Non-religious Experience

As I’m wont to do, I’ve been thinking about theistic and atheistic arguments again lately. Which of the classic arguments is the strongest? Weakest? Are there any novel arguments that deserve a place in modern philosophy textbooks alongside the cosmological argument or the argument from evil? In this post, I’ll concentrate on that last question.

I’m actually less moved by the problem of evil as an atheistic argument these days. (Note, that’s not to say that I’m less moved by human suffering, but that I’m not as impressed by the argument qua argument as I used to be.) Actually, the problem of evil provides us with a rare example of philosophers making genuine progress. The video below gives a good summary of contemporary versions of the argument and counter-arguments.

Assuming that the problem of evil is not the best atheistic argument, what is? I think a good candidate would be the problem of divine hiddenness. The argument contends that if there were a perfectly loving God, such a God would not allow people of goodwill to remain ignorant of his existence. The fact that there are non-believers who are open to God’s existence, but don’t find evidence to support belief, is good reason to think that God doesn’t exist. In my opinion, the argument from hiddenness has an advantage over the problem of evil: the standard reasons theists give for why God allows evil are less compelling reasons for remaining hidden. For example, it doesn’t seem like human freedom would be compromised if more persons were aware of God’s existence, especially since God could reveal himself in subtle ways (at least to outside observers) as in religious experiences. The fact that many people lack such compelling religious experiences might constitute evidence against God’s existence.

However, I would suggest that it’s not simply the absence of religious experiences in the lives of unbelievers, but the presence of positive non-religious (or irreligious or atheistic) experiences. For example, many non-believers have had an acute experience of a godless universe, or the finality of death, or that the natural world is all there is. Atheistic philosophers, like Nietzsche and Russell, recount such experiences in their writings. Christopher Hitchens talked about “blinding moments of unconviction every bit as instantaneous though perhaps less epileptic and apocalyptic (and later more rationally and more morally justified) than Saul of Tarsus on the Damascene road.” Again, one finds these experiences peppered throughout the biographies of atheistic thinkers, the way one finds mystical experiences throughout the lives of the saints. Moreover, these experiences function as evidence in the lives of both theists and atheists. However, only the argument from religious experience has been developed in the philosophical literature. I would suggest that the argument from non-religious experience is overdue for similar philosophical treatment.


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7 comments on “Non-religious Experience

  1. Surely the single best argument against there being a god is quite simply the question – which god? And then – where’s the evidence for this god? We can’t even provide a proper definition for the term god, and yet it’s a term that dominates so much of humanity. Hmm. I see a metaphor on the horizon.

  2. elkement says:

    Thanks – I find this very compelling! Is there any book or article that lists some of these experiences in detail? (If not – go wrote a book).

    To me it has always seemed wrong that atheists are under pressure to “prove” why god should not exist while theists could always resort to an irrational / spiritual / mystical experience.

    • danielmullin81 says:

      I’m not aware of any book on the subject, just a collection of anecdotes I recall from reading intellectual biographies. Maybe I should take your advice and collect those anecdotes in one volume.

      It is puzzling why atheists don’t appeal more to their subjective experiences. I think that’s because they want to define themselves as rational against the irrational mysticism of believers. However, as I become less impressed with the rational arguments, I find myself becoming more of a subjectivist on this issue.

  3. Larry says:

    I have it on good authority that some atheists have had non-epileptic experiences of God, and then returned to their atheistic Roots. Or, perhaps more accurately, their agnostic roots.

    • danielmullin81 says:

      A good example would be A.J. Ayer who had a near death experience which included ‘meeting the superintending power of the universe’ (paraphrased from memory). However, he remained an atheist even after that.

  4. Larry says:

    How’s this. You can take the man out of the atheism but you can’t take the atheism out of the man. Likewise for the theist. What we live and learn in youth we hold onto for life.

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