David Kyle Johnson Ph.D.

A Logical Take

Why 62% of Philosophers are Atheists (Part V)

"Can Religious Experience Justify Belief?" A Reply to Alvin Plantinga

Posted Feb 16, 2014

(This is the fifth installment of a review of Gary Gutting’s interview with Alvin Plantinga for The Stone, entitled “Is atheism rational?”)

Last entry, I argued that belief in the moon is not like belief in God. We don’t give up believing in the moon, even though we no longer need it to explain lunacy, because we can see the moon. But since we can’t see God, the fact that God is no longer needed to explain many things he was previously used to explain—the weather, the diversity of life, and the universe—is good reason to doubt God’s existence.

Plantinga is likely to respond to this objection by suggesting that, just like the moon, he has seen (directly experienced) God and thus he is justified in believing in God's existence despite the fact that God does not explain anything.  “The most important ground of belief is probably not philosophical argument but religious experience.” According to Plantinga, his religious experiences are imparted to him through the “sensus divinitatus” (a kind of sixth sense John Calvin supposed we had by which the holy spirit causes us to have religious beliefs). These religious experiences justify his belief that God exists, Plantinga says, in the same way that his visual experience of a tree justifies him in believing that a tree exists.

But can religious experiences really justify religious beliefs? Plantinga mentions the religious beliefs had by people all over the world in different religions as evidence that such experiences are genuine; in reality, however, such experiences actually count as evidence against his claim. He says “[m]any people of very many different cultures have thought themselves in experiential touch with a being worthy of worship. They believe that there is such a person…” Let me stop you right there. Actually, no. The mono-theistic religions believe this power is a person, but Hindus do not. Their religious experience teaches them that it is an impersonal force. Buddhists’ religious experience teaches that it is, essentially, nothing. And what the mono-theistic religions believe this person wants and says is completely different. Christian religious experience (like that of the Apostle Paul) reveals that Jesus was God, whereas the religious experience of Muhammad revealed that he was not and that it would be blasphemous to even suggest such a thing.

We could put it this way: Religious experience tells the 5 major world religions entirely different things. But at best, only one religion is true. Each religion makes claims that directly contradict the claims of the others; it can’t be the case that Christians are right about Jesus being divine, and Muslims are also right about him not being divine. Either he was or he wasn’t. But, if at best only one of the five major world religions is true, and yet religious experience is telling people of these religions that all these different, contradictory, things, then at best religious experience is producing true belief only 1 out of every 5 times. In fact, if we factor in the major split that exists in each religion, it’s really only about 1 out of every 10 times. Anything that, at best, only produces true belief 10% of the time can’t be said to be reliable. (You would never believe anything someone said, if you knew that 90% of what they said was a lie.) Thus religious experience cannot confer justification upon religious belief.

Worse yet, it is never rational to believe that a religious experience is authentic. In order for it to be authentic, a religious experience must be caused by a supernatural entity or force, like God. Otherwise, it’s not really a religious experience. If Plantinga’s belief in God, for example, was ultimately caused by a temporal lobe seizure, we would not say that it was justified; seizures do not reliably produce beliefs. Besides, belief in the existence of some thing X, needs to be grounded in the existence of X, not some completely unrelated thing that could cause my belief in X even though X does not exist. Yet, for any given religious experience, there will always be multiple non-supernatural explanations for it, and the supernatural explanation will never be the better than all of them.  

When trying to determine the cause of something, the most reliable means of doing so is abduction—inference to the best explanation. One should accept the explanation that, among other things…

                …is the most parsimonious (does not unnecessarily invoke extra entities),

                …has the widest scope (has the most explanatory power and increases understanding).

Yet supernatural explanations for religious experiences will always invoke extra entities and never increase understanding. Supernatural explanations always raise more questions than they answer: how does the supernatural force work, where does it come from, why is it causing this in me but not others, etc. On the other hand, there will always be simpler, more explanatory, non-supernatural explanations available. We actually do know that temporal lope seizures can cause religious experiences; we know that fasting, going without sleep, and other such altered states change the brain and cause religious experiences. Even one’s environment—like seeing a charismatic speaker—can cause one’s brain to produce such an experience. Every one of those explanations is more parsimonious (they do not invoke unexplained entities) and explains more than the supernatural explanation. They increase our understanding and do not raise more questions than they answer.

Inevitably, those who defend the legitimacy of religious experiences will claim that the supernatural entity could be causing the experience through these states. Maybe God gives you the seizure; maybe fasting enables your brain to tap into a supernatural realm. Of course, this is possible, but the fact that something is possible does not make it true. (This is another basic tenet of logic and critical thinking.) And each such explanation invokes the supernatural when it is not necessary, making it a less parsimonious and thus inferior explanation. “A seizure caused the religious experience” will always be simpler than “The seizure caused the religious experience, and God caused the seizure.” And, of course, that makes such explanations unjustified.

 (For more, see my article (published in Philo), “Why Religious Experience Can’t Justify Religious Belief.”)

Copyright, David Kyle Johnson 2014

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