if I were an ancient Greek, I would experience religious observances as involving the presence or the influence of Zeus and company. That does not mean that I would regard my experiences as having a sort of divine-presence quality to them and then, from the fact that I had experiences of this character, draw the conclusion that I had genuine experiences of divine presence. Such a manner of thinking would be a bizarre case of self-dissociation.He now has a shorter piece on the same subject, in which he argues that:
The issue of whether the ancient Greeks could have had good evidence of the existence of their gods comes down to the issue of whether a theistic explanation of their religious experiences can be a better explanation than any naturalistic one.It seems to me that experience is not evidence, that evidence is something like clues, and that direct experience is not so much a really good clue as no clue at all. If someone asks me what evidence I have that deer have been eating the berries in the garden, and I reply that I have seen them do it, then I am not supplying the evidence requested but insisting that there is no question of evidence. I don't need evidence, I have seen it with my own two eyes. (But according to Wikipedia evidence is "anything presented in support of an assertion," so maybe I'm wrong. In that case there could, it seems, be evidence that 2 + 2 =4. This sounds wrong to me, but perhaps does not to others.)
Experience is a funny thing. One thought about religious experience as evidence of the existence of Zeus (or any other deity) is that we might look for a correlation between the existence, or actions, of Zeus and the occurrence of religious experiences. But of course we can't do that. So in a way we have no evidence at all. Or we could ask what the most likely explanation is, and here we are in Hume-on-miracles territory. What are the odds that this phenomenon has a natural explanation, and what are the odds that it has a supernatural explanation? But we can't even guess at the latter, so this gets us nowhere. Those arguments from design that say, "The universe's being as it is statistically is like the various parts of a commercial jet being assembled into a working plane by a strong wind, therefore God exists," suffer from the same problem. Is God's existence more likely than that? How do you know? (It is a logical and ethical mistake, an error in grammar and theology, to think of the existence of God as a question of probabilities. This might become clearer if one tried to calculate the odds, although I think people have done this and not achieved the clarity I have in mind. In case it isn't clear, it's a mistake because it treats God as the same kind of thing as a fluke gust of wind, i.e. something whose odds we might calculate or at least estimate, i.e. as something natural, however super. To think of God this way is to misunderstand what believers believe in a way that is both simply wrong (that isn't what they believe) and insulting (it is to treat God as something less than what they believe). This is complicated by the fact that some believers (or "believers") are idolaters in just this way, but that isn't the kind of belief that interests me. There's also the question whether non-believers like me should care about the alleged badness of insulting God, but we can at least respect the feelings of believers. And I think we can respect the concept of God, too, and want to do justice to it.)
Religious experience is something like the feeling of absolute safety or that everything is (is going to be) all right. It's weird that experience can have propositional content, but it sort of does. There is some gap, a kind of elastic field between the experience and the description or verbal expression of it, but not much. You can't have one without the other. Perhaps one can feel that Zeus is in control. All's right with the world. This feeling might cause belief in Zeus. It might make it impossible for one to make sense of life without religion. But it doesn't prove anything or provide evidence of anything beyond itself. And once the experience has faded it is always possible (conceivable) that one might dismiss it and say, "What was I thinking?" That might be the only way to make sense of life too. It depends on one's life, on one's ability to make sense of things, and one's style or way of doing so. These are culturally and historically shaped, of course, but there's room for individual variation, at least in our culture. Not infinite variation though. Not belief in Zeus, for instance.