Is Personal Experience Evidence for a God?
Apologetics and Rational Faith
There are scores of apologists in the world. There are apologists for Islam, for Christianity, for almost all major religions world-wide. These apologists specialize in defending their religion of choice, or can even participate in "negative apologetics", meaning that they identify claims made by other religions and attempt to refute them. No matter how well-versed or familiar you are with philosophical, ethical, moral or evidence-based arguments for the existence of this God or that God, the fact of the matter remains that few people convert to a belief based on philosophy or argumentation. Most people convert to a religion because they are emotionally convinced of its truth - they had a personal experience that was sufficient enough to convince (or confirm) that the belief system that they were already familiar with was, in fact, accurate and was worth of belief. Personal experiences are powerful and intense phenomenon - but are they reliable evidence that can justify specific religious belief? Can personal experiences be considered evidence at all? If so, what category of evidence do they fall under? What are the problems inherent with using personal experience as evidence?
The Problems with Personal Experience:
- Personal experience, on its own, is potential the logical fallacy of anecdotal evidence. Anecdotal evidence is insufficient when used in an attempt to convince others, and it's typically employed by those who lack compelling evidence or compelling evidence making the case.
- It's purely subjective. It goes without saying that personal experience is, well, personal. It cannot be confirmed or falsified by anyone else, and as such cannot be considered convincing to anyone other than the person who experienced it.
- It's source is undetermined. While believers of many religions are quick to point to a personal experience that they've had and attribute it to the God that they already believe in, there is no justifiable or logical way to confirm the source is, in fact, that one that is claimed. No God shows up in the room with a driver's license to confirm that it is, in fact, the one that helped you locate your car keys, enabling you to make it to work on time. The person having the experience gets to choose from thin air whoever they wish to credit - and there's simply no way to confirm or deny this base claim.
- Personal experiences are, by definition, subject to confirmation bias. I know of no examples in which someone raised in a predominantly Christian culture has an experience out of the blue that they somehow determined came from Allah. Likewise, I know of know Muslim who has a personal experience with Yahweh and converts to Judaism. Most often, the experience is credited to the predominant religion already present in an individual's culture.
- Speaking of culture, personal experiences are not simply limited to one religion over another. Personal experiences are claimed in every religious belief from Native American tribal religions to Christians to Muslims to Buddhists. They occur all over the world, and are strikingly similar in their detail. If only one God exists, as many major religions claim, and only one God could therefore be responsible for perpetrating these experience, how would a believer in a particular religion explain personal experiences claimed by those in opposing and contradictory religions?
The Foundation of Three Significant Religions
The sacred sites of three of the major world religions
Personal Experience and Conversion
Personal experience and anecdotal evidence bears no purpose except to the person who experienced them. They cannot be useful tools in converting others to a specific belief, although they can be useful when conversing with others of the same faith, confirming pre-existing ideas and biases among a group of like-minded believers. We see Christians constantly praising God for helping them find the car keys to a rousing chorus of "amens" from an appreciative and impressed crowd, completely ignorant to the fact that while God, a claimed omnipotent and all-powerful deity, was helping you find your car keys to keep you from being late to school (or church), hundred of people were dying of starvation or in a typhoon on the opposite side of the world.
Since personal experiences cannot possibly be duplicated, confirmed or falsified, they simply cannot be utilized to convince those outside of your faith tradition that your specific faith is true - especially to the exclusion of all others. Yet believers become defensiveness when their personal experiences are questioned. Does this signify a deeper understanding that these experiences simply cannot be quantified or confirmed, or do believers simply double-down with what they consider the best evidence possible, as these experiences happened directly to them, not realizing how silly they may sound to someone of differing (or no) beliefs whatsoever?
Personal Experience in Conversation
I'm astounded at the number of times I've entered into a conversation with a theist of multiple types and had the conversation boil down to the fact that they've had a personal experience with a deity, thus justifying their faith in that deity to the exclusion of all others. The conversation can be about the reliability and verifiability of scripture. It can be about historical evidence for the person of Jesus Christ. It can be about the history of the early church or the influence of the church on medieval theocracy - but ultimately, the majority of these conversations boil down to faith and personal experiences. 99% of the time, if you can get a theist to remove the shackles of dogmatic apologetic arguments that are meant to be convincing (but aren't), the reason that they believe in their particular religion is because they've had an experience of a purely personal nature that confirms what they either believed to be true or questioned. Yet when these experiences are questioned - even in the Socratic sense - they immediately go on the defensive, as if they are being personal accosted by questions.
Ultimately, although I doubt the veracity of personal experiences offered as proof or evidence for a specific deity, I want to know how the believer reached their specific conclusions. Everyone has experiences within their lives that are not easily explained. A lack of an explanation, however, does not mean that we are free to simply make one up. If I stub my toe in the morning and I take it as a sign from Buddha that I am not supposed to go into work that day, and I should instead stay home and read a book, am I free to draw that conclusion? Absolutely. Am I justified in insisting that conclusion is accurate and should be believed? Absolutely not.
It boggles my mind how often little time is spent by the believer trying to understand their experience. If something unexplained happens to me, the first thing I want to know is why. I want to test different options to see if the experience can be duplicated. If I'm near another person when it occurs, I want to know if they saw or experienced it as well, or how their perception differs from mine. I want to know what all the possibilities are before I simply decide on one - if I decide on one at all. I am perfectly fine with saying "that was weird, I don't know what that was, but since I've investigated and reached no logically justifiable conclusion, I will chalk it up to unknown right now until I have more information". Believers, it seems, are simply not comfortable with this option, if they even consider it at all. It seems they are all-too-eager to jump to the God explanation, regardless of whether or not it's logical or rational. How do Christians know, for example, that Allah didn't help them find the car keys because he's the one, true God? Why do Muslims never seem to come to the conclusion that the New Testament was right about Jesus all along, because he clearly helped them out of a traffic jam? The subjective and bias-driven nature of these experiences seems to negate their effectiveness, removing their ability to act as evidence in the first place.
Personal Experience: The Test
The next time you find yourself in a conversation that ultimately devolves into a discussion on the efficacy of personal experience as it relates to evidence, there is a simple test that can be administered. Remember that believers of all stripes are often very defensive of what they consider to be personal evidence for the existence of their God - and you want to be as delicate, considerate and polite as possible to avoid the accusations of mocking - at least if you're interested in continuing the conversation. Ask questions, for example:
- how did your determine where your experience came from? They may reveal conformation bias here, so be wary of special pleading and other fallacious arguments. If they ask you to prove that their experience wasn't from their God, remind them that that is shifting the goal-posts, and since you were not there and didn't experience it, disproving their claim is not possible, and if they're going to use their experience as evidence, the burden of proof rests on them.
- How do you explain similar personal experiences that are claimed by people of different sects, denomination or religious traditions than their own? Often believers seem unaware that people from other religions experience similar phenomenon, crediting it to a far different God than the one believed by the person you're speaking with.
- Have they considered other alternatives? Often, the answer will be a resounding no. But remind them that strange occurrences happen to everyone, and without examining other possibilities, there is little reason to assume that the conclusions that they have drawn are, in fact, correct. Many times believers, absent any alternative explanation, will insist that the conclusions that they've drawn from their experience are the most likely to be true. Asking a follow up question on how that most likely scenario is quantified most certainly won't change their mind, but it may get the ball rolling on the thought process that led up to the drawing of their conclusions in the first place.
Is Personal Experience Justifiable as Evidence for a Specific God?
Ultimately when a believer brings up personal experience as evidence (or likely in place of evidence) you may simply have to agree to disagree. You can attempt to explain why personal experience is unconvincing to you personally, and you may bring up some of the reasons outlined in this hub. But what a believer chooses to posit based on personal experiences they may have had has little do with a skeptic or a believer of a different, opposing faith. The problem only comes when believers attempt to use personal evidence as evidence in the way that it is designed to convince or convert others to their faith. Can personal experience be considered evidence? Yes, in a sense. It is evidence for the believer themselves, although it is admittedly weak in the scope of evidence types. But as a tool for conversion or for convincing others, it simply cannot be utilized.