Testing Religious Experiences by the Outsider Test for Faith (OTF)

Religious experience offers a believer the most psychologically certain basis for believing in a particular divine being or religion. When a believer has a religious experience it is really hard, if not psychologically impossible, to argue him away from his beliefs. How then is it possible for a believer who claims to have had such an experience to look at his experience as an outsider, as the OTF demands?

We can point out that the mind often deceives us and provide many examples of this phenomena (brainwashing, wish-fulfillment, cognitive dissonance). But the believer will maintain his particular religious experience is real because he experienced it, despite the odds that his brain is deceiving him about it.

We can point out that many people claim to have had the same religious experience whose beliefs are much different than his (i.e. Mormon, Muslim, Catholic, or Jew) but the believer will say his experience is true because he experienced it, despite the odds that what others believe as a result of these experiences makes it seem obvious he could be wrong.

Sometimes in the face of such an experiential argument I simply say to the believer that "if I had that same experience I might believe too. But I haven't. So why not? Why doesn't your God give me that same religious experience?" At this point the believer must blame me and every living person on the planet for not being open to such a religious experience. Depending on the religion in question that might include most every person here, up to six billion of us. But even this realization doesn't affect the believer who claims to have had such a religious experience. Some of them will simply say "God doesn't want various people to have a saving religious experience." It never dawns on these believers what kind of a mean-spirited barbaric God they love and worship, especially if such a God will send people to an eternal punishment for not having one.

There are other ways to test religious experiences as an outsider. Let me offer one example from a conversation I recently had with a friend I'll call Matt. Matt told me he knows there is an afterlife because he had a vivid dream of his father and grandfather who talked to him from beyond the grave. To him this dream was very real. His dad had died 10 years earlier and his grandfather had died 15 years earlier. But here they were both talking face-to-face with him from beyond the grave!

Now if there is one thing about dreams that everyone should know by now, it's that they can seem very real. You may actually feel like you're riding a horse, or that you were in a gun battle during WWII. So the fact that dreams seem real should mean nothing to us, well, except that dreams seem real. Dreams are just in the brain. This is what our brains do when we are asleep. We dream vivid dreams during REM sleep. So one way for Matt to understand the truth about his dream is to learn what science teaches us about the brain when a person is sleeping. That's science. That should cause room for plenty of doubt. Gone are the days of the Egyptian Pharaoh or Nebuchadnezzar who had dreams and demanded an interpretation of them by a soothsayer, or diviner. This is a superstitious world that is long gone, for good. As scientific understanding gains ground among the scientifically illiterate we should see dreams being used less and less to support religious beliefs.

Back to Matt. I asked him how he knew it was actually his dad and grandfather whom he was talking to. "Well," he said, "they told me things that only they could know." "Really?" I questioned. "How does that show you anything at all? If the people in your dream tell you something that you already knew about them before they died, then they're not telling you anything new. This information was already stored in your brain. There is at least one other person in that dream who knew the same things they told you, and that person is the one doing the dreaming...you! For this dream to be considered evidence to you that you were actually talking with them they would have to tell you something you didn't know that could be confirmed after you awoke."

Matt replied, "But I am sure it was them. The evidence was that I know what I experienced!"

Then I asked Matt what they each looked like. He said they looked like he had remembered them. "Were they wearing the same kinds of clothes you knew them to wear?" "Yes," he said. "Had they aged any?" "No," he admitted. Then I asked him if people in the afterlife would always look the same, wear the same clothes and stay the same age? "What are the odds that they were really in your dream versus the odds that you merely had a dream about them based on what you knew them to be?"

At this point he began having some doubts, but then finally replied, "maybe they came back to me looking like this so I could recognize them?"

Wow, isn't this something? What does it take? I don't know sometimes. But evidence? Who needs that when you have an experience?

An outsider with this kind of "insider" experience would simply have to admit he just doesn't know if the experience was real or a delusion. But a delusion it was.

17 comments:

ismellarat said...

Dreams are one thing, but it's much harder to explain "miraculous" healings and experiences of those who were clinically dead for a few minutes (as opposed to NDEs) and apparently saw and heard things going on in the room during that time that they shouldn't have been aware of.

It's funny that the healings often happen to people that can't be described as Christians. Years ago, I would have thought that that would be an easy dividing line or proof Christians could use. But apparently God heals and has these people running around preaching about it, who don't even believe in him, in the traditional sense?

Have there been any secular studies done on this?

Danny Boy, FCD said...

Uhm, clinically dead for a few minutes IS the textbook definition of near death experiences. For studies on NDEs, try Susan Blackmore.

"Miraculous" healings can be explained in several ways. One, the original "disease" may have been mis-diagnosed. If someone claims that their "incurable cancer" was healed by some cleric, ask who made the original diagnosis, and if there was a 2nd diagnosis by another doctor. Doctors do make mistakes.

Also, it is known that some diseases, including cancer, can go into remission for inexplicable reasons, with no medical or religious intervention.

The placebo effect can, and does, have real effect on certain maladies.

ismellarat said...

It's been a while since I've read anything on that, but I thought a NDE was seeing the lights, etc, while in the process of dying.

Why call the dead only near-dead?

I'll look up Susan Blackmore.

I know the standard explanations for healings, but it does seem a leap of faith to say they explain them all. 99% of cases we hear about (with the fraudulent ones thrown in as well)? Sure. I just don't know, and don't want to matter-of-factly tell people that I know their experiences were obviously natural.

BTW, when I was a kid I was hit by a car and strangely remember "seeing myself" crying out while falling off my bike. I escaped with a bruised knee, and only blacked out for about 15 seconds, so I obviously didn't come close to dying, but that tells me that this kind of sensation is probably pretty common.

Jason Long said...

There are only two known cases of a person with an NDE who knew something that they should not have known. IIRC, it involves a pair of shoes on a roof and change on the top of a cabinet. And both cases are considered dubious.

There are three great reasons to conclude that this phenomenon is an internal one: (1) people of different religious persuasions experience detailed phenomena consistent with their own beliefs; (2) the experience can be replicated by depriving the body of oxygen in a controlled experiment; and (3) there must be an endogenous equivalent because similar experiences can be replicated by introducing chemical substances into the body.

But this whole NDE nonsense should be put to rest by using some common sense. Did God pull someone from this world prematurely? Did he not know the person would be brought back to life?

And to bring this back on topic, we must remember what Sagan once said: "Some of us starve to death before we’re out of infancy, while others–by an accident of birth–live out their lives in opulence and splendor. We can be born into an abusive family or a reviled ethnic group, or start out with some deformity; we go through life with the deck stacked against us, and then we die, and that’s it? Nothing but a dreamless and endless sleep? Where’s the justice in this? This is stark and brutal and heartless. Shouldn’t we have a second chance on a level playing field? How much better if we were born again in circumstances that took account of how well we played our part in the last life, no matter how stacked against us the deck was then. Or if there were a time of judgment after we die, then–so long as we did well with the persona we were given in this life, and were humble and faithful and all the rest–we should be rewarded by living joyfully until the end of time in a permanent refuge from the agony and turmoil of the world. That’s how it would be if the world were thought out, preplanned, fair. That’s how it would be if those suffering from pain and torment were to receive the consolation they deserve…Thus, the idea of a spiritual part of our nature that survives death, the notion of an afterlife, ought to be easy for religions and nations to sell. This is not an issue on which we might anticipate widespread skepticism. People will want to believe it, even if the evidence is meager to nil."

exrelayman said...

ismellarat

'I know the standard explanations for healings, but it does seem a leap of faith to say they explain them all. '

We have natural explanations supported by, if not yet completely proven, by science. A good read about this is 'a ghost in the machine' over at http://www.ebonmusings.org/atheism/

So, in light of the existence of naturalistic explanations, you wouldn't be saying that believing in souls and the supernatural, the unseen and unexplainable, is less of a 'leap of faith' would you?

This is submitted for the sake dialectic. I respect everyone's input as I would wish for my input to be respected. Wow, didn't the main honcho in Christian belief say something similar?

ismellarat said...

No, exrelayman, you're right, I wouldn't say that either.

I actually meant to just point out that these phenomena seem to be more vivid/interesting ones to make examples of in the context of this article than just dreams, but I don't always know when to stop typing...

Stephanie said...

The closest I have ever come to having a religious experience was while attending a rock concert (Def Leppard-with no drugs involved :)) Unless you can prove god likes rock and roll, he had nothing to do with what I felt: euphoria, a oneness with the crowd, excitement, and an inner spiritual high that lasts for hours afterward) I would bet people get the same feeling when they go to church that has a dynamic preacher who whips them into a frenzy by preaching the good parts of the bible and promising them eternal life if they live life according to the 2,000+ year old writings of men. Add music and a few thousand people to the mix and they can experience the same thing I experienced at a concert. The only difference is, the people in the church give the holy spirit the credit for how they feel, when in fact, their psychological experience was created by environmental influences inside the church. In other words, it's all in their heads. Because the only place where god really exists is in people's minds as a belief. the human mind is a very complex organ and is capable of rationalizing anything, including the existence of a god who is very interested in how we live our lives and how we have sex. :)

Ryn Darknight said...

I would like to add a comment to this blog. I would disagree with you John, that dreams are simply a product of the mind. I know of a number of dreams within my circle of family and friends that turned out to be prophetic. In one particular case, a friend of my family had applied to and had been turned down by a particular company. Soon after this he and his wife both had the same dream- that he should return to this company and apply again, that he would be hired for a specific salary. Feeling rather foolish, but because they both had the same dream, he went back to this company. It turns out that a job had just opened up that day and it was for the salary that he and his wife had dreamed about.

I could tell true story after true story of this nature. Something is going on here. I agree with you that we need to use our minds to reason. I think reason shows through human experience and also scientific studies that have been done that we are able to access information within the universe in ways that we don't yet understand. Serious scientific studies have been done on near death experiences that indicate there is something more going on than drugs or anoxia. I think it is wise to keep an open mind on such things whether one is religious or not.

http://www.skepticalinvestigations.org/whoswho/vanLommel.htm

Sincerely,
Ryn Darknight

Spiritual said...

Why do you complicate what is so simple?

The answer is in your spiritual being's knowledge not in your rationalizing human brain. These questions put the creator of a universe in a box. God cannot fit inside a box that the human brain creates. He wouldn't be "God" if he could.

It's equivalent to ants in an ant farm trying to understand astrophysics or drive a car on the outside. It just won't happen in their present state.

There is a cosmic battle between the creator of the universe and evil. We are caught in the middle and must choose a side. You have to take the plunge on one side or the other. There is no middle line to walk.

If you choose God, you open a spiritual door to the truth of who you are. It all floods in! That's why you cannot argue with people who have had a "religious experience" mentioned. You personally have to take the plunge and cross over to see the truth of who you are.

Read the Bible from start to finish with an open mind/heart and see which side you choose. It all changes on the flip side!

tinyfrog said...

Dreams are one thing, but it's much harder to explain "miraculous" healings and experiences of those who were clinically dead for a few minutes (as opposed to NDEs) and apparently saw and heard things going on in the room during that time that they shouldn't have been aware of.
...
Have there been any secular studies done on this?


To my knowledge, these are just as much an urban legend as every other urban legend. Have there been secular studies on this? Yes, I remember one hospital placing a sign at the top of their operating-room. It faced upward (so no one could read it - except, perhaps, a floating spirit). No one has ever been able to describe the words on that sign.

Philip R Kreyche said...

It all changes on the flip side!

Demonstrate.

J.L. Hinman said...

no valid. why don't you use the tests psychologists prefer as scientific? the M scale? cross culturally validated.

O but wait, we can't use that, the M scales proves that Religious experince is valid and life transforming, that wouldn't suit the ideology now would it?

Dave Schmelzer said...

Hi John,
John and I have been swapping a few comments in anticipation of being matched up on a radio program in a few days. So...it's good to drop by your blog, John!

As has been true in my own blog discussion of the last few days (which I'm thinking prompted your post, John), I can feel that's it's very hard not to talk past each other in this conversation. My feeling would be that your terms of talking about religious experience are a little more committed to modernism than would be popular in the world I live in.

So your critique of giving validity to religious experience (or is it of any experience?) is that any such experience is far more likely than not to be delusional. Beyond that, when it's used to press a claim for universal truth, it's just nutty in too many ways to catalog. On that I'm with you.

But, on the one hand, you've got the experience. On the other hand you've got the truth claim being pitched as a result of the experience. My take is that it's only a dedicated commitment to modernism (in my Ivy League-ish world, regarded as a dying system) that would require much scrutiny of any experience that anyone finds helpful. In the religious world, if someone says something along the lines of, "I was so depressed. Nothing helped me. But then I had a spiritual encounter that changed everything," most people I know would say, "Well that's great!" We wouldn't feel much need to dissect the truth claim there, whether the interpretation was Wiccan, Muslim, Christian or pick-your-spiritual-system.

If the person then said (as I can't say I've ever experienced, despite hearing thousands of stories like this), "This experience by itself proves that Islam, Wicca, Christianity or pick-your-own-spiritual-system is universally TRUE," then, yes, we'd have a conversation on our hands. But I'm still not tracking why anyone would have any need to shout down any experience that anyone finds helpful.

John W. Loftus said...

Hi Dave!

You said...But I'm still not tracking why anyone would have any need to shout down any experience that anyone finds helpful.

This is an interesting conclusion and worthy of much thought.

Perhaps you've seen the Disney movie "Toy Story"? Buzz Lightyear thought he could really fly and that he was a superhero. Then he learned the truth that he couldn't fly and that he wasn't a superhero and was severely depressed. Finally he came to grips with the truth and found ways to help Woody.

Was he better off for knowing the truth? Yes, much better off. For he could've gotten badly hurt by thinking he was really flying. He could've jumped out a window and fallen to his death.

I think one needs to live with the truth. I think one should have his feet planted firmly on the ground. I think people should take responsibility for themselves. I think adults need to avoid delusional thinking. It makes us stronger. It causes us to think for ourselves. It allows us to act rationally rather than follow every sign seen in the sky.

So I do not believe delusionary beliefs and experiences truly "help" people.

But let's say they do help people. Do they help people more than thinking rationally about the problem? I think not. For every problem solved in a persons life through a delusionary belief there are rational ways to solve that same problem. And if someone leans on them will they also lean on them to cause harm? I think so. Look at militant Muslims and Jim Jones type cults. Magical thinking and religious experiences, if allowed in the first place without regard to evidentiary reasoning, can also lead people to lead stupid and harmful lives. So for every person who might be helped by religious experiences there is a person who is being harmed by it. TV evangelists and faith healers prey on this type of thinking when they ask for "seed faith" money, as you know, and as a result bilk people out of the money they need to live on.

Doug said...

John, I'm new to this blog and I'm noticing that the word "delusional" gets brought up fairly often. And I'm tracking the usage, except for your response to Dave in your last message.

My understanding of "delusional" is that it's used to describe a belief that is fixated on something false despite clear evidence to the contrary. I don't really understand how you can apply this to Dave's description of an experience. An experience does not equate to a belief, at least not in the sense that I would define them.

In your message, you insinuate that the kind of experience Dave is talking about (ANY experience, by his suggestion) is delusional. That's kind of a strong assertion to make.

Can we not trust any experience we have in life? Or only some? And if only some are to be trusted, is there anyone who has cornered the market in knowing which experiences are based on a delusional belief (and can I have his/her phone number -- I have a few questions!)?

It seems like if the goal is to get to the truth, then shared experiences ought to help in arriving at that conclusion (if it's even possible for our limited minds to grasp the entirety of all that is).

John W. Loftus said...

Doug, welcome to DC!

A delusional belief, as I mean it is a false belief. It has other connotations, that's why I use the word.

You said...I don't really understand how you can apply this to Dave's description of an experience. An experience does not equate to a belief, at least not in the sense that I would define them.

Tell me then what beliefs Dave has had from his experiences. I would certainly think that these experiences do not in and of themselves lead to his Christian doctrinal position.

You say...Can we not trust any experience we have in life? Or only some? And if only some are to be trusted, is there anyone who has cornered the market in knowing which experiences are based on a delusional belief (and can I have his/her phone number -- I have a few questions!)?

Would you trust the experiences of someone else? Why should you? They are not your experiences! So what do you think of Muslim or Mormon stories? Do they do anything for you at all? Then neither do your stories do anything for me at all. The question is why I have not had your or Dave's experiences. God certainly knows what is required here. Why doesn't he do something about it?

In anticipating your answer, imagine a Muslim saying that before Allah will give me these experiences I must first believe in him. How would that work for you? It doesn't work for me either. You would still insist, as I do, that if Allah wanted me to believe in him he should give me the proper experiences necessary irrespective of whether I believe or not.

You are thinking from a position. You are not thinking from outside that position.

Cheers.

Doug said...

You are thinking from a position. You are not thinking from outside that position.

Whoa, back up. If I am touting a position, please reveal it to me so I can either confirm or deny it. I've been scanning blogs on the topic of the value of experience for the last week or so, I was was intrigued by your response to Dave's comments. If I had to take a position on anything, my position (and question) would be: experiences matter (but how can we decide which experiences really matter)?

Tell me then what beliefs Dave has had from his experiences. I would certainly think that these experiences do not in and of themselves lead to his Christian doctrinal position.

I don't know, and that doesn't seem to be the point from the flavor of his comment. I'm not interested in Christian doctrinal position. If you look back, I think Dave asserts that we have to take ALL personal experiences ("religious" or not) into account before asserting a truth claim. The more, the better.

Would you trust the experiences of someone else? Why should you?

Yes, I might trust someone else's experience particularly if it jives with my own or at the very least if it rings a bell of truth with me. If there's no commonality, I might contemplate the experience and and ask questions. In the worst case, if I'm feeling snarky, I might make a humorous comment and walk away from it.

Whether or not I should trust someone else's experience (ANY experience), well... at the very least suppose that's still more data for me to consider. I'm trying to be open to hear more about anyone's experiences about anything because I starting to realize that my own little world doesn't contain all the information I need to make the best of my life.

To illustrate what I mean when I'm talking about experience, I'll share with you something that happened to me last night that's been on my mind all day. My wife and I watched a classic, award-winning, highly rated science fiction movie with (I thought) a strong message. I took it quite seriously and my wife did not. I felt as if it was hopeless to have any meaningful conversation about it but didn't communicate any of that to her. Being upset about that, I gave her the silent treatment for the next hour or so. Then I felt compelled to approach her to explain to her why I was being a jerk and why I felt hurt by her apparent judgment of the movie. This conversation didn't automatically make everything better, but I do have confidence next time this sort of thing comes up the situation will improve.

Can you tell me this experience has no relevance in making my life better? Was is "religious" or not? Am I delusional? Am I making a truth claim? If I had mentioned anything overtly "religious" would that change your opinion?

So what do you think of Muslim or Mormon stories? Do they do anything for you at all?

Well, I don't know any Mormons, but I am familiar with the origins of the religion. But because I don't know any Mormons, I can't really speak about what their collective experiences are.

I know a couple Muslims, but they haven't communicated anything to me of spiritual significance. However, my (non-Muslim) wife was invited to a Muslim celebration called an Iftar a few weeks ago. Apparently, no one said anything of spiritual significance to her either. But, what I can gather from an Iftar is that Muslims love to party with great food, and I'm all for that! This leaves me somewhat regretful that all I got was leftovers.

You would still insist, as I do, that if Allah wanted me to believe in him he should give me the proper experiences necessary irrespective of whether I believe or not.

Sure! Why not suggest something like that? And to your point, would it be worthwhile to whole-heartedly experiment with that, or should the fear of delusion stifle the pursuit of a meaningful experience? And on a related note, should the fear of discovering ANY kind of knowledge hold back the persistent experimentation of science?