In the third chapter of “The God Delusion”, Richard Dawkins spends his time dismissing the most common arguments in favour of the existence of God. I don’t have a problem with much of the chapter if I’m honest. Many of the arguments he covers are indeed somewhat feeble, and a poor basis for a belief on which to base your life. I would also say, however, that my faith is not ultimately based on a convincing intellectual argument about God’s existence, and I think most Christians would confer with me on this.
There are two points that I would quibble with however . The first of these is his dismissal of ‘The argument from scripture’. This is a big topic and I don’t intend to go into it in great detail. I would merely say that as I read through and meditate on the Bible, its authority, consistency and relevance – thousands of years after it was written – is striking.
The main thing I want to say, though, relates to his discussions on ‘The argument from personal experience’. Even in this, most of what Dawkins says is true. He cites an example of an undergraduate contemporary who mistook the call of a ‘Manx Shearwater’ for the devil, to demonstrate that a spiritual experience may have a more down-to-earth explanation. He rightly points out our brain’s ability to read something that isn’t there into the sensations that it receives. Yes, we can easily misunderstand, misinterpret and misremember isolated events that happen in our live and to base a life-changing belief on one ‘mystical experience’ might be a flaky enterprise.
The problem with his argument, however, is that Dawkins misunderstands what Christians mean by their personal experience. While I can only properly understand my own experience, I don’t think I am unique or even in unusual in what I say. For me, while there are spiritual ‘high points’ and specific times when I’ve been very aware of God’s presence, my personal experience of the reality of God does not rest on just one (or indeed several) such isolated events. Rather my personal experience is as much the cumulative impact of being aware of God in the everyday. There are many aspects to this personal experience, for example:
- seeing God answer prayer in both quite spectacular and more ordinary ways.
- seeing something quite different in the lives of other Christians which I can only account for by God’s work in their lives.
- the relevance of God speaking into the events of my life, sometimes quite directly, as I read the Bible.
- a real sense of God’s presence, not just in spiritual high points but often in my every day life following him.
- reflecting on my life, and recognising that it only makes sense if God is there.
There are other ways that I could say that I am aware of God’s reality in my life (perhaps other Christians reading this could reflect on how they are aware of God’s reality in their lives, and comment on some of the forms this takes?) but the point I wanted to make is that personal experience for most Christians does not come from a one-off experience, a voice or a vision, but a more common every day reality, different to but yet analogous to the way in which we experience most of the realities of our every day life.
For I think one common misconception that underlies a denigration of ‘the argument from personal experience’ is that personal experience is somewhat inferior to an argument that can be written down in a logical (and preferably mathematical) fashion on paper. My experience of my love for my family and theirs for me is not something that can be written down in this fashion, yet is no less real for that and also a core centrality in my life. Ultimately all things, even scientific facts boil down to basic truths that we accept because of the experiences gathered through our senses in our every day life.
Personal experience is powerful and a key reason why I, and others, believe in God. It could not be any other way.