Someone recently emailed me, asking if I read the many comments (223, currently) on a recent Church of the Churchless post. Here's part of my reply.
Here's another way of expressing what I was trying to say in my reply: believers should be clear about what sort of belief they are claiming is valid, and so worthy of being embraced by other people.
The basic distinction is between subjective and objective reality, as I noted in my reply. Now, I realize that "subjective" and "objective" mean different things to different people. But the dictionary definitions make good sense.
Subjective: characteristic of or belonging to reality as perceived rather than as independent of mind : relating to or being experience or knowledge as conditioned by personal mental characteristics or states
Objective: of, relating to, or being an object, phenomenon, or condition in the realm of sensible experience independent of individual thought and perceptible by all observers : having reality independent of the mind
So let's say that someone speaks of experiencing God, heaven, or some other manifestation of a supernatural reality beyond the physical universe. For example, as in the above-mentioned comments, some people talk about astral realms, radiant forms, divine light and sound.
I have no problem accepting that a person had an experience along these lines. After all, the mind is capable of creating many mental manifestations that are much different from everyday reality.
If you take a psychedelic drug, likely you're going to have profound personal experiences.
If you have a psychotic form of mental illness, likely you're going to have profound personal experiences.
If you meditate for lengthy periods, likely you're going to have profound personal experiences.
If you meet with a holy leader you're deeply devoted to, likely you're going to have profound personal experiences.
And if you deeply desire to have a certain religious experience, likely you're going to have profound personal experiences in line with that desire.
Naturally this doesn't exhaust the ways religiously-minded people can have deeply moving experiences of what seems to be a divinity beyond themselves. Every religion is awash with stories about devotees who have experienced a glimpse -- or a full-on encounter -- with the divinity they believe in.
I'm interested in these stories in much the same way I'm interested in hearing someone talk about going to Glacier National Park, a Monster Truck event, Paris, a Taylor Swift concert, or any other experience that leaves this person with an amazing feeling best expressed as "You had to be there to believe it."
Meaning, I accept that they had a profound experience. But I don't accept that this was an objective manifestation of reality.
Well, in the examples above the experience was of something objectively real, such as Taylor Swift. However, the person's experience of a Taylor Swift concert was their own, whereas the objective reality of the concert was independent of their individual mind.
In the case of religious, mystical, or spiritual experiences, often the discrepancy between subjective and objective is much greater.
After all, there is no shared experience of God, heaven, soul, spirit, or any other supernatural entity. All we have are descriptions of individual experiences, and there is no way to prove that these are anything other than the manifestation of a person's subjective mind.
So I wish religious believers would be clearer about what they claim to have experienced.
I had numerous profound encounters with what seemed to be a higher reality in my college days, when I imbibed LSD, mescaline, and other psychedelics. But I rarely, if ever, told other people that my psychedelic experiences were of an objectively real reality.
Yes, at the time the sensations I experienced seemed like a doorway to a higher state of consciousness. And maybe they were, in a personal subjective sense. Meaning, for me. Not for anybody else.
Yet religious believers often extrapolate from their individual personal experience of some supposed divinity and claim that their experience proves that the divinity is objectively real. Which, of course, it doesn't.
"I had a subjective experience of X" is very different from "X exists as an objective fact." The first statement doesn't demand proof, because subjective experiences basically are unprovable. The second statement does demand proof, because it is a claim about universal reality.