Joe Hinman raises an issue that is worth considering. It is the question of how we can relate to something for which we have no familiarity and no experience. It may not be easy to understand something that you've never seen or never experienced. He asks the question:
How could someone born blind understand the difference in blue and green or yellow?After calling atheists' theorizing about religious belief "simplistic an totally wrong headed", and "shallow and senseless", He sums it up this way:
Religion doesn't exist because people tried to explain why it rains. It exits because people sense the numinous. They sense this aspect of something, the sublime, the spiritual, the nether regions but something that is special and beyond our understanding.What Hinman wants us to think is that atheists have no understanding of Christians' belief in God because they haven't experienced it for themselves. Of course, this is the same old trope that we hear over and over again. And it's just not true.
You can't understand what it's like qualitatively to see blue or yellow unless you've had the experience, but you can understand how those sensations are caused from a physiological perspective, and you can understand what kind of sensory stimulation causes them. You can also understand how those sensations are associated with other ideas in the mind. When we see red, we associate that with fire trucks and stop signs, and other things that are linked to the concept of danger. There are different levels of understanding of the phenomenon. We can talk about the quality or feeling of a sensation, or its physical cause, or what it means to us. It is only the first of those that requires direct experience in order to understand it at that level.
But is it true that atheists have never had the inner experience of God that Hinman speaks of? Not in the least. Hinman ignores a couple of very key points: One is that whether or not we believe in God, we are all humans and we all have the same kinds of inner feelings and experiences. The other is that the majority of atheists are former believers.
On the first of those points, there is no question that there is some kind of inner feeling we all experience that creates a sense of awe or spirituality. It may be felt with more intensity by some, but we pretty much all feel it at some time in our lives. In fact, Hinman makes this the basis of his pseudo-scientific claims about warrant for belief. But as I said, this experience can be understood at different levels. We all have some understanding of what it feels like because we all have felt it to some degree. There is disagreement about what causes it. Theists think it is caused by God, but science has shown that the same feelings can be caused by certain kinds of physical stimulus, or even by psychological manipulation. And then there is the question of meaning. How does the mind interpret this experience? That depends entirely on what concepts and associations already exist in the mind. We associate red with the concept danger mainly because that concept is culturally ingrained in us. The same is true of religious experience. The interpretation of a religious experience is based on concepts we already have in our mind. No Christian would ever have a religious experience that causes him to become a Buddhist if he didn't already have some knowledge of Buddhism, and vice versa. Nobody ever learns something new from a religious experience. The religious experience only serves to reinforce what we already believe.
The other point that Hinman ignores is a common mistake among Christians who love to pretend that their understanding is so much superior to that of atheists. Most of us have been raised as believers. We do know what it's like to have a religious experience and interpret it as the experience of God. We've been there and done that. The difference is that the atheist who is an ex-believer has more ways to interpret the experience. The atheist understands that God is not the only possible reality, and not the only possible way to explain what we observe and what we feel. The atheist sees it from a wider perspective, because he knows what the Christian feels, and he can still take a more objective view that encompasses a greater body of understanding.
Christians like Hinman who say the atheist has a limited understanding of religious belief are arrogant and hypocritical. It is they who don't have the perspective of seeing both sides of the question. It is they who don't have the objectivity to examine the issue dispassionately, and arrive at a conclusion based on logic and reason. Christians have been raised from the time they were infants to believe in God and the myths of the bible. They can't imagine what it's like to have no belief in God, because that's something they've never experienced. And all those so-called ex-atheists like CS Lewis never really abandoned their childhood beliefs. All they did was keep it hidden for a while, and then allowed it to re-emerge.
I have to laugh every time I hear Christians making these claims about how blind atheists are, how limited their epistemological toolbox is. We reject God belief, not because it is outside our understanding, but because our understanding is broader. When it comes to interpreting our experiences, we have more than just one way to see everything. We are not limited to always arriving at the same old conclusion that was instilled in us when we were children. We can look beyond those childhood beliefs and see more. Most of all, when looking at a broader range of choices in how to understand something, we can base our decision on objective evaluation, because we are not hemmed in by religious faith.