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Doubting Personal Experiences

One of the most common pieces of “evidence” religious believers claim supports their belief in their deity of choice is the argument from personal experience. They claim that they have personally felt the presence of God. When challenged on their beliefs, they often ask how an atheist can possibly doubt their personal experience.

First, it is important to point out that personal experience does not qualify as actual evidence. Anecdotal evidence is not really evidence. Obi Wan Kenobi put it best when he said, “Your eyes can deceive you; don’t trust them.”

Second and more importantly, it isn’t the religious believer’s personal experience that I doubt; it is their interpretation of their experience that I question. To best illustrate my point I am going to use a personal experience of my own. When I was in college, I was auditing a class on religion. There was a person in the class who told us about how they had prayed for money and then found a quarter in the cushion of the car seat. This was their personal experience and iron clad proof that God exists and had answered the prayer.

The problem with the story is that people lose change in the cushion of their car seats all the time. If you pray for money and start searching around in places where you are likely to find some, a more plausible explanation can surely be found. People love patterns and we love to draw conclusions based on insufficient data.

First X, then Y, therefore X caused Y. But that isn’t necessarily true. Correlation does not necessarily mean causation. I have no doubt that the person in my class prayed to some deity and I am certainly not doubting that they found a quarter in the car seat cushion. I do not even doubt that the person considered this to be a profound moment of deep connection to the world around them. It isn’t the experience that I doubt; it is the interpretation of that experience that I question.

There is a lot going on in the world and there is a lot going on in our minds and bodies much of which we are not even slightly aware of. Here is another anecdote. Last week, my father got sick. Nothing serious, but he was puking and shitting a lot. He felt like crap and he blamed it on a food that he thought might not have been cooked properly. Earlier that day he noticed that the food in question looked a little discolored, but ate it anyway. Then he got sick. Conclusion: The food did it. However a day later, my brother got the same illness and he didn’t have the questionable food. This implies that it wasn’t the food that made either of them sick and that it was most likely some sort of virus.

According to my father’s personal experience, the food had made him sick. But later evidence suggested that was not actually the case. Religion works in much the same way. A Christian is in a rut. They have hit bottom. They pray. Then things get better. What they fail to remember is that they hit bottom and then they did something to help their situation. Things got better because they did something to make them get better.

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