The Questionable Reliability of Religious Experience

There are two distinct but related ideas the religious sometimes put forward to explain why some atheists have walked away from belief in a god. The first idea is that the god rejected by these atheists is that of a particularly fundamentalist variety, and so it’s no real surprise that they’ve not just abandoned that belief, but may protest loudly against it. The second idea is the familiar one that none of these ex-believers were ever truly believers, because if they had been they would never have left in the first place.

Both of these ideas are questionable, and it’s worth pointing out how they typically serve as a shield for believers to guard themselves against threats to their faith. By downplaying the agency involved in someone else’s loss of faith, you blunt the force that such reasons and arguments might have upon your own thinking. If only they’d believed the right things – the things that you believe, of course – they’d have seen that their worries were really nothing to be worried about.

Is this a wise assumption, though? We need to remember that what we’re talking about is not merely a set of beliefs, divorced from any context. Many people throughout the world believe in God because of some religious experience, not simply because they heard others say that God exists. And as odd as it can sound, atheists have had religious experiences, too. The important difference is that they have interpreted these experiences non-religiously.

Believers allege that the best explanation for some religious experiences about God is that they are in fact given from God. Yet as John Shook notes in The God Debates, there are three simple naturalistic explanations that must be discounted first: (a) erroneous perception, (b) illusion, and (c) hallucination.1 Even many theists would dispute a number of supposed religious experiences, because they think they are better explained on these naturalistic accounts.

Dan Barker is a former minister turned atheist activist, who reflects on religious experiences in his book, Godless. “I used to feel it so I understand,” he writes, “but such experiences point to nothing outside the mind… We do know that many humans habitually invent myths, hear voices, hallucinate and talk with imaginary friends. We do not know there is a god.”2

Faces in the clouds is the common example to give in illustrating how our brains can fool us. We sometimes see patterns that aren’t really there. This phenomenon, for which there are countless other examples, is called pareidolia. In Religion Explained, Pascal Boyer mentions how we appear to be predisposed towards agent detection. This means that when we hear a noise in the bushes, we often think: person or animal, rather than the wind. In our evolutionary past, this would aid in our survival better than a system that did not make us react so sensitively.

As one can guess from Boyer’s boldly titled book, he believes that inference systems like our hyperactive agent detection system help to explain the origins of religion. In the absence of other explanations, or sometimes even in defiance of other explanations, we have occasionally concocted fanciful beings and extraordinary events, whether ghosts and goblins or angels and demons. But whether or not we accept Boyer’s larger thesis, we can see how it works on the individual scale. When so many claims of the supernatural have been made in error, what can tell us if any particular religious experience is the exception?

There have been many different claims of personal revelation, a large number of which appear to contradict each other. Some theists try to explain this by suggesting that the religious experiences within other religions are false because they are caused by demons or malevolent supernatural forces. The problem with this view is that we know of no reliable method for distinguishing between an authentic religious experience and a false one. It can’t be that we need to confirm these revelations with other revelations because we just aren’t able to do that without falling into an infinite regress, and a whole lot of believers already take some religious experiences to be self-vindicating.

Why should we believe there are any self-vindicating religious experiences, though? We do grant some of our experiences, and those had by others, as being basic and requiring no further justification. If I say I’m seeing the color red, you may just trust that I am seeing red without expecting anything more of me. But because there is such variety among religious experiences, and because we know of naturalistic explanations for some of them, it would be highly presumptuous to treat any particular religious experience as self-vindicating.

It’s very common to hear people claim that a religious experience proved itself to them by showing them something they could not possibly have imagined, known, or gotten right on their own. There is so much to unpack in this notion alone that it could fill an entire essay. Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson discuss many cases of cognitive dissonance, self-justifying memory, and confirmation bias in their enjoyable book, Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me). We often favor ourselves and our own beliefs at a degree that is tremendously disproportional to how we regard other people and their beliefs. Elizabeth Loftus has published a great deal of work showing that even eyewitness testimony is far less reliable than we think.3

When we ask about a religious experience, “How could this have happened, if it were all in my head”, we need to be careful that we don’t downplay the question here or treat it as rhetorical. We should consider a range of alternative explanations, trying our best to do justice to each one, and we should remember to ask ourselves what is most likely. We also can’t forget that there are usually some explanations we haven’t thought of. The irony is that while many religious believers tend to view skeptics as know-it-alls, it is actually the fallibility of the human mind that drives a lot of skeptics to doubt reports of supernatural experiences.

However, in no way does this mean that the religious believer has lied, is ignorant, or has some mental deficiency because they’ve had a religious experience. That is not the argument here, and it’s worth remembering that there are some atheists who know what it’s like to have a religious experience. You can believe that a person had a powerful, strange experience and understand what it means to them without agreeing on how they interpret it. It isn’t just atheists who take this approach with theists, either. Plenty of religious folks have this reaction to certain claims made by their fellow believers, within the walls of their own church.

In her wonderful book, Why Music Moves Us, Jeanette Bicknell provides some fascinating accounts of how people have written about their experience with certain composers and pieces of music. A few of these are worth reading here:

…certain passages of [Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pathetique Symphony’] evoke sobs and I feel totally crushed – my listening is fully concentrated, and the rest of the world disappears in a way, and I become merged in the music or the music in me, it fills me completely.

Somehow I was soaring above the audience that was merely there but could not be heard and did not disturb. It was like a dream, I was soaring and they played just for me. It is very hard to explain the feeling I had.

I cried because (I guess) I was overcome with love. It was impossible for me to shake the sensation (mental, physical) that J.S. Bach was in the room with me, and I loved him.4

These experiences of hearing music, bizarre as they might sound to some, describe things that are not far removed from what we find in many descriptions of religious experiences. Yet most of us would probably say all that happened to these music lovers was that they were deeply moved by what they heard. To doubt that there are authentic religious experiences is not practically any different. Life retains its wonder and religion its ability to inspire, but we see that there is no reason to accept the unbelievable.


For further reading:

Did a Miracle Occur at Fatima?

What Happens After We Die?

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1. John Shook, The God Debates: A 21st Century Guide for Atheists and Believers (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), p. 100.
2. Dan Barker, Godless (Berkeley: Ulysses Press, 2008), p. 111.
3. See for example: Elizabeth Loftus, Eyewitness Testimony (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996).
4. Jeanette Bicknell, Why Music Moves Us (Great Britain: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), p. 47, 51-52.

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