Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Religious experiences - part 2

This follows on from my previous post on religious experiences. In this post I will consider how one might react to having such an experience oneself, and is a response to a post on the Philosophers' Magazine blog.

I think that how one reacts to a prima facie religious experience in one’s own case has much to do with one’s existing basic metaphysical framework. If one is already a religious believer, then the experience will probably just reinforce this existing belief. If one is not a believer, but is inclined to be credulous, then the experience might encourage religious belief. However, if one is of a sceptical nature, then I think that one would likely try to rationalise the experience.
For example, I would be inclined to rationalise any such experience in myself as follows:

• I am aware that the brain is capable of creating hallucinatory and other experiences that can seem to be extraordinarily authentic. So is it intrinsically more likely that my experience was a product of some mental state or other, or that it was God communicating with me? That is, which of these prior probabilities is the greater?
• I am aware that many people throughout history and in all cultures have claimed similar experiences, but have attributed them to different gods (or devils, spirits etc). What reason have I for thinking that my particular experience is veridical (other than the fact that I am the one experiencing it), when it may conflict with many of these other experiences (mutually exclusive gods etc)? Would it be just special pleading on my part to say that mine is veridical, where many of these others are not?
• Is there anything about my experience that I can verify or test in some other way? Have I been given any information that I didn’t know beforehand, and that I couldn’t have possibly come to know by any other means? Some previously unknown scientific or mathematical knowledge, for example. The more extraordinary and counterintuitive the information the better for testing this. After all, it should be no problem for God to give me such information, although theists might argue that by doing so He would be giving me less opportunity for faith. However, even if we were to even grant that this argument coheres, it doesn’t help me to decide for myself whether the experience is veridical or not. Also, if God wanted to give me the greatest opportunity to have faith (by providing me with no evidence), then He perhaps shouldn’t have communicated with me at all, as any such communication might be interpreted as constituting evidence.

In my case, I feel that my current worldview (Metaphysical Naturalism) has a strong foundation – both epistemologically and empirically. This I have determined not by taking it to be self-evidently true, or by having some dogmatic attachment to it. Rather, I have sought to test it as thoroughly as I am able, in order to see if it fails – which it so far has not done. So, if I was to have a prima facie religious experience, I would not be inclined to change my whole worldview to the Christian one (for example), based upon that one experience. To me, this would be analogous to throwing Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection out of the window if one fossil was found that is apparently out of sequence in the rock strata. The evidence for Darwin’s theory is so strong that I would want to subject this apparent contradiction to very stringent tests and analysis before making any such decision. And so it would be for my prima facie religious experience.

It might be superficially tempting if I had such an experience to presume it to be veridical. However, as I feel that the Christian worldview makes a number of extraordinary claims (existence of God, resurrection of Jesus, existence of the soul, afterlife etc), I would have to decide if my apparent religious experience constitutes the extraordinary evidence that I would need in order to completely re-structure my worldview. In my case, I think it is unlikely.
If I was to consider my religious experience as being good supporting evidence for the Christian worldview (for example), I think that I should be prepared to examine the worldview as a whole, and consider all of its implications before making such a decision. The point is that the Christian worldview comes as a package deal. Whilst there are variations between the beliefs of the different denominations, there are still certain basic core beliefs that need to be signed up to if one is to be considered a Christian at all. Therefore, before taking my religious experience to be veridical, I should be able to justify belief in these other tenets too, or my worldview would be in danger of being incoherent or inconsistent.

For this reason, I think it would not be reasonable for me to adopt the Christian worldview, without further analysis, based on a prima facie religious experience. Even if we could somehow discount the possibility of my experience being due to a mental aberration, it might have been some other god, or a Cartesian demon, or somebody communicating with me telepathically, or it might have been a glitch in our universe-running simulation, and so on. Not that I think that these possibilities are at all likely either, but rather that there is much room for doubt and rival interpretations here.

After all, how can I know for sure that it is the Christian God that I am hearing, rather than any of these other possibilities? I think that for me to profess certainty in such a situation would be irrational. After all, in such a case, what would ever convince me that my religious experience has some other explanation? If I am absolutely impervious to any contradictory evidence or reasoned argument, then I think I could justifiably be accused of being doubly irrational. Firstly, in admitting no doubt that the voice I hear in my head is that of God, rather than any of the other multitude of possibilities. And, secondly, the refusal to consider the hypothesis falsified in light of contradictory evidence or argument.

And another point. Would the claims of somebody that God told him to murder women be considered veridical? How about if no other signs of psychosis could be found? What would Christians such as Stannard make of such claims, I wonder. Presumably he would consider them to be false - but how would he justify that opinion without being accused of special pleading, by suggesting that his voices are real, but any contradictory ones are false?

He might say that the murderer’s claims couldn’t possibly be true, since God would never command such a thing, as God is perfectly loving. However, there are several problems with that type of explanation:
  1. It might all be part of God’s bigger plan that the murderer kill these women. We are not in a position to judge what such a plan might be, or why this might be to the greater good. This excuse is amongst the standard repertoire of Christian apologetics when attempting to explain failed predictions in the Christian hypothesis (too much suffering etc).
  2. God is described in the Bible commanding many atrocities, so there is some precedent here.
  3. It begs the question, since it assumes the voice is God’s if it conforms to what he would expect God to say, and cannot be God's if it does not. But that all hinges upon one assuming that God exists and has such a character in the first place. What if Stannard is mistaken about these?

And, as outsiders, how are we to judge the merits of these competing claims? Are Stannard’s claims intrinsically more veridical than the murderer’s? On what grounds might we ever make such a judgement in a non question-begging way? Of course, one hypothesis is that people think that they hear God tell them exactly what they want to hear. So, nice people such as Stannard only hear nice things, but violent deranged people hear these types of things from God. And, in the latter case, such utter lack of doubt that God really has told them these things is extremely dangerous. However, their argument for acting on these supposed commands from God is no more nor less coherent than Stannard's own.

And I should further point out that there have been studies that have attempted to verify the power of prayer. However, one of the biggest of these (and one that Stannard referred to, before the results were out) did not have a good result for the Christian hypothesis. See this

Yes, I know, excuses can be found. Nevertheless, one has to admit that so far we have nothing substantial to go on other than what believers tell us is going on in their heads.


Anonymous said...

Interesting blog and interesting post.

However, I think you are missing the points if your purpose is to persuade religious people that their spirtual experience has a phsyical origin and therefore their belief is bunk. It is like saying that romantic love is just an illusion programmed by our genes to propagate themselves and it can be explained by hormones and brain chemistry. This is true but this understanding doesn't make the experience of love less real or less significant in our lives. Is it not very effective a way to comfort someone whose heart has just been broken that it is all a trick of the selfish genes.

Having an explanation for an experience doesn't take away the subjective meanings of the experience itself. The average religious person doesn't care about great philosphical questions and faith is not a rational thing. It works on a more primal level of emotion and experience.

I am an atheist so I understand your point quite well. But 1) I don't think arguments such as yours will turn many religious people to renounce their faiths and 2) I really don't see a problem that some people want to believe in fairy tales, either as a cluth to go through life or as a therapy. I am fine as long faith doesn't intrude into places where it doesn't belong such as science and politics.

Everyone likes a good debate. I enjoy reading Dawkins and Harris. But I find their crusading attitude somewhat over the top. I don't want to convert religious people to athesim, I can't see the point.

Nick said...

Thank you for your comment.

In answer to your points – no, I am not na├»ve enough to imagine that my modest efforts are going to convince any religious believers to turn to atheism. As you say, belief is more a matter of faith for many religious people, so they are not likely to be convinced by rational argument to the contrary. In fact, it’s even worse than that, as the metaphysical framework of many believers is engineered in such a way that the less plausible and evidentially supported their beliefs are the better, as it gives them more opportunity for ‘faith’. Such people are impervious to any reasoned argument that I might advance.

No, my posts are instead aimed at interested atheists, and at those who are unsure of what they think, but who are open to being persuaded by reason. I might get a few converts from such an audience, but even then I’m not sure.

So, you might reasonably ask why I bother. Well, partly it is because I just enjoy it, and it helps to crystallize my own thoughts (though I am not able to devote much time to it). But, perhaps more importantly, I feel that the freedoms that you and I enjoy to not subscribe to the dominant religion of our respective states have been fought for long and hard, and should not be taken for granted. I have no desire to impose my lack of belief on others, but I am strongly resistant to the beliefs of others being imposed upon me. Many people throughout the world do not share our freedom (think Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, for example), and I feel that it is important to kick back when the religious try to chip away at our freedoms little by little, as they are wont to do.

I think that it is important for some of us to continue to engage in the debate, and to do our little bit to ensure that the West does not regress in terms of our level of freedom, and even push for continued improvements. This has the by-product of raising the public consciousness, and perhaps gaining some more converts from the undecided’s along the way. Time wins more converts than does debate, but without the debate the issues would never reach the attention of the general public. For that reason, I think that people such as Dawkins and Harris are, on balance, performing a valuable service (even though their stridence may turn some people the other way). The West has become far more secular over the last few hundred years, so the debate is worthwhile. Even in the notoriously religious US, there is a small but growing undercurrent of atheism.

So, to summarise, I think that my minor efforts will probably have little effect, but I do think that it is still necessary to fight back against those religious people who would like nothing more than to force you and I to adhere to their strictures (possibly upon pain of death). Religion has become a largely private matter in the West, which is as it should be, but we should not rest on our laurels.

Here are a few words on this subject by others:

• Julian Baggini (as part of a book review, see this - “There is, however, one sense in which I think the contributors to this volume may be performing a public service. There is a need to maintain a kind of balance of intellectual power. If no atheist philosophers engaged with the issue of God's existence, then the field would be left to the believers. We would then have the impression that only the religious deal with these issues with intelligence and sophistication. That would give succour to the legions of believers who have no interest in theology, but like to know others are taking care of it for them. We need books like this, therefore, not to win the battle–-for it can't be won-–but simply to show the enemy isn't off the hook.”
• Sam Harris (as part of a debate, see this - “To some degree the stridence of my writing is an effort to get people's attention. But I can honestly defend the stridence because I think our situation is that urgent. I am terrified of what seems to me to be a bottleneck that civilization is passing through. On the one hand we have 21st-century disruptive technology proliferating, and on the other we have first-century superstition. A civilization is going to either pass through this bottleneck more or less intact or it won't. And perhaps that fear sounds grandiose, but civilizations end. On any number of occasions, some generation has witnessed the ruination of everything they and their ancestors had built. What especially terrifies me about religious thinking is the expectation on the part of many that civilization is bound to end based on prophecy and its ending is going to be glorious.”
• Richard Carrier (from an email to me): “It's more like holding the wall. Victory may take centuries, if it ever occurs, but giving up would result in the whole world being overrun with irrationality. We're basically doing our best to maintain a DMZ between the nutjobs preying on the irrational majority and real human freedom and progress. We have the latter, barely. But only so long as we keep maintaining the line. I figure we need at least 10% of the population with us (at least by alliance) to maintain this status quo, which allows at least slow progress and a threadbare protection of liberty. Ideally, we want to grow stronger than that, and I hold out some hope that maybe we will some day. But considering the consequences of the alternative (of giving in and not fighting to hold the line at all), I'll settle for what we have, even if it never changes… In my experience, I'd say I've converted maybe 1 in every 500 religionists I've had significant encounters with, while 1 in every 10 or so I have moved closer to my side of the fence (such as by converting them from hostility to sympathy, not from theism to atheism; or laying notable seeds of doubt that at least change their minds about some things). The latter are little victories in themselves. It's like the difference between someone just not liking Jews and someone actually voting for Hitler. In practical terms for our own future, whenever these are my only choices, I'm willing to work to secure more of the former. The more people who are opposed to our views but sympathetic enough not to support efforts to actually hurt us, the easier it will be to keep holding the line, or even moving it in our favor.”

Nick said...

And from Christopher Hitchens (see -

"However, we now live in a time when religion is trying to break out of the private sphere again and to rescue those who do not need or want to be "saved," as well as to try and coerce those who are left cold by its supernatural claims. Thus for me, it became urgent to try and write something that would aid in the resistance to theocratic bullying. The faithful keep issuing terrible, conceited threats against those who "offend" them or who blaspheme. They must be made to understand that many civilized people are extremely offended by threats of murder in the name of god and by religious intimidation and censorship. Too many lines are being crossed, from the attempt to have pseudo-science taught in American schools from the campaign to have women forcibly veiled; from the mad enterprise of Messianic settlers in Palestine to the fascistic mania of Islamic jihad: a mania that starts by slaughtering Muslims and thus compels us to realize what it would like to do to unbelievers if it had the chance. The yearning for apocalypse is unhealthy enough when it appears in a sermon from some clerical windbag, but it is something more than unhealthy when it reaches out to grasp apocalyptic weaponry, and to employ nihilistic methods, as well.

So this has now become everybody's business and bids fair to be the dominant subject for the rest of our lives. I thought it was time to restate the traditional and hard-earned reasonings by which humanity emancipated itself from medieval rule and brought about the triumphs and advances of science and the Enlightenment. I also thought it might be a good moment to show that all the claims of established religion are bogus, and man-made, and undeserving of anything but contempt and ridicule. My hope is that the book will become a part of the long-overdue fight-back against superstition, sexual repression, political fanaticism, and all the other ways in which the "faith-based" have chosen to present themselves."