Monday, April 04, 2011

The Use of Religious Experience as an Apologetic Method

Our second Booth College student Apologetics post is from Neil Young, a retired Salvation Army officer. He demonstrates how the appeal to one's own religious experience can be utilised in the place of "rational proofs." His response to his neighbour also shows the value of genuine respect for one's conversation partners.

"A new family arrived in our small little cul-de-sac. Later in the week they came for an evening meal at our invitation. Their remarks were very courteous but he said that it was obvious that we were Christians because of the Bible texts on the wall and added that he hoped it would not disturb us to learn that they were confirmed atheists. He had read parts of Dawkins' book The God Delusion and this carried their judgment. They had no trouble with any church but just could not accept that there was any God out there. I was happy for him to quietly state his reasons and waited respectfully to hear all he had to say. He hoped our different life’s beliefs would not endanger our friendship. I assured him that this was no problem. He said that they had been through some serious trouble in the past but they had come to terms with that with their own resources and were now very happy and contented with life. Their family life was happy and they had many close personal friends and observed good moral standards in their home. They had achieved this balance without any reliance on a god and did not see any need to. They could comfortably manage on their own. To them religion was irrelevant. Then he went on to say that what turned them off religion was the fact that most of the world’s problems were caused by religion of one sort or another, internationally, nationally and in personal relationships. The world could be a much better place if people left religious conflicts out of their lives and accepted people regardless of their colour, race or beliefs. They also could not accept that there was a God because of the intense suffering that there was in the world and if there was a creator god, either he did not care or he just was not interested or he was powerless to do anything about it.

According to his limited knowledge of history it seemed to him that most, if not all wars over the centuries were over religious belief. So the world would be better off without any belief in a higher power when such divergent views caused people to go even to the extent of wiping out complete nations who thought differently. Further to this he could not see that there was any objective evidence, to believe that ‘there was anything out there’ at all. The world and people in it were just there. They were not there for any reason and when we died that was the end. Either both just happened to be there, or perhaps there was come kind of evolution that caused it to be like it was without anyone or anything causing it to happen. He also expressed the view that because we cannot account for so much in life, we invented an unknowable god in order to fill in the gaps. I made him quite comfortable and said that I could understand his reasoning because so much of what he said was true. I told him kindly that there was no easy way to believe in God through reasoning and logic. Regarding him not needing God, my answer to John’s question was best answered by reference to my own Christian life. For most of my earlier years I was a 'child of Christian parents’ (to use Dawkins' phrase) who insisted on my following their beliefs without question. I felt trapped. But throughout my teens I was (and remain) a questioning person. I did not believe in God. My attitude was that of so many great philosophers, who believed that you follow your own reasonings wherever that leads you to. Professor Flew, regarded as one of the world’s greatest thinkers followed this principle. But if I openly broke away from my home beliefs, as I wanted to, I would be treated as an ‘outsider.’ There were only insiders and outsiders and I would be harassed and excluded from normal family life. Dawkins makes a lot of this. That is control and I did not want to be controlled. Despite my inward rebellion I had an experience quite out of the ‘blue’. It was totally unexpected and to me without reason. It was like a ‘supra-natural’ invasion into my life by what I understood was God. This was not new to me simply because I had seen many, many other people entering into the same experience. I was in no sense a ‘disturbed person’ as Dawkins/Freud suggest. They claim that anyone who claims to have such experiences is emotionally sick. I was just a normal happy young man. This was a purely ‘subjective’ experience and not verifiable by any act of reasoning. Almost without my consent I was no longer a ‘child of Christian parents’ but a Christian myself. The verification of this subjective experience came as in harmony with genuine Christian beliefs and the experience of a vast number of other people. This gave my life a completely new and very happy new dimension. My life took a complete turn around. I gave up my career with all it prospects and entered a life of service to the world, not to force other people into what I had experienced but to let them know that such an experience was possible and deeply satisfying. This eventually led me into full time ministry and to Africa to love and help thousands of deprived young people, to give them an education so they would not have to spend their valuable lives ‘chipping in the maize fields’ Today many of those are professional people and some are happily devoting their lives to their fellow Africans, as they saw me do and so many others did. Previously my life’s ambition was to become rich and comfortable, but since that experience, all my life has been devoted to making the world a better place.

So my answer to the statment that we don’t need God is that many people feel they do not but they don’t realize what is out there for them. Consequently life becomes merely a self-centered thing without any other purpose than pleasing yourself. On the other hand if you have an experience of God you can live to a worthwhile purpose and do something about the enormous needs that are out there. You cannot reason your way into becoming a Christian as it is doubtful if there is sufficient objective evidence to prove that God exists. It has to be an experienced intervention of God into your life. You believe because you have experienced God yourself. John and his wife left more thoughtful people. I hope to convince them for their sake, not by argument but just by accepting and loving them."

Thanks for this thoughtful response Neil. Comments below are very welcome.

1 comment:

Ross said...

Good to see you posting again, Glen. I remember you saying in your theology class that we as Christians should be engaging with rival belief systems. Even though I'm not trained in apologetics, occasionally I visit and comment on atheism blogs. I find that I have to pick and choose what I respond to. There's a lot of questions raised that I don't know how to answer.

Some of those who post comments come across as arrogant when they presumptuously forecasts that Christianity will gradually die out.

Another tactic is to write long diatribes against Christianity that raise so many objections that you can't possibly answer them all.

I also visited a mosque late last year with a group led by a missiologist from MST. I've written a few posts on my blog about this experience.


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