Monday, 13 July 2009

Personal Experiences of God

(This is a the long-awaited article on personal experiences of God, the last in the series of Reasons to Believe, the rest of which had been published on CiF Belief. I held off posting it here until all possible hope of Andrew Brown publishing it on CiF belief had passed.)

In conversations with Christians, sometimes I ask “What made you start believing in God in the first place?” The reasons for believing that I described in my previous articles hardly ever figure. It almost always turns out that their faith has come from one of two sources. Either they were brought up in their religion, or they acquired it through some powerful personal experience. Everything else that has been described to me as a reason to believe in God is an ex post facto justification for beliefs already held.

In many important ways, everything is a personal experience, including the experience of you reading these words. All scientific discoveries are personal experiences, resulting from individual scientists making observations. Personal experiences can be used directly in terms of scientific data. If you are trialling a new pain medication, then a key thing you want to know is whether it effectively relieves pain. The science of medicine is designed to allow us to find reliable answers to such questions, and those answers are meaningless except in the context of the personal experiences of the patients.

But we have to be careful about what conclusions we draw from experiences. We have learned that there are many ways in which our senses can be fooled into thinking we have experienced something which is not there, and we have also discovered many different ways in which our habits of thought can mislead us. As a result, scientists take great care to try and eliminate these sources of error. Ben Goldacre in his article on homeopathy describes this very well.

People occasionally have very strange and powerful experiences. I described a friend’s mystical experience in my first article on CiF. But can we take these kinds of experiences as evidence for God?

As with “medical miracles”, it is a mistake to consider the most remarkable cases in isolation from all the others. They have their place in a very wide spectrum of experiences. When I play in a concert, I occasionally experience a very powerful sense of euphoria when everything is going really well. It is rare, but when it happens the experience can be enough to keep me walking on air for weeks afterwards. Many athletes have described “the zone”, a state of mind in which their coordination appears to be perfect and their actions seem effortless. There is no reason to suppose that supernatural intervention is involved in any of this, though several aspects bear a marked similarity to reports of mystical experiences.

Also, experiences similar to mystical experiences commonly occur under the influence of various legal or illegal drugs, but those drugs are decidedly not supernatural!

Then we need to consider experiences of similar intensity but with different subject matter. If you were to have a very vivid dream in which Gandalf figures prominently, you would not take that as evidence that The Lord of the Rings is history and that an archaeologist will someday stumble across the ruins of Rivendell or Minas Tirith. (Though an archaeologist friend once told me that many archaeologists secretly wish that they could do exactly that!)

It is for this reason that anecdotes of mystical experiences fail to be persuasive as evidence for God. They have too many similarities with other experiences to which we don’t ascribe a supernatural explanation. Unless we engage in God-of-the-Gaps reasoning, saying that we don’t understand how these experiences happen and therefore they come from God, we need some suggestions as to how these specific experiences reach our minds from outside, and in what way the means of their arrival is different from that of any other similar experience. I’m quite prepared to listen to any such explanations, provided they are backed by evidence supporting them. But none has ever been offered to me.


  1. Thanks for publishing this article here. A pity it wont appear on CIF.

    This pretty much covers the comment I made to your earlier post on "Types of God", but perhaps you don't pay much attention to older posts. I'm sure you have plenty to do.

    Anyway, I think my point was that these types of experience can be pretty hard to deal with rationally, as they can be pretty convincing if you don't already have a pretty solid secular point of view.

    What do you think of the so-called "third man syndrome"? There has been a book published about it fairly recently?

  2. Hi endiku

    I saw your earlier comment, but knowing I was about to publish this article, didn't respond directly. I suggest that "third man syndrome" is a subclass of the mystical experiences I have covered here, and as such didn't require any particular detailed mention.

    Of course, trying to find out how and why third man syndrome and other similar experiences occur is a fascinating topic for the psychologists and neurobiologists, and hopefully one day we will be able to understand these things better.

  3. An enjoyable read. It's pretty sad that AB has declined to print it. Along with other commentators I am becoming disenchanted with the Guardian. I shall be coming here more often for stimulating and open debate.

  4. A fine piece Jonathan thanks.

    I gave up completely on Cif several weeks ago and have been prowling about for blogs to like (apart from the great Heresy Corner where I practically live) and this is now on my wee list.

  5. God is - most definitely-you just have to look at most human beings who try their best- even without knowing it - to do good , or , at least,to do no harm.Also, the sense of humour is a giveaway.

  6. Evidence for God? So, ‘I’ll only believe if there is proof!’ ‘Show me the money!’.
    Do you see the catch? I woke and re-membered God but then I wasn’t looking. In my life I had often fought bullies and I always spoke out on injustices, because I was ‘moved’ to do so, it felt right that’s all, but then my experience of religion was that of hypocrisy, no one seemed to be the person they said they were.
    Why would you look for God? And where would you look? What do you see as God?
    The current pope, before he was made pope, covered up the activities of a paedophile priest in order to protect the church, the church that has now become more important than God. And due to that cover up more lives were ruined. Do you feel comfortable then affiliating yourself with a body that would do such things; do you believe they are God’s representatives on Earth just because they say they are?
    Remember Jesus often confronted the Pharisees of the temple because they hijack the Jewish faith due to their own selfish agenda.
    Jesus had no intention of starting a religion, he simply wanted to see a world that lived in a decent way, something you can’t actually legislate for. Thy shalt not kill?
    Like duhhhh, if you don’t know that killing is wrong, if you can’t feel that then how lost are you? Don’t steal…… well why would you? What’s your problem/issue/ reasoning?

    I woke! I was actually working at the Temple just before. (I headed a four man team of roofing Leadworkers laying 140 tonne if sheet lead to the lower roof slopes below the Dome, during the refurb in 1993/4.)

    It goes that the more I looked at the world and saw the hypocrisy, the more I saw the truth and then at some point the truth is all you see and that’s God!
    Religion can’t lead to God, why? Religion exists now for its own sake, the clothes you wear, the food you can eat, the boring ‘sacrifice/penance’ that you offer attending in body and yet not mind every week, in exchange for a better life for yourself? The ritual and weird robes they wear. If you can’t see the contradiction then you will never see anything much less God. I was born a Jew and am appalled seeing how the ‘Jewish’ nation treats the Palestinians, especially after how they were treated by the Nazi’s! Is it not obvious?
    Again, if you seek proof then you are not the genuine article, you should be ‘good’ as best you can manage with what you have and where you are, (no one is expecting you to be superman), but for goodness sake, not for a reward. Jesus gave up everything including his own life to try to help others!
    If you are trying to be good don’t bother, at least be true to yourself, if you are selfish then so be it, at least have the courage of your own convictions to be who you really are. No point in trying to fool God, how would that ever work? Better grab all you can now because there’s nothing for you after this life!
    If you are scared to be the ‘better’ person you feel you are then understand that fear is natural in this place. I would say be brave but then it’s not that easy is it, I understand, and obviously God understands. Try to free yourself, at least try, but then if you fail it’s okay, we all fail sometimes, more than we succeed in fact.
    Let your conscience be your guide, advice? Yeah we all love to give advice as broken as we all are.
    I would say, one day you will look back, and when you look back you may or may not want to feel good about your choices. If you do then you might want to live in a way that you will later be proud of, you are your own judge.
    I understand, I accept everyone, I know how hard it is out there! But then you may need to feel good about yourself…

    I wish I could show you what I woke to, but I can’t, I wish I could help you but I can’t cry your tears or laugh your laughter…..

    God is real, everything else is the illusion, so says I, someone you have never met.

    Steve Berg Wales UK