From the Archives: Why “I Feel It In My Heart” Is a Terrible Argument for God

Since I moved to the Freethought Blogs network, I have a bunch of new readers who aren’t familiar with my greatest hits from my old, pre-FTB blog. So I’m linking to some of them, about one a day, to introduce them to the new folks.

Today’s archive treasure: Why “I Feel It In My Heart” Is a Terrible Argument for God. The tl;dr: Most arguments I encounter for religion aren’t even arguments. They’re attempts to make arguments go away: attempts to deflect legitimate questions; bigoted attacks on atheists’ character; fuzzy confusions between evidence and wishful thinking; the moral equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and yelling, “I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you!” But some arguments for religion and God are real arguments. They’re not good arguments — but they’re sincere attempts to offer evidence supporting the God hypothesis. So I’m taking them seriously, and shredding them one by one. Today’s argument: “I feel it in my heart.”

A nifty pull quote:

As vivid as the experience of our hearts and minds can feel, if we’re going to treat it as evidence in support of a hypothesis, we can’t give it any more weight than we would anyone else’s experience. Intuition is important, but it’s notoriously unreliable and subject to bias. We have to step back from it, and view it like we’d view anyone else’s experience. And when we look at human experience in general, we see that our hearts and minds can’t automatically be trusted.


From the Archives: Why “I Feel It In My Heart” Is a Terrible Argument for God

9 thoughts on “From the Archives: Why “I Feel It In My Heart” Is a Terrible Argument for God

  1. 1

    Greta, pleeease!!! Not so fast!!! It’s a great idea to present this older material to us, newbies, but could you give the new readers just a little more time to digest it?

  2. 2

    I really like the newbie-update-posts (btw, I’m a newbie, hi!)… but I agree with Ariel – not so fast!

    I think the point about doubting your own perceptions is important. Not just when it comes to religion and the supernatural, but in everyday life. If you know that you, say, tend to blame others for your own failings, you don’t consciously decide to do this, you really feel like nothing is your fault. Being able mentally take a step back and try to view the situation from an outsider’s perspective is a helpful thing to do.

    Also, having grown up as an atheist, I feel deep within my heart that god does not exist. Honestly, the more I search my soul for my feelings on god, the more absurd the whole idea becomes. So, why should the believers intuitive “knowledge” be more valid than mine?

  3. 3

    I’ve noticed that theists who try this line will often add the pseudo-humble caveat that they don’t expect us to be convinced by this, but their feeling/experience is nevertheless evidence for them. To which I usually reply: “If your evidence is not enough to convince someone else, then why on earth should it be enough to convince you?” Oddly enough, this question tends to get ignored, as does any argument to the effect that explanation-testing and evidence-evaluation is a public activity, not a private one, and that the notion of “private evidence” is nonsensical.

    The very same people will also often try and pull the “If you open yourself up to God, you will experience what I have and then you’ll have the evidence you ask for” trick – thereby inadvertently underlining the role of comfirmation bias in their thinking.

    Good article.

  4. 5

    Great article! I get my socks blown off by the beauty of a sunrise or a flock of birds taking off over the river, but I don’t attribute it to “god’s majesty” or anything like that. It’s wondrous enough that it’s just nature. Nature! Wow! I don’t feel like “god put all this here for me, I’m so amazed at his awesomeness.” When I was young and going to church, any emotion I felt that was supposed to be god or the spirit was always another emotion being warped by the church – guilt, shame, fear, confusion, etc. I never really felt god in my heart. I guess that’s part of why I’m an atheist now.

  5. 6

    Ahem: there are no tigers in Africa, only in Asia.

    Anon Naturalist @ #4: Your epistemology is so crude. It may not be literally true that there are tigers in Africa… but it’s psychologically true. It’s the narrative of tigers in Africa that resonates on a deep, meaningful level with the human soul. And it should be clear that “tigers in Africa” is meant to be taken metaphorically. Nobody really believes in the literal tigers in Africa: the belief in tigers in Africa is part of a modern, sophisticated tiger-ology that’s much more advanced than you’re giving credit to. But many people are comforted by their belief in tigers in Africa, and it’s very cruel of you to try to take the comfort away.

    Or, to put it another way: Oops.

  6. 8

    Good article! I think you cover just about all the bases for how the “argument” fails. I’d just like to add one observation on the following paragraph from the original (linked) article:

    And even taking these cognitive errors into account, the mind doesn’t always operate as it should. You don’t have to be mentally ill, or even on drugs, to have weird experiences of things that aren’t there. It’s not that hard to alter our consciousness. Exhaustion, stress, distraction, trance-like repetition, optical illusion, sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, sensory overload… any of these, and more, can create vivid “perceptions” that are entirely disconnected from external reality.

    How often has “fasting and prayer” been recommended as a means for a christian (or potential christian) to obtain a “vision” or other “revelation”? You don’t even have to go out into the wilderness and fast for 40 days. Fasting stresses the mind in the same way that sleep-deprivation or many drugs do. Yet fasting is a very traditional means for getting some kind of “revelation” from God. What it’s really doing is inducing hallucinations.


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