Argument from personal experience

From Religions Wiki
Jump to: navigation, search
God converts Paul, a non believer, using a divine revelation. Acts 9:3-9 Bible-icon.png Why God chooses not to reveal himself to other non-believers is difficult to explain.
Joseph Smith said he was directed by the angel Moroni to a set of golden plates containing new scriptures. He claimed he returned the plates to the angel, which means they cannot be examined today.
The Bible describes Moses having a personal revelation of God. Exodus 3:1-5 Bible-icon.png

The argument from personal experience, also known as personal revelation, refers to the sensation of a direct experience with God or the supernatural. This can be a feeling of divine presence, creative inspiration, the experience of a vision, or could even be in the form of a conversation. This argument is particularly common among certain branches of Christianity where things like possession and levitation have been reported. However, many believers do not experience personal revelations and have other foundations for their beliefs.

Personal experiences are subjective and, as such, cannot be directly shared, only anecdotally shared. One popular form of the argument is from near-death experiences.

The argument[edit]

  1. I had a personal experience with God
  2. God exists

Example of usage[edit]

"Jesus appeared to me in a vision, thus I know the doctrine of Christianity is true."
"Jesus had knocked on the door of my heart and asked me to open up. And I had done so. Jesus lived in my heart and affected every action I took. [...] Sometimes when afraid, loney or distressed, a voice spoke to me, comforting me, guiding me through the labyrinth of my own mind. I came to associate this voice with God and he spoke to me often in times of great distress. Like a guardian angel, this voice protected me from my own fears. [...] This voice seemed different from my own internal voice, because it spoke with a ring of authority. And everything it said seemed profound, insightful and important. Whenever I heard a voice like this, I labelled it as God speaking to me. [...] I felt God's tangible presence in church. When we were all together, sometimes a spirit moved through us. I was sure that this was God. [...] These perceptions of a personal relationship with God were my strongest evidence that he existed. To me, my experience of God was every bit as real as the visible world around me, as real as the people I saw, the papers I wrote or the wonders of the universe. For me, this experience was reality. [1]"
"I saw a ghost with a friend of mine - I am not a liar, an attention seeker. Neither was I overtired when this happened. [2]"

"I felt the presence in my mind as I prayed. I got goosebumps as I was in communion with what I thought was the holy spirit of God. I read the holy Bible and read about the resurrection of Jesus, I dedicated my life to preaching that gospel that I thought was so real, it gave so much meaning, so much hope, so much beauty to the world. But I've changed my mind. I now know I was deluded. I was having a very real, very powerful but mental experience that happens in most religions."

Dan Barker


Testimony is not necessarily a reliable source for claims that cannot be independently observed.

"[...]there is little doubt that a certain range of human experiences can be appropriately described as "spiritual" or "mystical"-experiences of meaningfulness, selflessness, and heightened emotion that surpass our narrow identities as "selves" and escape our current understanding of the mind and brain. But nothing about these experiences justifies arrogant and exclusionary claims about the unique sanctity of any text."

Sam Harris, The End of Faith

Experience of God as a psychological effect[edit]

Both believers and non-believers experience spirituality, beauty and morally uplifting emotions [3]. Imaginary friends are a common occurrence normally associated with childhood [4] and often are considered to be guardians. God may be a conceptual "hyperreality", in which the consciousness cannot distinguish between an actual God or a representation of God that is interacted with as if it really is God. [1] Humans have cognitive biases that make us perceive supposedly meaning patterns in random data; this effect is called apophenia. Expectation of certain outcomes makes use selective on the evidence we consider in an effect called confirmation bias. Existent or not, mundane events would then be interpreted as a sign from God. These phenomena can make believers experience real emotions because the simulation of God occurs subconsciously. If God is simulated by believers but has no reality, then God is a simulacrum.

"Was the voice of God that I'd heard my whole life simply my own voice? [1]"

Humans tend to presume the existence of an intelligence agent inappropriately; this effect is called "hyperactive agency detection". This bias may have had an evolutionary origin, as the consequences of failing to spot a predator could be fatal.

"The high cost of failing to detect agents and the low cost of wrongly detecting them has led researchers to suggest that people possess a Hyperactive Agent Detection Device, a cognitive module that readily ascribes events in the environment to the behavior of agents.[5]"

Belief in God could be a by-product of all these cognitive biases. The result is that some believers experience a relationship with God and sincerely relate their experiences to others.


Recently, there has been a great deal of work done on the subject of temporal lope epilepsy and its relationship to religious visions. Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran has written a great deal on the subject, asserting that the cause of many visions that religious leaders have had over the years may have been caused by neurological function. The pervasiveness of simulated religious experiences during temporal lobe seizures offers sufficient reason to be skeptical of the claim that a vision of Jesus might actually be caused by the presence of Jesus, and not by an incidental error in the wiring of the brain.

Which God?[edit]

Main Article: Which God?

Another problem with personal revelation is that so many people from other religions experience it too, yet they don't all experience the Christian god. If personal revelation in the case of Christianity is to be believed then one must also believe the Muslim when they say they've had personal revelation of Allah.

It is also often noted that individuals in a particular society only ever have visions of the deities and prophets associated with the societies that they have been exposed to. A person in sub-Saharan Africa who has never been exposed to Hinduism has not had a vision of Krishna or Vishnu, and a person in Saudi Arabia who has never been exposed to Christianity has never had a vision of Jesus. However, this move towards the evidence is somewhat controversial, as apologists may be liable to assert the possibility of exceptions to this rule. Such exceptions are plausible, in the form of figures resembling, for example, the Virgin Mary, but usually rely on vague descriptions of the religious figure in question.

People in the same religion do not experience consistent revelations. We might expect a consistent God to be experienced in a uniform way.

A counter argument to this point is the all gods are aspects of the same God: God is so vast and difficult to comprehend that each person experiences a different aspect of God. If this were the case, overall patterns would emerge of a single entity, but this has not occurred.

Reliably knowing a revelation was from God[edit]

For more information, see the Wikipedia article:

Muhammad had an early revelation that said polytheism was true. This was probably motivated by political expediency. He later claimed they were inspired by Satan and are therefore referred to as the Satanic verses. They were expunged from the Qur'an. [6] This does raise the possibility that any other religious revelation might have been inspired by Satan.

No extraordinary or consistent knowledge[edit]

Main Article: Argument from prophecy

The revelation never includes information that the recipient could not possibly have known and can be independently verified, such as the time and location at which the next earthquake would occur, or any number of as-yet-unsolved problems in science, or even the meaning of "frontlets" in the Bible (Exodus 13:16 Bible-icon.png).

God playing favorites[edit]

It is conceivable that God or supernatural entities can reveal themselves directly to people. This is generally accepted in the Abrahamic religions. Many characters in religious scriptures are said to have had this experience, including Abraham Genesis 22:11 Bible-icon.png, Moses Exodus 3:1-17 Bible-icon.png, Mary (mother of Jesus) Luke 1:26-56 Bible-icon.png, Paul the Apostle Acts 9:1-7 Bible-icon.png, Muhammad received the Qur'an from the angel Gabriel, Joseph Smith, etc.

We might think that God, if he exists, would act in a consistent fashion and reveal himself to everyone. The alternative is that God is acting inconsistently or playing favorites, which does not seem in keeping with a perfect being. A person who has not had direct experience of God can make the argument from nonbelief. Apologists argue that God wants people to believe by faith,[7] which then raises the question of how they can also believe anyone at all has experienced God (which is a contradiction in their beliefs).


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Chris Redford/Evid3nc3, Deconversion: Personal Relationship, 29 Dec 2009 [1]
  2. [2]
  3. Algoe, S., Haidt, J., Witnessing excellence in action: the ‘other-praising’ emotions of elevation, gratitude, and admiration, J Posit Psychol. 2009; 4(2): 105–127 [3]
  4. [4]
  5. Gray, Kurt (Feb 2010) . "Blaming God for Our Pain: Human Suffering and the Divine Mind". Personality and Social Psychology Review 14 (1): 9–10. DOI:10.1177/1088868309350299. Retrieved on Dec 21, 2010.
  6. [5]
  7. [6]


See also[edit]

External links[edit]

v · d Arguments for the existence of god
Anthropic arguments   Anthropic principle · Natural-law argument
Arguments for belief   Pascal's Wager · Argument from faith · Just hit your knees
Christological arguments   Argument from scriptural miracles · Would someone die for a lie? · Liar, Lunatic or Lord
Cosmological arguments   Argument from aesthetic experience · Argument from contingency · Cosmological argument · Fine-tuning argument · Kalam · Leibniz cosmological argument · Principle of sufficient reason · Unmoved mover · Why is there something rather than nothing?
Majority arguments   Argument from admired religious scientists
Moral arguments   Argument from justice · Divine command theory
Ontological argument   Argument from degree · Argument from desire · Origin of the idea of God
Dogmatic arguments   Argument from divine sense · Argument from uniqueness
Teleological arguments   Argument from design · Banana argument · 747 Junkyard argument · Laminin argument · Argument from natural disasters
Testimonial arguments   Argument from observed miracles · Personal experience · Argument from consciousness · Emotional pleas · Efficacy of prayer
Transcendental arguments   God created numbers · Argument from the meaning of life
Scriptural arguments   Scriptural inerrancy · Scriptural scientific foreknowledge · Scriptural codes