Answering Austin Cline's "Argument from Religious Experience:Do We Experience God's Existence?"
William James (1842–1910)
Atheist pundit Austin Cline can often be found pontificating about religion on about.com. He has an article around religious experience as a God argument,  his prejudicial dismissal of the argument is tailormade for my new book, The Trace of God: A Rational Warrant for Belief, by Joseph Hinman (paperback, soon to be e book available on Amazon) to answer. First I want to clear the way by a knit pick. the phrase "Do we experience God's existence?" is an awkward and odd phrase. It's redundant because the only way we could actually experience God as a reality is if God is real, what we call "existing," thus even though this is a misuse of the term on his part according to Paul Tillich's theology  to experience God is to say that God is real and thus the idea that we are experiencing God's existence is just redundant. If we experience God as a reality then God must be real or we are not truly experiencing God's reality. We don't say that we experience the existence of things apart form experiencing those things. I've experienced losing my parents, I don't say 'I have experienced the existence of my parent's deaths.'
Be that as it may Cline opens his argument:
According to the Argument from Religious Experience, people have “religious experiences” — experiences of the supernatural, like heaven or angels or even a god. Because we believe other experiential claims people make — like that they went to the store or own a car — then we should believe these claims as well. It is also argued that when skeptics apply higher standards for claims based on religious experiences than they do for claims based on other experiences, they exhibiting a prejudice against religious claims. This prevents them from understanding and ultimately believing.Here we see a totally inadequate understanding of religious experience. There is no sense here that religious experience is mystical experience or "peak" experience or that it is even a form of consciousnesses. He tries to justify the kind of dismissal tactics atheists use to reduce and mislabel religious experience. He's already demonstrated that he's mislabeling it. The understanding of super nature such that religious experience is "experience of the supernatural" is merely the modern enlightenment misunderstanding of the concept. Super nature is the power of God to raise human nature to a higher level (of consciousness) thus "the supernatural" is mystical experience. See my article "the Empirical Supernatural."
Cline bases his argument on the work of William James:
William James offers a classic version of this argument in his influential Varieties of Religious Experience. He argues that all normal persons have religious experience and, since experience is the final arbiter of truth, then God — as the object of religious experiences — must be accepted as factually true. James further observes that the religious experiences in question tend to have a profound effect on the lives of people and even whole societies, implying that such effects cannot reasonably be attributed to hallucinations. Instead, it is much more reasonable to believe that a real God is responsible for religious experiences than to attribute the profound effects of those experiences to a mere imaginary being.As profoundly important as James still is in the study of religious experience, and this argument is good in so far as it goes, there are better and more updated versions of the argument. Notice he doesn't take on William Alston, who is one of the major philosophers of religion of the late twentieth century. Nor does he deal with any of the modern empirical scientific data in favor of religious experience. Cline decides to pick on James as the best example of the argument.
The first problem is in James’ assertion that “all normal people” have “religious experiences.” It is uncertain what exactly he means by this, but it is a much easier assertion to make than to support. If he means experiences of the supernatural — gods, angels, etc. — then he is wrong. If he means something much more vague, like that everyone has experienced awe when contemplating the universe, then he might be right but he isn’t supporting his claim.
I doubt that James said "normal people" I can't find where he did say it. I notice that Cline doesn't document it. That could be crucial weather or not he ascribes it to normality. What he actually says is referenced by Wuthnow in his study (this can be seen in my book) where he says there is a continuum in experience that all people (I don't think he says "normal")
As far as the argument itself goes it is perfectly logical. We don't experience things that are not real. We could actually mistake experiences of one thing for another, so that must be answered. We might also have a false experience, that is hallucination or some other trick of the mind. These things are easily disproved in the case of mystical experience. The argument I sustain throughout the Trace of God is designed to answer this argument. The first answer I would give is:
(1) that I go to great lengths in my book to show that we habitually use a certain criteria for judging the reality of experience. The studies on religious experience, with the aid of Hood's M scale show us that religious experience of the mystical kind meets this criteria. Thus we must on principle accept it as real and trust it, or doubt our own existences. This arguemnt is made in a simpler way on my lis of God arguments, no. 8 "The Thomas Reid argument," or "Argument from epistemic judgement." The criteria is that we judge experiences real if hey are regular, consistent, shared (inter-subjective) and enable navigation in the world. If other forms of coutner causation are eliminated so that we can be fairly certain that we not expericing falsely logic forces us to conclude that we are experiencing rightly and there is something there to be experinced.
(2) the effects of the experience of are real. I go to great lengths to show (see all of chapter 2) that the outcome of having such experiences is life life transformation, that is a bold dramatic positive long term life changing result. I further argue that long term positive changes consistently are indicative of reality. Pathological states, mental illness and delusion are degenerative, they bring us down and destroy us over time. Nothing false builds us up and is vital too our well being over a long term period. These experiences are transforming over the long term.
(3) At the end of Chapter 7 I present eight tie breakers. The "tie" is conceived of as between brain chemicals as the most likely explanation for the origin of the experience, vs. brain chemistry as merely God's tool for enabling us to experience his presence. That's a stand off it could be either option. The tie breakers tell us it makes much more sense to accept the latter as the most likely possibility.
(4) I also rule out placebo effects in chapter 7. placebo requires that one expect the desired result, but in that chapter I show several ways in which religious experience does not conform to expected norms but often surprises such that it is often unsought, unexpected, a conversion experience, or also it can contradicts cherished doctrines. For some of the studies as much as half the sample received their experiences in childhood. I show that children are not hung up on doctrines so they are not expecting experiences to conform to doctrines. Yet they have these uniform experiences that indicates the experiences are really of an objective reality.
Cline sticks with his sustained attack against James.In any case his arguments are easy to answer if one knows Jame's works. My understanding of James is only passing fair. In my book I bring together a much larger body of empirical work which has been done over the last 50 years, armed with this knoweldge it is easy to pick off Cline's bromides. Cline refuses to think past cultural influence and makes the argument that difference in religious traditions disprove the idea of one reality behind them all. Here's he's trying to play the old atheist divide and conquer game:
The second problem is in the variety of religious experiences: if there is just one God, why is there such wide variety in the reports of religious experiences? Indeed, they are mutually incompatible. They can’t all be true, so at least some must be false. How do we differentiate? What reasons can the religious believer give to accept her reports over the reports made by others?I would argue that the studies on Hood's mysticism scale ("M scale") prove that mystical experience around the world is universally experienced in the same way. They are not conditioned by doctrines, even though they are explained by doctrines and culture that makes them seem different. When the explanation is ignored and the experiences themselves are compared they are the same. That means they have a good reason to assume they are expericing something real, something objectively there (since it's not just a matter of culture of psychology). A more detailed version documented by Hood's M scale studies can be found on The Religious a priori.
Cline asserts that there is no criteria that enables us to determine false from true experiences. While I agree that there is no criteria that proves the difference, I have already demonstrated that he's wrong in his assertion:
There are no independent criteria we can use to separate the genuine experiences from false or flawed experiences — not only in the reports of others, but in ourselves. The only criteria which might exist rely upon the validity of some religious system. For example, some argue that a religious experience which does not agree with the Bible is flawed or false — but since this ultimately assumes the truth of what is supposed to be proven, such criteria are unacceptable.There is a criteria that we habitually use to assert the reality of experience, we go by that criteria every time: regular, consistent, sheared, navigational. We don't think about it. We dont say to ourselves "I'm going to use that criteria" we just do it. If an experience is anomalous, it's not regular or consistent we assume it's bogus. If we experience things they same way all the time we assume it's normal and its alright. It's only the stuff that stands out as rare or one of a kind that bothers us. If we want confirmation of our view we seek it in others, "is it hot in here to you?" "Did you see that?" If it works we can live by it we assume it's true. Thus we don't stand on the freeway deliberating about Cartesian doubt we get out of the way of oncoming traffic. The studies on religious experience that are discussed in the Trace of God demonstrate that religious experiences fit that criteria thus we should trust them as indicative of reality.
From there Cline tries to disparage the link between the effects of the experience and an assumption of its truth aptness:
The third problem is in the idea that the profound effects these experiences have is any indicator of the truth. We can grant that people have some sort of experience and we can certainly grant that the experiences have a profound effect; but does this mean we must accept the reported content of these experiences — that they were of a supernatural nature? No.Again he raises the false specter of the hijack version of the supernatural. Real supernatural--the original meaning of the term--referred to mystical experience not to some ookie spookie reality zone that houses all manor of stings that go "bump" in the night. Mystical experience is proved to be real. It is a real phenomena that people have such experiences and those experiences tend to have a certain effect upon the lives of those who have them. The atheists try to turn that phrase "SN" into some kind of badge of dishonor, the fantasy world one dare not believe in. In resorting to that ploy he is dogging the real issue that he himself raised, do these effects of having had such experiences indicate the truth of the object of experience? He says "no" based upon the proviso that it is indicative of the forbidden realm. But if we ask the question in terms of reality and the object of the experience we must say yes.
First of all atheists are inconsistent in that they will argue that the advantage of having an experience is not indicative of truth but then they turn around and affirm this very idea of scinece. Every time I ask atheists how do you know science is true? They always say "because it works, you are using a computer aren't you? Science produced that computer because it works." All hail science! In any case, so saying the affirm the principle that working is related to being true. This is one of my tie breakers in chapter 7. Then Cline dazzels us with more of his fallacious reasoning: "Real experiences that have a profound impact on a person can have completely natural sources without any divine connections."
That just illustrate the atheist misunderstanding of the true concept of SN and the way they use it as a ploy to ward off belief in God by lumping it into the forbidden zone of belief. They make still absurd dichotomy anything natural must lack God and could be the product of evolution. That is an assumption not in evidence. A Gambler getting 100 royal flushes in a row as random chance would be naturalistic but it would not be natural, it would be the greatest of flukes. God created the natural realm and he works in all the time. The assumption atheists make that if it's naturalistic then God can't be in it is absurd. That's why we need the tie breakers, because the naturalistic element of brain chemistry could go either way. It could be indicative of a Godless origin or it could be God's tool in giving us a sense of his presence.
Yet Cline goes further he makes a foolish assertion that: "Mystical experiences can be reproduced in anyone, both with chemical substances and mechanical equipment. With this being the case, what reason is there to think that other reports actually stem from a supernatural, rather than a natural, cause?" Well if you really want to know:
(1) buy my book and read the end of chapter 7 for the eight tie brakers and you have eight different reasons to assume the answer to that.
(2) The assertion that religious experiences can be reproduced is not proved. There are tons of claims to that effect, but in the book I point out (ala Philosopher John Hick) that those researchers do not have a standard criteria for control in understanding what constitutes religious experience. They do not use the M scale or any other valid scale to determine this.  I analyze the Borg study which is hostile to religion and show that their standard is totally unsuited. Because they do not use such criteria they cannot prove that ever produce religious experience. They merely take the presence of cultural icons of religion as indicative of religious experience but there's no sense of consciousness. As I have said dichotomizing bewteen natural and SN is not a valid means of determining God's handiwork since God can work int he natural as easily as he can in the SN. Rather it is God's power to life us up to a higher state of consciousness that is Super nature. The basic state of such consciousness is a matter of fact, regardless of proof about it's origin.
Cline goes on dictonomizing:
If at least some of the alleged religious experiences are wholly natural, how do we separate them from the “truly” supernatural ones? Even if an experience changes the course of a society, that does not testify that the experiences had supernatural origins. At most, it might point to the persuasiveness of the believers or the appeal of the claims.As I said already we do that by buying my book and reading the end of chapter 7 where I list the tie breakers. Then at the end of the article he takes on Swinebrune's argument:
Some, like Richard Swineburne, argue that the degree to which it seems to a person that something has happened should translate into the probability that something has happened. It is true that when people say that it seems to them that a chair is in a room that, therefore, we tend to accept that a chair is in the room. It is not true, however, that every time someone genuinely and seriously believes something, we also accept that whatever they believe is probably true.I don't argue Swineburne's argument. I've only read it one time. So I wont try to defined it here except to say that the condition of the argument seems to be the extent to which is seem that the person has actually experinced something. We are talking about warrant. If there is a warrant to believe this then there is no logical reason to discount it on face value. That doesn't mean one can't come up with an argument, it does mean the burden of proof is on the sketpic to show that the warrant is invalid and that there is good reason to doubt. Playing dichotomy game and hinting that "O no this leads to the forbidden zone of he SN" is not going to cut it. That is an ideological assumptino that some aspect aspect of reality must be doubted because it is the aspect that it seems to be and and brings too close to God so we must doubt it.
We only accept this when it comes to more mundane things which we all have experiences of. When someone says that it seems to them very strongly that an elf is in the room, we do not accept that there is probably an elf in the room, do we?
At this point Cline leaves us with the most dubious argument of tall, that failure to obtain mystical experience is a reason to doubt it's validity.
Even if we accept Swineburne’s argument, we must also accept that when people try to have an experience of a god and fail, that this is good reason to believe that a god probably does not exist. After all, it would be prejudiced to dismiss the experiences of nonbelievers but privilege the experiences of those who already believe.This argument is open to immediate reversal becasue then one must accept results as indicative of truth. If this is the case then why don't successes reflect that reality of God? The fact that it works has to be understood as truth indicative. Moreover, if results are indicative the fact that the experience is transformative and that being such it fulfills the basic function religion promises to fill in the first place, offers a rational warrant for belief that it is true. I suspect that Cline based his argument upon the arrangements I make because his contains all the basic elements of mine but he didn't bother study how I defend them. Or that may be my own arrogance and conciet.
Either way the Trace of God, my book, arms the chruch with a power body of scientific data that backs up this and all other experience based arguments. This work injects fiber into the content of experience arguments and no Christian ever need fear the atheists jibes about no facts, no God, atheism has scinece. Atheists have not touched these arguments in five years of battle on CARM. This book serves as a compindium that will enable anyone to defend experience arguments against all commers.
Order The Trace of God On AMAZON in paper back, (soon to be avaible in Hard back and Electronic).