After defending the argument from evil, Mackie turns to the theistic argument from religious experience. This is probably the argument that comes the closest to the average theist’s reasons for believing: some personal experience of the divine presence. Though it is not an often used argument in academic discussions, it warrants attention for this reason.
I entered the chapter expecting to largely agree with Mackie. I expected that he’d focus on the entirely reasonable point that one person’s experience is not necessarily evidence to another (though even this isn’t really right). But he didn’t seem interested in doing so. Rather, he precedes to argue that having a religious experience is not a good reason to become a theist.
He does so first by posing the question as to whether or not such experiences are real. Of course, all people agree that it is possible to have artificial experiences (hallucinations or the like), but this is not much of an argument on its own.
That is, anyone who eats and moves in the real world implicitly agrees that one should take experience for valid unless there is a reason to suspect it.
As such, Mackie has the burden of proof on this particular point, but it is not clear whether he understands this.
As is often the case with Mackie, goalposts seem to shift around as he writes. He points out that people have experiences of different, contradictory beliefs (referencing the different religions of the world). Of course, this is a genuine issue for any particular religion. What it is not is a reason to be an atheist. After all, people disagree on matters of fact all the time; saying that people disagree doesn’t prove that all of them are wrong.
Evidence for one religion is indeed evidence against another. What it is not is evidence for atheism, and the “many religions” argument really adds up to no more than variations on this logical fallacy.
Mackie, however, moves on to better points. He claims that there are other explanations for religious experience–namely, the subconscious. This definitely shows the trends of his time; today we’d speak in terms of evolutionary psychology (though I’m not convinced that’s an improvement).
The trouble with this is that it proves too much. One can use the same argument to “disprove” any experience whatsoever. This is the classic case for solipsism. We can explain all experience in terms of subconscious motivations, or evolutionary spin-off, or useless epiphenominon, or mad scientists stimulating your disembodied brain, or whatever fanciful idea one prefers. That doesn’t remotely mean that the universe is all an illusion.
But, if it doesn’t, then the same sort of explanations don’t mean than any particular experience is invalid. We don’t know that hallucinations are invalid not because we can explain them in terms of the unconscious (that’s quite a bit harder than it sounds, anyway), but because they are inconsistent with our other experiences.
But Mackie can’t seem to point to anything about religious experiences as such that are inconsistent with our other experience. Assuming one has a religious experience, one is perfectly rational to accept it as valid.
This is why many religious people feel a little like Holocaust survivors listening to denials of the event. Claiming that we can explain why a group of oppressed people would have an emotional desire to invent such stories–or even come to believe in them does not remotely give a survivor good reason to deny the Holocaust. It is blatantly ad hoc.
And it definitely doesn’t appreciate that the deniers, too, have emotional motivations for their position.
But if this doesn’t answer the question of validity, what does? Even if it isn’t a case for atheism, religious experiences do often contradict one another. What of that?
This is where I agree with Mackie. He points out that all such experiences happen in a context, and are interpreted in terms of the individual’s prior knowledge. I think there is great cause to be careful about what such experiences actually say in terms of particular doctrines and beliefs.
It is far too easy to presume that a particular doctrine is true because one’s religious experience that has been interpreted in a particular way. All of the most spiritual people I know have advised caution in reaching too many conclusions on these grounds.
And that is the answer, I think. No one is making the argument that such experience, considered in isolation, is a rock-solid proof of any highly-specific theology. Rather it is taken as evidence for the spiritual in the same way that any experience is evidence.
It is those who want to overstep the bounds of that experience, and extrapolate wildly (like some theists do with their experiences, and some atheists do when watching science documentaries) who are making the mistake. Those who simply report an experience of the spiritual.
As hard as it is to imagine anyone who takes a careful approach taking this as proof of minor doctrinal points, it is much harder to imagine a fair-minded person concluding that her spiritual experience is to be completely dismissed as evidence of anything.
And that is precisely what Mackie is asking those who have had such experiences to do–and without offering any clear reason why.