You have a Personal Experience of God? That Tells Me Jack About Reality

The problem with theism is not only that it is false, but encourages cosmic myopia. In the face of countless competing claims, the believer insists that it is his story that answers the world's important questions.

Many of the conversations about my apostasy occur in the context of feigned curiosity. Some Christian discovers that I have abandoned the faith and insists that he has no desire to revert me but is only interested in understanding what caused me to change my mind.
This is, of course, always untrue, and as soon as I offer my reasons, which at this point are well-rehearsed, I encounter superficial dismissals of the reasons that I have just given. Inevitably, these dismissals are followed by an eager offer by my interlocutor to share his testimony; the person wants to tell me about some amazing coincidence and his life, which he imagines confirms his conviction in the existence of the Christian deity.

This is so customary that I have now begun to take a pre-emptive strike. I begin by bluntly saying, “I don’t give a shit about your testimony. Whatever it is. It conflicts with the equally amazing, but conflicting testimony of some other theist believer. More importantly, it is not enough to counter all the objective reasons to doubt the existence of God.”  
It never works. No matter how often I explain this, the person I am talking to inevitably imagines that his or her testimony will be more compelling than the rest.
I must admit I have heard some pretty impressive stories, accounts of some highly improbable coincidences. Here’s why they don’t matter.

First, if God was indeed the agent acting in the lives of believers who are testifying, they would all be offering us converging reports of God. The accumulation of their stories would not lead to confusion and disagreement but a coherent picture of who the intervening deity is.
Alas, it is just the opposite. Christians, Muslims, Mormons, etc. have all told me amazing stories of how the deity acted in ways that confirm the religion they happened to have been born in.

A few years back, I was on a bus reading an obviously Christian book. A concerned Muslim woman initiated a conversation with me about the virtues of the Koran —it’s astonishing how believers of all stripes feel entitled to tell complete strangers how to live their lives. She recounted how the children in her community are so moved by reading the Koran and that if only I would do the same, I would realize that it is indeed the word of God (I had read the Koran and experienced no such illumination).

She then went on to tell me how Allah had cured a family member who had been critically ill through her family’s intercessory prayers. Of course, he had been in the hospital and doctors had tinkered with his body, but the real credit belonged to Allah.  
This story is no different than a story that a Christian might tell. I can only wonder why God, as he is intervening to cure cancer, doesn’t offer the Muslim some equally important information, namely, that Jesus is his son, who is also himself, and that there is a Holy Spirit hanging around.

If Christians are to be believed, this is an even more critical matter. Death is simply a transition of the soul, and here are souls who are arguably eager to the worship God, they are trying to communicate with God and yet God can’t be bothered to clarify his true nature.

Or perhaps, it is the Mormons who have it right. If Jesus was indeed hanging around in North America, it would be nice if God would clear that up as he is helping Christians find the right parking spot.
This is the first problem with testimonies. They always confirm the initial presupposition that the person I am speaking with had. Shockingly, the testifier’s encounter with God confirms that she had been right all along.

However, as an outsider listening to this, it’s a bit like hearing several self-identified eye-witnesses talk about what is supposed to be the same event who disagree on key details. One person claims that the vehicles involved in the crash was a 60 Ft trailer and an SUV, and another person insists it was two sports cars that collided.
Under these circumstances, those of us interested in the truth can only conclude that these eye-witnesses will not get us there.

Fortunately, in the case of God, there are other more salient questions to consider, questions that the believers should spend more time reflecting on instead of telling us how Jesus spared their house during the Tornado, which mowed down their neighbor’s property.
In this regard, I can offer nothing new, but it is on these often repeated arguments against God that we non-believers must keep resting our case.

The believers have told us that their deity is both all-powerful and all-loving and routinely intervening. We must insist that the evidence in the world around us belies this claim.

When the believer informs us that there must be a God because she got an extension on her class paper (true story), it is great time to ask, “Why is your God more interested in giving you, a privileged Westerner, an extension on a class paper than he is in helping Haitian children infected with intestinal worms? Why does he have time to help you meet a godly spouse, but has not made time to address the destruction of his creation being wrought by climate change?”
To these inquiries, the believer will undoubtedly plead free will, sin, fallen world, etc. Human beings cause poverty, human beings chopped down forests. God, cannot intervene to insulate us from the consequences of our actions, without mitigating our free will.

 Keep in mind, this is the same person who, after freely choosing to not complete a course assignment on time, enjoyed the benefit of God interfering in the free will of her professor to compel him to give her an extension so that she does not have to suffer the distresses of a bad grade. But for the sake of a child, who is the victim of someone else’s free will—very likely a wealthy, Western Christian—God cannot rig the game. Indeed, Yahweh works in delirious ways.  
Or let us take climate change. Indeed, humanity is guilty. We have destroyed the habitats of countless species for our convenience; we have polluted oceans just to keep up with the Jones; we have thoughtlessly modified the biosphere in dangerous ways.  

However, are we utterly without excuses? Although some of it can doubtless be attributed to our treachery, was not a great deal of it due to our ignorance?

Did our forbearers fully realise the implications of their actions as they went forth to subdue the Earth and have dominion over it? If only God had written a book with instructions on how to live?
Oh, that’s right. He apparently did. And in that book—a book in which he could not even be bothered with basic accuracy—he took great pains to tell us how to worship him, all the various sacrifices to be offered to him, how to stone those who offend him, whose land he will give to his chosen people, the necessity of eating his body and drinking his blood, but at no point, does he address how to best take care of his planet. He does not explain the ripple effect that the demise of one species can have on an ecosystem. He prophesied greatly about the religious-political events in the one small plot of land of his obsession, but does not foresee that we will discover oil and use it for good and ill.

Much of destruction of the planet can be attributed to our ignorance—an ignorance that could have easily been rectified by a loving deity offering some useful instruction in his book.
It is in light of these actualities that we must consider any report of visions of crying virgin statues. These global issues, which affect the lives of many millions of people and billions of living things, are far more relevant in assessing theistic claims than how God managed to inspire someone’s friend to forward her the right Scripture passage when she was feeling down.   

The problem with theism is not only that it is false, but encourages this type of self-absorbed myopia. In a universe that is 13.7 billion years old and on a planet with approximately eight billion inhabitants, the Christian testifier imagines that the way to answer great, cosmic-sized questions is through their small, mundane life experiences.
These stories tell us nothing about the universe, nothing about the nature of reality, but they tell us a great deal about the person we are talking to. That level of pettiness is not just an intellectual problem, it’s a moral one, and we should challenge it.    

Carolyn Hyppolite is the author of Still Small Voices: The Testimony of a Born-Again Atheist.