The Benefit of the Doubt

A blog about Dialogue, Doubts, and Christian Faith ~Travis Dickinson~

Is religious experience evidence? Yes, but…

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A major reason why people believe that God exists is because, well, they run into Him. From time to time, people have direct experiences of God Himself. This is where one has experiences that are not plausibly explained in any other way other than that God exists. It is actually very common for people to report having experiences that seem to be clearly supernatural. These include such things as miraculous events, healings, answers to prayer, and even an overwhelming sense of the presence of the divine.

Having a direct experience of something is of course the ideal reason for believing that the thing exists. You may have all the reason in the world to think some thing does not exist until that thing shows up and says hi. However, direct experience of God is often criticized, not so much because folks don’t have amazing stories that are impossible to explain away, but because these reports are too common and point in too many different directions. Christians have stories, Mormons have stories, Muslims have stories, Hindus have stories, Spiritualists have stories, etc. and etc. Moreover, some Christians have a much greater emphasis on the supernatural, and it seems practically everything counts (getting to church on time with a prime parking spot is a miracle, on this view).

How do we sort all of these reports out? I’ll provide two cautions in thinking about experiences, especially reports about experiences. But first let me I wish to say that if God exists, then we should expect there to be many reports of experiences of God, and having a genuine experience of God can clearly be evidence that God exists. With this said, I do agree with the critics that not every report (even of Christians) is accurate. People, for some reason, make up stories. Other times, people unintentionally make mistakes of interpretation. It could even be that one has indeed had a supernatural experience but that the experience is not an experience specifically of God. On the Christian view, the world is both natural and supernatural and the supernatural realm includes far more beings than just God. Christians have always believed that there are angelic and demonic experiences, and I have little doubt that some experiences that people think are caused by God could be caused by demonic forces designed to confuse and distract people from the truths about God.

So direct experiences can be the most powerful evidence one has, but, at the same time, experiences have at least two liabilities. First, it is easy to misinterpret experiences. We have to be very careful and judicious with what we take an experience to mean. What happens is one thing, but what it all means is another. So I think we can reasonably infer that God exists on the basis of clear experiences that are only explicable on the thesis that God is real. However, it is often precarious to begin to fill in specific doctrine on the basis of experience alone.

Secondly, as it relates to evidence for the existence of God, experiences of God are often very individualistic. Experiences such as these are not repeatable or sharable affairs as experiences. The traditional arguments for God’s existence are ones that anyone can use as evidence for the existence of God once they are understood, and they can be shared with anyone. But when we hear a story about a person who has had some unusual experience, we can be blessed by these and they can help build our faith. However, when the experience hasn’t happened to us, then again I think we need to be very careful how these reports inform our views.

So there is evidential value in experience but there is also a great value in being cautious.

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