This piece was originally published on AlterNet.
As I’ve written before: Most of the arguments I encounter for religion are dreadful. They’re not even arguments. They’re attempts to make arguments go away: attempts to deflect legitimate questions; bigoted attacks on atheists’ character; fuzzy confusions between evidence and wishful thinking; the moral equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and yelling, “I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you!” Or worse.
But some arguments for religion and God are real arguments. They’re not good arguments — but they are arguments, sincere attempts to offer evidence supporting the God hypothesis. So I want to do these arguments the honor of engaging with them… and point out why, exactly, they don’t hold water.
Today’s argument: “I feel it in my heart.”
“I just sense God intuitively. (Or the soul, or the metaphysical world, or whatever.) I feel it. His existence seems obvious to me, in the same way that the existence of the Earth under my feet seems obvious. Why should I doubt that perception — any more than I doubt my perception of the Earth?”
This is a tricky one to argue against. Not because it’s a good argument — it’s not — but because it’s a singularly stubborn one. Religious experiences can be very vivid, very powerful. I had them myself, back when I had religious beliefs. (I still have them, in fact: I just don’t interpret them as religious anymore.) And they can feel real — almost as real as physical perception, in some ways even more so. What’s more, this argument is singularly resistant to reason… since, almost by definition, it’s not very interested in reason.
But here’s the problem. Well, one of many problems.
Our hearts and our minds can’t automatically be trusted.
As vivid as the experience of our hearts and minds can feel, if we’re going to treat it as evidence in support of a hypothesis, we can’t give it any more weight than we would anyone else’s experience. Intuition is important, but it’s notoriously unreliable and subject to bias. We have to step back from it, and view it like we’d view anyone else’s experience. And when we look at human experience in general, we see that our hearts and minds can’t automatically be trusted.
For starters: Lots of people have personal experiences of God. And those experiences are wildly different. Even completely contradictory. Some people experience a loving God who only wants us to be happy and take care of one another — others experience a vengeful God who rigidly judges every petty detail of our lives. Some people experience a nebulous World-Soul God, a fluid spirit animating all life — others experience a personal God, with a distinct personality and strong opinions and feelings. (Opinions etc. which, again, vary wildly from believer to believer.) Etc. The feelings people have in their hearts about God are almost as varied as the people having them. And these feelings change significantly throughout history.
If all these people were perceiving the same God… why would that be true?
That’s not true with our perception of the physical world. When we look at a tree, we can all pretty much agree about its basic features: how tall it is, what color it is, whether it still has leaves on it, etc. We might disagree about its taxonomy, or who it belongs to, or whether it’s prettier than another tree. But for the most part, our perceptions of the basic properties of the physical world are remarkably consistent. Especially when compared to our “perceptions” of the spiritual world. Our perceptions of the physical world are pretty consistent. Our “perceptions” of the spiritual world are all over the map.
All of which strongly suggests that, whatever people are experiencing when they experience God, it’s not something they’re perceiving in the external world. It’s something their brains are making up.
Which leads me to another problem, another way our minds and hearts can’t automatically be trusted.
By a striking coincidence, people’s experiences of God almost always conveniently dovetail with the beliefs they already have. Or, at least, with beliefs they’re familiar with. Christians have personal experiences of Jesus; Muslims have experiences of Allah; Hindus have experiences of Ganesh; etc. And again, these experiences have changed radically throughout history. People who never heard of Jesus don’t have visions of Jesus; people in societies that have relinquished belief in Zeus don’t have visions of Zeus.
Now, some will make the “blind men and the elephant” argument here: God is vast and complex, and everyone just perceives a different aspect of him. But that’s a terrible argument. The physical universe is also vast and complex… but by comparing notes and putting our heads together over decades and centuries, our understanding of it has advanced beyond our wildest imaginings. That is conspicuously not true for religion. In thousands of years, religion has not advanced one millimeter in its ability to explain or predict the world… or even in its ability to resolve differences between beliefs. All it has is “agreeing to disagree” at best — and hostile, even violent squabbling at worst.
So again I ask: If all these people were perceiving the same God… why would that be true?
All this, again, strongly suggests that this “intuitive perception” of God isn’t a perception of something real in the world. It strongly suggests confirmation bias: the human brain’s tendency to believe what it already believes, and to notice/ magnify data that supports our beliefs, and to ignore/ undervalue data that contradicts those beliefs. It strongly suggests that this “intuitive perception” of God or the supernatural is an experience the brain is generating on its own.
Which leads me to yet another problem; yet another way our minds and hearts can’t automatically be trusted.
When people say they’ve had a personal experience of God… that’s not really what they mean. What they really mean is, “I had a personal experience (X) — which I’m interpreting as a personal experience of God.”
What they mean is, “I heard a clear voice in my head telling me to change my life — which I interpreted as the voice of God.” “I saw a flood of light filling my visual field — which I interpreted as a vision of God.” “I felt a force gripping my hand and pulling me away from the accident — which I interpreted as the hand of God.” “I had an overwhelming experience of transcendent connection with something larger than myself — which I interpreted as an experience of God.” These people had mental and emotional experiences… which they interpreted as religious ones.
Now, to some extent, that’s true even of physical experience. As any college sophomore can tell you, we can’t be 100% sure that our physical perceptions aren’t hallucinations. (And in fact, we know that our physical perceptions sometimes deceive us.) When we see a tree, on some level what’s really happening is that our eyes take in a pattern of light and shadow and color… which our minds interpret as a tree.
But our physical perceptions have a consistency that — see above — is strikingly absent in religious experiences. Physical perceptions can be measured, replicated, verified. When we measure the height of a tree, we all consistently get the same answer; when we drop a rock, we all consistently see it land at the same time. (Or consistently enough.) That’s the whole point of the scientific method: it’s a method of verifying our physical perceptions of the world, and seeing if those perceptions can be replicated, and testing whether our interpretation of them is likely to be right.
All of which strongly suggests that, even if our interpretation of our physical perceptions is flawed, there is a real entity with real existence that we’re perceiving.
And that conspicuously does not work for religious experiences. There is no consistent way to induce a perception of Jesus in all people, or even in most people. Religious experiences are un-measurable, un-replicable, un-verifiable. Everyone who has them has them in different ways; there’s no way to consistently generate them; many people don’t have them at all. And attempts to verify religious experiences using rigorous, double-blind, placebo- controlled scientific methods have universally failed across the board.
And again, I ask: If all these religious experiences were perceptions of the same God… why would that be true?
Isn’t it much more likely that “feeling God in your heart” is an experience the brain is generating all on its own — not a perception of a real entity outside the brain? Isn’t it much more likely that, whatever’s happening in a religious experience, interpreting it as a voice or vision of God is almost certainly mistaken?
Which leads me, finally, to yet one more problem — probably the most serious problem, the problem that encompasses all these other problems, the most profoundly important way that our minds and hearts can’t automatically be trusted.
The human mind is very, very far from perfect.
The human mind is an amazing instrument… but it’s a strikingly flawed instrument, loaded with biases and cognitive errors.
And many of these cognitive errors have a powerful tendency to support religious belief. Our minds have a strong tendency to see intention, even when no intention exists — so we tend to see the design of a supernatural agent in events that are entirely natural. Our minds tend to see patterns, even when no pattern exists — so we see conscious supernatural design in events that are actually random. Our minds aren’t very good at understanding probability — so we think unusual events are more unlikely than they really are, and more in need of explanation by supernatural agency. Our minds tend to believe what we’re taught as children — which is why the strongest predictive factor for people’s religion is what religion they were raised with. Our minds tend to believe what we’re told by authority figures and others in our social group — which is how people’s religious beliefs get reinforced by people they trust. Our minds are wired with confirmation bias, the tendency to believe what we already believe, and to exaggerate evidence that supports our beliefs, and to ignore evidence that opposes them — so once people have a religious belief, they’re more likely to hang onto it. Our minds tend to hold onto beliefs we have a stake in — so once people have sacrificed time or money or happiness for their religion, they’re more likely to keep believing it.
Etc. Etc. Etc.
The human mind did not evolve to perceive and process information 100% accurately. The human mind evolved to find food and escape from predators. Many of our cognitive errors are important and useful in helping us function (or they were 100,000 years ago on the African savannah when we were hunting gazelles and escaping from tigers)… but they make our minds not entirely trustworthy as sources of information.
And even taking these cognitive errors into account, the mind doesn’t always operate as it should. You don’t have to be mentally ill, or even on drugs, to have weird experiences of things that aren’t there. It’s not that hard to alter our consciousness. Exhaustion, stress, distraction, trance-like repetition, optical illusion, sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, sensory overload… any of these, and more, can create vivid “perceptions” that are entirely disconnected from external reality.
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?”
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?”
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.
I still have experiences like this. But I no longer interpret them as religious. I’ve looked at the evidence — and I now understand that the supernatural is by far the least plausible explanation for them. I understand that feeling the presence of my dead loved ones is simply a form of memory. I understand that Tarot readings are simply cold readings, and that people can add up unconscious signals to read another person with what seems like telepathy. I understand that the feeling of transcendent connection with the universe is generated by my brain, and that while I still experience it vividly, it makes far more sense to interpret it as a physical connection rather than a supernatural one.
I understand all this… because I know my mind is not perfect. And I am not arrogant enough to think that, even with its imperfections, my mind and my perceptions are still the single most reliable source of information about the existence of the supernatural… even with the massive inconsistency in supernatural experiences, and the absence of any corroborating evidence for any supposedly supernatural event, and the consistent history of supernatural explanations never in all the world turning out to be right.
I understand that I am not a special snowflake. I understand that the feelings in my heart — as important as they are to me personally, as useful as they are in framing my subjective experience, as helpful as they can be in making day- to- day decisions and suggesting possible avenues of inquiry — do not, by themselves, constitute reliable evidence. I understand that my personal experience, as valuable as it is, is profoundly flawed, and needs to be corroborated before I make any definitive conclusions about the nature of the universe.
And if you’re going to be rigorous about your beliefs, you need to understand this as well. If “I feel it in my heart” is the only argument you can make for God, you’re going to have to find a better argument.
Also in this series:
Why ‘Everything Has a Cause’ Is a Terrible Argument for God
Why ‘Life Had To Have Been Designed’ Is a Terrible Argument for God
Why “The Universe Is Perfectly Fine-Tuned For Life” Is a Terrible Argument for God