiences occur. In what other instances do we do something like that? So if there is any scientific proof that these feelings could be generated another way, there is also THAT reason why people don’t get those feelings in other situations. The brain does lots of strange things. Thanks Mag for the science stuff, I will look into it.

    But all this is really annoying in the end, because to a person who has not had such an experience, there is probably science suggesting it may be in people’s heads, but this does not prove it untrue. It may well be God interacting.


    Payden    Nov 5, 05:30 AM    #
  8. “Is Jim’s belief justified?”
    No. (at least if we’re not presuming the same evidence by the Dr to be real). Jim saw something for which there is no precedent of evidence. It is the worldly consensus that unicorns are imaginary. Jim’s experience contradicts this. Jim can find no evidence of Unicorns, and no one else has seen any unicorn evidence either. Jim has nothing to offer people he tells for proof of the event he thinks he saw, they are unconvinced, and rightly so because we know he could be delusional. Jack is faced with the lack of evidence on one hand coupled with the fact that humans have hallucinations sometimes, and his vision on the other. If Jim is rational, he’ll be skeptical of his own experience in the understanding that he should be SURE it happened by first finding corroborating evidence.

    If you cannot reasonably convince others that your experience is real, than you shouldn’t believe it yourself. This is because our experiences are subject, we just cannot parse delusion from reality if we don’t give person experiences less weight than demonstrable evidence. Not doing so, well that way madness lies.

    I mean, there are cases of delusions when we can know exactly how and why the person is delusional. If a person could show you not only that you might be delusional, but can show you how and why this might be so, if you’re still not skeptical then you’re an idiot. It shouldn’t take skeptics pointing out to so called “ufo abductees” that a lot of people get sleep paralysis (which is accompanied by halucinations and a feeling of being squashed and in old times were interpreted (with visions) of witches or hags or Sucubii sitting on top of you but are now interpreted as Alien abduction) in order to make believer a bit more skeptical of their own experiences. If your experiences are extraordinary but contradict the world as its known, then you have every reason to be skeptical – there is a ton of precedence for this mistake and yet people still feel they cannot be mistaken!

    “It is important to note that otherwise perfectly sane individuals claim to have had personal experiences.”
    You don’t think sane people can have hallucinations and be mistaken? If so then this is irrelevant.

    “Many highly educated Christian scholars claim to have had personal experiences.”
    As do people of other faiths or non faiths. It happens to people in every cross section of life. It doesn’t matter. It’s not a thing unique to mentally sick people. We skeptics aren’t saying that at all!

    “Once again, personal experiences are only a matter of individual conviction. Therefore, the claimed personal experiences of individuals with another god have no impact whatsoever on the Christian’s beliefs.
    You can’t see how personal conviction is not evidence of anything?! HOW CAN YOU CALL YOURSELF A SKEPTIC?! At the very least you must be able to see how these contradictions makes it impossible to reasonably think that personal experiences are something you can use to convince other people of you’re religion.
    More over, this is a double standard, special pleading. If you cannot comment on the personal experiences of an individual of another faith because their experience is subject, then you cannot comment on the personal experiences of any Christian either. Conviction is not proof of anything, therefore it’s not proof of Christianity either.


    Mike Wolfe    Jul 1, 06:10 AM    #
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