Is a religious experience evidence for God?

Dan Barker

God is imaginary.

But imagination is real.

So . . . the religious experience is a real experience. It happens to many believers in all religions. It happened to me.

It can STILL happen to me. Even as an atheist, I can make my mind go back into the “religious experience” mode and relive all those very real feelings. (What a weird sensation for a nonbeliever! I don't do it very often, but every couple of years, when I am all by myself, I will try it out, just to see if my brain has changed.) They are powerful and motivating feelings. When I was a believer, those experiences, though not necessary for my faith, were very confirming of my faith.

But to say that imagination and the religious experience are “real” does not mean that the objects or persons that are imagined or experienced are real entities.

Religious experiences can be life-changing. But that does not mean they are not imaginary.

For example, you wake up one night screaming from a nightmare, sitting up straight in bed. You wake up the whole house. Your palms are sweating. Your heart is racing. Your breathing is quickened. No one can deny that you have had a very real and powerful experience.

But there is no monster crawling through the window.

It is all in your mind.

I happen to be one of those people who is exquisitely susceptible to mystical or “spiritual” experiences. I suppose there is a standard distribution across our species of such a characteristic--whatever you call it, maybe a trait, or weakness, or tendency, or creative ability. Let’s call it a “susceptibility to mysticism.” My brain happens to fall way over to one side of the bell curve, just shy of psychotically hearing actual voices but squarely within the realm of “hearing the voice of God” in my mind.

I think this tendency varies across our species much like other traits such as height, eye color, musical talent, phobias, metabolism and thousands of other things. Each of us has an idea where we are on that spectrum, with most of us falling somewhere in the middle. Some of you used to sit in church and look around, wondering what the heck everyone else was feeling, while you felt nothing. Others of us gleefully joined in, getting goose bumps, experiencing the “joy of the spirit,” and the “love of God,” the indescribable “peace that passes understanding,” a sense of connectedness with “the divine.” My father-in-law Paul Gaylor was sitting in church one day as a child when it dawned on him: “My parents are nuts! They actually believe this stuff.” James Randi was that way. For some people, religion never takes. Richard Dawkins put on the “spirit” helmet and he felt nothing. I would probably start babbling in tongues if they put that contraption on me.

Some of you don’t know what the heck I am talking about. But some of you do. It depends where you happen to fall on that bell curve.

And I did get goose bumps. I can still get goose bumps when I make myself go back into the “spirit” mode. Even as an atheist, I can “talk with God,” and I feel this comforting parent figure to the top of my skull, telling me all is well, loving me unconditionally. It is a great feeling. But it is imaginary.

When I was a believer, I used to think those goose bumps were evidence of the Holy Spirit. I wondered how people could be so blind to deny something so powerful, so real. I imagined that someone like James Randi or Richard Dawkins must be “spiritually blind.” I felt sorry for you skeptics and nonbelievers--you were missing out on something wonderful.

I now know that goosebumps are not evidence of the Holy Spirit. Actually, goose bumps are evidence of evolution. Why do we get goose bumps? What possible use is there for those little nips on our skin? We get them because our ancestors were much hairier. When it is cold, an animal with hair (or a bird with feathers, hence “goose” bumps) can produce some thermal control by raising the fur or feathers, creating an air cushion around the body. Such an act can also make you look larger, which comes in handy when threatened by an attacker. We’ve all seen animals do that.

So, when do you usually get goose bumps? When you are cold or scared. Or sometimes, when you sense a presence nearby, whether real or imagined.

It happened to me when I was shoveling snow one winter and I turned and saw a person standing beside me. It was frightening. But it was just a trash bin. I had a powerful, fearful imaginary experience. Those ancestors of ours who did not raise their fur in such situations (real or imagined) had on average a lesser probability of survival and reproduction than those who did. Hence, they bequeathed such a tendency to us.

I think something similar must have happened with the “religious experience.” Since so many people profess to have such experiences, it is not unreasonable to hypothesize that there may have been a survival benefit conferred by possessing some kind of delusion. (Some scientists call it an “agency detector” or “hyperactive agency detector.”)

Just like goosebumps, which we don’t need any more because we have lost most of our fur, the religious experience may be an artifact of some long-past evolutionary adaptation that is no longer necessary for survival.

In any event, wherever it comes from, I have inherited that tendency from my ancestors, and like most other tendencies, it is variable across the species. Some people are more likely to get goosebumps than others. I suppose there are some people who never do, or rarely do get goosebumps.

And yes, you can have a religious experience without the physical goosebumps.

So when someone tells you God is real because they have had a religious experience -- they say they “know in my heart” or “God talks to me” or “I have a personal relationship with Jesus” or “I possess the inner witness of the Holy Spirit” -- don’t just ridicule and laugh at them. Tell them that you understand, that you believe them, that you know that the human race has inherited an immense proclivity across cultures to imagine things that are powerful, that you agree they are having a very real mental experience. You just don’t think it points to anything outside of the mind. There is no monster crawling through the window, and no god in heaven.

To be fair, we have to admit that just because something is imaginary does not mean it does not exist. Although my Dad is a trombone player, I can imagine him playing the flute. But just because I am imagining it does not mean he is NOT playing the flute. If it turns out that my Dad is in fact playing the flute, I will know it by the evidence, not by my imagination.

There is most probably no God. (The probability of the existence of God is so low that we can effectively round it down to zero.)  The “God” that people picture in their minds is imaginary. Even though there is no evidence or good argument for a god, there is a very tiny probability that such a being still might exist, in spite of our imagination, or lack of imagination. But the imagination itself, the religious experience itself, cannot count as evidence for such a creature.

Religious experience is evidence for the amazing creative capabilities of the human mind, and for nothing more.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

FFRF has received a 4 star rating from Charity Navigator

 

FFRF privacy statement

AAI-LOGO

FFRF is a member of Atheist Alliance International.