Trump’s War on Factual Reality


[Today’s post is drawn from a larger one I did a few years ago. I repost this part from it because I think it’s important to show in a comprehensive, patterned way that President Trump not only occasionally misleads, he systemically distorts reality.]

I grieve over the carnage Trump’s campaign and now win has done to our respect for scientific evidence, reasoned discourse, and truth. Trump is perhaps the most dishonest politician of modern times. He has lied about almost everything.

First, to get the broad scope, consider journalist Nicholas Kristof’s comparisonof Trump to Clinton:

One metric comes from independent fact-checking websites. As of Friday, PolitiFact had found 27 percent of Clinton’s statements that it had looked into were mostly false or worse, compared with 70 percent of Trump’s. It said 2 percent of Clinton’s statements it had reviewed were egregious “pants on fire” lies, compared with 19 percent of Trump’s. So Trump has nine times the share of flat-out lies as Clinton.

Likewise, The Washington Post Fact-Checker has awarded its worst ranking, Four Pinocchios, to 16 percent of Clinton’s statements that it checked and to 64 percent of Trump’s…

“The man lies all the time,” says Thomas M. Wells, his former lawyer. Wells recalls being curious that newspaper accounts varied as to the number of rooms in Trump’s apartment in Trump Tower — eight, 16, 20 or 30. So Wells asked him how many rooms were actually in the apartment. “However many they will print,” Trump responded.

Tony Schwartz, the co-writer of his book “The Art of the Deal,” told Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, “Lying is second nature to him.”

After noting, as Kristof does, Trump’s abysmal fact checking record, conservative Charles Murray makes this observation:

But it’s worse than that. It’s not that Trump makes strategic decisions about what useful untruths he will tell on any given day — it looks as if he just makes up stuff as he goes along. Many of his off-the-cuff fictions are substantively unimportant: He says Rex Ryan won championships when he coached the New York Jets, when he didn’t. No one would care — if it were a one-shot mistake. But it happens repeatedly. Then it gets a little more important, as when he says Paul Ryan called to congratulate him after his victory in the New York primary, announcing a significant political event that in fact did not happen. Then the fictions touch on facts about policy. No, Wisconsin does not have an effective unemployment rate of 20 percent, nor does the federal government impose Common Core standards on the states — to take just two examples plucked at random from among his continual misrepresentations of reality. That he deals so heedlessly in those misrepresentations makes it impossible for an opponent to conduct an authentic policy debate with him.

As a sampling of specific lies consider the following: He claimed that he had seen thousands of New Jersey Muslims celebrating the 9/11 attack, though the evidence refutes that this ever happened.

He once said that he and Vladimir Putin were friends: that they had spoken, “indirectly and directly”  and that he had “got to know him [Putin] very well,” and that “Putin even sent me a present.” But in JulyTrump told ABC, “I have no relationship with Putin. I don’t think I’ve ever met him.”

Trump promised repeatedly that he would release his tax returns, something he had previously attacked Mitt Romney for not doing. He later stalled, saying they were coming soon. Then he said he couldn’t release them yet because he was under an audit. As many have pointed out (including the IRS), this in no way creates a barrier to releasing one’s tax returns. Now Trump appears to not be releasing them at all. (The Daily News breakdown of this story here is very revealing.)

One of Trump’s most pernicious lies came toward the end of his campaign. At one of Obama’s rallies for Hillary a Trump supporter stood up to protest. Obama told the crowd to respect the man’s right to free speech, also noting that he deserved respect because he was elderly and looked to be a veteran. In Trump’s spin on this incident he claimed repeatedly that Obama was “screaming…really screaming” at the protester.

Just recently Trump tweeted, with absolutely no evidence, that he had actually won the popular vote; not Hillary. At current count Hillary leads in the popular vote by 2.8 million.

Trump lies about statistics, wildly misrepresents trends, and slanders his opponents. For example, through much of his campaign he claimed there were as many as 30 million undocumented immigrants in the US (actual estimates are closer to 11 million). He claimed that crime was at record high levels (in fact, despite increases in cities like Chicago, crime was nationally near an all time low).

He claimed that Hillary wanted to abolish the Second Amendment (she wants no such thing). He inflated the number of refugees she sought to bring in to the United States. After Comey’s announcement of more e-mails and a reopening of the investigation into Hillary, Trump guaranteed his audience that there was evidence of criminal malfeasance and that this was “bigger than Watergate.” In fact, Comey himself had not yet obtained a warrant to begin examining the e-mails and Clinton was again exonerated.

Trump claims he did not say things he is literally on tape saying: that he did not support the Iraq War (he did), that he did not support nuclear proliferation (he did), that he had not called for a 45 percent tariff on China (he did), and so on. When confronted with audio or video evidence that refutes him, he often simply buckles down on the lie.

Even more insidiously, he accuses news sources that call him out on unquestionable falsehoods of being biased and the actual ones that are lying! This degrades notions of factual truth. It undercuts people’s trust in credible sources and institutions and tries to redirect them to fraudulent or kooky ones in their staid. As I will go into more shortly, it undercuts an independent free press, which in turn corrodes our democratic way of life.

It’s one thing to say various news sources come from a particular vantage point and slant. Of course they do. That is human nature. That’s why we all would do well to take in information from a variety of credible sources from different perspectives (we liberals need to do that too). If a news source is actually mistaken, of course they should be corrected – with actual evidence. But it’s another thing to accuse a source of straight-up lying or slandering you, without any evidence and in the face of documentation. That kind of combustive, calculated dishonesty is scary! On a number of levels.

Trump is a purveyor of conspiracy theories: that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the plot to shoot JFK, that Justice Antonin Scalia might have been assassinated, that Obama was secretly trying to help ISIS, that the establishment was rigging the elections against him, that climate change was a hoax invented by the Chinese, and so on. When called out by NBC’s Chuck Todd about one of his false theories, Trump ducked responsibility claiming: “All I know is what’s on the internet.”

Throughout his campaign, Trump regularly used the lines, “a lot of people are saying…” or “there is something going on” to introduce his most wild insinuations. This allowed him to forward the most ridiculous claims while being vague enough to maintain plausible deniability.

Considering Trump’s lack of consistency and his willingness to shift his views depending on what his audience wants to hear, it is not surprising that he has flip-flopped on a number of issues from refugees to abortion to minimum wage to his Muslim ban to the Iraq War.

Researchers at NBC News have catalogued Trump’s positions on major issues since the start of the campaign.

They found, as of early October: 18 different positions on immigration reform; 15 different positions on banning Muslims; nine different positions on how to defeat ISIS; eight different positions on raising the minimum wage; seven different tax plans, and eight different strategies for dealing with the national debt.”

Implicit in what has been said before, Trump demonstrates a lack of respect for evidence, research, or science. His views on climate change and autism fly in the face of evidence. He used unscientific online response polls to “prove” he won the first debate (more scientifically controlled polls told a different story). He not only demonstrates shocking ignorance about world affairs but seems to  be obstinately unwilling to learn or be corrected. Even now, it’s being reported that he is skipping out on intelligence briefings.

In a related matter, Trump’s manner of engaging others is vapid and inane. He regularly engages in insults, interruptions, bullying, dazzle and puff over detailed policy comparisons, and even literal dick size allusions.

The problem is bigger than Trump though. The GOP has catered to conspiratorial and un-scientific views for decades: skepticism about evolution, white-washing American history, misleading views about Muslims and foreigners, conspiracy theories about Obama, beliefs that gay people can be “cured” of their sexual orientation, and so on. I’m sure the Democrats have their falsehoods too. But it seems to me that, in general, they have more respect for science and evidence-based discourse.

It’s also the case that people are not reading or researching critically enough. We live in the age of polarization and instant “fake news.” As one person put it, a lie can now circle the globe before the truth has a chance to put its shoes on. Evidenceafter the election showed that literally made up stories were often shared more frequently on Facebook than real news of substance. Perhaps most disturbing, there is strong evidencethat the Russian government intentionally flooded the internet with fake news stories to sway the election for Trump.

Polarized “echo chambers” and fake news are problems all parties fall prey to to some extent. We can all do better. But it seems to me that the right has reached new “conspiratorial” lows in recent years, even for them.

When I was a teenager I read Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. The book is on how different forms of media constrain the way we reason and communicate. Postman saw the rise of sensationalized tv and video as undermining our ability to think critically and deeply, to communicate with depth of learning and nuance. One could debate the pros and cons of different forms of media. Steven Pinker argues that television has helped raise our empathy for those outside our “in-groups.” I suppose few things have completely positive or negative results. But when I see what we have become and how little we care about facts or objective truth – how little we even seem to believe in them – I think about Postman and I think he would be turning in his grave if he saw how truly idiotic we have become.


Douglas Wilson, Slavery, and Evangelical Opposition to Gay Lives (and the gospel)

[I wrote this a few years ago in response to some prominent Evangelical reactions to the Supreme Court’s legalization of marriage equality for gay people.]

A few days ago Pastor Kevin DeYoung wrote a blog post for the Gospel Coalition entitled “40 Questions for Those Now Waving Rainbow Flags.” DeYoung is a conservative Evangelical and the questions were meant to put Evangelicals who affirm marriage equality on the spot. Many progressives have written answers to DeYoung. Others, including Matthew Vines, penned their own 40 questions for those who opposed marriage equality (or “gay marriage”).

Pastor Douglas Wilson recently wrote a response that is sadly getting a lot of reposts from other conservatives. I say sadly because Wilson is a known apologist for slavery and the Confederacy. This is even reflected in a shocking statement in Wilson’s piece. There he writes that gay marriage is worse than slavery was. Yes, you heard that right: gay marriage is worse than slavery!

Let me break that down for you a little bit: on the one side, you have an institution that adducted men, women, and children from their homeland, tearing apart families. It packed them onto ships like sardines in unsanitary and inhumane conditions in which millions lost their lives in transit. When they got to this new and scary world, they were sold off like livestock. They were dehumanized and treated like beasts; worked like animals, raped at will, and traded off at their master’s leisure. Even when that did not happen, the threat of breaking up slave families was used as a stick to curb their natural desire for freedom.

Education was generally discouraged and although Wilson elsewhere praises Christian masters for saving the souls of these poor lost African slaves; what they were shown was generally not the gospel of Jesus Christ but rather the false gospel of white supremacy.

Instead of being taught their full freedom and equality as human beings before God, they were pointed to the passages that emphasized their need to submit and obey. Instead of being shown the love and identification with those most marginalized that Jesus called his followers to, they were taught hate and fear. Thankfully many Africans learned the true gospel of Jesus – which was really the fulfillment of their own vibrant spiritualties.

Immense wealth was built right off of their backs, and they were denied a share in the fruit of their labor. But that’s not all. For people to treat other human beings this way, a racist ideology of white European supremacy had to be established. This same ideology led white Americans to break treaties with, kill, and steal land from Native Americans. It also led them to enact discriminatory policies against Mexicans, Chinese, and other ethnic minorities.

Untold thousands of Africans lost their lives to the hardships of slavery. And that says nothing about the psychological toll. After this dominant privilege was challenged, it led to pushback in Jim Crow laws, segregation, and massive inequalities and injustices that continue on to a large extent to this day. That’s on the one side.

On the other, you have a group of normal people who have historically been bullied, murdered, raped, castrated, and castigated in the worst ways gain a little bit more social acceptance and legal rights. Now any two non-related consenting adults who love each other and are willing to commit to one another, for better or worse, are able to do so in marriage and have access to the marriage benefits that many previously lacked.

This in no way hinders those who were formerly able to marry from marrying who they want to; it just extends the same freedoms and privileges to others. This doesn’t (necessarily) hinder others from exercising their religious beliefs;* it just upholds the ability of millions of other religious people to exercise theirs as they see fit.

One of these two is all about love, inclusion, freedom, equality, commitment, humanity, and health. The other is about hate, bondage, inequality, separation, segregation, and dehumanization. Guess which one Douglas Wilson sees as worse?

It can only be by closing your eyes to the empirical evidence before you that anyone could say something so outlandish and hateful. It is only by deifying a human book and making it into an idol that one could so gleefully sacrifice their children’s lives and spirits to the false god of inerrancy.

But millions of us see through that. Millions of us know that although God’s call to us in Jesus involves sacrifice; it is not an arbitrary sacrifice that breaks our spirits for no discernable reason (what kind of God would do that?). It is sacrifice in the service of love: to extend neighbor love to foreigners, enemies, and those on the margins of society. Not just our friends and family (“even the sinners do that”).

This means confronting our prejudices. It means giving up our wealth, security, and privileges. It means risking our lives and others’ high opinion of us to defend the humanity and  rights of people who are viewed by others as dangerous or disgusting. Like Jesus did. It means giving to the poor and seeking justice for them.

It means announcing to them and others the good news of God’s in-breaking kingdom; of God’s call to repent of our selfishness and faithlessness and turn instead to our loving Abba-Father who is merciful and trustworthy; to warn others that continuing on the path of narcissism, selfishness, and retribution would lead to a living hell and separation from God; but that to grow in light and love would reconnect us to God and would give us a new family of brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers made up of every tribe and nation, of those who fear God and are following the path of Jesus.

There are other problems with Wilson’s piece. He constantly and disrespectfully refers to marriage equality as “gay mirage.” He assumes inerrancy throughout and in so doing, appears to be unaware of the overwhelming evidence that the Bible is a fallible human book (though one which could still contain a core message that God has progressively been revealing). Since it is clearly fallible, his wooden and flat use of it leads him to (in effect) make it into an idol. One on which he is willing to sacrifice gay people.

It leads him to contravene the entire spirit and thrust of Jesus’ mission. Jesus emphasized love, mercy, inclusion, reconciliation, and so on. His harsh words were for people who used laws and holiness codes to judge, exclude, or marginalize others. His use of the Torah tended to marginalize the violent parts and the holiness codes and instead emphasize love as the highest law and inward moral purity of desire and intention.

Incidentally, he said nothing (directly, contextually) about gay relationships.

* I’m setting to the side the thorny issue of whether religious believers should have the right to discriminate against LGBTQ people or other minorities in their public for-profit businesses. I tend to think they should not have that right. But for the sake of argument, assume that I am wrong. A contrary position on religious liberty is compatible with gay, lesbian, or bisexual people having the constitutional right to marry.

Love is God’s Primary Attribute: Evidence from Religious Experience: Part 5


In my last post I provided general evidence that most religious experiences of God or the Ultimate are of a loving, good, or blissful Reality.

In today’s post I will look in more detail at the spectrum and history of religious experience to show how the vast majority of them support God’s benevolence. The reader should keep in mind the qualifications I made about this benevolence in my last post.

In my next post I will examine negative religious experiences that do not easily fit into this way of seeing things.

There are many ways one could categorize types of religious experience. In his essay on religious experience, Kai-Man Kwan lists eleven different types. He then lists thirteen types of specifically theistic experience.

The eleven categories are (summarized) as follows: 1) noetic experience of a theistic God; 2) ecstasy and peak experience; 3) near death experiences (NDEs); 4) experiences of good or evil spirits or departed saints; 5) experiences of the world as contingent and dependent on something beyond; 6) experiences of beauty and intricacy in the world as subjectively powerful indicators of design; 7) a spontaneous and powerful feeling that the universe and oneself are one; 8) a mystical state of consciousness without any intentional object and uncolored by any concepts (“pure consciousness event” (PCE)); 9) experiences of minor deities; 10) Hindu monistic mysticism; 11) Buddhist experience of Nirvana (Kwan in Craig and Moreland, 513).

It is debatable if Hindu and Buddhist unitive experiences are compatible with theism, per se (I think they are). But they are uniformly of a blissful Ultimate Reality.

At some stages in Buddhist progression in meditative discipline practitioners might have fragmented, terrifying experiences (for an example, see Malkovsky 116-17). But these are transient, surrounded by and giving way to more blissful and joyful ones.

Hindu religious experiences of some minor deities can be terrifying or oppressive/evil, but others are benevolent and so far as I can tell, the unitive ones with Brahman are virtually always described in positive terms of love and bliss.

“Peak” experiences are arguably often just a natural, physiological phenomenon. But they are, almost by definition, states of heightened “aliveness” and often goodness.

Intense states of seeming unity with nature are also almost uniformly states of heightened “aliveness,” goodness, and exquisite beauty. The same could be said of more peaceful and mundane perceptions of transcendent beauty, contingency, and design in nature.

Feelings of longing for something or somewhere more are generally good if “bittersweet” experiences (see Lewis 156-58). This first twinge as well as a more advanced stage of longing separation from the Beloved before final unification with it are associated with mysticism, which is widely characterized by  perceptions of divine love.

Pure consciousness events (PCE) that seem to have no intentional object are (at the very least) neutral. But, these experiences seem to be typically perceived as positive and deeply meaningful.

Ostensible spirits that are encountered range from good to bad to in-between. But good spirits could be good angels or a theophany from a good God. The same could be said about experiences of minor deities. From a theistic perspective, they could be good or bad angels experienced as minor deities based on preconceptions (or deception). Or, possibly, they could be a theophany of a good God.

While some traditional religions are open to either good or bad spirits/deities, so long as they can access their power; some seek only good spirits and/or power for benevolent ends.

Although there are negative near death experiences (see next post) and some features of NDEs more generally raise questions about their veracity, most are a of a loving Being full of light and moral concern.

Rudolph Otto has written about the cross-cultural experience of the Sacred as one of “mysterium tremendum et fascinans“—that is, as one of “otherness” that is at once fearful and gloriously fascinating. Otto placed a strong emphasis on the transcendent and fearful aspects of these experiences of the Sacred. But he also saw it as bearing a vivifying and attractive quality and being able to be experienced beneficently (e.g. as loving, merciful, joyous, etc.) – particularly in later, more developed religions. (Otto, 31-40).

In my next post I will write about negative religious experiences. I think some fearful religious experiences are either not truly from God or are misinterpreted because of toxic cultural preconceptions. However, as I wrote in my last post, in my view God’s dominant disposition of love is not incapable with him also being holy, immense, and just. C. S. Lewis’ picture of God in “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe” as profoundly good, but not tame/safe gets the balance right.

Many religious experiences include a sense of unconditional acceptance and love. But others include a holy unsettling and conviction of sin. Virtually all prompt the participant to be transformed toward more fully living out the Love they encountered.

Let’s look more at theistic religious experience, specifically. I think most experiences where people feel God’s presence in a real way are experiences of profound goodness. To illustrate this, I will refer to Kwan’s thirteen types of theistic experience and show how each one tends toward perceptions of divine benevolence.

Borrowing from Otto, Kwan first lists experiencs of God as numinous; that is, as an awesome, majestic, even fearful Other; but also as vivifying and strangely attractive. I think my discussion of Otto above shows that there is much room here for God’s love and goodness.

Second, Kwan lists theistic mysticism which he (following most experts on mysticism) characterizes as a “love mysticism”  accompanied by love, joy, bliss, and a progressive sense of union with God (Kwan in Craig and Moreland, 516).

Third, Kwan lists a more commonplace intuitive awareness of God’s presence. He explains that such an awareness is usually “fused with a feeling of calm assurance and peace” (ibid., 516).

Fourth, Kwan lists experiences of God as a personal “Thou” (presumably drawing from Martin Buber). These experiences are “fused with characteristic emotions which accompany personal interaction (e.g. warmth, gratitude, joy of communication, sense of being personally addressed).” (ibid., 516).

Fifth, Kwan lists conviction of sin and profound experiences of forgiveness and reconciliation with God.

As I’ve said, I think God’s goodness certainly includes moral judgment and conviction of sin. However, there is clear evidence that people can feel guilt over things that are clearly not wrong (from any perspective) and an oppressive sense of shame and terror that I do not see as reconcilable with a good God. There is good evidence that oppressive, ignorant, or legalistic cultural norms and/or  ideas about God can have a strong affect on people.

In any case, whether in genuine forgiveness or God’s love breaking through artificial obstructions created by ourselves; experiences of God’s grace are characterized by intense relief, peace of forgiveness, and the joy of liberation (ibid., 516).

Sixth, Kwan lists experiences of personal growth in God. As noted in my second post on religious experience, religious realists use moral and spiritual transformation as a test of genuine religious experience. In most traditions such transformation is understood to be one from selfishness toward love and compassion toward others and devotion toward the Ultimate (Hick, 299-315). Kwan lists, “heightened sensitivity to people and moral values, a revitalized conscience, a greater concern for people and willingness to sacrifice” as examples of such growth (Kwan in Craig and Moreland, 516-17).

Seventh, Kwan lists experiences of being baptized in the Spirit. Under this category he also includes speaking in tongues. Quoting D. Dorr, Kwan explains such an experience as “an overwhelming sense of being set free from sinful selfishness…deep interior peace…the gift of tongues” (ibid., 517). Lee, Poloma, and Post also narrate such intense experiences as being love saturated (47-50).

There is reason to approach tongues with caution as well as renounce abuses of the practice. But it seems to me that in at least some cases, God uses it to truly meet people and transform them. Whatever the case, both tongues and baptism in the Spirit more generally also suggest God’s love, bliss, and goodness.

Eighth, Kwan lists conversion experiences. Kwan sees overlap between these and other types of theistic experience. Conversion experiences are most marked by the dramatic and sudden change they bring. William James’ characterization and examples of conversion experiences emphasize their positive qualities (James, 150-70). Most other examples I know of also strike the participants as profoundly good.

Ninth, Kwan lists corporate theistic experiences. That is, purported religious experiences by multiple people in community. Kwan lists corporate worship and prayer as examples. In that these experiences are most likely recognized in moments of extraordinary unity, ecstasy, peace, and other positive developments; this kind of experience also fits with God being primarily loving, good, or blissful.

Tenth, Kwan lists theistic experiences that are mediated through other more mundane kinds of experience such as “experiences of nature, art, conscience, fellowship with others, and saintliness of others” (ibid., 517). Both my own experiences here and most others I’ve read or heard about are ones of sublime beauty, peace, connectedness, and joy.

Eleventh, Kwan lists experiences of God that seem to come to the participant through a sensory experience (e.g. visions, auditions, dreams, stigmata) (Kwan in Craig and Moreland, 518).

It seems to me that these can be either good or bad; possibly truthful or demonstrably false. We will look in my next post at some examples of bad sensory religious experience that people have taken to be from God. But for our purposes here it is worth noting that many of them seem to testify to God’s love, bliss, and goodness.

Twelfth, Kwan lists interpretive theistic religious experiences. It seems to me that there is significant overlap between this category and that of mediated theistic experience. Kwan describes interpretive experiences as “a spontaneous interpretation of an event as God’s action or message but the event can be clearly described without using religious concepts” (ibid, 518).

Like sensory experiences, these seem to include both good and bad experiences and good and bad interpretations. For example, someone could interpret sickness or a natural disaster as God’s judgment, and that might not actually be true. Our interpretation of events will be colored to some extend by the preconceptions we bring into them (both good and bad). And these in turn are influenced by our culture and environment.

That said, many interpretive theistic experiences also suggest God’s love, bliss, and goodness. Kwan lists answers to prayer, guidance, miracles, healing, and tongues as examples (ibid., 518).

Thirteenth and last, Kwan lists an intuitive intellectual apprehension of God in which all feelings and phenomenal content is absent. As the theistic equivalent of Kwan’s “pure consciousness event” (PCE) from above, such experiences are neutral (at the very least) but seem to be typically perceived as positive and deeply meaningful.

Implicit in Kwan’s categories are the means (prayer, meditation, spiritual disciplines, etc.) and places (nature, places of worship, loving community, etc.) in which people tend to perceive God. I think that the breadth, depth, and (general) consistency of these benevolent impressions is striking.

Before going on to consider religious experiences that don’t seem as good in my next post, let me here address the issue of historical sweep. Some people might argue that contemporary experiences of God that seem benevolent or benign simply mirror modern views of God which strip him of his awesome fearfulness. Naturalists might make this argument, but even many conservative believers do as well.

For example, in my own Christian tradition conservative theologians often compare firsthand accounts of benevolent religious experiences and see them as not measuring up to the awesome, unnerving, and even wrathful encounters with God chronicled in the Bible. But there are good reasons to see normative love, goodness, or bliss as more than just a modern phenomena.

The Buddha’s experience of enlightenment (c. 6th century BCE) was one of joyful bliss.

The theistic experience of Guru Nanak, founder of Sikhism (c. 16th century CE), was one of ecstatic beauty and love.

Zarathustra, the founder of Zoroastrianism (c. 12th century BCE), experienced his call when he purportedly encountered a heavenly realm of shining beings characterized by wisdom, justice, and good intention (Armstrong, 8).

Ancient Taoists describe mystical experiences of the Tao as joyous and full of colors (Fiesler and Powers, 178).

The heightened Hindu experiences of identity with Brahman described in ancient sources such as Mundaka Upanishad or by important leaders such as Shankara (c. 8th century CE) were ones of love and bliss. The same could be said about the Bhakti movement and some other streams within Hindu spirituality.

Jesus seems to have been a mystic of sorts. He reported encountering evil spirits and he believed that God was an apocalyptic judge. Nevertheless, his view of God seemed to be primarily benevolent. And the benevolent parts of his view of God seem the most connected to his direct religious experience of God (as well as similar experiences common to mystics more generally).

For example, in the vision at his baptism, he heard God say “this is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” and saw God’s Spirit descend on him in the form of a dove –  a symbol of peace and hope in the Bible. The Gospels indicate in other places too that Jesus saw himself and his Father as united and lovingly related to one another. Like other mystics, he seems to have seen God’s hand in nature and inferred from it the Father’s gracious intentions toward all – righteous and wicked alike – and his loving care for his creatures.

There are many other aspects of Jesus’ view of God and His mission that show God’s love predominating. And there are a range of reasons to see this as directly related to his religious experience of God (see Borg, 109-36).

The Psalmist’s evident firsthand experiences of God were of a loving, forgiving, saving deity.

Because of historical-critical problems with the Hebrew Bible, it is hard to know how many of the visions and other such purported encounters with God are based on genuine remembrance, and in what context, if any, they actually occurred. I will say a little more about these problems and evidence that undercuts harsh views of God from the Bible in a future post on miracles.

As I said in my last post, divine goodness is not incompatible with awesomess, overwhelming glory, or moral purity and judgment. But I think it is inconsistent with a feeling of persistent oppressiveness and with supposed calls to unjust violence.

As I noted above, people’s religious encounters with  the divine are at least partly structured and colored by their preconceived notions about it. In a violent culture where earthy rulers were often tyrannical and where many saw God as the direct cause of both good and evil circumstances, it would be natural to be terrified at meeting such an awesome, overpowering, “kingly” Being. This insight  could also have relevance toward Islam (see below).

It is interesting that when God or an angel appear to people in the Bible they tend to begin by saying “fear not.” Even today, even in experiences more sharply characterized by love, people often feel overwhelmed by the immensity of God.

It is also possible that some encounters where misinterpreted (or misremembered). For example, Wall ponders the possibility that Samuel heard God speak in a general way about his judgment on the wicked and Samuel himself translated that into a specific call for revenge on the Amalekites (Wall, 276). Also, some “encounters” could have been purely fabricated as a rhetorical pretext for oppressive or violent teaching.

There are elements of Muhammad’s religious experiences that seem less than benevolent. His first purported encounter with the angel Jibril (Gabriel) was one of being overwhelmed by an outside power. He reportedly first presumed that he was going crazy or was being harassed by evil spirits. Later, in moments of alleged revelation, he was reported to sweat and seemed to be in pain. Some of Muhammad’s actions and alleged revelations also strike me (and many others) as far from perfect.

That said, God as revealed in the Qur’an is predominately gracious and merciful.  Undoubtedly the Qur’an’s social ethic was progressive for its day – in many ways emphasizing mercy, compassion, and equality. Muhammad seems to have had many good traits such as honesty, forbearance, and mercy.

Certain passages in the Qur’an – for example, ones that glory in the wonders of God’s creation or one that speaks of God being closer to the believer than their own jugular vein – seem to fit a benevolent sort of mysticism. Interestingly, accounts of Muhammad’s mystical Night Journey seem to show an accommodating God who is willing to lower prayer requirements to make them easier to observe for ordinary humans.

Whatever one makes of Muhammad’s own religious experiences, many Muslims throughout history have had vivid experiences of God’s love, beauty, and grace. One need only mention the Sufi movement, with roots going back at least to the 9th century (and probably earlier).

Again, as I mentioned in my last post, this is not to say that all of these experiences are necessarily trustworthy or of the same Entity. Rather it is to show that 1) benevolent religious experiences of God or the Ultimate go back to ancient times and 2) (more controversially) they arguably played a central role in the founding of many of the world’s great religions.

In my next post I will consider a range of negative religious experiences and to what extent, if any, they are compatible with love as God’s primary attribute.

Love is God’s Primary Attribute: Evidence from Religious Experience: Part 4


In today’s post I finally get to explain why I believe these experiences testify to a loving God—the main subject of this series.

Before proceeding, let me make three qualifications. First, there are negative religious experiences that potentially could challenge the evidence from religious experience for God and for love as His primary attribute. I will consider such experiences in a future post.

Second, in my view, God’s love, bliss, and goodness are not incompatible with God: 1) Also being awesome, holy, glorious, immense, and these qualities at times seeming overwhelming to humans who encounter God. 2) Genuine conviction of sin, 3) Fatherly discipline or warnings of the consequences of evil. 4) Calls to sacrifice for the good of others and to be more dedicated to God. 5) Temporary hiddenness/silence from God.

On the other hand, God’s  love, bliss, and goodness are incompatible with: 1) An overwhelming sense of dread, malevolence, or oppression. 2) Calls to do harmful, immoral, or oppressive things. 3) Falsehood per falsehood being intended by God (vs. merely accommodated by Him). 4) Threats of punishments that violate fairness.

Third, my citing of various kinds and examples of benevolent religious experience does not necessarily mean I accept all accounts as genuine or see all such experiences as of the same entity. As an inclusivist, I happen to believe many of them are genuine experiences of or from the same God. But defending that notion is beyond the scope of this series. Instead, my purpose is to build a cumulative case based on the weight of religious phenomena and other such evidence for love as God’s primary disposition.

With these qualifications made,  I want to draw attention to a something about religious experience that is profound. Something that seems so basic I think we often overlook it. Most experiences of God or the Ultimate are profoundly loving, good, or blissful. The idea that God is overwhelmingly good isn’t just a nice theory; this is how we actually experience the divine.

For example, think back to the sample experiences I cited in my first post. Again and again we see claims such as this: “redeeming love broke into my soul…with such power that my whole soul seemed to be melted down with love…my whole soul…was filled with immortal love.” Another said, “I felt really alive with this quality of joy and laughter…Undergirding the light was love…You long for God…and if the spiritual love is awakened, that draws your attention closer and closer and closer to God, until finally you have these mystical experiences of union, in which the ego falls away and you are drawn into the ocean of love.” Another described his unitive experience as, “losing self in a perception of supreme power and love.” And one who seemed to encounter an angelic visitor described him as, “very good and wise, sympathetically understanding him, and kindly disposed toward him. The visitor assured him that God deeply loved his human creatures, including himself.”

Such descriptions are extremely common. They lead John Hick to conclude that one commonality to all major religions is that the Ultimately Real is experienced as “serendipitous” or “benign;” that is, on the side of the believer (Hick, xxiv).

In her study on neuroscience and religious experience, NPR religion correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty claims that, “Without exception” the putative reality that was experienced was “a loving presence, infinitely wise and gentle. My mystics might use different terminology, but they described uncannily similar experiences: love, peace, and, often, an overwhelming sense of unity with the universe—and always light” (Bradley Hagerty, 37).

Louis Dupre claims that mysticism in general is foremost an experience of love. “Indeed, in all cases we have discussed, love has been the very driving power of mystical contemplation” (Dupre in Meister and Copan, 291).

Evelyn Underhill, in her day one of the foremost experts on the history and phenomenology of mysticism, agrees:

Here is one of the distinctive notes of true mysticism…It is the eager, outgoing activity whose driving power is generous love…Love to the mystic, then, is (a) the active, conative, expression of his will and desire for the Absolute; (b) his innate tendency to that Absolute…He is only thoroughly natural, thoroughly alive, when he is obeying its voice. For him it is the source of joy, the secret of the universe, the vivifying principle of things…The jewels of mystical literature glow with this intimate and impassioned love of the Absolute; which transcends the dogmatic language in which it is clothed and becomes applicable to mystics of every race and creed (Underhill, 85-86).

Eric Reitan, drawing on William James, claims that one commonality to religious experience is that, “the experience has an intense emotional content that is unambiguously positive. It is joy, love, even ecstasy…The message is unswervingly optimistic: the fundamental reality encountered during a mystical state is not grim or evil, but wondrous” (Reitan, 149).

“Mystical experiences do convey a distinctive message. Their optimistic character speaks against viewing ultimate reality as evil or as ‘pitilessly indifferent.’ The sense of union with a more fundamental reality speaks against reductive materialism. Mystical experience may not tell us what the ultimate reality is like in rich detail. But it does more than just gesture to something generic. It speaks in favor of a realm that is transcendent, fundamental, and good” (Reitan, 152)

In his thorough study of religious experience, philosopher George Wall contrasts experiences that seem negative or call for immoral behavior with benevolent ones, which he believes are much more common. His analysis is worth quoting at length:

In cases One and Two the criterion of number, regularity, and persistence of religious experience definitely comes into play. In both cases the experience must be tested against other experience which is relevant. In Case One the immediately relevant experience is that which people have of Jesus or the God of Christianity. The overwhelming mass of this experience is of a loving, caring, non-vengeful God, and the experience, because of its mass and persistence, is more authoritative epistemologically than the experience of the cult leader or the small coterie of others like him.

And here I pause to say a word about those who experience the dark night of the soul. The state cannot be considered a religious experience, for it is, in effect, the felt absence of God’s presence. The Lover simply does not show up. All this is very much an oversimplification, but the point is that the people having the experience usually come down, and come down strongly, on the side of God’s love. In doing so they are resorting, at least in part, to explanation – in other words to finding as parsimonious an explanation as possible both for the presence and absence of God. I think that they also resorting to the weight of their experience of God’s love. At any rate, they usually end up being strong believers in God’s love – some of the strongest that one could imagine. One need mention only St. John of the Cross and St. Theresa of Avila.

Returning to experiences of God as loving, we should also mention experience from other religions in which God is personal and has moral characteristics, religions like Judaism, Islam, and Krishna Consciousness. Here again, the mass of experience is of a merciful or loving Deity. If the experience of the Divine as impersonal is relevant, I think that this experience also comes down on the side of love, non-vengefulness, non-retaliation. Those who experience God as impersonal – say, in the way of union or merger with an All – typically experience Something non-reactive and thus also non-violent or vengeful; they regularly report feeling peace and bliss in conjunction with their experience, feelings hardly connected with violence and vengeance. Also in experiencing union or merger they are experiencing Something that is receiving (accepting), as receiving as the ocean is of rain drops. We might note that Eastern mystics and holy people are typically non-violent, the experience of the Something apparently inspiring non-violence in them. In sum, the mass of experience East and West generally seems to be against the sect leader (Wall, 272).

One could cite other experts on religious experience, both past and present, to a similar effect. Abraham Maslow’s “peak experiences,” Abraham Heschel’s moments of “radical amazement,” and Mircea Eliade’s experiences of “the golden world” all seem to emphasize this positive quality.

While Rudolph Otto’s “numinous” mysterium tremendum et fascinans places a strong emphasis on the transcendent and fearful aspects of experiences of the Sacred; he also saw it as bearing an attractive quality and being able to be experienced beneficently – particularly in later, more developed religions (Otto).

William James seems to have seen negative religious experiences as just as prevalent as positive ones. Only, in those cases they are (often) dismissed as delusion or even insanity. In that sense, he would see focusing in on positive religious experiences alone as a kind of confirmation bias (James, 323-25).

Yet, one could argue that religious practitioners have rational grounds for selecting positive religious experiences as more valid and authoritative than negative ones. And James sees vitality, peace, and love for others as core characteristics of religious experience as accepted by religious practitioners (ibid., 368). Most of the religious experiences recounted in his famous book are positive ones.

Much of the literature on religious experience is about the most intense, exotic, unitive types of experiences. But I think looking at the broader spectrum of religious experience, my thesis also holds up.

In my next post I will look in more detail at a variety of types of religious experience to show how the vast majority of them support God being loving, good, or blissful.

Love is God’s Primary Attribute: Evidence from Religious Experience: Part 3


In my last few posts I gave some examples of people’s religious experiences and started examining some objections to their general trustworthiness.

In this post I want to give some of my positive reasons for thinking religious experience is (often) a genuine experience of or from God. First, to start with, these experiences are more common than many people realize. BBC’s ‘Soul of Britain’ survey in 2000 found that 76 percent of the population claimed to have had some kind of spiritual experience (Kwan in Craig and Moreland, 515). According to a 2005 study, half of Americans claim to have experienced a life-altering spiritual event that they could circle on the calendar (Hagerty, 33).

“In the United States a 1975 National Opinion Research Center inquiry in which people were asked, ‘Have you ever felt as though you were close to a spiritual force that seemed to lift you outside of yourself?’ found that 35 percent of those asked said that they had, and a Princeton Research Center…survey in 1978 also recorded 35 percent. In Britain at the same time, a National Opinion Poll…reported 36 percent” (Hick, 35).

As Kai-Man Kwan suggests, the proportion might be higher because of people’s reluctance to share their experiences for fear of being seen as mentally unstable. Kwan cites another study that was less impersonal and where trust was established with those interviewed. In that study, those with a positive response rate rose to 62-67 percent (Kwan in Craig and Moreland, 515). Data is harder to come by for many other places in the world; but it seems likely that they have an equal if not greater amount of people who report spiritual experiences.

I suspect that very general spiritual-like experiences of transcendence, beauty, or meaning are very common. Many thinkers have noted our natural gravitation toward sensing over-arching order, meaning, and design in the world. Psychologist Justin Barrett has done research on the beliefs of children and argues that they naturally gravitate toward a belief in God or gods (Barrett). Even many atheists have these kinds of experiences and they sometimes (though not always) cause them to change their minds.

One former atheist described his experience in this way, “Even though I didn’t believe in any god, God reached out to me standing on the shore of the Pacific Ocean. In that moment, reality seemed like a veil that was stretched taut. I could make out the glory of God on the other side, and it moved me. I felt connected to God, and through God to all my fellow humanity. It was beautiful, and it changed my life forever.”

So these kinds of experiences are extremely common. Furthermore, studies indicate that generally people who have them are physically and psychologically healthy, intelligent, and active in the world (Hick, 67-70; Hagerty. Footnote #23 292-93).*

That doesn’t foreclose the possibility that these experiences are delusions and it’s true that many of them are fairly general. But such a high incidence of them lends credibility to the notion that there is Something or Someone behind them that is truly being encountered. These experiences happen in all ages, all places, and all cultures (Kwan in Craig and Moreland, 506); and as I pointed out, there is a broader agreement about the Ultimately Real than is sometimes realized.

But what about those who have never (yet) seemed to have any kind of spiritual experience? If there is a good God, wouldn’t he reach out to everyone? Well, I have suggested that more people have some kind of experience of God—even if encountered indistinctly—than many realize. Perhaps some have even had this but failed to interpret it correctly (more on that in a future post). I believe some people have this but resist evidence of God in their lives. If nothing else, many believers testify that they once did this.

That said, for whatever reason, I also believe that God has not yet made his existence precisely and forcefully known to everyone. Perhaps sometimes he knows of circumstances in people’s lives that would make them likely to refuse him now and he is waiting for an opportunity where they might be more open.

Perhaps some general epistemic distance is necessary between God and us for humans to freely choose God or reject him (Hick, xviii).

Perhaps he has other broader goals that temporarily require his partial “hiddenness.” Given significant streams in all the major religions toward being transformed from selfishness to love and compassion, it seems likely that one of his broader goals is to morally and spiritually transform people to become more like him. Perhaps this is a roundabout way to shape people into persons who will love him in the end. In any case, most theists believes in an after-life where God will fully reveal himself to everyone and hold people accountable for what they knew and did.

Second, these experiences are also often very vivid and they leave a strong lingering impression. They often strike the participant as more real than anything else.

For example, in the religious experiences I cited, one person said of his experience that, “after every questioning and test, they stand out to-day as the most real experiences of my life, and experiences which have explained and justified and unified all past experiences and all past growth.” Another said that hers “reoriented my life. The episode left a mark on my psych that I bear to this day.” Yet another testified that, “The after-effect was overwhelming for the rest of that day…and it lasted pervasively but less intensely for the rest of his life.” One individual who I did not cite before characterized his experience this way: “It was overwhelmingly real, more real than anything I had experienced before” (Allison, 107).

I could give numerous other examples. This abiding sense of something real is one of the ways religious experience is different from dreams or typical hallucinations. According to neuroscientist Andrew Newburg, “hallucinations usually involve only a single sensory system, [whereas] mystical experiences, on the other hand, tend to be rich, coherent, and deeply dimensioned sensory experiences.” “When hallucinating individuals return to normal consciousness, they immediately recognize the fragmented and dreamlike nature of their hallucinatory interlude, and understand that it was all a mistake of the mind. Mystics, however, can never be persuaded that their experiences were not real” (qtd. in Hick, 73-74).

Similarly, Neuroscientist Mario Beauregard claims that many religious experiences are dissimilar to hallucinations in that they last longer than typical hallucinations; the subject often has a more detailed memory of the experience than one does who is hallucinating; the circumstances that prompt the two are often different; and religious experiences have been shown under MRI brain scans to use more parts of the brain than hallucinations typically do (Beauregard and O’Leary).

Third, religious experiences often impart knowledge and/or bring about effects that seem hard to explain if they are not a genuine experience of Someone or Something real. Very often they bring about dramatic spiritual and moral transformation. For example, Louis Dupres writes that, “By no coincidence did most love mystics become ‘saints,’ that is, persons who, by heroic virtue, learned to love without possessiveness” (qtd. in Hick, 43).

Obviously, not all religious people are good and some religious experiences seem to bring no change or negative change (because of sin or deception). But many if not most religious experiences seem to bring about significantly good fruit.

Some religious experiences have a concrete effect on people or the world—physical healing, for example. I will write about this more when I turn to miracles. Sometimes these experiences impart knowledge that would be hard to chock up to coincidence. For example, Craig Keener describes how his wife, who is from Congo Brazzaville, was given very specific prophesies about how she would marry a white man from the West and go through very specific events that these people were highly unlikely to have anticipated. They did not know of Craig at the time (Keener, 880).

Hick sites a number of documented cases where someone’s far-away loved one died and shortly after they experienced a vision of them or simply “knew” it. Many of the best authenticated cases come from the time before radio and internet (Hick, 79-80).

Randal Rauser lists some examples of people he personally knows (not just a vague “friend of a friend”) who had experienced very specific knowledge or leading. In one case a man needed $300 dollars and someone else felt led to give him precisely that amount. In another, a woman was going through a rough time and wanted to take her family to the water park but couldn’t afford it. Someone from her church who did not know this felt compelled to bring over extra tickets for them (Rauser, 209-14).

Now of course, God doesn’t always guide us in this way and many supposed “leadings” turn out to be false. But that doesn’t negate the evidential specificity of true miracles or insights imparted in religious experiences.

Fourth, although most of these experiences are private, occasionally they seem to include others. In one of the examples I gave in a previous post, two women were talking and they both fell silent as they together seemed to sense a mysterious Presence envelope them. As I said, they took this to be God. Psychologist Elaine Arons relays an account from one of her patients where the person’s cat shrieked and ran off her lap and she turned to see a strange creature (that I would see as likely demonic) watching her (Arons, 226). Miracles too, often happen publically or have a public effect.

Of course, on a more general level I could cite examples of communal prayer or worship where it collectively feels that the Spirit is moving. Psychologically, it would be hard to prove that this is any different than the collective enthusiasm at, say, a sporting event or a concert. That is why I appeal more to dramatic examples of religious experience than more common, garden variety ones. As I said, these vivid ones tend to be more private and non-reproducible for others. However, some of them do involve others and less dramatic religious experiences often do.

Fifth, this connects to a final point related to epistemology, burden of proof, and prima facie justification. I agree with Richard Swinburne, Kai-Man Kwan, and others who argue that religious experience conveys a sort of prima facie justification to the person who is experiencing it that what he is experiencing is true. Prima facie justification is just a fancy way of saying that these experiences are to be accepted as true apart from evidence to the contrary that undercut their credibility.

These philosophers are building on a broader epistemology variously called critical realism or critical trust that has been embraced by many thinkers of all persuasions. Critical realists understand that our perceptions can sometimes deceive us and that we can never know for sure that they are not completely misleading us (say, in a Matrix type world). Because of this, they believe we should critically examine our beliefs and experiences and be open to changing them where necessary.

However, they also realize that there is no way to get behind experience. In the final analysis, our perceptions seem true because that is how they strike us and this seeming is not falsified. Put another way, critical realist contend that experience is innocent until proven guilty. So the person who has a religious experience is justified in thinking that he is truly experiencing Someone or Something, apart from evidence that would suggest otherwise. (For a technical survey see Kwan in Craig and Moreland, 507-12. 19.)

Obviously, religious experiences often conflict at a lower level and can sometimes deceive us. Because of this, an informed person would need to use tests for authenticity such as those I mentioned in my last post and they could only confidently infer some core things from the experience by itself. However, critical realism might imply that these experiences count as prima facie evidence of a true encounter. This would shift the burden of proof to the skeptic to contest the genuineness of these people’s experiences.

In sum, religious experiences are very common; they strike the participants as vividly real; they often bring about positive fruit and specific concrete effects; they sometimes involve more than one person simultaneously; and the experience itself is reasonably taken as face-value evidence that it is real.

In my next post I will finally explain how religious experience testifies to a profoundly loving and good God.

* Hagerty does note that those who have religious experiencers are generally more prone to fantasy and suggestibility. But she also notes that on average they are better educated, wealthier, and more open to new experiences than the average American. Hick sights a range of data that suggest that mystics may be happier and more productive than your average person.


Love is God’s Primary Attribute: Evidence from Religious Experience: Part 2


In my last post I listed some examples of people’s religious experiences. In this post I will begin analyzing these types of experiences in more depth.

There is a wide diversity to these experiences. They can be intimately personal or communal; “extrovertive” or “introvertive;” frenzied or calm. The object can appear to be a good or evil spirit, a saint, a god, God as the personal ground of all being, or a state of unitive Ultimacy. Even where the object of experience seems similar, it is often experienced in divergent religious contexts, cloaked in motifs from contradictory belief systems. This wild diversity is one of the reasons critics claim that religious experience is fundamentally untrustworthy.

In fact, before moving on it would be helpful to survey some of the challenges to religious experience being a real perception of its supposed object(s). Not everyone has religious experiences. Those who do have individual experiences that are often contradictory. These experiences sometimes lead to false expectations for the future, wrong beliefs about reality, and violent behavior toward others. We also know that experiences similar if not identical to religious ones can be artificially induced in the lab or by drugs or epilepsy. Given this slew of contradictory and demonstrably down-right false experiences and given their affinity to drug induced and other delusionary states, why believe these experiences are anything but delusions?

I will give my answer here and in another post. But I acknowledge my own questions, respect those who reject religious experience as being true because of these kinds of challenges, and remain open to further insight—particularly from neuroscience.

Let’s lay some groundwork. First of all, whatever position one takes on religious experience, it seems that some kind of reductionism and reinterpretation of others’ perspectives is necessary. It simply is not possible that all the experiences are equally true at the level of individual interpretation.

For example, it cannot be the case that an apparent Ultimate that is experienced is both a personal loving God (as some seem to experience it as) and is also an impersonal state of Nothingness (as some seem to experience it as) at the same time and in the same sense.

Atheists would say that all religious experiences are misleading and purely subjective happenings in the brain (or tricks perpetrated by others). This is a reinterpretation of the way these experiences seem to religious believers. I will argue that it is unlikely that all such experiences can be dismissed in this way.

People who hold to an exclusivist view of their own religion would say that only their religious experiences are valid; that all others are demonic or fundamentally faulty in some other way. This is a reinterpretation of the way these experiences seem to others.

Religious pluralists believe that all moral religions are equally valid pathways to the same Reality and that all (benign) religious experiences are equally valid. Although it may not be as obvious, this too involves reinterpretation of the way religious experiences seem to others. For the Reality to be generic enough to fit all the different religions, it has to be reduced to next to nothing. The pluralist has to say, in effect, that every religion’s unique particular beliefs and the particularistic elements of their religious experiences are mistakes.

Those who hold to an inclusive view of their religion would say that their religion and/or their interpretation of religious experience is largely true in a way others are not; but that others can still be truly experiencing this Reality without always interpreting it in a meticulously accurate way.

This is the position I take. Because it involves reinterpretation of others’ religious experiences, it strikes many as arrogant, self-serving, and arbitrary. I will argue that it is not. But I want to again point out that there is no way of avoiding a commitment to one’s own view and the necessity of reinterpreting others’ experiences. Even pluralism has to do this. In reality, even pluralism is a form of inclusivism.

Second, spiritual realists recognize a physical, neurological component to these experiences in the brain. To that extent, they are not opposed to the possibility that specific “religious” experiences and perhaps even whole classes of them are hallucinatory or delusional. Just as our regular senses (and the areas of the brain that map them) are largely trustworthy but can sometimes misfire or deceive us; so our religious sense (and the areas of the brain that maps it) is arguably often trustworthy though it can sometimes misfire or deceive us.

Although science can identify what parts of the brain are in use during types of religious experiences it has studied, this does not necessarily speak to whether or not there is something real that is being experienced. Yes, most of these experiences are private and cannot be “seen” and confirmed by others. But some appear to be experienced by more than one person at the same time (more on that later). God or the transcendent is conceived of as invisible and primarily encountered after a sincere quest (i.e. not in an instant in a dispassionate scientific test). Further, God is considered a free agent who can choose to whom and when to show himself.

States like religious ones can indeed sometimes be instigated in others by drugs, epilepsy, or things like Persinger’s “God helmet.” But actually, Pershinger’s studies have been heavily criticized and the only study seeking to replicate his findings failed to produce his results. Likewise, drugs on their own often lead to negative results and rarely lead to the positive transformed character that religious experiences do. Not all epileptics have religious-like experiences during their seizures. Even many epileptics of deep religious faith do not. “Temporal lobe personality” appears to be different than the transformation in character most mystics go through.

It is possible that, as Aldous Huxley maintained, the brain is a “reducing valve” that usually filters out extra-mundane perception. It could be that artificially induced religious-like experiences open us up to the spiritual realm, albeit in a disordered way. What is missing is the pattern of discipline, the meaning, and the long-term positive change that genuine religious experience evinces. It is even possible that God does reach out to some individuals in these (relatively) artificial settings.

Ultimately the biggest problem with artificially induced religious experiences as an argument against any genuine ones is that this can happen with mundane sense experience too, and that doesn’t negate there being a physical world. As Hick says,

“After all, a blow to the head can make you see stars which are not physically there, and various drugs can induce much more complex hallucinations, but this does not show that there is no physical world that can be perceived more or less correctly. Nor, likewise, does the fact that various physical causes can produce religious hallucinations show that there is no transcendent reality of which there can also be genuine forms of awareness” (Hick, 74).

As I will point out later, religious experience is far too common to likely be pathological. Some mystics have had psychological issues and some people who have psychological or medical issues have hallucinations and/or delusions that are structured by religious concepts. However, studies have shown that most people who have religious experiences are normal, healthy people. In that vein, many of them are active and productive in society (Hick, 67-70; Hagerty. Footnote #23 292-93).

But third, because religious experiences can be delusional or misleading, various traditions have come up with tests to judge an experience’s authenticity. Some of these tests involve whether it agrees with the religion’s belief-system. Arguably this is circular and self-serving. Others seek to use common sense.

In that vein, because I believe experience is our ultimate source of knowledge, and because I believe that our physical experience and moral experience are (generally) stronger and more reliable than our spiritual experience; to me, for a religious experience to be considered valid, I would propose that it must presumptively fit with what we know from science and broad patterns of experience and that it be good in a way that is for us and analogous to what we elsewhere mean by that term.

If the experience ostensibly imparts insight into the physical world, whether that insight proves accurate is one thing that can be tested. Finally, the most important and universal criterion of authentic religious experience is that it bring about long-term observable moral and spiritual fruit (Hick, 39-51; Malkovsky, 140-43), . And we see that if often does.

Fourth, what about the (apparently) contradictory objects of religious experience? I would say three things: 1) Like many other religions, theism has a variety of objects it believes one can experience spiritually. Theism can explain experiences of spirits or saints. If the spirits seem evil or bring about evil fruit, it is likely demonic. If they seem good or bring about good fruit, it is likely angelic. Perhaps saints are angels that take that form or are seen in that way based on pre-conceived expectation or are genuine saints that God chooses to work through. Experiences of design, beauty, goodness, longing, or transcendence could be of or from God. Even apparent experiences of a finite god could be explained. Perhaps they are an angel or a demon or a theophony of God. Their true nature would largely be determined based on the character of the object and the fruit it brought. In all this, various religions would be right in thinking they truly experienced these things; they would only be wrong in denying that others did as well.

The more serious contradiction involves the nature of the Ultimately Real that is ostensibly experienced. Theists seem to experience it as a personal God whereas others such as Buddhists and many Hindus seem to experience it as an impersonal unitive state. Even here, there are some commonalities. In a future post I will explain more why I believe a personal theistic interpretation of the Ultimate is a better one than impersonal ones. But here let me just say that God can reveal himself in many different forms. He can also work though less than perfect conceptions of the Ultimately Real.

2) I said that God can take on different forms. It’s also true that we never experience an object comprehensively or unfiltered by the perceptual apparatus and categories we bring into the experience. For example, we experience a table as a solid three-dimensional, heavy, extended, static, colored object. But for physicists it is mostly empty space with millions of molecules in constant rapid motion. We can only hear a small part of the sound scale whereas some animals can hear sounds too high for us to perceive. Our other senses are likewise limited by our specific needs as creatures. Sometimes our languages or cultures can cause us to experience things differently (Hick, 137-45).

Could it be that different people experience the same religious realities but that they experience them differently based on the different cultural categories and assumptions they bring into these experiences or (in some cases) because of the different levels at which they experience the object? Is it possible that some of these levels are more fundamental than others and some interpretations closer to the mark than others?

3) Finally, there is arguably a common core to the Ultimately Real as experienced by various people. Caroline Franks Davis lists these common characteristics:

The mundane world of physical bodies, physical processes, and narrow centers of consciousness is not the whole or ultimate reality.

…there is a far deeper ‘true self’ which in some way depends on and participates in the ultimate reality.

Whatever is the ultimate reality is holy, eternal, and of supreme value; it can appear to be more truly real than all else, since everything else depends on it.

This holy power can be experienced as an awesome, loving, pardoning, guiding (etc.) presence with whom individuals can have a personal relationship…

…at least some mystical experiences are experiences of a very intimate union with the holy power…

Some kind of union or harmonious relation with the ultimate reality is the human being’s summon bonum, his final liberation or salvation, and the means by which he discovers his ‘true self’ or ‘true home’ (qtd. in Kwan in Craig and Moreland, 537).

Although I think Davis is mainly spot on, I would just add that union with the Ultimately Real can also be experienced in ways that seem impersonal and/or like a loss of self. We will have to return to the issue of whether the Ultimate is best conceived of as fundamentally personal or impersonal.

With this groundwork laid, in my next post I will explain some of the reasons I believe religious experience is often a genuine experience of God.

Love is God’s Primary Attribute: Evidence from Religious Experience: Part 1


In today’s post I begin to make a cumulative case for love as God’s primary attribute. We will begin by considering the phenomenological evidence for this from religious experience.

By “religious experience” I have in mind an experience that the subject takes to be an experience of God, the Ultimate, a spiritual being, a saint, or a transcendent state of affairs. Miracles are a type of religious experience, but following convention, I will set them aside for a later post.

It would be helpful to first survey some examples to show how powerful and sometimes disconcerting these experiences can seem. Then in future posts we will consider what, if anything, these encounters can tell us about God’s character.

My body responded before my mind, alerting me to some unseen change, a danger perhaps. I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand on end, and my heart start beating a little faster—as it is now, recalling the moment. Imperceptibly at first, the air around us thickened, and I wondered whether a clear, dense mist had rolled in from the ocean. The air grew warmer and heavier, as if someone had moved into the circle and was breathing on us. I glanced at Kathy. She had fallen silent in mid-sentence. Neither of us spoke. Gradually, and ever so gently, I was engulfed by a presence I could feel but not touch. I was paralyzed. I could manage only shallow breaths. After a minute, although it seemed longer, the presence melted away. We sat quietly, while I waited for the earth to steady itself. I was too spooked to speak, and yet I was exhilarated, as the first time I skied down an expert slope, terrified and oddly happy that I could not turn back. Those few moments, the time it takes to boil water for tea, reoriented my life. The episode left a mark on my psych that I bear to this day (Bradley-Hagerty, 5).

My former doctoral supervisor, the late Henry Price, then Wykenam Professor of Logic at Oxford and a powerful and penetrating philosophical intellect, told me and a few others of a vivid experience of presence, which we were not to make public during his lifetime. One morning, finding himself in an unusually tranquil and peaceful frame of mind, he was sitting in his drawing-room facing the empty fireplace when it gradually dawned on him that there was someone else in the room, though no one else was physically present. He was aware that the visitor, with whom he conversed in an exchange of thoughts, not spoken words, was very good and wise, sympathetically understanding him, and kindly disposed toward him. The visitor assured him that God deeply loved his human creatures, including himself. This made a profound impression on him. After a period of quiet reflection he became aware that the visitor was no longer there. The ‘conversation’ had, he thought, probably lasted about a quarter of an hour. The after-effect was overwhelming for the rest of that day, which he said was the happiest he had ever known, and it lasted pervasively but less intensely for the rest of his life (Hick, 32).

As a human, too, I yearn. It is a feeling impossible to define well. I remember once stepping out of a theater in Charleston on a warm summer night, filled with the emotions of a sad movie, holding Claire’s hand. Above us was a clear night and the brightness of stars, a backdrop of vastness against the emotions in my heart, and something unknown in me responded to this like a harp string plucked by an invisible hand. I yearned with a homesickness to be somewhere else, an unknown place as difficult to define as the yearning itself (Brouwer, ). (Although this is a fictional example, it fits the experience of many real life people, including myself. cf. Lewis 156-58.)

Oh, help me, help me! Cried I, thou Redeemer of souls, and save me, or I am gone forever; thou canst this night, if thou pleases, with one drop of thy blood atone for my sins, and appease the wrath of an angry God. At that instant of time when I gave all up to him to do with me as he pleased, and was willing that God should rule over me at his pleasure, redeeming love broke into my soul with repeated scriptures, with such power that my whole soul seemed to be melted down with love; the burden of guilt and condemnation was gone, darkness was expelled, my heart humbled and filled with gratitude, and my whole soul, that was a few minutes ago groaning under mountains of death, and crying to an unknown God for help, was filled with immortal love, soaring on the wings of faith, freed from the chains of death and darkness, and crying out my Lord and my God; thou art my rock and fortress, my shield and my high tower, my life, my joy, my present and my everlasting portion (Henry Alline James, 171-72) .

The spiritual life…justifies itself to those who live it; but what can we say to those who do not understand? This, at least, we can say, that it is a life whose experiences are proved real to their possessors, because they remain with him when brought closest into contact with the objective realities of life. Dreams cannot stand this test. We wake from them to find that they are but dreams. Wanderings of an overwrought brain do not stand this test. These highest experiences that I have had of God’s presence have been rare and brief—flashes of consciousness which have compelled me to exclaim—God is here!—or conditions of exaltation and insight, less intense, and only gradually passing away. I have severely questioned the worth of these moments. To no soul have I named them, lest I should be building my life and work on mere phantasies of the brain. But I find that, after every questioning and test, they stand out to-day as the most real experiences of my life, and experiences which have explained and justified and unified all past experiences and all past growth. Indeed their reality and their far-reaching significance are ever becoming more clear and evident. When they came, I was living in the fullest, strongest, sanest, deepest life. I was not seeking them. What I was seeking, with resolute determination, was to live more intensely my own life, as against what I knew would be the adverse judgment of the world. It was in the most real seasons that the Real Presence came, and I was aware that I was immersed in the infinite ocean of God (J. Trevor qtd. in James 303-04, 303-04).

Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee…described his first mystical experience as a light switch flipping on. “I saw light dancing around everything. You know when you get sunlight sparkling on water? It’s like that. I felt really alive with this quality of joy and laughter. And I just knew, THIS is the way it is, and everything else is the way it isn’t. Everything else is covered up. Everything else is veiled.” Undergirding the light was love, Llewellyn said, a physical love, the kind that Saint Teresa of Avila experienced…”You long for God,” Llewellyn explained, “and if the spiritual love is awakened, that draws your attention closer and closer and closer to God, until finally you have these mystical experiences of union, in which the ego falls away and you are drawn into the ocean of love. There is no ‘you’ anymore, there is just divine love, which is what the mystic longs for” (Bradley-Hagerty, 38).

In that time the consciousness of the presence of God came to me sometimes. I say God to describe what is indescribable. A presence, I might say, yet that is too suggestive of personality, and the moments of which I speak did not hold the consciousness of a personality, but something in myself made me feel myself a part of something bigger than I that was controlling. I felt myself one with the grass, the trees, birds, insects, everything in Nature. I exalted in the mere fact of existence, of being part of it all—the drizzling rain, the shadows of clouds, the tree trunks, and so on. In the years following, such moments continued to come, but I wanted them constantly. I knew so well the satisfaction of losing self in a perception of supreme power and love, that I was unhappy the perception was not constant (unnamed qtd. in James, 301).

The Ego has disappeared. I have realized my identity with Brahman and so all my desires have melted away. I have arisen above my ignorance and my knowledge of this seeming universe. What is this joy I feel? Who shall measure it? I know nothing but joy, limitless, unbounded! The treasure I have found there cannot be described in words. The mind cannot conceive of it. My mind fell like a hailstone into that vast expanse of Brahman’s ocean. Touching one drop of it, I melted away and became one with Brahman. Where is this universe? Who Took it away? Has it merged into something else? A while ago I beheld it—now it exists no longer. Is there something apart or distinct from Brahman? Now, finally and clearly, I know that I am the Atman [the soul identified with Brahman], whose nature is eternal joy, I see nothing, I hear nothing, I know nothing that is separate from me (Shankara qtd. in Pojman, 106.

Enlightenment [satori] is an overwhelming inner realization which comes suddenly. Man feels at once free and strong, exalted and great, in the universe. The breadth of the universe vibrates through him. No longer is he merely a small, selfish ego, but rather he is open and transparent, united to all, in unity. Enlightenment is achieved in zazen [the Zen form of meditation], but it remains effective in all situations of life. Thus everything in life is meaningful, worthy of thanks, and good—even suffering, sickness, and death (A Zen Buddhist monk’s account cited in Hick, 31).