The topic of religious experiences is given a particularly ugly treatment by Eller. In dismissing the argument for the existence of God from “personal experience” Eller relies on two tricks.
First, he argues, “If I hear a voice in my head or have a mystical feeling or see a beautiful sunset and call that a religious experience, I have imposed a meaning on it and prejudiced the evaluation of it as an experience.” (42) It is harder to misconstrue the argument more crassly. Every experience is interpreted, that is, “imposed a meaning” on. When our author sees the sunset, etc., he, too, interprets this experience, though as non-religious. Does he thereby “prejudice the evaluation of it as an experience,” too? Not necessarily. A new experience tries to fit into the picture of the world that we already have. Sometimes the fit is perfect; other times the experience is to a greater or lesser extent discounted, because it does not cohere with what we already think we know; still other times, we adjust even our fundamental and most cherished beliefs in order to accommodate the experience. This procedure is followed whether one is a religious man or not.
Now what is the right way of interpreting any experience that provokes an inkling, whether weak or strong, to consider it “religious”? One possibility is that genuine religious experiences are self-authenticating — if you hear God’s voice, you simply know with absolute certainty that it is God speaking to you. You feel no doubt: God’s grace comes with a guarantee that it is from God. For example, atheist Howard Storm had no doubt that the Being of Light he met in his near-death experience was God:
The light conveyed to me that it loved me in a way that I can’t begin to express. It loved me in a way that I had never known that love could possibly be.
He was a concentrated field of energy, radiant in splendor indescribable, except to say goodness and love. This was more loving than one can imagine. I knew that this radiant being was powerful. It was making me feel so good all over.
I could feel its light on me — like very gentle hands around me. And I could feel it holding me. But it was loving me with overwhelming power.
After what I had been through, to be completely known, accepted, and intensely loved by this Being of Light surpassed anything I had known or could have imagined. I began to cry and the tears kept coming and coming.
Further, Peter Kreeft proposes three criteria for evaluating the truth of claims of communion with God:
(1) the consistency of these claims (are they self-consistent as well as consistent with what we know otherwise to be true?);
(2) the character of those who make these claims (do these persons seem honest, decent, trustworthy?);
and (3) the effects these experiences have had in their own lives and the lives of others (have these persons become more loving as a result of what they experienced? More genuinely edifying? Or, alternatively, have they become vain and self-absorbed?). (Handbook of Christian Apologetics, 82)
So, we have to do the hard work of verifying each religious experience on its own merits, which means that the easy and brisk dismissal of them just won’t do.
Let’s consider the second argument Eller employs, namely that the experiences of various religions contradict each other:
… religious experiences are so different for different people that it serves as a red flag for us;
the occurrence and interpretation of such experiences seems closely related to personality and culture, so much so that we can explain and dismiss them as culture-bound.
In other words, if Christians have personal experiences of God, Jesus, and Mary, and Muslims have personal experiences of Allah, and Hindus have personal experiences of Brahma or Shiva or Vishnu, then either an awful lot of gods exist… or people just experience what they want or expect to. (43-4)
As already pointed out in the previous post, however, the religious experiences tend to confirm that there is “something beyond” this realm, some possibly magnificent reality that is separated from this world by a veil or “glass” through which we see only “darkly.”
In Kreeft’s words, “many people understand their experience this way: they are ‘united with’ or ‘taken up into’ a boundless and overwhelming Knowledge and Love, a Love that fills them with itself but infinitely exceeds their capacity to receive.” (82) And Love by any other name…
Further, that religious experiences are “culture-bound” is a pseudo-explanation: what is culture but mutual influence of individuals on each other? Perhaps the culture in which religious experiences are given respectful consideration has been formed by numerous people having genuine religious experiences in the past and describing what they had gone through to the public. The variety in experiences is due not only to different personalities of the folks but also to the fact that God is infinite, and religious experiences may perceive different aspects of Him. Instead of throwing our hands in air, helpless against this diversity, we should put all the experiences together, study them as any other phenomenon, and see what they tell us about God, life, the universe, and everything.
For example, even the normally skeptical Wikipedia has an entry on “life review,” a standard feature of near-death experiences.
There is a more fundamental issue. Experience is all we humans have. Natural science, which Eller praises, is an abstraction from human experience, focusing on those experiences that exhibit regularity or can be modeled such as by math. But not all experiences are like that. Consider, for example, Eller’s interaction with his own wife. Each such interaction is a unique non-repeatable non-reproducible historical event. People change, in their memories and personalities and bodies, circumstances change, ensuring just that. But each interaction remains valuable and more important, instructive for all that. Perhaps if God is a mighty spirit, he is at least as unpredictable as a human being.
Eller’s discussion of religious experiences violates the very tenets of reasoning he endorses in his book. Take falsifiability: is really God unpredictable? To take NDEs again, they exhibit numerous regularities, such as out-of-body perception, the “tunnel,” life review, the Being of Light, and numerous others. It is Eller who owes us an account of what experience would convince him that God exists. Victor Reppert relates that the atheist philosopher Keith Parsons told him that if the stars in the Virgo cluster were to spell out the words “Turn Or Burn This Means You Parsons,” then he would turn. Eller needs something analogous, lest his atheism be unfalsifiable.
Or consider “honesty”: “the evidence ‘must be evaluated without self-deception’.” (69) But Eller dishonestly and uncharitably calls all experiencers deceivers or the deceived. His rationality quickly evaporates, revealing only rancor and fanaticism inside.
Or, again, the idea that “extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence”: I would have thought that being “taken up into overwhelming Knowledge and Love” would qualify as exactly that! Eller simply selectively dismisses what he doesn’t like.