The Most Powerful Theistic Argument?

JW Wartick, a graduate in Christian apologetics from Biola university, has written an article that appeared retweeted in my Twitter feed this week in which he seeks to outline what he thinks is the most powerful theistic argument. You can find the full article here:

For Wartick the most powerful argument for theism is “The Argument from Religious Experience” [ARE], and he seems to think it’s head and shoulders above the rest. Wartick rightly points out that – like most arguments – the ARE can be stated in different forms. Here is the form Wartick provides, (actually this is a revised form after realizing his initial argument was question-begging):

1. Generally, when someone has an experience of something, they are within their rational limits to believe the experience is genuine.
2. Across all socio-historical contexts, people have had experiences they purport to be of a transcendent realm.
3. Therefore, it is rational to believe there is a transcendent realm.

Now, to be fair to Wartick he has only written a blog article so there isn’t time or space to flesh out all the details. However, even allowing for this fact the argument strikes me as desperately weak at best, if not fatally flawed. I want to raise five problems with what Wartick presents.

Firstly, in an article concerning what is the best theistic argument it’s odd that Wartick doesn’t actually outline what this exclusively theistic argument is. He prefaces the argument he does give with these words: “Here’s a way to formulate [the ARE] to merely defend a transcendent reality.” This, then, is not an argument for theism. Even if the argument he presents is a good one (it’s not, see points 2-5 below) an atheist could affirm every single step and remain just as much an atheist as he was before. Buddhists, for instance, are typically atheistic and would affirm this argument’s conclusion. Other atheists might agree that believing in a transcendent realm is rational even if they themselves don’t believe it. What use, to theism, is an argument that could easily be affirmed by an atheist? Take the Kalam cosmological argument by way of contrast. If valid and sound the KCA brings us to an immaterial, timeless, spaceless, incredibly powerful personal creator of the universe. Wartick’s argument doesn’t even give us the actual existence of a “transcendent realm”, it simply concludes that it’s “rational to believe” such a thing exists. Now, Wartick might say this is only one formulation of the ARE, but then why in an article outlining “the most powerful theistic argument” does he use such a weak formulation? Why not state what this powerful theistic argument is? As it is the reader is left totally in the dark. Moreover, it’s rather bewildering why Wartick concludes with “I think my overall point stands: The ARE is the strongest argument for theism,” when in fact he hasn’t even presented any argument for theism at all.

In any event we can but analyse what Wartick has given us, which the rest of this article will do.

The second point of critique is that the argument as presented isn’t even valid. Wartick realizes this, saying: “The argument leaves a few spaces to fill in for the sake of making it deductively valid, but we’ll just look at it as it stands now.” This is a curious statement indeed! The argument is invalid, but let’s consider its merit anyhow? It has no merit, it’s invalid! As it stands it’s little more than 3 dubiously connected sentences on a page. Claiming to be painting in broad brush-strokes is no excuse for presenting an invalid or incomplete argument. I don’t wish to be uncharitable but it smacks of laziness.

Thirdly, the argument turns on what strikes me as an incredibly vague term: “transcendent realm.” What does this term mean and what does it refer to? Wartick never tells us, and again it’s such an important phrase that the lack of space is no excuse not to define it. Later in the article Wartick claims that “when millions of people say they have experienced a transcendent realm, prima facie it is rational to believe them.” This is the so-called principle of testimony. Now, I’ve no problem with the principle of testimony itself but Wartick is flat-out wrong to claim that people say they have experienced a “transcendent realm” (whatever that means). The literature on religious experiences is massive, but it’s rare to find people claiming to experience a “transcendent realm.” Christians typically claim to experience the grace of God or the love of Christ. Hindus claim to experience some sense of oneness with “the Real.” Mormons experience a burning in their bosom. And so it goes on. It seems to me that Wartick is taking massively diverse experiences and sticking them all in a box labelled “transcendent realm,” a term suitably vague to cover the fact that many of the experiences contained therein have precious little in common with each other, with many downright incompatible. Of course this is all before we address the thorny difficulty in moving from what some person claims to have experienced to what – if anything outside their own mind – they did experience.

Fourthly, the argument’s conclusion is also vague. The first premise is singular – when a person experiences something then they can prima facie trust their own experience. Then in premise 2 Wartick refers to people who have had experiences of the “transcendent realm.” However, in the conclusion he simply says “Therefore it is rational to believe there is a transcendent realm.” But who are we talking about in the conclusion? Are we talking of the people who have had such experiences? Or are we talking of those who haven’t had such experiences? Again Wartick doesn’t tell us, and again there’s no excuse for not doing so. Presumably it’s the latter since this is intended as an argument with powerful apologetic potential. However, in addition to adding to the argument’s invalidity, this presents further problems for the argument. Which brings me to…

Fifthly, the argument is of very limited use for those who have never had such experiences (and of course the argument is hardly necessary for those who have!). In the comments section of his article Wartick states: “[the ARE] may provide evidence to those who have not had the experience by way of the principle of testimony.” [Emphasis mine]. This is not nearly good enough! Surely any apologetic argument has to do a little bit more than maybe provide someone with some evidence, especially if we’re talking about incredibly powerful theistic arguments. The problem Wartick faces if he tries to make his argument conclude to something more specific than some ill-defined “transcendent realm,” is that religious experience is so diverse that it’s understandable that the skeptic will stand scratching his head wondering who on earth to believe. If he believes the Muslims, the Buddhists, the Christians, and all the various species of these faiths, to take him to belief in a “transcendent realm” it seems that he will have to rule out most of these experiences when it comes to believing in something more specific – say, a triune God, unless Wartick would suggest that the experiences of the Hindu are in some way evidence for the trinity? Are we to accept the Buddhist’s experiences as evidence for a transcendent reality only to rule them out later if we narrow the argument to the existence of a personal God? That sounds like a dubious pick and mix approach to me.

The principle of testimony which Wartick draws on is fairly uncontroversial and unproblematic in the world of physical reality, but it’s incredibly difficult to apply to otherworldly contexts in which there is widespread disagreement amongst those who claim to have had such experiences. This is the only objection to the ARE that Wartick actually addresses, albeit doing little more than glossing over it. Wartick rightly points out that claim X and claim Y don’t “cancel each other out.” True, but who is the skeptic to believe? For the person lacking any such experiences it’s understandable that he should throw his hands up in despair and join Hume in a game of backgammon. This isn’t to dismiss everyone’s experiences as false – though Wartick would have to overcome powerful psychological and cultural explanations for religious experience before he could construct a plausible argument – it’s simply to point out that such an argument faces massive difficulties in the diversity of reports of religious experiences.

Wartick’s example on this point concerns two people giving different descriptions of a murder suspect in court. The first describes the suspect as a “tall, dark male” and the other describes him as a “pale, short male.” Both descriptions could be correct from the point of view of the different people giving them. With this example I fear Wartick isn’t taking the differences in religious experiences nearly seriously enough. It’s more like having multiple witnesses: one claims he saw a tall man, another saw a group of teenaged girls, a third that a dog savaged the victim, a fourth that the man collapsed as if with a heart attack, and a fifth that he committed suicide. Wartick doesn’t deal with this problem except some waving and hand gesturing in the direction of “the relevant literature.” However, I wonder does Wartick believe the experiences of the following are veridical: Buddhists, Sufi Muslims, Hindus, Theravada Buddhists, Shamanists, Wiccans, Druids and Satanists. Do they all just experience God (or the transcendent realm or the Ultimate or the Real) from their own point of view, as his witness analogy would suggest? John Hick would’ve probably welcomed such a conclusion, but he was a pluralist – is Wartick?

In another article ( Wartick is much more modest about what the ARE can achieve: “it seems that we are justified in being open to the existence of things beyond the mundane, everyday objects we observe in the physical reality. If people from all times and places have had experiences of things beyond this everyday existence, then it does not seem irrational to remain at least open to the possibility of such things existing.” [Emphasis mine].

However this is now a long way from a powerful theistic argument. If in fact there is a powerful theistic argument from religious experience Wartick has done little to cast light on what exactly it is.

Stephen J Graham


Filed under Theism

2 responses to “The Most Powerful Theistic Argument?

  1. I’m trying to work out why you would spend so much time shooting fish in a barrel. After all, Wartick seems to enjoy shooting himself in the foot.

  2. To be honest I was trying to get him to state precisely what this most powerful theistic argument is, but as far as I know he has never since done so, or replied to any other point I made. I tagged him on Twitter when I published the article so he is aware if it.

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