Many non-believers argue that the only things we can know are what can be proved by science. Yet many believers say that one of the main reasons they believe is because of their experience of God, something science cannot easily examine.
So how can we approach this question reasonably?
How we know
Philosophers say there are several ways we can know things (see, for example, Robert Audi’s Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge):
- perception – what we experience via our five senses;
- introspection or self knowledge – what we experience in our body, such as happiness or pain;
- intuition – what we can simply ‘see’ is true, such as 1 + 1 = 2; and
- testimony – what others tell us.
It is clear that science draws on several of these ways of knowing, principally perception via observation and measurement.
When I have a toothache, see a dog run across the road, or remember what it was like to fall into a cold river, I know these things without using science. Yet few would contest that these experiences are, generally, nevertheless real. But also few would deny that our memories and perceptions can play tricks on us.
It becomes more complicated when the experience is unusual, more complicated still when we try to explain the experience. Our perception may be correct, but our explanation of what we perceived may be faulty.
When people believe they have experienced God
Many people believe they have experienced God in some way, and I have outlined a few examples on this website:
- Some believe they have been miraculously healed. In most cases, it is clear something unusual has happened, but was it God or was it spontaneous remission? (See Healing miracles and God)
- Some believe God has appeared to them in a vision. But while we may accept that they ‘saw’ something, was it God or a hallucination? (See Visions of Jesus?)
- For some, God is seen as the source of the power to make changes in their lives that they would have been powerless to make themselves (for example, for Winston to instantly come off hard drugs, in I still keep to Jesus this night).
- And many see God’s hand in the help they received when they needed it, and the rescue they experienced from situations and thought patterns that were destructive – see the stories of Jordan and Laura.
What are we to make of these stories?
It is impossible for an outsider to fully understand these experiences, for we only observe them second hand. But for the person experiencing them, and often for their close friends and family, these experiences are as real as anything that ever happened to them. And so they believe them just as they believe their other perceptions – and who can blame them? Most of us will trust practical experience more than some theoretical belief.
And in many of these cases, the philosophers would say that they are justified in believing that these experiences came from God (that is, they have good reason to believe this). For example, if the doctor said a recovery was extremely unlikely, yet recovery occurred quickly after prayer, then a reasonable person could conclude that it was the prayer, and the resulting action of God, that led to the unusual outcome.
But can outsiders justifiably believe that God has acted?
Some people disbelieve from the start that any such experiences could be from God, but it seems to me that this pre-judges the matter and dismisses the evidence without considering it. We make it impossible to believe and learn from the experiences, even if they are actually true.
I think each case must be decided on its merits – by asking how reliable is the person, how good is the evidence, etc? We may not be able to be certain about any one experience, but each experience that offers reasons why we might believe it adds to the probability that God is at least behind some of them.
We may not have the perception, memory and self awareness of those who actually experience what seems to be God acting in their lives, but we can, if we are willing, accept their testimony of what has happened.