How Do You Interpret Subjective, Private Religious Experience?

Randal Rauser posted 2 very thoughtful pieces on religious experience. I thought it might be helpful to read them in light of things we have discussed.

I appreciate the conversation relayed from Rauser’s 2nd article you list above. And I agree with Rauser’s reaction to the challenge about what a Christian response to the child sacrifice challenge (Abraham and Isaac story) ought to be.

It is interesting to me how even in Old Testament narrative, people are expected to have some reference already about good and evil. I’m thinking about Abraham’s debate with God over Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham has a sense of righteousness that won’t let him (or God) just simply rest with God’s stated intentions. Notably absent from God’s response: “Well, Abraham - I’m God and you aren’t. So I’m seeing a bigger picture here that you can’t be expected to judge correctly about, lowly, sinful finite creature that you are.” Of course the moral critic would correctly note that the whole debate (in that situation) made no difference in terms of the recorded outcome for those cities. So there is that. But one of my take-aways is that we are expected to be correct discerners of justice, good, and evil. And I can’t think that that would have lessoned one whit (but in fact should have increased) now that we have Jesus’ guiding spirit and the hindsight of his actual teachings and interactions among our spiritual assets.


To sum up, Loftus’ claim is false. Subjective private experiences can provide evidence to accept (or retain) a particular truth claim. Of course, Loftus could claim that this is not true of that specific subset of subjective private experiences which are religious in nature. But first, he would need to overcome the vagueness problem by explaining what it is the makes an experience religious . Next, he would need to explain what specific problem applies to all subjective private religious experiences but not to subjective private experiences generally.

I agree with Rauser. Dreams are a private experience that everyone has every night. They can provide one with the sense that ones course is right or needs correction, though rarely in a way that is incontrovertible. So they suffer from vagueness but what are you going to do? They are what they are and one might waken in a cold sweat eager to make a course correction or one might decide they are merely somewhere on a scale between insignificant and amusing.

I share his question about what exactly makes a subjective experience a religious one. To my mind a religious experience would be one that is felt to be more significant even if nonspecific, though the group of significant subjective experiences might well be far wider than the group that is religious in nature. I’d be interested in how others recognize subjective experiences which are religious.


I think that the comment of Abraham you made is interesting. I’m not sure how much Abraham was trying to intercede for Sodom and Gomorrhah or for his nephew, Lot, who lived there; but very good point. It opened up another area of questioning for me. The other place that comes back to me in that respect is when David was angry at God for killing Uzzah, who tried to save the Ark from falling (1 Chron 13); and also, as Enns says, many places in the Psalms, Job, and Ecclesiastes, where the writers question God’s motives.’t/

that’s a great point. I am still pondering that question. I think that one caveat about all this would be that one’s unique religious experience, no matter how reliable to him/her, would not be binding in terms of making others responsible to God/gods for obeying or not obeying what he/she personally experienced. Thus, someone could not say, “God told me you should all go to war; or marry me; or…whatever”–even if it’s a good thing–unless they had their own good reason for believing it. The specter of crowd mentality that could also lead to rash, blind follower ship-- also rises.

All of this is to say that we’d better have really, really good criteria for deciding to go what we do!

We went through a book in Sunday School by Haddon Robinson, a Radio Bible Class speaker, who said that the majority of the time, God’s revelation is our own rational reasoning from the intelligence he’s given us–not from special revelation. It was called “Decision Making By the Book.”

One more continued reflection for the moment …

It seems to me that while many today like to think of child sacrifice as a long-disappeared tragic relic of an ancient religiously-zealous past, that instead we actually practice it today on scales that rival or exceed the zealotry of our ancient counterparts. We don’t use formal stone altars and knives, to be sure; but we get the job done just as effectively as we doggedly pursue our modern equivalents in the name of this or that utilitarian rationality. So perhaps it is actually God who is showing the greater axiological humility by even having the conversation with Abraham at all (almost as if Abraham was a peer), and that the narrative is really us looking at ourselves and what we justify more quickly than even God did. Only at the end of the Isaac tale, God (unlike us much of the time) actually provided a way out. So I don’t see a lot of room for modern judgment over ancients in this regard as we dabble about with our utilitarian ethics, Malthusian outlooks, and ethical ‘dilemmas’ about who can stay in the lifeboat. Child-sacrifice is alive and well in modern times. Only unlike what God did for Abraham in the O.T. narratives, moderns don’t even so much as invite God into their ethical conversations today. I think they’re afraid what God might say, or that somebody may have brought a mirror if we let that conversation happen.

I think that the fear of man and the unknown, and selfish desire for success, exist in any setting. In fact, the idea that we are not touched by such a thing can leave us open to doing worse things. Good point. Thanks.

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I found neither of those pieces to be “thoughtful.”

The first one is a niggling semantic response to a strawman. If you really want to talk about whether “subjective experience is veridical” you should IMO find better things to read. If Rauser writes about this topic without mentioning Gnosticism, then he’s not worth reading on the topic. Just my opinion, but when I was a Christian scholar I and many of my colleagues worried more about Gnostic arguments and behaviors than we did about atheists or demons.

The second one is a coherent answer but it’s a No True Scotsman argument. It doesn’t actually answer the question at the top of the page (Could God command something morally heinous?), because it seems to argue that the question isn’t coherent. The author seems to argue that god couldn’t do that, and so god didn’t do that. I can’t dispute any claim by the author regarding his particular god, at least because I don’t know and don’t care to know about that character. But what I can note is this: the bible records actions and words, by god, that are so profoundly heinous that they are best not discussed in front of children. Getting that god off the hook requires one of two choices, both of which the author uses in his response. You can argue that the passages don’t accurately record what the god said (which, of course, they don’t), relying on the No True Scotsman ploy. Or you can argue that the god did and said those things, but that they are not actually morally heinous because of Mystery and stuff. This actually also relies on the No True Scotsman ploy. My judgment is that the first answer is a decent one, because it acknowledges and owns the problems with the biblical record (those problems are both factual and moral). The second answer is morally mad, and causes unbelievers like me to secretly hope that the speaker doesn’t really mean what they say. Because if they do, they are saying they actually don’t have a moral foundation. They are saying that–back to the first post–if they thought they received instructions from that same morally corrupt “god,” they would kill or enslave or destroy. Because, you know, his thoughts are above our thoughts.

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This is correct. I’m afraid he might “say” things similar to what he said in the OT, and we have International War Crimes Tribunals for characters like that.

It’s just too easy to start with your picture of your god and then judge others for not wanting that god to speak. Why is it okay to cast blanket moral opprobrium onto “moderns” while discussing the god of Deuteronomy 20 or of Acts 5? I would probably like your god* if he were real, but I wish he would inspire his people to a little more humility, especially since 2016 in the United States. Evangelicals are not credible when they talk about morality in any millenium.

*Note added for clarity: I mean Mervin’s god.


Merry Christmas, Stephen. I think you bring up some good arguments, and something we can all think about.

Certainly something most of us can agree upon.


Dr Matheson, thanks for your observations. And humility is definitely important–something I would like to do better on.

To give background, Rauser is definitely of the opinion that God did not order violence. In fact, I found him before ever running into Biologos or other sites by researching for a Sunday School presentation that would tactfully encourage my literalist church to think twice about inerrancy, especially of certain OT parts. The quote I incorporated,

“It is far from clear that the appropriate response to a culture that murders some of its children is to kill everyone in the culture, including the children,”

drew me to his website. He has interviewed Pete Enns who in turn cited him and wrote a positive review on the back of one of his books:

Rauser can be very intriguing and, in my opinion, initially frustrating (but educational in the end) because he will draw out the logic on an argument till you get a sick feeling in your stomach that he’s turned arguing that God is evil–and then lead you back. I think you would get more of a feel for his discussions (eg in the 2nd one, he’s rejecting the OT) if you get a chance to watch one of his videos.

Other blogs such as whether it’s Ok to send a 3 year old to eternal conscious torment
or the one on Ravi Zacharias
may be some you enjoy. They are a bit stressful and may need a separate thread.

I appreciate your thoughts.


Understandable positions to hold. And regarding the latter, there are a good many Christians now (I number myself among them) that agree with you that (in the U.S. at least - given our political situation) evangelicals as popularly identified here now have less than zero moral credibility or credibility of any kind, even. And they weren’t starting with very high moral credibility in the first place, but they did find a way to trample on what little they had.


yeah - that would be the last and highest qualification that would be a bummer for any good god not to meet!

I think that’s why the incarnation is so important for us Christians … to bring an unseen god to us. Not just in a baby whose birth we celebrate today, but as that very one would grow up to teach us: You can find him or her in the eyes of the single-parent waitress desperately trying to raise a kid, or a mentally-off community member showing up for a local church free meal, or a professional privately battling with drug addiction or in you or me. It may not be the grand show of force and proof some long for, but it’s what is on offer. Our god may even be a Scotsman. And in that role, he will no doubt be the truest one around.

Merry Christmas and warm holiday wishes to you and all yours and everybody else as well.


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