Imagine a teenager who falls into a deep infatuation with a particular actor or musician. Many of us have gone through this experience. We want so bad to have a relationship with the celebrity that we build mental walls that deflect and distort the reality of the actual odds of ending up with the object of our infatuation. We then wallow in all the warm and fuzzy emotions that wash over us. Emotions are powerful distorters of reality. Consider the Muslim child who, in the context of beautiful music, a majestic mosque, and the warm proximity of family, feels such immense joy and peace wash over them that they know with full certainty that Allah is the only true God. Though many understand or suspect that their emotions are an illegitimate validator of what is true, many others invoke the intensity of their emotions as confirmation that the beliefs those emotions accompany are indeed true. Sometimes they suppose that the emotions they feel are qualitatively different than the emotions felt by followers of other Gods. And if they do recognize as qualitatively equivalent their own emotional experience and the emotional experiences of believers in other Gods, they can’t imagine anyone having the same intensity of joy and peace they themselves are experiencing. Is this not similar to how many of us felt the first time we fell in love? We could not imagine anyone else having such salient feelings of “true” love. Would we discover any actual differences between the peace and joy of the Lord we feel and the peace and joy allegedly given by other Gods to their believers?
Mormons testify, with eyes moist with emotions, of a “burning in the bosom” that validates their beliefs. Muslims frequently invoke the joy and peace they feel is validation of the truth of Islam. Religions the world over boast individuals who would unflinchingly die for their beliefs, confident in the wonderful peace and joy their respective God has granted them. Nearly every major religion employs powerful visual and auditory devices such as art, architecture and music to evoke powerful emotions. Human touch is added to many of these contexts to provide a deep sense of love, belonging and unity. The result is invariably an intense peace and joy that surpasses all understanding, and can then be attributed to the God of that culture.
This amazing peace and joy can also be experienced in private as the believer communes with their God in the reading of a beautiful holy book, through earnest prayer and through glorifying worship. And if this peace and joy is powerful enough, any incoherencies within the actual doctrines of the religion will not be enough to compel the happy believer to abandon their beliefs.
What does it take to defend against the false notion that emotions constitute evidence of the truth of our beliefs? Though exceedingly difficult for many, a commitment to following the actual evidence and arguments apart from any emotional considerations seems to be the only defense.
The Bible claims the witness of the Holy Spirit is the legitimate determinant of our confidence we are children of God. Presumably, this is accomplished through the transference by God of some sensation to our psyches. Consider the following verses:
The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.
And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
According to these verses, the Spirit of God has clearly been given as a way for Christians to verify that they are truly children of God.
However, there is an intrinsic incoherency within this notion. If the Holy Spirit is the mechanism through which we validate our spiritual status, we must then validate the authenticity of that Holy Spirit. If a letter from Mom says her friend Frank will be sent to assist you, you’ll need to verify that the guy ringing your doorbell is indeed the Frank Mom sent. And if a second guy shows up vouching for the notion that the door-ringer is Frank, we’ll need to verify that this second guy is telling the truth, perhaps through the testimony of a third guy who will also need to be vouched for…ad infinitum.
So we can not claim we have a validating Holy Spirit upon which we can depend as a mechanism to accurately communicate our spiritual status unless we have a reliable second mechanism to verify the reliability of that alleged Holy Spirit. And that second mechanism will itself require a third mechanism to establish its reliability, which will, in turn, require a fourth validating mechanism…ad infinitum.
In the end, we will realize that the only legitimate way to assess the truth of a claim is through the methods of scientific inquiry rather than through unwarranted confidence in an alleged Holy Spirit providing a confidence which can not be causally traced back to a substantiated Holy Spirit. If we are truly God’s children, that will need to be determined through the mechanism of rational inquiry rather than through a feeling of confidence we are attributing to a Holy Spirit that is indistinguishable from our emotions.
Concerning this problem, it is reasonable to consult the cognitive scientists and psychologists who are studying the fragile human brain. Much of what we intuitively assume about our minds and of our mental ability to sort out our common emotions from any coherent “sensus divinitatis” (sense of divinity) turns out to be quite misaligned with reality in many cases.
(See also “Supplementary H”.)