Personal experience


Speaking with Christians often yields the idea of a personal experience as the basis of faith. It is very hard to argue against this kind of thing, and it is often presented as an alternative “proof” for Christianity. After all, so many Christians claim this type of experience, and so where there is smoke there must be fire. But it is very easy to have smoke without fire, and many poor proofs do not add up to one good one. I would contend that these experiences just constitute another piece of evidence, and that, like other evidence we have looked at in this book, we should consider this evidence objectively before being persuaded by it.

[I discussed this briefly in my earlier post on the burden of proof]


Let us look at the personal experience side of things in more detail. Let us define two types of God experience: A physical experience is a tangible experience, such as a healing or concrete answer to prayer or a fulfilled prophecy. A spiritual experience is something intangible (though no less real to the person presumably), like a feeling of God’s presence, or hearing his voice inside your head or a feeling of acceptance or love or peace or some other thing that we cannot independently verify. Paul’s Damascus road experience would be spiritual (because the people with him could not confirm the details), while Jesus walking on water would be a physical experience.

My observations of the world lead me to believe that:

  1. Many Christians claim to have had physical or spiritual experiences.
  2. Many non-Christians claim to have had physical or spiritual experiences.
  3. Many Christians claim to have had neither physical nor spiritual experiences.
  4. Many non-Christians claim to have had neither physical nor spiritual experiences.
  5. Some of the physical claims are reasonably well attested (“I prayed and demonstrably had an improvement in health”).
  6. By their nature, we cannot verify spiritual claims.

These observations need to be taken together before we draw any conclusions. As a Christian, I did this in the context of an a priori belief in Christ based on assurances in the reliability of the Gospels and other evidence. Now that I no longer believe that the Biblical witnesses were reliable, I look at these same observations and draw somewhat different conclusions. The essential point is that these experiences do not prove anything—we interpret them according to our context. So, if Christians have not made their case with extraordinary evidence, the above observations do nothing to help them. Of course, those who have had an experience themselves may be persuaded by focusing on it and brushing over the rest of the observations in the list; but this does not engage with the totality of the evidence.

Interpretation 1: Rationally explicable or insufficiently attested

My current interpretation is that these experiences fall into two categories: (1) something which has rational explanations (including, for example, fraud or brain functions); and (2) something which does not currently have rational explanations.

Spiritual experiences provide little problem for the atheist. We know that brain functions can explain many of them, including healing, as attested by the placebo effect for example. People in an emotional state with a strong desire to experience something can plausibly experience that thing. And frankly, there is also fraud, which, if nothing else, increases the emotional tension to try to experience something like it yourself. The line between fraud and genuinely trying to have an experience of God is probably somewhat blurred if my own emotionally fraught teenage experiences are at all representative of anyone else’s.

Physical experiences would require extraordinary evidence, and, while I do not wish to be patronizing or belittle someone else’s experiences, neither am I persuaded that the extraordinary evidence needed to support the claims exists. I will explore below what it would mean if some of these claims were to be true, but there is scant evidence for experiences that are outside the bounds of what is known to medical or other sciences. For example, a person might recover from alcoholism, but people do not regrow limbs; and claims of, for example, resurrections tend not to be well attested (or in fact to be outright fraud as in the famous recent case of The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven).

Interpretation 2: What if some of the claims are real?

But let us suppose that you have already accepted Christianity for whatever reason, and you engage with the above observations. Importantly, not just your own experiences (if you have had them), but the totality of the observations above. Where does that leave you? Rationality immediately throws you into a veritable quagmire of fundamentally unresolvable theological difficulties.

Observation 2 (that many non-Christians claim to have had similar experiences) puts you into an instant and toxic antagonism with people of other faiths. Who, by symmetry, are equally antagonistic back towards you. You have to believe that your faith’s experiences are valid, while others are all lying or deceived. But if the devil or the human brain is that good at causing others to believe they have had genuine experiences, how do you know that your experience is not from the same source? How are you supposed to differentiate? As we have seen, the evidence outside of the personal experience is not enough, and the teachings are not a great differentiator: for example, biblical teaching is spotty, requiring your human judgment to pick the bits that you are going to follow, which is no different from anyone else.

Not to mention the claims of alien abductions and hearing voices and so on, which at the least provides evidence that the human mind is capable of believing it is having experiences that it is not, in any real sense, having. In other words, other people’s experiences cannot be sufficient to prove the case, and your own need to be handled with extreme skepticism.

Observation 3 (that many Christians claim not to have had such experiences) drops you instantly into the theologies like the problem of pain (for physical claims), and predestination (for spiritual claims), which I will now discuss in turn.

The uneven distribution of physical experiences, such as healings, leads people away from Christianity, and is a challenge for the faithful: why does God answer some prayers but not all? Why do miracles alleviate some suffering, but leave an extraordinary amount in play? Christians (including my former self) paper over this issue (how can God be all powerful and all good and allow evil in the world?) with all kinds of nice words like “divine restraint,” or horrible words like “what does it matter what happens in this world since the eternal is all we should care about” or “we know we live in a fallen world.” These words dissolve when faced with an actual person suffering. They are at best inadequate and at worst grotesque and unfeeling. How has religion allowed people to so detach themselves from the reality of this world by its constant obsession with the next when the former could (indeed must) be improved by any person with a conscience, and the latter has no proof at all? And religion still has the temerity to claim a monopoly on morality?

Faced with suffering and pain in the world, you might point to Christians who do good works attempting to alleviate it. But this is merely the act of giving in to basic humanity, as attested by the good done by non-Christians (and the evil done by the religious). The evidence would suggest that it is our humanity, not our religion, that compels us to serve and help each other. It also, though admirable, does nothing to resolve the fundamental theodicy problem.

The spottiness of spiritual experiences is no less problematic. Am I, who has not had a spiritual experience of God, and who has not found the evidence convincing (as you can see from this book) to experience eternal punishment? A predestination view would say that maybe God has decided that I am a vessel of wrath prepared for destruction? It seems a bit harsh for applying a very modest level of skepticism—so much so that I find I am left even less convinced by the claims of personal experience, and, in fact, more convinced that the whole thing is an incoherent human concoction. Reductio ad absurdam as a mathematician might put it.

I have listed three examples of theological difficulties (other religions, theodicy, and predestination) that arise immediately out of the above observations of personal experience (whether you are someone who has had them or heard about them). These theological difficulties did not drive me away from Christianity—in fact, I enjoyed turning them over in my head and in discussion, although primarily in the abstract rather than the concrete, and, of course, the ends were never satisfactorily tied-off. However, interpretation 1 resolves all three rather neatly. If you applied Occam’s razor to this, you would conclude that personal experiences (taken together) do more to support atheism or agnosticism than any other view. Some dear friends of mine see this as evidence for spirituality and oneness and universalism and things of that ilk. While I am not personally persuaded by this, it makes more sense than any of the monotheistic interpretations that I have come across.