I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the claim, from religious people of various traditions, that people have been changed by their god. They have had some experience that transformed them, improved them, or opened something up for them. And in discussions about the existence of god, these personal experiences tend to be the most powerful and, at the same time, the least applicable in those discussions.
I cannot legitimately challenge whether a person had an experience. If someone says they experience something, even if it seems impossible to me, I have to accept that they had the experience. But there is an important point to be made here; the fact that they had an experience does not necessarily imply that their interpretation of it is true. It is possible that your experience of god was not of god, but of something natural and was associated with a religious idea.
Why is it that those brought up in Christian environments almost always get transformed by the holy spirit or by Jesus? Why is it that people of Islamic backgrounds almost always feel the greatness of Allah? It seems suspect that the religious ideas that people are raised around are the ones they see in times of need. It seems to imply that it is our mind making the association between the experience an it interpretation, based upon the images we are aware of.
What is going on here is that people who find themselves in times of struggle will turn to the tradition they know. And because of the powerful emotions involved, the experiences they have are meaningful. And when people transform themselves, learn about themselves, and mature as a result, they attribute it to their god or to their religion. And when they look back on it, these experiences stand out as evidence that their beliefs are true.
I view this as problematic. No, I view it as ridiculous. There is no need to attribute these experiences to a god. We have the ability to change ourselves, upon reflecting and not liking what is seen, in ways that will be long-lasting. Attributing this to a god is, in my opinion, to underestimate our worth. This is precisely what many religious traditions do.
By making us feel sinful, and then offering us a way to be forgiven for it (for example), religion is doing nothing different than clever marketing. And just like when we watch television or see ads next to the blogs or news we read, we have to keep in mind the subtle psychological manipulation tactics similar to those of religious messages in order to not be unreasonably swayed by them.
I know it’s possible to change without help of any gods. How do I know? Because I’ve done so (and am continuing to do so). And when I see people defending their beliefs and ultimately barricading themselves behind the evidence of their experiences, I can’t help but wonder if they have ever really considered the role that they played in their own lives. Why are they not willing to take credit for their change?
Well, because they don’t believe that they are capable of it on their own. God, they believe, is necessary for something like overcoming alcoholism, gambling addiction, etc. But why? Only someone who has been convinced, or has a preexisting belief, that they are too damaged or imperfect to succeed in any such thing. Just think of the first few steps in a 12-step program.
Step 1 – We admitted we were powerless over our addiction – that our lives had become unmanageable
Step 2 – Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity
Step 3 – Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God
Take credit for your successes, failures, etc and take responsibility for them. By giving some god the credit (and, interestingly, failing to give some god the credit for failure), we are resting the responsibility somewhere else than where it belongs; on our shoulders.
If you want to change, then take responsibility for it. And if you have already, then consider all you–and those around you–have actually done rather than simply give the credit to some invisible and intangible god.