I have been having a rather rambling discussion over at the ‘A-Unicornist’ blog with Mike (who made one brief comment here. Sort of) about whether a person could reasonably come to the conclusion that Christianity is true by an examination of the evidence. Unfortunately, like many discussions, it has quickly gone from trying to establish a few basic points clearly to a scatter-shot of considerations that are virtually impossible to consider in brief series of postings. I always love when I am accused of not being rational by someone employing an array of red herrings, strawmen, and non-sequitors.
Nonetheless, there is coherence enough there to discern a few ideas – one idea that seems to appear frequently in Mike’s responses is the idea of the ‘Sensed-Presence Effect‘. For those of you not familiar with it (Mike seems to throw it out there irrelevant to context or the particular idea being considered) it is a vaguely documented experience whereby a person seems to sense the presence of another person or entity when no one else is physically there. It may take the form of someone watching them, particularly when going through some extreme circumstance or prolonged isolation. Mike doesn’t articulate it clearly, but it seems to be his way of dealing with the Christian belief in the Holy Spirit (oddly, he even does this when no mention is actually made of the Holy Spirit).
Since it seems to be so frequent a reference there (which he apparently adopted from claims of the atheists he reads) I thought it worthwhile topic consider apart from the flak flying there.
First I think it would be important to consider a few Scriptural references to people experiencing the Holy Spirit. The first mention of this in this amongst believers is in the books of Acts – it goes as follows:
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Now I think one could question whether this event actually happened, or was made up after the fact. Or one could think that it was a group delusion of sorts, with everyone convinced they had experienced something they hadn’t. I have reasons for thinking otherwise, but what is relevant in this case is that what it couldn’t have been is a Sensed-Presence Effect. There is no isolation, no vague sense of another person being present in the room being chronicled here – it an explosive event, with an overwhelming sense of something otherworldly, not a vague sense of someone merely watching or standing by. So explaining the Holy Spirit away utilizing this argument won’t work here. Here is another instance, with the Apostle Paul’s conversion:
In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!” “Yes, Lord,” he answered.
The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.” “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”
But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
one might question the historical veracity of this passage. What one couldn’t sensibly do is claim this is an instance of a Sensed-Presence Effect. There is no indeterminate sense of another presence, no notion that some entity is there to guide and help. The persons in these events have a definite sense of purpose and direction, and their experience is shared between multiple individuals. So the Effect doesn’t apply here.
What about today, with modern Christians? I don’t know what every Christian experiences, but I have talked to Christians around the world, in a wide variety of cultures, from a wide variety of backgrounds, and they all seem to share certain characteristics:
- Clarity of purpose, renewal, and a sense of peace
- A sense of conviction, or discernment about choices that are contrary to God’s will and God’s moral precepts
- An ability to understand Scripture in a way one wasn’t able to previous to having the presence of the Holy Spirit in one’s life
- A sense of personal unity with others who share the Holy Spirit
Those are a few commonalities that seemed to be shared – there are probably more I have overlooked. Nonetheless, taken as a whole these don’t seem anything like the Sensed Presence Effect described in literature. It is no mere feeling of someone watching or guiding one in isolation or under duress, but instead a specific collection of experiences with definite parameters collectively experienced in a wide variety of circumstances across cultures and history.
In short, one might have reason to be skeptical the Holy Spirit exists, but it can’t be explained away Mike and other atheists are attempting to.