Most of you probably know that I'm an atheist. However, I've had a few quite intense dreams which I'm tempted to describe as 'religious experiences' (though of course without any presumption that they actually had a supernatural cause!). They involve a quality of consciousness quite different from anything else I've ever experienced. It's very difficult to describe, but I'll try anyway...
To begin with, the experience is one of 'raw consciousness' - as if all the analytic (or in any way 'reflective') elements of my mind were completely shut down - though I guess that much is pretty standard for dreams. What's different is the religious feel to it all. You just know, with utter certainty, that you are in God's presence. There's a sense of power which surrounds you (more than that, surrounds everything; a ubiquitous power), besides which one is helpless and insignificant. Insignificant, but in awe. And so very, very contrite.
To give a specific example: I was sleeping in one Sunday morning, and the bells from the local church started chiming - I must have been only half-dozing, because I could hear them in my slumber. (Presumably that's what triggered the experience.) Suddenly I knew, with absolute certainty, that the world was coming to an end, 'rapture' style. Jesus was coming down to Earth to 'beam up' the Christians and punish everyone else. I distinctly remember thinking "Oh shit! I made the wrong choice..." This was all accompanied by the qualities of experience described above - the power, the insignificance, the awe. And, of course, the panicked apologies. (Did God listen? I don't recall. I don't think so, though. Maybe I woke up too soon to tell.)
Then I wake, the fog of slumber lifts, and I shake my head in amused disbelief. What remarkable hallucinations the sleeping brain can induce! What emotion! What fun! (A scary kind of fun, to be sure. But at least in retrospect, I would definitely rate these experiences positively.)
This raises a few questions for me. Firstly, has anyone else had an experience which sounds even remotely like this? Or anything else they would describe as a 'religious experience'? If so, please feel free to share it in the comments section - I must say I'm very curious about it all. (I often feel a sense of awe at the beauty of the natural world, e.g. when watching grass ripple in the wind. But that doesn't count. I mean 'religion' in the standard, supernatural sense; not the woolly 'anything mysterious or awe-inspiring' sense.)
Then there's the more philosophical question: Do such experiences in any way count as evidence towards God's existence? One might argue that just as positing a table is the best explanation for our conscious experience of tables, so positing a God is the best explanation for our religious experiences. But there are several crucial disanalogies.
For one thing, we usually only give credence to waking experiences. One might also dream of unicorns, that obviously doesn't make them real. But perhaps the unique conscious qualities make these dreams worth further consideration? The problem with that claim is that for a dream of mine to have unique conscious qualities is not a particularly unique event in itself. (I've had some other bizarre dreams, each with its own unique conscious qualities. Strange as it may sound, I'd even say there are some feelings/emotions that I've experienced only in dreams, and never in waking life.)
Moreover, I've heard that there is a particular part of our brains which can induce spiritual feelings when stimulated. (Interestingly, the form this experience takes apparently varies from culture to culture. A Christian will sense Jesus, a Buddhist Buddha, etc.) So, just as our visual centres give us visual hallucinations in our dreams, so might this religious centre give me a 'religious hallucination' (e.g. false sensations as if of God).
So a more interesting question would be whether waking religious experiences count as evidence favourable to theism. I'd really like to know more about this 'spiritual centre' in our brains. We know it can be artificially stimulated to give rise to religious 'hallucinations'. But what usually (I hesitate to say 'naturally') causes it to be stimulated? If we could identify a natural source, then religious sensations would be explained, so they would no longer motivate positing God's existence. We could instead conclude that all such experiences were just a sort of hallucination. Of course, it's always possible that God might supernaturally intervene with our neurochemistry to cause these effects, but that's clearly an inferior explanation to any science might provide.
As a further point of disanalogy between visual sensations and religious ones, note that the positing of tables (etc.) plays an indispensible role in our explanation of the world, whereas, I would argue, religious notions do not. There are two aspects to this claim. First is that discussed above, that we might soon have a plausible natural explanation of the religious sensations (especially if we can also explain the evolutionary origin of the brain's 'religion module' itself). Clearly there is no such alternative explanation for our everyday visual (and other) sensations.
Second, there simply is no making sense of the world without tables and chairs. They play a much broader role in providing us with a coherent understanding of the world, including the recombination of our various sensory modes. That is, our various different senses are mutually reinforcing - positing a table explains not only what I see, but also what I touch, and what I hear when I bang my fist against it, etc. Religious 'sensations', by contrast, don't seem to cohere as part of this broad framework. As isolated phenomena, we have much less reason to take them seriously.
So, although theists often cite 'personal experience' as evidence for their belief in God, I'm not actually convinced that such experiences (at least, of the sort discussed in this post) provide independent epistemic warrant at all. If theistic beliefs are presupposed then such experiences will no doubt reinforce them; much as a coincidental link between an event and a horoscope reading will reinforce the New-Ager's belief in astrology. But given the alternative explanations provided by science, it would be a mistake to take the apparent 'evidence' at face value.