Recently, Andrew Parker wrote a blog post titled “Certainty of God” and tweeted me to look at it.
I happened to have recently watched a provocative video by Drew McCoy at Genetically Modified Skeptic, making the point that Christians largely believe because they have this internal sense of certainty rather than because they are overwhelmed by the evidence. It’s a very different process from how people come to believe in, say, special relativity.
And then Mark Smith tweeted me this, pointing to the same basic issue, in his usual inimical style.
And then some guy on Twitter tells me that “atheists are incapable of thinking about and considering abstract ideas not based in physical reality.” Wow. So, fair warning, I may have a massive blind spot to the entire issue here.
Anyway, I thought I’d write a response to Andrew’s blog specifically, but also to the general point which has been bouncing around in my head for a while.
The central point
Parker quotes Robert Oakes as saying
it is conceivable for there to occur self-authenticating experiences of God… [and that] there is no one who knows that self-authenticating experiences of God never in fact occur
He goes on to say:
This point is key. Rather than: “no one really knows if God is real or not” the truth is really: no-one really knows that “self-authenticating experiences of God never in fact occur.” How could they know? How could anyone know that every single witness, ever, is a false witness?Certainty of God, by Andrew Parker
Parker gives some reasons for and against, and responds to some of the skeptical critiques before concluding that “Divinely self-authenticating experience is a reality.”
Of course, it is logically possible that there is a God and this God chooses to be known through these self-authenticating experiences. So let’s look into this more carefully.
Leaning into the Subjective
We’re looking at this in a profoundly subjective way, so perhaps I should start there. I want to believe true things. If God is real, then I want to know. But it seems we’re often told God is going to take the lead on this. It’s more God choosing me than me choosing God. Calvinism takes this to an extreme, but the idea of a self-authenticating experience, dished out selectively, points towards this too.
So perhaps the first thing to do is pray.
This might seem an odd thing for an atheist to do, but I’m a truth-seeker first. I shifted from Christianity (which was very precious to me) to atheism because of this, so if I need God to understand reality and truth, then I’ll ask Him. Here is my sincere prayer:
I am not currently persuaded of Your existence. But I want to know the truth. I want to believe what is true. If You are real, then You made me the way You did. If I am too skeptical, cure me of this and show me how to believe. If I am too rational, cure me of this and show me why my mind is deceiving me. If I am too proud, then humble me. If there is any blockage to knowing You, then clear it out the way and let me in.
I will not pretend to believe. I cannot see the point, since the Bible says that we will be judged by our beliefs (at least in some parts and with some interpretations). If this is wrong, show me why. But the simple reality is that I do not believe because I am not persuaded by anything I have seen, heard, or experienced, and I am making the reasons why as clear as I can.
If You can make the arguments seem persuasive, or show me why that is not needed, or reveal the truth in any way, then please do so. If you can give me a self-authenticating experience, then please do. If I should be searching in a different religious tradition, then inspire me to do that. I ask only that if I can know You, You will show me how.Unpublished work, 2017
I guess I should add, “If I am incapable of thinking about abstract ideas not based in physical reality, then cure me of this.”
I have prayed this or similar prayers multiple times over the years, and so far nothing. The point here is that I’m not rejecting God on principle. I’m not rejecting miracles on principle. I’m not rejecting the divinity of Christ on principle. I’m not rejecting self-authenticating experiences on principle. I’m saying the case for these has not been satisfactorily made.
Perhaps a theist reading this will doubt my sincerity and argue that this is why God has not revealed Himself (by the way, don’t be that theist. It’s painful to be told what’s going on in my own head). But any lack of sincerity would be a blockage for God to remove, as I’m asking Him to do.
Or maybe they’ll suggest I’m not really an atheist, and I know God is real, and this whole rebellion is because I want to sin. Again, don’t be that person. And I think this would also be a blockage for God to remove.
Perhaps a theist reading this will say, “It just hasn’t happened yet. Give it some more time. It’s all in God’s timing.” Perhaps, it is. We will return to this point shortly.
Perhaps a theist will say (as at least one has said to me), “I guess you’re a vessel of destruction” (a reference to Romans 9:21, and the basic Calvinist position). Maybe. It’s not completely impossible, though it would tell us something about the character of God, and not in a positive way.
But regardless, it is clear that I am not rejecting God. If anything, He is rejecting me. Logically, I suppose, He could have made me more recalcitrant than even He can handle, but that seems to be at odds with the general views on God I’m aware of.
I didn’t know the term “self-authenticating experience” (it rolls off the tongue nicely) when I was a Christian, but I would probably have believed it of myself if I had. I remember praying as a teenager that God would never let me leave my Christianity; that He would hold me close forever; that I would be the good and faithful servant. Well, He held me for a couple of decades after that.
I even had a miraculous healing of my eye, which is a better story than many of the stories I hear about. I might write more about that sometime. But you get the idea. I was really into it and had the experiences to prove it.
Funnily enough, as time has passed and I’ve left my Christianity behind, I have become more and more certain that there is no such thing as God.
In fact, I would say my certainty now exceeds my warrant. For example, the cosmological argument could leave space for a deity, but I can’t bring myself to be at all persuaded by it. It feels like theists make up these clever philosophical arguments that point to a moment just beyond what we can see and assure us that there, just over the horizon, you can’t quite see it, but there, that’s god. And what’s more, it’s my God. And He’s still around and wants you to do what I say.
It just feels like a bait and switch to me, and so I grow increasingly convinced that there is no such thing as god. It feels like a human construct.
I’ve discussed why a bunch of other Christian arguments don’t do it for me, and now I’m told that some people have a self-authenticating experience that I couldn’t possibly have access to, and how could I be so mean as to distrust all of those people? Someone like Andrew Parker is clearly sincere, so isn’t it possible that he and many others like him have had a self-authenticating experience and that this is sufficient warrant for them to believe in God? Even if I’m a lost cause because God doesn’t want me, surely I could look at all these people who are so certain and see that maybe, just maybe, something is happening just beyond the horizon of my personal experience that points to the reality of God?
In short, no. And just as I need to be skeptical of my own certainty, I believe they need to be skeptical of theirs. And the reason isn’t the very solipsist experience they’ve had, but the broader context and our more important ability to reason inductively, and use correct epistemology.
An Inductive Approach
Here’s what I believe is the right way to approach this. There is a context for these experiences that needs to be considered. What we have is a bunch of reported experiences. What we need is to develop different models that might explain these experiences and determine which is more likely.
Let’s first look at the data:
- Some people have experiences that are so amazing that they regard them as self-authenticating. They clearly believe these experiences could only have been granted to them by God.
- Some people don’t have these experiences, even when sincerely asking (such as myself).
Now let’s add a little more context to these two basic data points:
- People tend to weigh a personal experience more highly than they weigh other people’s experiences.
- People from all kinds of different religions have these experiences. Sometimes even non-religious experiences, such as alien abduction cases. People to whom this happens are absolutely certain, even though it doesn’t actually happen.
- Some people who would have described themselves as “certain” of their religious convictions later lose their faith. Indeed, I would describe myself that way.
How could we explain the entirety of this evidence? Broadly speaking, we can split the hypotheses into two:
- The God Hypothesis: God really exists and selectively dishes out these self-authenticating experiences to a special subset of the population.
- The Human Hypothesis: Human brains are such that they sometimes have these experiences.
Suppose I were Andrew Parker, or someone who’s had this experience. It would be very natural to lean towards hypothesis 1. I would be inclined to bolster my confidence with accounts of other people who’ve had the same kinds of experiences through the ages. Presumably, I would explain away the above context because it clashes with my experience, which is much more personal and real-seeming.
I would need to discount the similar experiences of people from different traditions, whether that be alien abductions or different religions. Their experiences would just be not quite as good as mine. Sure, it changed their life, but not quite as much as my life changed. And sure, they say they are certain, but if they could only experience the certainty I have, they would understand that their certainty was really not very certain at all.
And, yes, God loves everyone, and He wants to give everyone this experience. But not so fast there, Glenton. Your heart is too hard (but I asked God to soften it?). Well, you were too sarcastic (God couldn’t see my sincere desire to know the truth?). And the timing wasn’t right. God’s ways aren’t ours, you know. And He’s not going to give you this experience on command like a performing monkey. And, don’t forget, He’s mysterious.
Logically, all of this is possible. The question is going to be whether it’s really persuasive. For me, it is not. The other reasons for God don’t persuade me, and this doesn’t add anything to that basic picture. It’s hard to imagine why anyone would expect anyone else to be persuaded by this. I mean, I was, despite my skepticism, willing to run the experiment, so to speak, with the above prayer. But when that didn’t work, I felt sort of foolish for having been taken in by the claim in the first place. It’s the equivalent of someone trying to talk to a long-dead relative and then discovering that the medium is just a typical charlatan (or perhaps a believer who is not even aware that there’s no basis for their crap).
So what else could we suggest for Andrew Parker and his ilk?
It’s difficult for people to do, but approaching even their own experiences with skepticism is essential. Hypothesis 2 (the human hypothesis) explains the data and context admirably. Humans have these kinds of experiences as a result of our brain chemistry and cultural backdrop. You don’t need anything else.
You don’t even need a single underlying cause.
Once you’ve eliminated experiences induced by teenage brains, alcohol, drugs, emotional turmoil, trauma, confirmation bias, fraud, schizotypal reactions, religious fervor, trances, fear of exclusion, spirituality, self-improvement kicks, group-think, loneliness, longing, ritualistic patterns, ambition, and hallowed locations, there’s probably not a lot of these types of experiences left.
What of the reasons to accept?
Andrew Parker had a self-authenticating experience, which was presumably enough for him. But he wants people like me to come to a faith in God on the strength of his testimony and so, wisely, sought to bolster its credibility. In his article, he looked at three areas:
- The Catholic Church’s insistence that faith can be certain because of divine revelation.
- The line of individual witnesses, who continued to “proclaim an unshakeable certainty despite [the] threat of torture and death.” And
- The consistency of the path these witnesses take, from darkness to light.
Are these sufficient reasons to accept that self-authenticating experiences are credible?
For me, again, they are not. I see testimonies of various experiences as just more evidence to be weighed rather than the special category of knowledge that Parker seems to imply. In other words, epistemologically, we have our priors, and we update our priors on the basis of new evidence, including testimonies and “self-authenticating” experiences.
“Self-authenticating,” however nice it sounds, is oxymoronic from an epistemological perspective.
“Self-authenticating,” however nice it sounds, is oxymoronic from an epistemological perspective. What it really means is that it feels self-authenticating. And we should update our priors on the basis of that, rather than assuming that the feeling is necessarily indicative of reality. I think this is a central point, especially given that we know humans are capable of feeling certain about untrue things.
The Catholic Church’s Testimony
The Vatican says that it can be certain of His Divine Revelation. Mmm. So an organization with authority it claims comes from God, also claims it can be certain this God exists?
It points to the “exterior proofs of His revelation…especially miracles and prophecies” but when I try to hunt any of these to ground I find they evaporate just like all the other miracles and prophecies religious people point to. The point of this post is to discuss the internal proofs (needed, if we’re honest, because the external proofs are so unconvincing), so I won’t discuss them more here.
And it points to the “interior help of the Holy Spirit” which is really just asserting that lots of Catholics claim to have these experiences. But lots of people from lots of religions make similar claims, including people from Protestant and Orthodox Christian backgrounds. These kinds of scisms and evolving beliefs fit much more with a human origin than a divine origin for the experience.
Parker also notes that the Catholic church points to her own credibility as a witness. I think it’s an open question as to whether the church has done more good than bad. In general, good people do good things, and I don’t doubt the sincerity of good Catholics attempting to do good things. I would argue, however, that when this happens, it is their underlying humanity that drives it. For example, we don’t see much of a correlation either way between religious affiliations (of any sort, including “nones”) and altruistic or charitable behavior.
I have seen studies showing that religious people tend to be less charitable outside their groups than nones, including an amusing study that found people would often not stop to help someone in distress, because they were rushing to give a sermon on the Good Samaritan. There’s a bunch of stuff out there, but there’s certainly nothing that suggests that the Catholic church or Catholics specifically are better than other people. Again, as you’d expect if this was all just human behavior, and not at all as you’d expect if you thought these were the people being sanctified by the only God giving out “real” self-authenticating experiences.
Parker also mentions the saints of the Catholic church. These are self-appointed, and are usually required (from my limited understanding) to have performed a miracle. I don’t know much about them, but it seems a little sketchy. I haven’t seen impressive evidence of any of these supposed miracles.
I read Hitchens’ The Missionary Position, with a great deal of skepticism (I went in thinking my fellow atheists were picking a fight unnecessarily rather than just admitting that some good comes from religion) and came away pretty shocked to discover that the much vaunted “Mother Teresa” had a legacy far below her reputation. If this is an example of a great saint, you can keep the lot of them. She certainly raised a great deal of money, and not always from above-board sources.
Incidentally, Mother Teresa even wrote about her own lack of experiences of God and her doubts about God’s existence.
Then we have the various atrocities the catholic church has committed, including the on-going persecution of the homosexual community and the on-going fight to prevent justice for child molesters, and find that the church is at its best when it is acting on the charitable impulses we see in humanity everywhere and is at its worst when it is acting on its teachings that oppose that same charity and tolerance. In fact, it was remarked upon even in the early days of the church how Christianity was constantly bickering with itself while the pagans lived in relative tolerance of each other.
Also worth reading, if we are to consider the Church’s legacy, is Catherine Nixey’s book The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World. The book burning, the persecution of the Jewish and pagan communities, the destruction of the great libraries, the defacing of the art, and the halt of scientific advance that accompanied the rise of the Christian empire looks very similar to the modern day advance of ISIS. Many of the perpetrators of these iniquities were completely certain that they had heard from God and were doing his will.
Surrounded by so Great a Cloud of Witnesses
Parker refers to the “continuous line of individual witnesses, many of whom proclaim an unshakeable certainty despite threat of torture and death.”
I enumerated above a number of reasons why so many people might experience these things. To this, it is worth adding that the roots of Christianity were in a world where divine revelation was considered a higher and more reliable witness than evidence and empiricism.
Paul lists his sources as scripture and revelation. We know about his Damascus Road experience and his trip to the third heaven. Paul’s visions are the foundation of Christianity to a surprisingly large degree. With his writings as a backdrop, it is no wonder that people following him have experienced the same.
The persecution thing is a little overblown. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but the impression that Christians leave is that there’s been nothing but persecution. Christians in the US claim it’s happening still, despite having Christian representation at all levels of government far in excess of the Christian proportion of the population. Another book worth reading is Candida Moss’s The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom.
The point is that people often express complete certainty of their faith, even if they haven’t had a “self-authenticating experience.” And declarations of self-authenticating experiences or any other experience, including persecution, is a common aspect of in-group psychology, where people are able to be accepted and comforted within their group.
We can look at religions as naturally occurring beliefs that spread and grow or die out from evolutionary pressures, similar to how a virus might spread in the population. In this model, the evolutionary origin of the missionary sects of Christianity (e.g. Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Mormonism) is probably to induce out-group rejection and in-group comfort and affirmation.
For Paul, declaring himself a witness of the resurrection was (however sincere his experience was) a play for leadership within the early church. It was a risky move, but it worked. Many others have tried the same thing and been thrown out as heretics.
The point is that it’s not a huge surprise that Christianity is littered with people who’ve had such experiences, since that’s a core part of its setup. Seen evolutionarily, it’s probably part of what made the religion spread. But that doesn’t mean it’s true. Just that it spreads.
The consistent path
Parker’s final point is that all these witnesses “receive the gift of faith and sure knowledge of God… through Jesus Christ, His life, and His teachings, in particular through humble surrender and repentance.” He makes a point that it’s always from darkness to light, and that the saints end up transformed.
It’s hard to see that this is true, even with a significant amount of cherry-picking, and even if it were true, it’s hard to see that it’s relevant.
To make a comparison, many people claim that you can “manifest” (or something) by talking to the universe and the universe then speaks back. Jim Carrey wrote himself a $10 million cheque and post-dated it for 10 years later. And, lo and beyond, in 10 years he was able to cash it. Scott Adams wrote an affirmation 15 times a day to become the top cartoonist, and it worked. Then a long list of famous people will tell us that they did this and it worked for them. Wow! Sign me up!
But, wait, I have a few questions:
- Did these famous people also work hard and get lucky? Yes.
- Did a ton of other people you’ve never heard of do exactly the same thing and not get anywhere? Yes.
- Did the people for whom this worked end up with a massive platform where they could tell everyone that this worked? Yes.
- Do the people for whom this worked actually know the causal relationship, or are they just assuming it? Assuming.
Exactly. Because it’s all bunk. We have a severe confirmation bias: the few people who succeed ascribe their success to whatever they want to and tell everyone about it from their massive platforms; the millions who do the same thing but don’t succeed are not heard from. You also find the successful will hear of these cases and then find some nitpicky reason for why it didn’t work out. Much like many Christian will have figured out why my prayer didn’t work out.
In Parker’s case, a similar skepticism is warranted:
- Did these saints work hard to do good works? Yes (sometimes).
- Did a ton of people who were not Catholic also do a bunch of good works? Yes.
- Did the church promote their saints on a public platform, such that, for example, we come to believe that Mother Teresa is one of the world’s best people, when in fact she’s distinctly sketchy? Yes.
- Did the people doing this good work know their urge to do good was from following Jesus, or are they just assuming it? Assuming.
Exactly. Because it’s also bunk. The church’s public relations machine tells us all about the good their saints are doing and have done, but the large body of people quietly and invisibly doing their charitable works outside of this needs to be part of the equation. So it’s bunk both because people are poor at attribution and because the works of the saints are no better and often worse than the works of the rest of us.
People transforming as a result of their experience is also over-blown. People often want to transform because humans have a conscience. In that state, people will latch onto whatever is happening around them and then say that they were transformed by it. This could be meditation, the rotary, a local religious group, a self-help book, affirmations / manifestations etc. But it’s ultimately because they wanted to change.
Parker also tells us that this path is through “humble surrender.” I know that atheists are often accused of arrogance, and I’ve certainly been told my humility is lacking, but I do not claim that an experience in my head comes directly from the creator of the universe. It’s a staggeringly grandiose claim; whatever else we can say about it, it’s not “humble.”
And finally, we look at the consistency of the “Divine Light.” This is not a particularly imaginative metaphor for diurnal creature such as us. And it’s certainly not one that is uniquely Christian. Divine Lights crop up in Islam, Hindu, Buddhism, and all Christian denominations. Lights even appear with the use of certain hallucinogenic drugs, such as Ketamine which can induce a near-death experience at the right dosing.
Parker believes that Divinely self-authenticating experiences such as his are a reality. In his words:
From this harmony of reasons: 1) the prophetic promise of an “interior help”, 2) its fulfilment at Pentecost, 3) a stream of credible witnesses ever since, 4) many with exceptional lasting fruit, I argue, that certainty of God is very credible indeed, and that Divinely self-authenticating experience is a reality.Certainty of God, by Andrew Parker
He says they “have kept and renewed the Church, like a rock, against tides and troubles for 2000 years. The Church’s endurance, good works, and stability are simply not well explained by the complex of lies and illusions that sceptics are forced to propose.”
As a skeptic, I do not doubt the sincerity of at least many of the Christian witnesses here, and I accept the lasting fruit of at least some of them.
However, when seen in the context of similar experiences occurring in multiple different religions, the human propensity for believing one’s own experiences, and the lack of credibility of the Bible and other evidence put forward, I do not believe we should take the concept of Divinely self-authenticating experience seriously.
We may include it as a datapoint, but it is an underwhelming contribution to the rest of the arguments put forward by apologists.
I would go further and suggest that this is so even if you have personally had such an experience. Epistemic humility requires you to weigh your own experience with a similar level of skepticism as you do the similar experiences of people from other religions. In other words, you should largely disregard it.