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.