Belief in God Though Religious Experience
Can you know God is real? Does Belief in God Though Religious Experience really mater?
The well-known atheist, Richard Dawkins, has frequently claimed that religion and science are the exact opposites. Science, he has said, is based on observation and reasoning, and it tests its hypotheses. Religion, on the other hand, discards reasoning and testing and is based on blind faith alone. The comparison assumes that belief in God is just like scientific theories in being a hypothesis, but unlike scientific theories in remaining unreasoned and untested.
This, however, is a serious misunderstanding. Belief in God is not a hypothesisat all. That is, it is not an educated guess in need of argument or testing. Rather it is an experience reportfrom people who have experienced God. Religious belief is based upon religious experience.
For many folks, the mention of “religious experience” conjures up thoughts of ecstatic visions, furniture flying around the room, or visits from angels. But the truth is that most of the experiences that generate belief in God are not wild or strange. If we define “religious experience” to mean any experience that generates, deepens, or confirms a religious belief, then the most frequent of all religious experiences among Christians is:
Belief in God Though Religious Experience – Seeing the gospel to be the truth about God from God.
That is the most basic sort of religious experience had by Christians. And since it is the experience of the truth of a belief, it is the same sort of experience which, in mathematics and logic, has long been called experiencing a truth to be “self-evident.” In Ephesians 1, St Paul tells the members of that church that he is praying for them concerning their knowledge of God which comes from having “the eyes of your hearts enlightened.” That is the same visual metaphor that had been used for centuries for self-evident truths: they are ones which we simply “see” to be true.
Notice that Paul doesn’t offer a proof that God exists; he doesn’t pile up “evidence,” or claim that there are features of the world that look designed rather than accidental. No, he speaks of believer’s hearts being “enlightened” so that they see (for themselves) the truth of the gospel. That truth is not inferred from other beliefs, but is “seen” directly, says Paul.
Paul’s position is therefore just about the reverse of the one taken by most Christian thinkers since his time. Most of the Christian theologians or philosophers who have written about belief in God have taken the approach of trying to prove its truth. Most, but not all.
There have always been some who rejected the idea of proving God’s reality, and I’m now going to quote two of them. The first is a Protestant theologian, John Calvin; the second is a Catholic scientist, Blaise Pascal. See if you don’t find them to be taking the same position despite phrasing it quite differently. Here is the way Calvin put it:
As to the question, How shall we be persuaded that [scripture] came from God… it is just the same as if we were asked, How shall we learn to distinguish light from darkness, white from black, sweet from bitter? Scripture bears upon the face of it as clear evidence of its truthas white and black do of their colors sweet and bitter of their taste
…Scripture, carrying its own evidence along with it, deigns not to submit to proofs and arguments, but owes the full conviction with which we ought to receive it tothe testimony of the Spirit of God….
(Inst. I, vii, 2; I, vii, 5)
Belief in God Though Religious Experience – Pascal’s phrasing of the same point:
We know truth not only with the reason, but also with the heart. It is in this latter way that we recognize first principles, and it is in vain that reason, which has no parttherein, tries to impugn them… For the knowledge of first principles – for example [of] space, time, motion, and number, [is] as sure as any of those procured for us by reason. And it is upon this knowledge of the heart and instinct that reason must rely and base all its arguments…
Those, therefore, to whom God has imparted religion by intuition are very fortunate and very rightly convinced.
(Pensees, # 214)
More recently this same position has been taken by the British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Here is but one example of his thinking on the subject:
A proof of God’s existence should really be something by which one could convince oneself of God’s existence. But I think that believers who have provided such proofs have wanted to give their “belief” an intellectual analysis and foundation, although they themselves would never have come to believe through such proofs….
Life can educate one to a belief in God. And also experiences can do this… e.g. sufferings of various kinds. These neither show us God in the way a sense impression shows us an object, nor do they give rise to conjecturesabout him. Experiences, thoughts, – life can force this concept upon us.
It is this position that will be explained, expanded, and defended in future postings of this blog. I invite all who are interested in a serious discussion of this topic to respond.
Philosopher-in-Residence at Christian Leaders Institute
The College of New Jersey