How many times do we hear Christians claiming that they have had direct experience of God as a self-authenticating inner witness? It is pretty common as a debate closer. William Lane Craig famously uses it, as in here:
What he essentially says is that even if all the evidence somehow pointed to the fact that God did not exist, this would be trumped by the power of the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. That personal experience of God trumps everything else.
However, even as Craig admits, this is not very good for convincing others since you cannot rationally convince others of your own personal experience, especially as people from every other religion seem to have similar experiences. What it succeeds in doing is inoculating the believer from suffering from the ills of doubt. And ever losing an argument about the existence of God.
But that aside, there are further problems, as really well pointed out by John Loftus in his new edition of the superb Why I Became An Atheist, pages 194-199.
I just don’t think a coherent understanding of this purported inner witness can be adequately described, since Christians who claim to have experienced it should have gained some knowledge or content as a result of it. That is, they should have gained some propositional beliefs about the divine being they experienced, along with some specific beliefs this divine being wants them to have. (p. 195)
The issue is that there is not just disagreement from religion to religion over what God is within the realm of these experiences (a Hindu experiences a mutually exclusive god figure to a Christian) but this happens within Christianity, within its hordes of denominations and doctrinal disagreements.
Either there is no content to this experience, in which case I seriously doubt it is a personal experience of some divine being at all, or this witness is so muddled and weak as a religious experience that atheists can deny they have even had one at all. (p. 195)
Romans 8:16 famously states:
The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.
What is God and what does it mean to be God’s child? If this is the propositional content of such a witness, there really is very little to go on.
You see, when people experience God, they only ever experience the God around which they have been brought up. This is exceptionally dubious and should raise eyebrows. An Amazonian tribeswoman never has personal experience of Jesus of the Trinity about which they have never learnt. No one experiences gods that they do not know about. People see faces of Jesus in toast because that’s what they expect or are primed to see. Psychological priming means that experiences become self-fulfilling.
The experience itself gives no content. The content comes from the culture, holy book and environment in which the experiencer is being nurtured.
A Protestant experiences a very much Protestant God; a Catholic some other version, or Mary, but the content of that experience is not new. Nothing is added by that experience other than some kind of validation.
Even though Craig cannot actually describe the exact propositional content to this inner witness he still must think it witnesses to an undefined evangelical understanding of the Bible…. So whether Craig is correct or not depends entirely on whether evangelical Christianity is true, plus some. Craig would claim that there are essential propositional truths that someone must believe in to be saved. He would not think a liberal Christian is saved, who does not believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, or someone who doesn’t believe Jesus was God in the flesh, or someone who doesn’t accept the trinitarian God. There are propositional truths and they are based on historical claims. For Craig, there are essential propositional truths that when believed make someone Christian. Why then doesn’t Craig say the inner witness of the Holy Spirit reveals all of the essential propositional truths necessary for salvation? (p. 195)
So if a Protestant has the self-authenticating witness experience, then it validates her own belief, and in doing so condemns others to hell. But likewise with the Catholic.
Of course, to the outsider, it is all nonsense and thoroughly unpersuasive. After all, I can have the self-authenticating experience of the not-Holy Spirit, ratifying my nonbelief.
This looks suspiciously like post hoc rationalisation on the believer’s side, in this case Craig. As Hitchen’s has said:
What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.