2016 - Image-Religion1

Debunking the Witness of the Holy Spirit

From Aquinas’ sensus dei through to the modern Christian apology of Plantinga and Craig, God’s existence has been affirmed through the manifestation of his holy spirit. God has graced humans with a sensus divinitatis (a special sense) providing the individual with certainty of God without recourse to evidence.   John Calvin:

 

That there exists in the human mind and indeed by natural instinct, some sense of Deity [sensus divinitatis], we hold to be beyond dispute, since God himself, to prevent any man from pretending ignorance, has endued all men with some idea of his Godhead…. …this is not a doctrine which is first learned at school, but one as to which every man is, from the womb, his own master; one which nature herself allows no individual to forget

 

The large numbers of people oblivious to this sense presents a problem for the sensus divinitatis. Alvin Plantinga’s modern variant of the argument provides an airtight explanation – this sense is defective in some people due to sin.   Well, how convenient!   One unproven doctrine props up another one.

 

Reformed Epistemology, a continuation of Calvin’s sensus divinitatus, proposes properly basic beliefs which are self-evident. We perceive them directly, as we would when we see a tree, or taste an apple. Plantinga admits the perception needn’t be similar to other perceptions, but maintains the concept is the same. Some beliefs must be properly basic, not requiring grounding in other beliefs, thereby providing a foundation for other knowledge.

 

The key question is whether the personal experience of the holy spirit provides an acceptable standard of evidence to justify forming belief?   There are various strong objections to be made to the witness of the holy spirit.

 

  1. How can any subject KNOW their perceptions are authentic?

The wide range of metaphysical beliefs demonstrates people are capable of drawing different conclusions from the same world (evidence).  As above, many theistic religions make precisely the same argument for a witness of the holy spirit.  Not all of these claims can be true, as several are competing. Many “witness” type claims have been discredited.   Modern Branch Davidians led by the notorious David Koresh who believed he was the prophet who would father the next messiah. They were even other Branch Davidians who claimed to have the ability to raise the dead. Their witness of the holy spirit was obviously false in this case.   Sathya Sai Baba of India made a lucrative career from convincing others of his Divine nature by working miracles, faith healing and predicting the future. The BBC’s The Secret Swami exposed his fakery, fraud and probable paedophilia. India has quite a tradition of fake gurus. Countless spiritual leaders and faith healers were later found to be charlatans.

2.   Human fallibility is evidenced constantly throughout history.

Our species has held many beliefs as knowledge without sufficient evidence that later turned out to be spectacularly false – earth was flat, quintessence, the stars determined out fate, earth was the centre of universe, belief in witches, lighting and weather was god’s wrath, sacrificing animals and children influences god.  A thousand years ago it seemed entirely reasonable that the Earth was the centre of the universe given observation that the moon and the stars appeared to rotate around it.   Many of the modern discoveries of physics have been counter intuitive to our natural expectation – evolution for instance. If we should distrust even commonly held beliefs if they lack sufficient evidence, then we certainly question our personal intuitions.

  1. Personal fallibility; which perceptions are true and which are not?

How does a subject determine without any doubt that God is real, when they are aware of being deceived on other occasions? Everyone has been deceived by their senses in one way or other. Those suffering from mental illness or experiencing effects of mild altering substances, have perceptions that differ markedly from reality.

 

  1. Why is the content of the experience lacking?

 

To have an actual witness of the Holy Spirit implies a genuine experience of the person – God. There clearly should be substantive descriptions of the nature of God as revealed through this experience; his Holy nature cannot remain hidden if we claim to bear witness to it. Believers would note common features or properties of God that they could relate to each other. Such an amazing experience would surely entail some sort of knowledge otherwise one must ask how they know what they are bearing witness to? How compelling would this testimony on the witness be? I had an experience with person X but, alas, know nothing about person X, nor can I describe any detail of the experience with person X, nor can I produce any effects demonstrably caused by person X, but trust me, I know for certain that person X exists. This is not a witness of anything.

  1. Personal experiences lack verifiability.

 

Knowledge is justified on the basis of sufficient evidence, testable by third parties. If our evidence is merely a feeling or instinct within our consciousness, the qualities required for third party analysis are absent. To accept the witness of the holy spirit implies agreement that all other untestable claims have equal justification. The outcome is a relativist world where reality is entirely subjective. Not only a patently false description of our world, the acceptance of untestable propositions as valid truth claims would inevitably lead to disastrous consequences.

 

William Lane Craig argues the witness of the holy spirit is an intrinsic defeater-defeater, immune to counter evidence.   Even if presented with irrefutable evidence pointing to the non-existence of God, Craig would maintain faith due to the overwhelming power and conviction provided his witness of the holy spirit. But note how he responds when a non-Christian theist makes the same claim:

 

Of course, anyone (or, at least any sort of theist) can claim to have a self-authenticating witness of God to the truth of his religion. But the reason you argue with them is because they really don’t: either they’ve just had some emotional experience or else they’ve misinterpreted their religious experience. So you present arguments and evidence in favor of Christian theism and objections against their worldview in the hope that their false confidence will crack under the weight of the argument and they will come to know the truth.
Craig dismisses without argument other claims of self-authenticating witness of God, “They really don’t: either they’ve just had some emotional experience or else they’ve misinterpreted their religious experience.” This invalidates any claim of a witness of God, including Craig’s own. There is no explanation to satisfy the special pleading invoked in favour of Craig’s God as opposed to everyone else’s. If it is acceptable for Craig to dismiss the claims of others, then it must be acceptable for others to dismiss his own. From his own logic one thing is clear; if there is any legitimate argument for the existence of his God, above any others, it is demonstrably not the witness of the holy spirit!

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