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Why 'I Feel It In My Heart' Is a Terrible Justification for God's Existence

As vivid as the experience of our hearts and minds can feel, it's unreliable and subject to bias.

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So we can't automatically trust our personal experiences. If we want to be reasonably sure that our experiences are real -- or more to the point, that our interpretations of these experiences are correct -- we have to be willing to subject these experiences to corroboration and rigorous testing.

So here's the thing.

If you're going to be rigorous about your beliefs, and if you're going to use your personal experience as evidence supporting your beliefs, you have to treat that experience no differently from anyone else's experience. You have to step back from your experience, and view it exactly as you'd view anyone's experience. You have to treat your own experience as just another data point.

You can't say, "I had an intense personal experience of God -- therefore God exists." You have to say, "That's interesting. Person X (insert your name here) had an intense personal experience of God. What's the most plausible explanation for this? Is there any corroborating evidence for this being an accurate perception of a real god? Are other people's experiences of God consistent with this one? Does this experience too conveniently dovetail with this person's biases and expectations? Is there a better explanation than a real perception of a deity? Is it more likely to have been a psychological glitch in this person's brain function?"

You can't treat yourself as a special snowflake. As vivid as your own experiences may feel to you, you can't give them any more weight than you would anyone else's experiences.

And if someone else's personal experience of Allah or Ganesh or the invisible dragon in their garage wouldn't persuade you that Allah or Ganesh or the invisible dragon is real... you shouldn't let your own personal experience of God persuade you that God is real.

I once had a debate with a believer, who asked, "If you saw a zebra in front of your house, would you ignore the evidence of your senses, simply because a zebra in front of your house is highly implausible?"

My answer?

Yes.

That is exactly what I would do.

If I saw a zebra in front of my house, I would want to test that perception before assuming that it was correct. I'd ask other people in my neighborhood if they'd seen a zebra. I'd call the zoo and ask if any of their zebras had escaped. I'd call the newspaper, and ask if they'd heard any other reports of zebra sightings. I'd post on Facebook, ditto. I'd check for zebra droppings.

And if none of these inquiries confirmed my sighting of a zebra, I would conclude that I almost certainly hadn't seen a zebra after all. I'd conclude that I was sleep deprived, or that it had been an optical illusion, or that some neighborhood prankster had painted a horse to look like a zebra.

Or I'd conclude that I didn't know what had happened... but it almost certainly wasn't a zebra.

And given the wildly inconsistent, absurdly contradictory, entirely uncorroborated nature of religious experiences -- given the strength of the arguments against religion, and the weakness of the arguments in favor of it -- a zebra in front of my house is a whole lot more likely than God.

Back when I was a believer, I used to have religious experiences. I would walk down the street, and suddenly feel the vivid presence of someone I loved who had died. I would read Tarot cards, and feel an almost physical spirit move through my mind as I spoke to people about their lives with uncanny perceptiveness. I would look at trees or clouds, and feel an overwhelming sense of connection with a living force that animated all existence.

 
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