Amazing Grace, how sweet the soundIt's a story we've heard throughout the ages. I was miserable. I was depraved. I was suffering. My life was lacking something. And then I found religion, and my spiritual needs were fulfilled.
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found
Was blind but now I see
Some variant of this theme is ubiquitous in stories of conversion. I have pointed out in the past that the big difference I have observed between accounts of religious conversion and accounts of de-conversion is as distinct as night and day. The atheist de-conversion story is usually a tale of intellectual dissatisfaction with the fantastic claims and the illogic of theism, while the religious conversion story tells of emotional dissatisfaction with the vagaries of life.
If you're a Christian reading this, you're probably thinking, That's not true. My belief is founded on logic and evidence. And I'm sure that's what you believe, but we hear this story over and over again. Just now, I saw this from Joe Hinman:
I start from the premise "I was in need i called fror help and I got help,who answered?" You must seignior the reality of that fact because you have to validate your ideological assertion of no God. All I have to do is account for my experience in a way that makes sense to me,your ideology is dishonest because it demands that your forget your experience. Or it would tell me to forget my experoemce. - Joe HinmanWhat is Joe saying here? It's clear that he is describing an emotional event in his life. He felt he was suffering in some way, and then he says he was answered, presumably by God, and this is what changed his life for the better. I have no doubt that this religious experience did make him feel better. But at the same time I recognize the fact that it was an emotional experience rather than an intellectual understanding of some logical truth. But notice that Joe is trying to make it sound as if it is a rational basis for his belief.
Joe never even questions whether it was actually God that answered him, or if it might have been a psychological experience. For Joe, the subjective religious experience provides a direct knowledge of God that is beyond any skeptical doubt. It is perfectly rational. But the rational nature of this belief is highly questionable. I call it "Refried Epistemology". It's something that I can't take seriously. Joe insists that skeptics just don't know the truth of this experience because we haven't had it ourselves. As an empiricist, I say that a private, subjective experience like that is something that can never be subject to verification by objective observers, as would be the case with any empirical evidence. On this issue, we can never come to agreement. But I recognize that it seems quite real to him.
Joe describes the religious experience as "warrant for belief in God", and he attempts to justify this claim in his book, where he discusses a collection of peer-reviewed studies that mostly show a correlation between spirituality or religious experiences and well-being. This correlation is well-known in the field of psychology. But Joe makes the mistake of inferring from this correlation that God is the cause of the well-being. This is something that none of his studies would ever conclude, and for good reason. There isn't any scientific justification for it. Instead, it is generally understood that rather than God making it happen, it is the psychological and social effects of religious belief that produce the observed outcomes, as discussed here.
One of the major benefits of religious belief is that it serves as an effective resource for coping with stress. And this is probably a key factor in the conversion stories we see so often - like Joe's for example. He was in need (psychologically stressed) and he called for help. So he submitted to religious belief to help him get through his rough time - just as so many others have done. Read the conversion stories. This is a common theme among them. But let's not go overboard and assign credit for their psychological boost to an imaginary being. It is belief itself that makes them feel better. It is the comfort of believing that there's a simple answer to everything that has perplexed them, believing that they will live forever, and having a sense of purpose, along with a supportive social community of believers.
It doesn't matter how much Joe thinks he has felt the presence of God. It's still a subjective feeling. Plenty of people are absolutely convinced of things that simply aren't true because of feelings they have. The best way we have of distinguishing reality from fantasy is to recognize the difference between objective facts and subjective feelings. Objective facts are verifiable. Belief in God is not properly basic, as Plantinga would have us think. But the effects of religious belief are real.