Dawkins and the ‘argument from experience’

One of the common arguments for the existence of God is the ‘argument from experience’.

As Richard Dawkins says in The God Delusion (2006, p. 87)

“Many people believe in God because they believe they have seen a vision of him – or of an angel or a virgin in blue – with their own eyes. Or he speaks to them inside their heads.”

These are exceptional forms of experience. More commonly, people have intuitions that they ascribe to God, similar to various other intuitions we have on a daily basis. Dawkins continues (p. 88):

“You say you have experienced God directly? Well, some people have experienced a pink elephant, but that probably doesn’t impress you. [Dawkins then cites a couple examples of people who have mistaken beliefs of a religious sort.] Religious beliefs are different only in that the people who claim them are numerous.

To the extent one can find an argument in this paragraph of his book, Dawkins’ seems to be roughly as follows:

  1. Some people have experiences that they believe originate in God.
  2. Some of these people are obviously mistaken.
  3. Therefore, there are no experiences that originate in God.

Consider an analogous argument:

  1. Some people believe they have seen a tiger.
  2. Some of these people are obviously mistaken.
  3. Therefore, there is no such thing as tigers.

Obviously, some people have mistaken intuitions or beliefs about a wide range of subjects. Someone being mistaken about something (whether they’ve seen a tiger, the proper answer to a mathematical equation, God, and so on) does not mean that everyone is mistaken about those things.

Any arguments from ‘religious experience’, which itself is a diverse class of experiences about a diverse range of subjects, can’t be resolved at this level of argument. Rather, one must look at the swath of specific experiences in order to evaluate whether they or some of them, indeed, constitute good evidence (or part of a larger picture of good evidence) for whatever they may supposedly be about.

Dawkins does not do this in The God Delusion.

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