Thursday, June 30, 2011

One data point is not enough! : Why personal experience fails as evidence for God

Jeez, they have been so many eventful moments since I have 'come out' as an atheist. Perhaps none has been as bizarre as a few weeks ago when I was out at a dinner in New York. On that occasion a lady told me that I could have a relationship with Jesus if only I would take the time to ask him. I told her that would be a very tough ask, because I had never seen him and have no clue where he is. I told her it felt a bit weird to just start talking out loud in the hope that he would just happen to hear me. In fact even if I was lucky enough to 'hear' something  from out of the dead air it would be impossible to know if it was He. It would be like taking me to a school hall with 900 screaming children telling me I need to talk with Jabari Smith and giving me no further information on how to  identify him. It's highly unlikely I would successfully make the connection.

I honestly  have no idea how to even begin to try to find Jesus. Finding Jesus is a step that most Christians take for granted, but I would not know where to start looking for an immortal, non physical, spiritual being.  I explained to my friend that since she had the personal relationship with Jesus, presumably knew what he looked like, where to find him, what his schedule was like and  the best way to approach him, it would  be better for her to do the introduction. She would be the ideal person to break the ice, so to speak. Once she pinned him down and pointed him out I could go from there.

She laughed a bit at what I was saying but it didn't take her long to agree that I had a point. It would  be better for her to ask her Lord to come and show himself to me. We both recognised in those minutes it was strange that God would provide the greatest evidence of his existence to those who already believed anyway and be stingy with giving the revelation to skeptical people honestly and often painstakingly searching for the truth. So, she agreed to call upon Jesus to explain himself and to my surprise that is exactly what she did. Yes, right there in the middle of the restaurant she cried out loud to her Lord and Saviour. As she closed her eyes, and stretched out her hands in front of her, these words came forth from her lips:

" Dear Jesus, I plead with you tonight, you have never failed me before. Please reveal yourself to David, you know he has a scientific mind so he is asking for more from you, you know exactly what it is that  he needs. So please provide him with that which will satisfy his questioning mind. I ask this in your name, Christ Jesus, Amen."

I stood there still wondering whether to laugh or stare at her in amazement.Quite a thing to have somebody spontaneously pray for you in the middle of a busy New York restaurant. I kept my composure however and answered her very seriously. I told her that there is no way that I could ignore a prayer like that if I was God. If God was kinder than I was, which was unquestionably the case as far as she was  concerned,  I didn't see how he could not answer such a prayer from a sincere believer. What's more, she claimed God had never failed her before, why would he start now? So we just agreed to wait and see what God would do. Well unfortunately, I have to report that he has not shown up yet. Still, I have to remember that our time is not God's time so I will continue to wait patiently.

While waiting on the Lord, I am starting to realise that Jesus may be delayed because he must recognise the conundrum he is in, trying to answer that restaurant prayer request. One of the consequences of having a 'scientific mind' is that to accept the truth of any claim you require that it be verified by other observers. Yes, one of the most important aspects of the scientific method is intersubjectivity.Other people must be able to do the experiment and get the same result. One person's observation how ever dramatic or amazing is not sufficient for something to be accepted as truth. Even if the one observer in question is ME. To put it simply; one data point is not enough! You can't use a subjective experience to draw a conclusion about the objective world. If personal experience was just used to determine whether God existed in you that would be one thing. No, religious people are claiming God exists for everybody and is part of  a universal objective reality and that changes the game entirely.

Many people think that the reason they know something is real is because they see it with their eyes, hear it with their ears or feel it in their fingers. This is not the case. I know that the sun is there not only because I can see it, but many around me also have the same experience. They observe the same colour as me, the same temperature and the same shape in the sky. If I was the only person seeing the sun or if everybody else saw the sun was green , I would have to question my own powers of observation. I would have to think I have some flaw in my biology. Indeed that is the method through which we determine whether persons are suffering from a mental illness. If what they claim they see is not what others considered normal are seeing, we say the person that 'sees' differently is delusional. A 'shared reality' is an assumption that we all make when examining the world.So, even if Jesus came in front of me, raptured me into heaven, sat me down on his knee, gave me all the powers to do miracles for a day it still wouldn't be enough. For it could  all just be in my head , purely a dream.Without someone else to experience it with me it is just one account, one solitary data point.

I spend most of my days doing doctoral research, specifically looking at issues related to energy. I am trying to figure out what causes Caribbean countries to adopt or not adopt renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. In trying to understand what are the factors I have  visited  11 countries and done 80 interviews in total with various stakeholders who have a myriad of different perspectives on the issue. I am following that up with surveys and more quantitative analysis. Still, even after such a study the most I can do by the end is say that the data suggests that the truth is "X". Just imagine if I had just spoken to one person in one place and said " Aha, now I understand it all !" or worse yet just written an essay of my own experience of working in energy, and presented it as "evidence of truth." Rightfully, I would be laughed out of my thesis defence.

I went through that example above to show how difficult it is to provide evidence to a 'scientific mind.' It also starkly contrasts with evidence from the 'religious mind'. For Christians the greatest evidence for the love of Jesus is the personal experience. How often have we heard that Christianity is not a religion but a relationship.  Make no bones about it, Christians may come with their armoury of cosmological, teleological or ontological arguments but once you dig beneath the surface it is all about faith. I have been told in quite a few discussions recently with Christians that they did believe the bible at first by blind faith. It was something that was taught to them when they were a child and they accepted it. But, they go on to emphasise that through their own lives since then, they recognise that what they learnt was true. When they say this to me they often look proud of themselves, because they think they have followed the scientific method that I promote so strongly.

 However, this is another point of diversion between faith and science. In science we are challenged to disprove that which we first believe. You try to disprove a hypothesis and if it survives these attempts then it can earn the right to be accepted as a theory. So, not only do you need many data points you need to seek out persons who interpret the data differently or have alternative explanations. You have to find the skeptics and try to convince them. This is what religious people almost never do, they go in at the outset looking for data that confirms their initial premise, leading to what is known as confirmation bias. Christians are perfectly happy to ignore alternative explanations that skeptics provide, but still regard the interpretation they have chosen to accept as evidence for their God. This is a fail from all perspectives. They end up with one data point and a questionable one at that.

Perhaps its because my career is in research, but in talking with christian fundamentalists I always try to get to the root of the personal experiences they have had.The personal experience that justified their conclusion that the entire gospel as told in the bible is true. They often speak of one event early in their Christian lives that did it for them. Quite often the great experience falls somewhat short of the miraculous. Here are some examples I have encountered:

Christ without Concordance
- Soon after I accepted Jesus into my heart, I read the gospels which talked about the promises of God and Jesus. Without the use of a concordance or any other outside guidance I was able to see the promises being fulfilled in other books on the bible as I read them. That is something that nobody I know has been able to do unless they had a concordance. There is no way I could have done that without the help of Jesus himself, that's how I know his promises are true.

Playboy versus Economist
- "One week  after I became a Christian I went to a barber shop and was waiting to get my hair cut. On the table were two magazines, one was Playboy the other was The Economist. I took up the copy of The Economist and started to read it. Someone I went to school with, that had not seen me for years came into the shop and saw me reading. He said, " You are a changed man. Years ago I am sure you would have picked up the other magazine." That was a sign to me from God. I had asked him to give me evidence, through other people's observations that I was a changed man. The fact that people like my old school friend could see I was changed after accepting Christ was the evidence I needed that Jesus was real."

My Grandmother was a Christian
- "I grew up in China and one of the strongest relationships I had was with my grandmother. She was always there for me and instilled in me a strong self belief and sense of moral values. Unfortunately she died two years ago.When I came to Canada I found a church where I was taught all about Jesus and how he died for my sins. That really moved me. Recently a family member in China revealed to me that my grandmother was actually a Christian, I never knew that when she was alive. In China life can be difficult if you say you are a christian so you have to keep it hidden. I realised right then that the reason my grandmother was such a loving person was because she was a Christian just like the beautiful people that I met here in Canada. After this I was sure that Christ had a plan for me and I accepted him into my heart and was baptised."

Moving as these accounts may be, it is hard even for the most ardent believer to understand how any of these examples are proof of  Jesus and God. Indeed, when I listen to some of these types of testimonies I make a point of looking in the faces of other believers present.Often their facial expressions and body language indicate that they are not really convinced by their fellow believer's evidence.  They will say something like "well if that's what you believe, hold on to it, that's your testimony, nobody can take that from you." You don't get a "Wow, I understand that is definitely clear proof!"  Yes, that's the great thing about these personal experiences, they only have to be good enough for YOU. It doesn't matter if they are laughable to every other Christian at the table. The only people that matter are you and God. In fact the more individual or personal the experience is the stronger it is regarded. So, in Christianity one data point is actually better than many. The whole thing is just backwards.

Of course, many Christians will say that it is not one data point. There are thousands and millions of personal experiences with Jesus. Surely even by the standards of  the most rigorous scientific study, this is enough data. The problem with this is that many of these testimonies are of the type I talked about earlier. Only accepted by the one who experienced it. Each of the testimonies are like experiments conducted with only one data point. And each experiment is rejecting at least some part of the methodology used by the other scientists, even if the conclusion and results are the same. The thing is, in many situations the conclusions contradict directly, it's as if some people see a yellow sun while others are seeing  green, blue or purple. Not everybody is seeing the same Jesus. In such a case we just can't aggregate the individual 'studies'. It still comes down to many single unreliable data points. There is a view among some Christians that if you  stack  enough invalid  pieces of evidence together at some point you have enough to make one good piece of evidence. Unfortunately it doesn't work like that in the scientific world. One million multiplied by zero is still zero.

So, given the sample size problem that God will have in giving me an experience to satisfy my 'scientific mind,'  my wait may be indefinite. Still, as my friend in the restaurant noted, God if he is there, knows exactly what I need. He is, after all, supposed to be omnipotent. I tell you, if he can convince me that I only need one data point for evidence, I pray that he also convinces the other scientists at this university. If he does that miracle, he would immediately make my thesis defence a real 'walk in the park.'


  1. Knock and the door will be opened for you. Seek and you will find. Those words, straight from the Bible, are a 100% guaranteed promise from God. Can you say in your heart that you have knocked on the door and asked God to help you find the answers to questions that reason cannot? You have to be the one knocking, not your friend. The Bible states that reason alone falls woefully short when it comes to answering questions about religion. It's about faith. Actually give Jesus a try at some point in your life and see what happens. Blessed are they who have not seen but have believed.

  2. I have been knocking for a long time and have realised that the most reliable answers lie behind the doors of reason. My question still stands. How do I recognise what is an answer from God? How is it distinguishable from the voice of your own conscience?

    I don't see why my friend can ask on my behalf, she is the one with the relationship. Christians ask God to intervene in atheists' lives all the time. Are these requests all in vain?

    At the end of the day it must come back to God though. He would know exactly what I need to be convinced. I was a Christian for 30 years so I have certainly 'tried' Jesus. But,there comes a time when you have to accept that the experiment is not giving you a positive result and move on. I can't see merit in believing something without evidence. That would be blind faith, purely arbitrary,like believing you will win the $1,000,000 jackpot tomorrow night.

    You say that "blessed are they that have not seen but have believed." I have not seen the Loch Ness monster, will I be blessed for believing in him?