Ernest Renan remarked that “The day after that on which the world should no longer believe in God, atheists would be the wretchedest of all men.” Eller’s devotion to his holy cause of atheism clouds his judgment. The following is our exchange back in 2010:
Chernikov: A religious experience may be self-authenticating.
Eller: “God’s grace comes with a guarantee that it is from God” is also a mere stipulation, and a circular one at that. Substitute any other name for “god” here and see the results: “Zeus’s grace comes with a guarantee that it is from Zeus.”
Chernikov: Well, Zeus has never bestowed grace, has he? But if he did, and it came with a guarantee that it was from Zeus, then it would be evidence for Zeus’ existence.
Eller: I go one further: there is no such thing as a “religious experience” at all.
Chernikov: So much for going where the evidence leads. If you reject religious experiences a priori, then we have little to discuss. Your atheism is unfalsifiable. No matter which piece of evidence is presented to you, you’ll reject it out of hand. So much the worse for you.
Eller: Atheism does not have to be falsifiable, since it is the default presumption.
That is like saying, “There is no Santa Claus” is unfalsifiable; one does not have to falsify no-Santa, one has to prove Santa.
Chernikov: The two are equivalent, and that’s why “there is no Santa Claus” is eminently falsifiable: one only needs to present compelling evidence for Santa’s existence. But if you have resolved once and for all that no amount of evidence will ever convince you that God exists, then we might as well quit right here. And I think that’s the direction we are heading in.
The existence of Hercules, Harry Potter, Santa Claus are legitimate questions, sometimes historical, sometimes not. I have reasons (good, in my estimation) to believe that Hercules never existed in reality, while Jesus did. What about, say, Marcus Aurelius or Herod? Wouldn’t you say that those guys did exist? Why liken Jesus to Hercules and not to Marcus Aurelius other than out of a preference for theft over honest toil?
Eller: To presume that those experiences “tell us about God” is again prejudicial. Perhaps they tell us about space aliens, ascended masters, brain states, or the nature of delusion.
Chernikov: Well, perhaps. But then perhaps not. Wouldn’t you want to know the answer, if only to find out in the end that space aliens do exist?
But to reach a conclusion we must look carefully at lots of experiences.
For example, regarding those, common consent is on my side, not on Eller’s; else atheists would outnumber believers. Peter Kreeft makes the following point:
Even a skeptic will admit that the testimony we have is deeply impressive: the vast majority of humans have believed in an ultimate Being to whom the proper response could only be reverence and worship. No one disputes the reality of our feelings of reverence, attitudes of worship, acts of adoration. But if God does not exist, then these things have never once — never once — had a real object. Is it really plausible to believe that? …
It seems far more likely that those who refuse to believe are the ones suffering from deprivation and delusion — like the tone-deaf person who denies the existence of music…
If God does not exist, what is it that believers have been experiencing? The level of illusion goes far beyond any other example of collective error. It really amounts to collective psychosis.
For believing in God is like having a relationship with a person. If God never existed, neither did this relationship. You were responding with reverence and love to no one; and no one was there to receive and answer your response. It’s as if you believe yourself happily married when in fact you live alone in a dingy apartment. (Handbook of Christian Apologetics, 83-4)
Eller: I would give you this as constraints: it must be some evidence that points to your god and no other and that cannot be interpreted in any possible way other than your god.
I expect that, on principle, this is an impossible standard to meet, since any conceivable experience or evidence could be plausibly interpreted in some other way.
So, in a word, your burden of proof is unbearable.
Chernikov: Unbearable. On principle. “Any claim about the ‘supernatural’ is automatically false.” End of discussion.
Eller’s point is that any experience can be interpreted away in a non-religious sense. First, if some experiences are self-authenticating, then this is false. If Eller had such an experience, then even he would see it for what it really is.
Why hasn’t God graced Eller this way? Perhaps in conformance with Jesus’ saying, “Do not give what is holy to dogs, or throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them underfoot, and turn and tear you to pieces.” (Mt 7:6)
Second, I agree that other people’s experiences, no matter how amazing, need not convince Eller. But regarding them, our author is a hostile, biased, and uncomprehending outsider. Why should his interpretations be privileged? He is free to despise theists; but theists need not be swayed by his wild blind contempt.