Arguments for Atheism - Living without religion, with a clear conscience


The Argument | The Refutation

The Argument Back to Top

The Religious Experience Argument posits that one can only perceive that which exists, and so God must exist because there are those that have experienced him. Many people have had what they label as religious experiences or revelations (experiences of the supernatural, like heaven or angels or even God himself), and if we believe the everyday experiential claims which people generally make, it is argued, then we should be willing to believe these claims as well. The fact that there are so many people who testify to having had such experiences therefore constitutes at least indirect evidence of God’s existence, even to those who have not had such experiences themselves.

The 19th Century philosopher William James offered a variant on this argument, arguing that all normal people have religious experiences and, since experience is the final arbiter of truth, then God (as the object of religious experiences) must be accepted as factually true.

The Refutation Back to Top

Opponents of the Religious Experience Argument claim that religious experiences involve imagination rather than perception, and point out that there is always the possibility of fabricating artificial experiences of God, or that the experiences may not actually be religious at all but are merely interpreted that way by religious people (this would go some way towards explaining why it seems that we do not all have these religions experiences). There are no independent criteria which can be used to separate genuine experiences from false or flawed experiences, and, with no reliable methods of testing, claims of godly communications cannot be accepted as valid.

Also, adherents of almost all religions (which, remember, are mutually inconsistent and conflicting) claim to have had experiences that validate those religions and, if not all of these appeals are valid - as the competing religions themselves maintain - then none can be. When nations go to war, devout believers on both sides have been known to receive revelations assuring them that god was on their side, suggesting that neither side was reliably informed.

The assertion by William James that “all normal people” have religious experiences is so vague and unsubstantiated (indeed, impossible to substantiate) as to be all but useless as a basis for further logical analysis. The assertion is self-referential, as anyone claiming not to have had a religious experience (e.g. an atheist) is presumably, by definition, not “normal”.
When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called Religion.
- Robert M. Pirsig (1974)

But, leaving aside the problem of defining what a “normal” person is, the reality is that very few people actually claim to have had direct experiences of God, angels, etc. Many of those who do claim religious experiences and visions prepare themselves by food or sleep deprivation, isolation from human contact, the repetition of chants or prayer, and even the use of drugs, exactly the kinds of unusual and extreme physical experiences likely to result in hallucinations. Also, by extension of the logic of the original argument, if someone actively tries to have an experience of a god and fails - and few would deny that this has occurred on numerous occasions - is this not a good reason to believe that the god probably does not exist?

Proponents of the Religious Experience Argument also cite the “evidence” of near-death experiences, where claims are made of, for example, a bright light at the end of a tunnel where the claimants met and communicated with Jesus, their dead grandma, a long dead friend, etc. It is generally understood nowadays that the sense of floating outside of one’s body and, specifically, the dark tunnel and bright light are consistent with a medical condition known as hypoxia, caused by lack of oxygen to the brain and the visual cortex in traumatic events. In addition, such visions are far from universal in near-death situations, and always seems to be consistent with the subject's belief systems (e.g. Catholics see saints, Muslims see Mohammed, Protestants see Jesus, etc), which points more to some kind of psychological phenomenon rather than actual objective experiences of the after-life.

What might be called mystical experiences can be caused by profound contemplation of nature or, for that matter, by chemical substances, but this presumably does not provide any evidence for a supernatural entity or god. Doctors and researchers, such as Dr. Michael Persinger in Canada, have even produced mystical visions in people using fluctuating magnetic fields (the so-called “God Helmet”), and can even direct the religious nature of the visions using music and other props.

Studies of neural activity have shown that so-called "spiritual" acts like meditation and prayer are associated with specific changes in neural activity in the frontal and parietal lobes of the brain, and in the amygdala (the part of the brain used to process emotions). It is notable that temporal lobe epileptics tend to experience distinct episodes of religious fervour in the moments before a seizure. "Hyper-religiosity" is also a very common symptom of temporal lobe epilepsy, a condition thought to affect a significant number of the world's spiritual prophets and leaders, including Joan of Arc, Mohammed, St. Paul, etc.

Yet another counter-argument is the skeptical view held by some that all experiences (including hyopothetical religious experiences) are necessarily subjective, and no matter how one person perceives the world to be, there are any number of ways that it could actually be. Barely tangible religious experiences are, by their very nature, even more uncertain than our familiar and lucid experiences of the external world, which are themselves inherently unreliable.

A theist might conceivably counter-argue this point by contending that, if ultimately nothing can be proven true, then we must rely on faith (sometimes referred to as the Argument from Faith). However, there is a big difference between the everyday faith we all act on (e.g. that the sun will rise tomorrow, that the road continues beyond the ridge of the hill, that spring will follow winter, etc) and faith in the existence of an unseen god. Our commonsense, everyday beliefs are based on prior observations and experience, and there is therefore good reason to believe them. But we have no such prior experience on which to base a belief in a god, making it less justified than our commonsense beliefs. Faith alone cannot prove the existence of a god.

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