Religious experience is an important aspect in the life of faith for many people. Individuals from every religion make claims regarding what they take “to involve an encounter with a transcendent divine reality”, and it often fills adherents with confidence that the contents of their beliefs are true . There are two questions that arise from this state of affairs:
- Can such experiences ground a person’s religious convictions with incorrigible certainty?
- If they can’t establish this level of certainty, how much weight should a person grant them?
I will be limiting my post to a discussion of why the answer to question one is no, though there are other resources available if one wanted to know how I think we should answer question two . Taking the opposite position, many believers indicate that the answer to question one is yes. Consider the following statement from one Christian apologist:
The way that I know Christianity is true is first and foremost on the basis of the witness of the Holy Spirit in my heart. And this gives me a self-authenticating means of knowing that Christianity is true wholly apart from the evidence. And therefore if in some historically contingent circumstances the evidence that I have available to me should turn against Christianity, I don’t think that that controverts the witness of the Holy Spirit . (Emphasis mine)
It is my contention that this kind of certainty in religious matters is a pipe dream, and completely misguided. Most often this sort of approach is seen in the more fundamentalist expressions of any particular faith, so I will be abbreviating it as FC (Fundamentalist Certainty). And without further ado, here are 5 reasons to be skeptical of FC:
1) FC is Immune to Evidence
Suppose we ask someone with FC “what type of evidence would it take for you to abandon your faith?” The only consistent answer such a person could give is that no evidence could do so. If someone unapologetically states that they know their religion to be true “wholly apart from evidence”, and that even if the available evidence were to turn against their faith they would still believe, there isn’t much you can do for them. This way of thinking has no “built-in corrective mechanism”, and these kinds of claims “have no way to be corrected, altered, revised, or modified” . Someone with FC in their particular religion need only continuously reassure themselves that there is a satisfactory answer to every objection even if they can’t find one, and – Tada! – their beliefs are immune to evidence .
2) FC is Inherently Subjective
Most of the time people who take such a hard stance in favor of their own religious experience tend to view the experiences of those in other religions or sects very unfavorably. But here is the problem – given the subjective nature of religious experience, how can proponents of FC tell that their own experiences are real rather than delusive ? Since they are stuck in their own subjectivity, how can they tell the difference between real experiences brought about by their god, and false experiences brought about by a combination of religious upbringing, social pressure, traditions, and emotion ? How can they possibly know that their experience of certainty and relationship with the divine is any different or more certain than anyone else’s? What criteria would they use? . There would be no way to establish any of this with certainty, as it is all completely subjective.
3) Religious Diversity Poses a Huge Problem for FC
It is an indisputable fact that people from every religion and sect have experiences that they take to confirm the contents of their belief systems. Some of these experiences may be dramatic, while others may be of the more subtle and day-to-day variety. Why is this an issue? Well, they can’t all be right. “If powerful experiences full of apparent meaningfulness and illumination may come to persons of intelligence and virtue and yet be completely delusive”, then why are proponents of FC so sure that this doesn’t apply to their own experiences ? Consider the following analogy : Suppose that I am wearing an electronic helmet that causes me to hallucinate pieces of fruit. Imagine that as I am walking through my home admiring the fake fruit, I come across what appears to be an orange on my kitchen table.
As it so happens, this is a real orange that my wife placed there minutes before, and my senses are functioning properly in this case. Given the background conditions, it seems obvious that even though the orange is real in this case, I should still be highly skeptical that I am perceiving an actual orange. In the same way, “if I have good evidence that many religious experiences are delusional – even the most compelling examples – then surely I should be equally skeptical about my own religious experiences, no matter how compelling they might be” . The problem of religious diversity (at a minimum) forces us to drink the powdered remains of our golden calf of certainty.
4) People are Biased
Have you met people? We kind of suck. We tend to:
- Be overconfident in our own experiences and ability
- Dislike uncertainty – preferring to have answers sooner rather than later
- Become dogmatic about deeply held beliefs – frequently unable to see where we might be wrong
- Show fierce loyalty to ideas and communities that we form deep emotional attachments to 
Though many of these traits mentioned so far can cause problems when trying to get to the truth in any sphere, they are especially problematic when the beliefs in question cannot be falsified. There is nothing to stop these traits from running their course if a person relies on religious experience as their foundation for belief.
5) Religious Experience Can be Accounted for Without Supernatural Assumptions
If one looks out at the religious landscape, they will see that experiences tend to be specific to culture – Muslims perceive the presence of Allah and Christians perceive the presence of Jesus. Not surprisingly, national borders are a pretty accurate indication of what types of religious experiences people are having. Predominantly Muslim countries aren’t seeing the Virgin Mary, but over the border in Catholic countries they are. Even alien abduction stories are pretty much limited to certain places. “This strongly suggests that to a significant degree, religious experiences are shaped by our cultural expectations – by the power of suggestion…And once we know that a large part of what is experienced is a result of the power of suggestion, we immediately have grounds for being somewhat suspicious about what remains” .
Additionally, religious practice often includes features such as meditation and prayer, isolation, fasting, collective singing/chanting, grand architecture, giving, and ritual – “activities we know can have a powerful psychological effect even outside any religious setting” . This goes to show that a person may engage in these practices thinking that they are making contact with a transcendent reality when in fact “they have succeeded in altering their own psychology by fairly well-understood mechanisms common to both the religious and nonreligious spheres” . Now don’t get me wrong – these observations don’t prove that nothing supernatural is going on in any religion, but they do undermine the dogmatic confidence required by those who embrace FC. As J.L. Mackie put it: “Since these experiences are of kinds which are psychologically understandable without the help of any specifically religious assumptions, they do not in themselves carry any guarantee of a supernatural source” .
My goal thus far has been to demonstrate that FC is an untenable approach to religious belief and experience, and that the certainty promised is just plain impossible. What are the practical implications of this? For starters, the falsity of FC only entails that religious experience cannot ground incorrigible certainty, not that it can’t be counted as evidence. Whether religious experience is any good as a piece of evidence is a completely separate debate, and for a paper I like on that topic see the references. Another implication is that any religious system that depends on FC for its survival is false (an example of this would include Christian systems that depend on conservative readings of Romans 1). Sorry Calvinists!
- Daniel Hill and Randal Rauser, Christian Philosophy A-Z, p. 59
- Stephen Law, The X-Claim Argument Against Religious Belief (Pre-publication Draft). I highly recommend everyone give this paper a read as it deals with standard objections that believers use to defend religious experience against common attacks
- Randal Rauser, Dealing with Doubt? On William Lane Craig’s Rather Bad Advice
- Peter Boghossian, A Manual for Creating Atheists, p. 16
- Randal Rauser, Dealing with Doubt? On William Lane Craig’s Rather Bad Advice
- Peter Boghossian, A Manual for Creating Atheists, p. 70
- A.C. Grayling, The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism, p. 13
- J.L. Schellenberg, The Wisdom to Doubt: A Justification of Religious Skepticism, p. 163-165; 182-183
- Ibid, p. 165-176
- Stephen Law, Believing Bullshit: How Not to Get Sucked Into an Intellectual Black Hole, p. 148-150. This analogy borrows many of the elements from Law’s but isn’t identical
- Ibid, p. 150
- J.L. Schellenberg, The Wisdom to Doubt: A Justification of Religious Skepticism, p. 72-81
- Stephen Law, Believing Bullshit: How Not to Get Sucked Into an Intellectual Black Hole, p. 150-151. This quote and everything in this section preceding it is a summary of what Law has written
- Ibid, p. 154
- Ibid, p. 156
- J.L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism: Arguments for and Against the Existence of God, Location 2585 (Kindle)