Monday, May 31, 2010

Interpreting Circumstances

Often times people cite personal experiences as evidence of a god - and not just any god, but their God (Allah, Yahweh, etc.). First, I'd like to say that no personal experience that someone else has had could ever convince me that a god exists. This may sound closed-minded, but I feel the same way about demons and ghosts and monsters. If someone were to tell me that they felt the presence of a ghost or even heard or saw one, I would not be obliged to believe them on testimony alone. While it's true that what they experienced may have been convincing for them, there's no way I can objectively and correctly analyze the scenario. To begin with, I wasn't there. I have no independent access to the events that took place. This is very important, because people tend (even unknowingly) to leave out important details when they don't think they're relevant. This assuming that they already know all of the details which surely never happens. So it isn't possible for me to come up with a possible alternate explanation for what happened because I only have access to what they remember and tell me. In short, their personal experience alone can't be enough to convince me.

But the important point I want to argue is that, in the case of experiences (positive or negative) relating to the existence of a god, it shouldn't be convincing to them either. I have heard many people over the years claim that "X good thing happened to me. This shows that God is there and that he cares for me." While that may seem like a nice thing to say, it's totally without merit and doesn't hold up under the slightest scrutiny. Let's say the example given is that someone receives a check in the mail for $400, exactly what they need to pay rent that month. The person claims that the only way that could have happened is if God orchestrated it. If you think this is true, allow me to ask a few questions.
  1. Was your bill exactly $400, or was it just pretty close?
  2. Did God himself send the check to fill your needs? If not, didn't that check come from a human and not from God? Did God make that person send you the check or was it of their own will?
  3. Have you ever received checks that didn't arbitrarily coincide with something else in your life? Did you credit those to God as well?
  4. If God is in the business of paying bills, why doesn't he do it more often?
  5. If God cares enough about you to pay your bills, why doesn't he also care enough about Africans to abolish AIDS? Or heal amputees? Or pay off the US's enormous debt?
The point I am trying to make is that there are a lot of assumptions in going from "X good thing happened" to "my God caused X to happen." When you start to examine the details, the magic of it all quickly fades away and you're left with very human answers. Sure, it could have been God behind the scenes influencing people somehow and supernaturally causing events to happen, but it's unlikely. I've never seen divine intervention, so I'm under no obligation to think that it happened in that person's case.

But another underlying assumption is at work here as well - that God wants good things to happen to you. Well, that might be true in some cases, but what if it wasn't always. Couldn't God want bad things to happen to you, for whatever reason? Some people do accept this line of thinking and believe that bad things are lessons and that they are better for having learned from them. If this is true, we now have evidence for God coming in the form of both good and bad things. (You can apply my previously-asked questions to bad experiences as well.)

My question is then, "How do you filter the God-caused events from the naturally caused ones?" That is to say, if God is in the business of causing good things to provide blessings and bad things to teach lessons, how can you ever say that one event is evidence of God? After all, any event could have had God behind it. Additionally (and more plausibly), any event could have had God completely out of the picture.

A final question I would ask is, "How is this event evidence of your God?" After all, couldn't it be some random other god? In none of the events did he actually reveal himself to you outside your own interpretational bias, did he/she? What if it's some other God punishing you for not believing in him? Or what if he is just allowing good things to happen to you because he isn't totally evil? There's no particular reason why any good or bad thing X must have been caused by supernatural being Y because there's never a correlation beyond the connections a person makes in his or her own mind. That's why Christians, for example, don't find personal stories from Muslims convincing and vice versa. And that's why I don't find any random event evidence of a particular god or religion.

Because out of all of the trillions of personal experiences that billions of people all over the planet have hundreds and thousands of times per day, some strange (even bizarre) coincidences are bound to happen. Even the best good, bad, and weird things will happen at the most (in)opportune times. And I don't find that evidence of the supernatural, especially considering the fact that people are just intrinsically bad at statistics.


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