It has been a long while since I engaged anything written by John Loftus. (Though I still think our book God or Godless is an excellent primer to the God debates.) But today I decided to provide a response to a brief new article he wrote titled “Subjective Private Religious Experiences Prove Nothing!” As I said, the article is brief so I quote it in its entirety below (though I did not include the YouTube video that accompanies it):
‘Watch this!! Come on, come on! Come to your senses! Subjective private religious experiences provide no evidence at all that your religious faith is true. I’ve read the special pleading type of arguments attempting, but failing to show, these experiences are veridical, that if a god exists he can give you one. Sure, I’ll say it. If a god exists he can give someone a direct experience that he exists and his religion is true. But this gets you no where. It still doesn’t show that one particular god gave you the experience you claim to have had. The argument ignores the actual way people get these experiences and how they are used to defend all kinds of crazy religious faiths. The only way to know if your supposed religious experience is true is according to objective evidence evaluated dispassionately without any double standards, as an outsider.”
This paragraph is a litany of errors, but they are instructive errors and thus are worth engaging.
To begin with, we should set aside the tendentious restriction of religious experiences, and this for two reasons:
- Vagueness: It isn’t clear what content would be required for an experience to be religious rather than non-religious.
- Relevance: If there is a veridical problem here, it is a problem with subjective private experiences generally rather than with some specific subset of such experiences (i.e. religious ones).
In light of the second point, Loftus’ complaint about special pleading is ironic, to say the least: by restricting his discussion to a vague class of subjective private experiences, he is the one engaging in special pleading.
So here’s the question: can a subjective private experience provide evidence for a truth claim?
Let’s consider an example.
James decides to spend the night in an abandoned mental hospital that is rumored to be haunted. About 3 am, James wakes up in the darkness and senses a presence in the room. It’s an experience unlike any he has experienced before. Every hair is standing up, he is covered with goosebumps, and a chill goes down his spine. “Who’s there?” he says into the darkness. Suddenly, a figure materializes in front of him, levitating about 10 inches above the linoleum. It is the image of an incredibly sad woman with a severe head wound. Terrified, James runs out of the hospital. Days later, he identifies the apparition as a woman who died in the hospital in 1954 after being beaten in the head by another patient.
James underwent a subjective private experience. Could it provide evidence for James to believe that ghosts exist? Yes, of course it could. Could it provide evidence for other people, people who obviously did not have James’ experience, to believe that ghosts exist? Possibly so. That would depend on how they evaluated the credibility of James’ testimony relative to their background set of beliefs (i.e. their plausibility framework).
To sum up, Loftus’ claim is false. Subjective private experiences can provide evidence to accept (or retain) a particular truth claim. Of course, Loftus could claim that this is not true of that specific subset of subjective private experiences which are religious in nature. But first, he would need to overcome the vagueness problem by explaining what it is the makes an experience religious. Next, he would need to explain what specific problem applies to all subjective private religious experiences but not to subjective private experiences generally.