One of the regular arguments one hears from Christians is their appeal to their experience with Christ – that is, Christians often state their experience in life tells them Christianity is true. Many people would immediately reject this approach to the Christian life, though I believe that this experience in life is a valid witness of the truthfulness of Christianity, even if it might be limited in its argumentative value. My experience of God is sufficient to convince me that Christianity is true, but it does little to demonstrate that faith to another.
Yet, when this contention is raised with atheists (particularly internet atheists) one often runs into the same series of arguments.
- An atheist who formerly attended Church will claim that they had the same experience.
- The Christian will argue that the atheist’s experience was false, and not the same, on the grounds of Scripture.
- The Atheist will accuse the Christian of exercising the “No true Scotsman” logical fallacy.
- The Christian and atheist will now argue whether or not Christians are committing the no true Scotsman fallacy rather than the question of whether Christianity is true, a digression along the lines of the woman at the well asking where it was appropriate to worship.
Part of the problem is that the Christian counter argument is actually misstated – actually, it should be, “if Christianity is true, as my experience and the historicity of the resurrection of Christ indicates it is, then your experience and mine are different,” but of course, this is a mouthful.
I would like offer a different analysis to the counter argument, and then a weighing of the actual value of the argument from our experiences.
The problem of Grounds
The real issue is not whether the Christian defense to the former churchgoing atheists experience is an example of the no true Scotsman fallacy, the real problem is that neither the atheist nor the Christian has any grounds to weigh the others experiences. An atheist might well argue he had a religious experience but this does not mean all religious experiences are the same. The internal elements of our souls are not quantifiable, and they resist descriptions in human language. Since there is no evidence of telepathy, direct mental communication will most likely not allow someone to evaluate another person’s experience either.
What this means, in practice, is that an atheist who formerly attended church may have had a religious experience, but he has no grounds to compare the inward elements of those experiences to that of the believer. He may very well believe the two experiences are the same, but it is merely a bald assertion dressed up as an argument.
The experiential argument
The argument from experience makes an excellent shield, but a lousy spear.
Since one cannot communicate adequately the experiences of Christianity, it has little ability to persuade others that Christianity is true. Augustine was convinced Christianity is true in part by a voice he heard telling him to come and read, but likely an atheist will not be convinced because Augustine heard a voice (and might not be convinced if he himself heard one, Luke 16:29-31). At the same time, a Christian is well within his rights to argue that his faith is rational on the grounds of his experience – one might well tell Augustine the voice he heard was a hallucination, but I doubt Augustine would have accepted this to be the case.
Your experience will likely not convince others, but it should prevent you from being so shaken.
I therefore suggest that noting your experience as a Christian is perfectly valid when someone asks why an intelligent person in the 20th century would choose to be a Christian (of all things). If, and when the atheist accuses you of the no true Scotsman fallacy, my suggestion, ask him to prove his experience and yours are the same. As he is making the assertion, the burden of proof in this case is ultimately his.