It is a common misconception, held by all religious people, that personal experience is the gold standard for determining reality. And to be fair, ALL people tend to think this way. We tend to trust ourselves first, since we experience the world ourselves. But let me be specific about what I’m talking about. I’m talking about someone that had a personal experience that they then use as “proof” that their god exists. “You can’t tell me…” is the start of their concluding sentence after describing a rather mundane and easily explainable sensation or event. And then despite a mountain of real evidence, they continue to hold on to their belief.
At the end of the day, some people tend to believe themselves more than repeated and tested and verifiable reality. They believe they can’t be fooled. But they most certainly can be! And to explain how this works, I will use my own experience as an example.
One night maybe 10 years ago, I was laying in bed and it felt like someone was getting in the bed. At the time I had two small children, and my initial thought was that one of them was getting in the bed with me. And to be really specific, it felt like the bed was moving. Imagine what it feels like when you lie in bed, and someone walks across the mattress. You feel the pressure of the mattress vary under you as the weight of the person causes an indentation of the surface, right? And as they walk the indentation lifts and another is pressed down somewhere else, right? We can all imagine this? This is what I thought I felt. But then, I also realized that there was no small child getting into bed with me, but I still felt the sensation!
Okay! That is my testimony. That is what I felt. And if I were the kind of person that believed in ghosts….. or god….. or the boogy man…… I would have my answer, and (wait for it) YOU CAN’T TELL ME I didn’t experience that ghost!
But of course I didn’t experience a ghost. I experienced the same thing I’ve experienced multiple times in completely normal and understood situations. How many of you ever rode a roller coaster, then lied down at night and your body seemed to feel the pressure of the ride again? Like everyone? After every small town midway or major theme park trip, there it was! The “roller coaster” sensation in bed. It was a known sensation to me, caused by the inner ear getting screwed up. This is easily testable. And yet…. had I never previously experienced that, or been just a little less sceptical, a little more gullible, and didn’t try to link my sensation to reality, I may have had that feeling and believed I was visited by a ghost. And now, a decade later, if you told me about the roller coaster sensation I would understand what you were saying, but my brain wouldn’t accept that they were the same. My brain would have convinced itself it was a ghost, and the sensation was a ghost, and therefore the other explanation doesn’t seem right.
By lying in that bed and continuing to feel the sensation, which I recognized AS IT WAS HAPPENING, I averted mis-classifying my experience. I was being “visited” by inner ear miscommunication with my brain.
This is only one way that our bodies fool ourselves. Turns out, there are LOTS of ways our bodies fool us. Which means, all it takes is an uncritical, presuppositional mentality to turn nearly anyone into a believer. Nearly everyone in their life will experience most of these phenomenon:
‣Mass hysteria/ euphoria (if you go to church, you experience this weekly)
‣Suggestibility (ALL witnesses are suggestible, many studies have been done and you can watch people change memories in real time on youtube)
‣Cognitive dissonance (in religion, it means being a critical thinker outside of church while dropping all critical reasoning inside)
‣Hallucination (not just for drugs- also when tired, sick, stressed)
‣Optical illusions (even small children understand this method of fooling yourself)
‣Audio illusions (yep, your eyes aren’t the only sensory input that can fail)
‣Dizziness (not just for benders- also when sick, injured, brain trauma, on moving convoyance, and stressed)
‣All the other inner-ear fuckups (close your eyes and spin one way then stop- you feel like you are spinning the other way!)
‣Highway hypnosis (you think you are a perfect witness but can’t remember the last 10 miles?)
‣Limbs that are “asleep” (paresthesia)
‣Anchoring (your first thought sets you up for the next thought)
‣Sunk cost fallacy (just the idea that you could be wrong would be a huge loss)
‣Dunning-Kruger effect (Donald Trump in a nutshell)
‣Backfire effect (fighting against the idea you are wrong, often irrationally)
‣Barnum effect (filling in little information with your own biased view then thinking it was all presented from the beginning)
‣Declinism (when old people bitch about youth, and stuff like that)
‣Framing effect (trying to make everything fit your narrative)
‣Halo effect (giving a particular person deference and uncritical acceptance)
‣Placebo effect (sugar pill make you healthy, grape juice make you drunk)
‣Availability Heuristic (personal experience or it didn’t happen)
‣Spotlight effect (viewing everyone’s actions in terms of what that means to you personally)
‣Patternization (attempting to rectify experiences into a pre-suppositional pattern)
‣Mistaking light or a reflection as a moving object (self-explanatory)
‣Confirmation bias (seeking something to confirm your belief while ignoring that which contradicts your belief)
‣Linking two unrelated things or events in your mind (Apophenia)
‣Mistaking a dream as reality (Oneirophrenia when severe)
‣False Memory Syndrome (basically everyone does this all the time)
All you have to do is believe in something, then have one of these experiences, and you have a recipie for incorrectly diagnosing the problem. You have a recipie for a “conversion” event. As an atheist, I have people tell me their “conversion” story, or for that matter, the time they “saw a ghost” all the time, like it will convince me. But when you really question them on what happened, they all seem very suspiciously like one of the above brain failures.
We all have video of us out there, and I guarantee if you try to remember the details of what happened in that moment, the video will show your error. I don’t care how well we think we remember something, the video doesn’t lie. We are terrible witnesses. And yet, despite knowing how unreliable our brains are, the religious person believes that just magically their memory and diagnosis of the sensation were perfect in this one instance.
They want me to believe that MOST of the time they can’t remember who was in the car with them yesterday, and they did think they were being attacked by a murderous killer that turned out to be their sunglasses getting snagged, but this one time they noticed something at a coincidental time, and something else happened, and the event is NOT on video and has NO witnesses, and that proves there is a god AND it’s a 2000 year old zombie AND he can hear you mumble to yourself at home AND he responds to those mumblings AND there is a heaven AND mumbling to the zombie is how you get there.
Or, and just hear me out, maybe you fooled yourself.
The Spartan Atheist