This is the first post in a series of posts providing counter-arguments to common religious apologetic arguments for God. Click here to see the list of all posts in the series.
This post is the first in a series that will focus on countering some of the more frequently heard arguments from religious apologists who are trying to defend the existence of God. Each post will tackle one such argument.
In this post, we will look at the “argument from religious experience”. The argument from religious experience reduces to this: transcendental religious experiences that certain people believe they have experienced are proof that God must exist.
So what are we talking about here? Examples of these religious experiences are instances of divine prophecy, visions of heaven, hearing voices of gods or angels, ecstatic worship, speaking in tongues, possession, or near-death experiences. Those are just a few of the various religious experiences that the faithful can believe have happened to them or someone else.
One term that will likely come up multiple times throughout this series is cherry-picking. Cherry-picking refers to one of the many logical fallacies that humans are prone to where we “cherry-pick” only the facts we like from all the available data in order to support our belief in something. In the case of what we are discussing here apologists are guilty of cherry-picking the religious experiences they believe in and ignoring experiences from other conflicting religions, from people with proven mental disorders, from instances of drug use, and from hoaxers. John Loftus in his Outsider Test for Faith asks the important question, “What evidence do you have for your faith that someone from another faith does not have?”
There is archaeological evidence of some form of divine communication going back tens of thousands of years. Early humans decorating cave walls with art depicting spiritual revelation show that for thousands upon thousands of years humans across the globe have believed in some form of religion. This is a problem for those using religious experiences to defend their particular god because if a god really did exist then we would expect him to be giving us the same message over time, but that is not what we observe.
Cultures all over the world and throughout history have been receiving different messages from their gods. Religions are all incompatible with one another and all of them have the same amount of evidence for the existence of their gods; just the claims of the believers. Meanwhile, if atheism is true and there is no God then we would expect that the messages people receive from God would be very inconsistent over time. God's instructions for moral behavior and the knowledge he imparts about the physical world would be on the same level of development as the culture that created the religion. That is exactly what we observe historically. That is why in the Bible you have God condoning things like slavery and murder. In the time when those passages were written that was morally acceptable behavior in certain situations.
From a biological perspective, we are learning more and more about the nature of the mind and learning that the kind of transcendental experiences people claim to have can be brought on by completely physical phenomena. Meditation, fasting, rhythmic dancing, and hallucinogenic drugs can all bring on these types of experiences, but that is not proof of the divine. It is only proof of how fallible our animal brains can be.
For decades now, neuropsychologist Dr. Michael Persinger has been experimenting with the effects of magnetic fields on the brain’s temporal lobes. He developed what is now sometimes called the “God Helmet”. By using magnetic fields tuned to specific wavelengths he was able to induce the sensation in test subjects that they were perceiving or in the presence of God. Persinger describes religious experiences as a side-effect of our brain’s interconnected regions signaling each other. When the right side of the brain, where emotion comes from, is stimulated in the area believed to control our sense of self, the subjects would feel a presence. And when the left side of the brain, where our language center is located, tries to make sense of this presence, it can often label it as God, or some other spiritual being.
This kind of neural short-circuiting can also be sparked by drugs. Ancient people were well aware of certain types of mushrooms and plants that could produce altered states of consciousness. They would ingest these hallucinogenic substances in order to “receive visions from God”. Our modern scientific understanding now allows us to know these were hallucinations.
Fasting, rhythmic dancing, or meditation have also been shown to produce these states under the right conditions. And like most practices, repeatedly performing the behavior allows people to enter the necessary frame of mind more easily and quickly on successive attempts. Yes, “practice makes perfect” is true for religious experiences. But that is not the result of some divine being, it is the result of new neural pathways developing and being reinforced between different regions of the brain through repetition. Some people are also genetically predisposed to be able to access this frame of mind more easily. Their “neural wiring” is such that they can feel this other presence or see these visions without as much effort as those not predisposed.
The argument from religious experience is not proof of God. All it proves is that evolution has provided us with a brain that is not only capable of being fooled, but can quite easily fool itself.