An Argument Against The Argument from Religious Experience

In the comments on an earlier post I voiced the beginnings of an argument against religious experience as a legitimate source of knowledge about God. The basic idea behind the argument is that the idea that God would selectively reveal Himself is incompatible with his being a perfectly moral Being. Here is how I put it then,

It seems to me that if there really were a God he would make it clearer…the Old testament seems to have it right…He is constantly involved in teh affairs of His people…True, he reveals himself only to a select few, but everyone can see that he is acting in the world (e.g. the plauges in Egypt are witnessed by many, many people). But this doesn’t happen any more…furthermore why would a God who loved me not reveal Himself to me? The existence of God is clearly one of the most important questions that Mankind has ever pondered…doesn’t it seem immoral of Him to reveal the Truth to you but not to me?

[I mean, s]uppose that I love you and that I know everything about you. Also suppose that one of your deepest desire is to know whether I am alive or not. You don’t think that that would give me some reason for letting you know that I am alive? Now imagine an infinitely loving being. What possible reason could that being have for staying hidden? I claim none. So if God selectively reveals himself then He acts immorally

Enigman recently pointed me to a recent post at Siris which is from the autobiography of a 19th Century Saint who seems to voice similar concerns as I do. Here is teh brief passage;

I often asked myself why God had preferences, why all souls did not receive an equal measure of grace. I was filled with wonder when I saw extraordinary favours showered on great sinners like St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. Mary Magdalen, and many others, whom He forced, so to speak, to receive His grace….

Our Lord has deigned to explain this mystery to me. He showed me the book of nature, and I understood that every flower created by Him is beautiful, that the brilliance of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not lessen the perfume of the violet or the sweet simplicity of the daisy. I understood that if all the lowly flowers wished to be roses, nature would lose its springtide beauty, and the fields would no longer be enamelled with lovely hues. And so it is in the world of souls, Our Lord’s living garden. He has been pleased to create great Saints who may be compared to the lily and the rose, but He has also created lesser ones, who must be content to be daisies or simple violets flowering at His Feet, and whose mission it is to gladden His Divine Eyes when He deigns to look down on them. And the more gladly they do His Will the greater is their perfection.

I can’t seem to tell if he is here addressing the same issue as I am or not. The talk about the roses and daiseys makes me think that it has something to do with some of us not being as blessed as others, but then again maybe it is the case that His revealing Himself is a blessing and so he really is addressing the same issue as I am. At anyrate, his answer doesn’t seem that convincing. His argument seems to be that a world in which God revealed Himself to everyone would be a world that was in some sense not as good as a world where he only selectively revealed Himself…but how could that be?

19 thoughts on “An Argument Against The Argument from Religious Experience

  1. Hi Richard,

    I’m not really the one to answer this one, you need an answer from God (or someone S/he’s chosen to act as Postie), but a world where God was visible to all would be Heaven, and it is said that God Created Heaven AND Earth, and so I guess the answer would be that no, Heaven is not worse than Earth, but Earth is not Heaven. Maybe nobody on Earth gets a very direct revellation, and if so then it seems reasonable that the quality and quantity of the revellation should depend upon the natures of the media, and in particular upon the senses of the receivers. Maybe God talks to everyone (in the indirect, Earthly way), and some hear better than others etc. (not very satisfying answer though)

    Your question could then become (I guess), why weren’t we all Created very equally, at least in such perceptual respects? The standard answer has something to do with the Fall; although I prefer to think of God as like (in some sense) a Scientist (like in the Brain-in-a-Vat scenarios, and with the motive of seeking out knowledge that not even a maximally knowledgable being could have), as mentioned in my Science and Omniscience

    Anyway, re the Old T getting it right, about God stomping about, it seems weird to me that a God would do that at all. Think of the analogous situation, of the Scientist having brains (or AIs) in vats (or with controlled inputs)… such behaviour on the part of God would indicate that something had gone very wrong (cf. Agent Smith in the Matrix)… although I guess that S/he might do a bit of stomping, it would depend (according to my view) on the precise details of the motivation for Creation (of which I’ve no revellation unfortunately)

  2. (incidentally, about 5 years ago my answer would’ve been, think of what looks a bit like a yellow triangle, except that one of its sides is bent, and the colour is a bit dingy at the edges: is it just a crap triangle, and why is it yellow? Or is it just a part of a perfectly shaped circle, coloured with all the colours of the spectrum, itself part of a more complete sphere, etc… That is, we’re asking, why aren’t things more perfect, i.e. simpler, when it might be that we should be thinking that things might be part of a more complex whole, one that is perfect in a bigger and better way)

  3. Hi Enigman,

    I read your post on Science and Omniscience and I am not sure I am following the argument…I have trouble understanding Gos-as-scientist because I find it hard to accept that God would need to find out anything…but I am probably missing the point that you were trying to make….

    Re you point about Heaven…well by the time we get there we don’t need any proof of God’s existence! My point is that if God really loved us, as He says he does, then He would not hide himself from us. So, for instance, in Revelations it says that after the Tribulation God will reveal Himself and then we will have 1000 years to learn about Him afterwhich we have to make a decision: follow Him or die…why must He wait until after the Tribulation to do this? Why not right now?

    Hi Jason, thanks for the link! I did not know that there was a whole anthology devoted to this issue!! I want to check it out immediately…I must say that I am not convinced by the ‘revealing would constitue a threat’ argument. The threat is already in place, and the scenerio described in Revelations is exactly the threatening one they describe…

  4. This is a thought and is not intended as anything more than something you may wish to ponder regarding why an endlessly loving and completely perfect God would not go to the ends of the earth to reveal himself to each individual. Perhaps he wants to be trusted, particularly on the basis that people who are skeptical about something cannot be convinced of something until they want to be convinced of it. For me, I openly and fervently doubted that God was anything more than a tyrant devoted to my suffering until I worked towards getting sober – and I have no other explanation why the unbearable and unbeatable urge to drink disappeared other than the conclusion that God removed it from me when I prayed for it and allowed him, the God who I was so terrified of and hateful towards, to have his way with all my affairs. Of course this is my experience and ridding oneself of drunkenness will cause a profound change in anyones world view. So thats my thought – take it as such. In summary I think that if people don’t want to accept something, there is nothing that can convince them otherwise until they become truly open to the idea they are skeptical of. After all, there is no conclusive way to prove that God exists and even if he came down from the sky and turned the sea into Pepsi, there would be people who still doubted it.

    P.S. The other thought that comes to mind is that if God is truly the perfect moral being with infinite wisdom (you implied that for the purposes of argument, God is the perfect moral being and is both omnipotent and omniscient) and assuming that we are NOT perfect moral beings with infinite wisdom, then logically we cannot measure him by our standard – but following this logic, one can also come to the conclusion that killing the firstborn son of everyone in Egypt is in following with the perfect moral and ethical ideal. So thats another thing to ponder, if you wish to. I am sure that both ideas have occurred to you but in the interest of making a sound case, you may wish to address both (and I think I have given you ample counterargument for the latter principle)

  5. Hi Nipon621,

    Thanks for the comment!!

    The problem with this kind of argument is that it relies on a faulty assumption. You say “people who are skeptical about something cannot be convinced of something until they want to be convinced of it.” I just don’t think that that is true, or that it should be. If God started doing things now like He reportedly did in ancient time (I mean showing up and destroying cities and sending prophets that correctly predicted catrostrophic events, and parting the red sea and etc) then no one could be skeptical about God’s existence. Deny His existence would then be like denying that the Earth is round or not the center of the universe. It is this one-by-one nonsense which creates all of the mystery about His existence and it is that which I argue a perfectly moral being would not do. So the issue is not whether people would continue to doubt even if he came dfown from the sky, but whether they could reasonably doubt it, which they couldn’t.

    As for the other stuff about not beinga ble to judge God by our standards, I just do not agree. Granted He is perfect and we are not, He knows everything and we do not, He is perfectly rational and we are liable to make mistakes, and on and on. Even so, why don’t our limited rational standards apply to him? If the laws of logic are necessary then even God will be bound by them. If this kind of view is correct then we should expect God to respect the laws of logic, and if so we can use them to evaluate His behavior just as we do to evaluate ours. Thus I do think it is wring to think that a lot of the stories we tell about God cannot literally be true of a perfectly moral being UNLESS there is some kind of information that I do not have access to which would provide the justifying reason for His behavior…but then the question of whether it is moral for such a being to with-hold that from me come sup…something for you to ponder…

  6. If I were to be Pauline about this, I’d be tempted to ask “Why assume God is in fact hidden?”.

    The answer might be “because not all know of Him.”

    But if it is asked “How do we know that not all know of Him,” the only answer – it seems to me – can be “because some have said that they don’t.”

    But then the question becomes “Why assume that all are telling the truth on this point?”.

    If God says “All know of Me,” and Bob says “I don’t now of Him,” who are we obligated to believe?

    Paul said “let God be deemed true, though every many a liar.”

    There is more though, i.e. more questions to press.

    After all, grant Paul his point. We can then ask “Why do men suppress their knowledge of God”.

    Paul: Because they hate Him, His authority, etc.

    So we then ask, “If He is good, why hate Him?”.

    Paul: Because they are trapped in Sin. They are slaves. They cannot help but hate the light that they’ve turned against.

    “But then what explains the difference between one of these sinful, knowledge-suppressing men giving up their rebellion, and another not doing so?”

    Paul: God

    “You mean God decides who will turn back to Him and who won’t?”

    Paul: Yes

    “But then why does he find fault with those that don’t?”

    Paul: Shut up.

  7. First of all, God reveals himself to people when they are in a need for him much greater than any other need. A world in which God revealed himself to everyone would mean a world without development, in my opinion you can’t develop your faith without hardships for example look at Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son (Genesis 22:2). This world would nonsensical.

    By the way, please learn to proof read I’m not sure ‘teh’ is in the dictionary.

  8. So, then, the world was nonsensical as depicted in the old testament?

    Generally this line of argument you make doesn’t make any sense. Hardships are one thing, God revealing himself is another thing (notice that in the very thing you cite, Abraham, there is a revealing). But more generally how would a world where, if there were a God, God made his presence manifestly known to everyone be nonsensical? Because of lack of faith? Even granting that there would be no faith in such a world (that is not obvious…it depends on what you mean by faith…some mean something like ‘trust’ when they use faith and there could be that in such a world…) how is it nonsensical?

    btw, please learn to get over yourself and embrace teh ‘teh’

    • No, the Old Testament world was not nonsensical, because during the time of the Old Testament things were documented a lot more than now a days (unless you want to count ridiculous magazines depicting lies).

      Also, the Old Testament was before the first coming of Jesus; when Jesus was around, God had him to work through and used Jesus to provide the ‘religious experiences’.

      A world were God’s presence was manifested in everyday life would be a world without faith because if all you had to do to get a response from God was to say ‘hey God, I don’t think you’re real, show yourself to me’ then life would be far too easy. I don’t believe I would be a strong a Christian as I am if I hadn’t had to just completely have faith and a belief that God was watching over me and guiding me through the hardships, especially during times when it probably would have been easy to just turn around and be like ‘you know what my life is awful, there can’t be a God because he’s making my life a mess’, but through strength in my religion and faith I, and many people before and after me, manage to get over that feeling. If God was making himself known through religious experience left right and centre then NO ONES beliefs would develop to become a stronger faith AND trust.

      Oh and by the way, I’m not trying to be big headed or anything of the sort, but if you’re going to try and get an intelligent argument across like yours you might want to use correct spelling, especially if you want to be took seriously which I’m sure you do, that’s all I’m saying!

      • * … want to be taken seriously …

        The thing about being a grammar Nazi is that you inevitably shoot yourself in the foot. I would be more likely to complain about Richard’s typos if they actually made his posts difficult to read or understand.

        More on topic: what about religious faith, this sort of belief-in-spite, is virtuous? Granting religious faith just seems to me like making irresponsible claims about knowledge. Why should I prefer the allowance of this type of faith to the alternative of God making himself obvious?

  9. So, heaven must suck, right? Because there is no faith there?

    Look, what you are saying makes no sense. By your logic parents should abandon their children so that they can develop faith and trust in them…but that’s clearly ludicrous!

    As for spelling, it is the lowest form of human knowledge and I am not really concerned with it…let spell check take care of that menial stuff, and if a couple of ‘teh’s get by, you are free to read something else…

  10. What?! You’re not justifying why you think my argument sucks at all.

    Where’ve you got this about heaven from?
    Your argument makes no sense. Heaven is perfect. It’s a place where there is eternal happiness and eternal love and everything is in its rightful place – so then, why would you need God to reveal himself in hardship if you are WITH God and you are in a place thats so perfect? You wouldn’t have hardship at all – so therefore Heaven wouldn’t result in this nonsensical world where there was no faith because: Heaven. Is. Perfect. It’s like this: There are no hardships to learn from in Heaven because there are no hardships there, as a result the ‘need’ to learn from these hardships or have God reveal himself to sort things, God would be there physically all the time. So your argument for heaven doesn’t work at all.

    And the thing about parents is taking it to a new level that doesn’t work and isn’t contextual.
    We’re supposed to learn from our mistakes on our own, sometimes its necessary for guidance from our parents we ALL know that. It’s the same with God, we need to grow and develop on our own and seek guidance from God when we really need it. You’re saying God should just reveal himself to us more, because it’d be easier. What I’m saying is then we wouldn’t get the opportunity to develop on our own because we’d seek guidance from God TOO much.

    • So your argument for heaven doesn’t work at all.

      Actually it works just fine. You started off by saying a world without faith is nonsensical but clearly it makes perfect sense since that is the way you envision heaven. Just as you say, if God were there all the time there would be no need so if He were here all the time we could do without faith as well. You could evan have your hardships (though that makes no sense to me why a perfect being can only design creatures that learn from hardships!)…

      Maybe part of the confusion is that I am not talking about God revealing himself in hardship but just as a matter of course.

      You seem to be missing the point of the parental analogy. Of course we have to learn on our own, but why should it have to be in the absence of parents? Good parents do not abandon their kids and then only show up (if at all) when they are in dire need. Good parents are there all along whether or not the child needs help. The way you put things if a parent is around too much the child will ask for help too much so be sure not to be around during the child’s infancy. Does that sound like loving behavior?

      You’re saying God should just reveal himself to us more, because it’d be easier.

      No, that’s not what I am saying at all. My point was that it is immoral for God to remain hidden or even to reveal himself selectively because it is inconsistent with God as being all loving. Perhaps the ‘teh’s distracted you but I am not saying anything about making my life easier. My only claim is that it is not loving behavior. In the old testament and even when Jesus walked the Earth things were (allegedly) different. God could be seen to be working in the physical world but that is no longer the case.

  11. To follow up a bit.

    My only claim is that it is immoral for a perfect being to keep their existence hidden from those that were created by that perfect being and who have as one of their most basic desires to know whether there is such a perfect being or not. So all God would need to do is to give incontrovertible proof of His existence and then we could still have faith in the sense that when we endure hardship we would have to trust that God has a plan and that this is all part of it. We could be told by this perfect being that we cannot understand the complexities of the plan and that we have to take their word for it, just like we are told now. So this world is not nonsensical. It makes a whole lot more sense that the one we have now! In fact it is pretty much like the world as described in the bible and Koran.

    So, even though I don’t agree with you, we can agree that a world without faith is a bad thing and that we need to have hardships to overcome in order to have that faith but that has nothing to do with whether or not God reveals that he actually exists or not.

  12. The thing is though, God couldn’t be here all the time because Earth and Heaven are different – Earth is a mess. Heaven is perfect. Also the ultimate aim in life is to get to heaven so what would be the point in God being here all the time?

    Actually you’re missing MY point about the parent analogy – I’m not saying a parent should only be around when they need help, I’m definitely not saying a parent should abandon kids. I’m just saying that parents shouldn’t ‘spoon feed’ their kids everything, hand it to them on a plate, and its the same with God. Sometimes God needs to sit back and let us come to conclusions ourself. It’s necessary for us to come to the conclusion that God exists on our own to some extent. The key words in those two sentences being ‘sometimes’ and ‘some extent’.

    You can find hundreds, thousands, millions of people that can account for their own personal religious experiences – so you saying that God can no longer be seen to be working in the physical world is a mute point. I also believe that you can’t say God is not all loving and is immoral, because everything he does is for a reason, maybe one person needed his presence more than another, maybe a particular thing needed to happen in order to make someone a stronger person, maybe something else needed to happen to help someone learn a lesson. I personally think not revealing himself is all part of the greater plan, an underlying theme in the Bible itself is believing even if everything goes against you and thats all part of being a Christian. If God revealed himself, how would he know the true believers? The ones that would have stood by his existence, loved him, even died for him even if the whole world was against his existence? Thats what I mean by life would be too easy, I mean that it would be so easy if God revealed himself for someone who probably would have denied his existence right through to death to just stand up and be like ‘oh yeah how great is our god?!’ God does it for a reason. Thats why its not immoral.

    • The thing is though, God couldn’t be here all the time because Earth and Heaven are different – Earth is a mess. Heaven is perfect. Also the ultimate aim in life is to get to heaven so what would be the point in God being here all the time?

      The God of the old testament was around all of the time and heaven still made perfect sense. Can’t you see how lame this kind of response is?

      I’m just saying that parents shouldn’t ‘spoon feed’ their kids everything, hand it to them on a plate, and its the same with God.

      No one has said anything about spoon feeding. I am talking about God giving proof of His existence. Nothing more nothing less. He has certainly done it before (allegedly) and if He is perfect then it is very easy for him to do so (again he used to do it all the time).

      You can find hundreds, thousands, millions of people that can account for their own personal religious experiences – so you saying that God can no longer be seen to be working in the physical world is a mute point

      I don’t know what a ‘mute’ point is (what was that you said about proof reading?) but you again have missed the point. I am not talking about personal experiences. I am talking about wide-spread public displays (uh, like the parting of the red sea, the plagues sent to Egypt, giant floods, turning people into salt, destroying cities, raising the dead etc)…it is not merely that these happened but that God said they would, people knew in advance, and then they came to pass. That isn’t happening now.

      If God revealed himself, how would he know the true believers?

      You seem to be talking about a different being than I am. I have in mind a perfect being, one who can do anything so long as it is not outright contradictory. The kinds of things you cite are obviously not good reasons for a perfect being. A perfect being knows everything and so knows who the true believers are before they do. God may have a plan, but if that is the best plan that He can come up with then he is not perfect. I can imagine ways to accomplish all of those goals without hiding and that is the point! A loving God would do it better if they could so either God is not perfect or doesn’t exist.

    • ‘The thing is though, God couldn’t be here all the time because Earth and Heaven are different – Earth is a mess. Heaven is perfect. Also the ultimate aim in life is to get to heaven so what would be the point in God being here all the time?’

      I think we can restate Richard’s question like this: if the existence of a world where God is universally apparent (like Heaven) is possible, why should a loving God create any world (like Earth) in which he is hidden?

      It sounds like you are rejecting this question by saying ‘Because then Earth wouldn’t be Earth!’, or ‘There would be no Earth!’. But I’m still not convinced that we need an Earth at all — and that’s the real problem.

      Besides that, I don’t think God manifesting himself as he did in the Old Testament should be confused with him somehow granting mankind omniscience. Such a world could (and did, in the Bible) still contain many mysteries and problems for mankind to wrestle with, including mysteries and problems regarding understanding the nature of God.

  13. I’m only an armchair philosopher, and a strident agnostic, so this will likely be nonsense. I’ll have a pop at it anyway.

    If the major religious traditions are to be believed it would seem that God is mostly preoccupied with our moral decision making. They all say that he really really wants us to be moral – even more than he wants us to not be gay. A world in which God was revealed to everybody would probably be a more moral world if consequentialism is true. I’m not so sure it would be a more moral world if consequentialism is false. It would likely be a world in which many people ignored relevant moral duties in reasoning about their actions.

    I guess God just isn’t a consequentialist (no surprises there), and the greater good of allowing the majority of people the possibility of being virtuous moral agents is all the reason he needs to stay hidden.

    p.s. Actually, if this isn’t complete gibberish, I think it would mean that God doesn’t believe in divine command theory either (perhapse slightly more surprisingly)

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