Common Complaints and Rebuttals, Part III – Delusions and the Experience of God

 “Religious experiences can be easily explained in the same way as delusions, dreams, and hallucinogenic responses to drug use.”

HallucinationThere are many statements that we only hear in books and anecdotes about conversations. They tend to become something of folklore or urban legend, where everyone can describe the dialogue, but I’m not sure that anyone was ever actually involved in it. Until I saw this one for myself, I always placed it in that category of exaggerated fiction. In a social media “conversation,” someone talked about how a personal experience of the presence of God ratified her belief, and the antagonist responded with the quote above. Aside from being specifically designed to discount the testimony and attack the rationality of someone who is relating a very personal aspect of her faith, it is an absurd and illogical retort.

On the one hand, there is likely no emotion, thought, or experience that cannot be mimicked or activated by the proper stimulation of some part of the brain, whether directly or indirectly. This in no way indicates that any particular – much less all – religious experience is thus derived. If one shows no other signs of delusion, has taken no drugs, has not been under the care of a doctor, and is otherwise mentally and physically stable and capable, then it is not logical to surmise that an experience – regardless of how surreal, unexplainable, or even bizarre – is not entirely real, especially when it the “phenomenon” is repeated, often across large segments of the population.

On the other hand, atheism itself could be a manifestation of the same sorts of conditions. There is nothing in the worldview itself that protects it from the very slings and arrows thrust at the theist. This sort of illogical exclusion is rampant in skeptical arguments, but cannot stand the force of its own premiss. Religious faith and skeptical surmising both run the risk of resulting from wish-fulfillment, and yet the one stands firmly as the attacked, while the other is seemingly unfazed and unassailable.

And yet, a foundation of science is the observation of repeatable events. To discount the observation merely because one doesn’t have access to the data (i.e. the experience itself), is to deny the opportunity to learn anything that is not personally and empirically verifiable. An appeal to authority is not only necessary in many circumstances, it is ultimately wise. If you trust someone in all areas that they are likely to have an understanding, and her integrity and soundness of mind are beyond reproach, then why discard the evidence at the first sign of religious explanation? This signifies a bias of the worst kind – the kind that accepts all information that coincides with currently-held belief, and eschews anything and everything contradictory. This is behavior that could justifiably be attributed to delusions, dreams, drugs, or a denial of reality. It is certainly not indicative of an open, thoughtful, and logical mind.

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