Atheists and Christians’ Personal Experience image

Atheists and Christians’ Personal Experience

I have just started reading some of the books in the ‘A Very Short Introduction’ series published by Oxford University Press. They truly are very interesting and informative. I have picked up one of them on atheism written by Julian Baggini, a well-known philosopher who is also co-founder and Editor-in-Chief for The Philosophers’ Magazine. He writes well, and presents a systematic case for atheism. I have also found reading this book helpful, being a Christian myself, because he had defined many of the terms that I have heard in conversation with my non-Christian friends.

There are parts of his book that I find helpful, such as his argument that atheism is not a faith position. Although I still believe that atheism is a faith position, he makes an educated and enlightening argument. He writes that all belief, from a variety of different belief systems including his own, has no absolute proof, but rather each individual feels that theirs is ‘the argument to the best explanation’ (p. 27) for the reality around them. And this can be applied to the most basic of things, such as, sitting on a chair; you have faith that the chair won’t break when you sit on it. Or drinking a cup of tea; you believe that it will not poison you. So he says that when applied broadly ‘faith’ can be applied to almost anything, except perhaps a few self-evident truths, like the laws of mathematics.
Baggini claims that if one is to think of faith in the broad sense then it diminishes the definition of what faith is. Faith must then, he argues, be defined by degree. For believing that a chair will hold your weight requires less faith than it does to believe in the healing power of Christ:

It must allow for degrees of faith, since clearly it takes less faith to believe in the refreshing power of water than it does the healing power of Christ. But then to turn around to atheists and say that their beliefs too are ‘just a matter of faith’ becomes an empty objection. If everything is a matter of faith, this is a trivial fact. To make it non-trivial we need to be shown how the beliefs of atheists require at least as much faith as those of religious believers. (p.32)

This is a very good point. I have often told my atheist friends that their belief is based on faith too, because they cannot prove that God does not exist. However, from their perspective, belief that God does not exist seems so much more likely, because the history of their own experience leads them to this conclusion. Instead of believing in something without adequate evidence, Baggini writes, it is more rational to believe in what one can experience.
At this point in Baggini’s argument I paused, frustrated, not due to anything that he had said, but because of my inability to persuade many, intellectually, with the following. For Christians do have experience that teaches us that God exists, but not, usually, the type of experience that can be tested by a third party. When I first came to know Jesus, I had a dramatic personal experience of God. This is my anchor for my belief in God, and the other more philosophical or sociological reasons for believing in God really contribute to support my presupposition drawn from my experience, just as a tent cover will protect you from the rain, but without the supports the cover is much less effective.
Now, different Christians have different experiences, and I know many who have come to a belief in God through philosophy alone, and later have experienced God in a personal way. That is why I love listening to Christian philosophers and apologists, because I think they have the evidence and reason to persuade. But I would wager that most Christians who know God personally would put a lot of weight on the actual relationship they have with the Lord, and the real experience of this relationship. The way the Bible describes it is the best, I think: ‘being plunged and submerged in God’, usually translated as ‘being baptised in the Holy Spirit’, but the former is the modern day translation of the translation!
So my summarised thoughts on Baggini’s arguments are, firstly, that he has some interesting and enlightening things to say. But secondly, that when it comes to convincing a Christian that he bases his belief on faith as opposed to experience, Baggini has not allowed for the fact that Christians do have experience, but Baggini is not willing to consider it. Does my personal experience constitute evidence to a third party? Well, in the end that will depend on how reliable they think I am. Thirdly, if this evidence were included in Baggini’s argument I think he might understand why we believe atheism to be a faith position. Firstly, there is no proof for the existence of God so an element of faith is required to be an atheist. Secondly, the great majority of people who live now, let alone people across history, have believed in God, and have said that they have experienced God personally, so does this not constitute a type of evidence for refuting atheism? And lastly, and somewhat inconsequentially, from a personal point of view, if I were to believe in atheism I certainly would have to believe from a position of faith, because my experience is otherwise.

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