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.