Religious belief is a very tricky business, Christian theologians and philosophers and atheists or non-believers have been debating on whether God exists for more than a thousand years based on various arguments e.g. the ontological argument, Kalam cosmological argument, the "Bible as the God's inspired word " argument, the argument on "historical" evidence, the argument from miracles, the argument from the unanswered prayer, the argument from the existence of evil etc . Yet despite thousands of books on the subject and numerous public and private debates through books, correspondence and now emails etc., neither are able to convince the other that they are absolutely right and sometimes, even on whether it is more likely than not that they are right and the opposite party probably wrong. One of the stumbling blocks for the Christians in accepting the arguments of the atheists is that they have what I would call an "irrational" belief that they "know" from personal experience that they "are" right. They claim to be guided in their belief by what they call "the Holy Spirit." To me, they may have fallen into a fallacy which I would call an "emotional fallacy": they mistake the strength of their emotional conviction that they "are right" with the strength of the force of their own arguments in favor of their belief. One of the prime examples of this is that of William Lane Craig, cited by former evangelical believer and minister John W Loftus in his book Why I Became an Atheist (2008) ("WIBA"), about which I have previously written. What follows is largely what Loftus wrote in the chapter entitled "The Self-Authenticating Witness of the Holy Spirit." (WIBA 213-227)
Craig, one of the staunchest and deepest of contemporary Christian apologists, said, "We know Christianity to be true by the self-authenticating witness of God's Holy Spirit...the witness, or testimony of the Holy Spirit is its own proof; it is unmistakable; it does not need other proofs to back it up; it is self-evident and attests to its own truth.". He agrees with Alvin Plantinga's argument that belief in God is a "properly basic" belief which does not require other proofs than itself and relies on Gal. 3:26; 4:6; Rom 8:15-16; 1 John 2:20, 26-27; 3:24; 5: 7-10 to argue "I would agree that belief in the God of the Bible is a properly basic belief, and emphasizes that it is the ministry of the Holy Spirit that supplies the circumstance for its proper basicality. And because this belief is from God, it is not merely rational, but definitely true." (Carl Sagan The Demon Haunted World 1996 9-10), Craig makes a distinction between knowing and showing that Christianity is true in that "knowing that Christianity is true" is the self-authenticating inner work of the Holy Spirit in Craig himself and others and needs no intellectual argument on its behalf because he simply "knows" that the Holy Spirit lives in his heart but "showing that Christianity is true" may require arguments but if so, his arguments can only show probabilities and plausibilities. He thinks that in the absence of any good and compelling reason to the contrary, he is entitled to believe in God and in the resurrection of Jesus Christ on the basis that he "knows" that Jesus is living in his heart and in his life (W. Craig & Gerd Ludemann Jesus' Resurrection: Fact or Figment 2000 65) . In so believing, he follows the tradition of Augustine, Anselm, even Barth and Bultmann. According to Wolfhart Pannenberg, the basis of German Protestant theology is the "self-authenticiating Word of God which demands obedience." (Revelation as History 1968 9). According to Loftus, Craig's position is equivalent to saying that since he knows he is right by virtue of the work of the Holy Spirit in himself, Christianity is true. In answer to a question by Mark Smith (www.jcnot4me.com), Craig said that had he been taken by a time machine back to the tomb of Jesus and Easter came without seeing the risen Jesus, he would still believe in Jesus' resurrection and remain a Christian and would in that case assume that a trick had been played upon him but he admitted to Dr. Zachary Moore in August 2007 that if presented with the real tomb of Jesus where Jesus was buried and his body was still there on Easter, then only be he not believe in his resurrection.
To Craig, the witness of the Holy Spirit "trumps all the other evidence." thus he writes that, "A believer who is too uninformed or ill-equipped to refute anti-Christian arguments is rational in believing on the grounds of the witness of the Spirit in his heart even in the face of such unrefuted objections. Even such a person confronted with what are for him unanswerable objections to Christian theism is, because of the work of the Holy Spirit, within his epistemic rights--nay, under epistemic obligation--to believe in God."( Steven B Cowan ed. Five Views on Apologetics 2000 35). He says, further, "for the person who has an immediate experience of God, who knows God exists, who knows God as a personal living reality in his life, such a person can know that God exists, even if he's not a philosopher and does not understand all these arguments, and so forth. God can be immediately known and experienced, Christ can be immediately known and experienced in your life today, and that is true even if you've never had the chance to examine the evidence."("Craig's Holy Spirit Epistemology" www.infidels.com). However, even though Muslims and Mormons also claim to have the witness of God in their hearts, Craig denies that they could have the same "self-authenticating Holy Spirit". All he would concede, with William Alston, is that their claims are "partially true" because they had "a veridical experience of God as the Ground of Being on whom we creatures are dependent, or as the Moral Absolute from whom values derive, or even as the loving Father of mankind." (ibid 36). This seems a most unusual view. Why can't the others say the same about Craig's own alleged "self-authenticating Holy Spirit". As Michael Martin says, if we accept Craig's argument, the billions of others who have not had that experience must be telling lies when they claim they never had his kind of experience. Surely this must be wrong. To Loftus, "the evidence of billions of sincere nonbelievers is evidence that there is no inner Holy Spirit witness" of the alleged truth of Christianity. It seems to me that Craig's so-called "self-authenticating evidence" is self-authenticating only to himself and those who think like him. How can he cite as evidence in support of his own argument by using the very evidence whose acceptability is being challenged?! This is a "circular argument". His view is quite typical of the "exclusivity" of Christian way of thinking.
Richard Swinburne also argues that "Just as you must trust your five ordinary senses, so it is equally rational to trust your religious sense." (Is There a God 1996 132).. However David Steele thinks that a distinction must be drawn between the sensing of a tree in a garden and sensing the presence of God. In the former case, the perception is clearer and more certain but the object of religious perception are much vaguer and a lot less well-defined and more culturally molded than any object in the realm of common sense knowledge (Atheism Explained (AE) 108) Although many people have described as "experiences of God", "of Heaven", "peak experiences", "mystical experiences", "experience of oneness with the cosmos" or "transcendental experiences". But different cultures will explain such "religious experiences" very differently and the quality of the relevant religious experience may itself be partly determined by any prior interpretation. (AE 109) Thus no Buddhist would describe what in their meditation, he/she experiences as "experiences of God" because Buddhism rejects belief in God and people raised within a Buddhist tradition just do not think in terms of God. Roman Catholics routinely report religious experiences in which they perceive the Blessed Virgin Mary whereas Protestants, Jews, Muslims and Zoroastrians never report anything remotely like that and in earlier societies, belief in witches was prevalent and in such societies, people will frequently report that they have directly felt the baleful influence of witches. But in cultures where there is no such belief, there are no such reports..
Loftus has other questions about Craig's position. Even if we were to accept Craig's position, there are still many unresolved questions: Does Craig's "inner Holly Spirit" entail believing in all the traditional Christian doctrines and if so, how can we be sure that his understanding of things like God's foreknowledge, predestination, eschatology and Calvinism are correct? Are his specific views on such things as the deity of Christ, baptism, atonement, the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the grave and his second coming all correct? What is the specific content of this alleged self-authentification from the Holy Spirit? What makes him so sure that he "really" has the Holy Spirit working in him? We do know that there are very many different theological disagreements amongst various sects of Christianity who all claim that they have got it right. Whose understanding is right and whose wrong? To say that God exists is not sufficient. What must a believer understand about God? To say that God authored the Bible does not say anything about how he did so, whether a believer should be a conservative or a liberal etc.
Craig obviously thinks that his "self-authenticating" religious experience originates from the Christian God. But there can be other alternative natural explanations of how religious experience may have come about. Religious experience may very well be a "wish fulfillment" exercise. According to J. L. Schellenberg, "we know that people could be having religious experiences whether or not anything supernatural is there or not...since wish fulfillment frequently does lead to universal experiences," we may doubt whether or not the supernatural was involved in the experiences in question. Besides, since our knowledge is always finite, none of us can exclude the possibility of our being wrong (Os Guinness In Two minds: The Dilemma of Doubt and How to Resolve it 1976 41-43). All philosophers since Descartes know that all sense data can be doubted because they do not allow us to experience the real world in and of itself. There is simply no rational and objectively corroboratable basis upon which Craig can be sure that he has not made any mistake in believing that his personal religious experience may be that of the Holy Spirit. All we have are his "subjective feeling" that it is so.Whilst we may accept that someone who reports having a specific experience actually had that experience and that he is honest in claiming that the did have that experience, that is not proof that it is not an "imagined" experience.
Many people believe that the more vivid their experience, the more likely it is that it is true. Scientists have taught us that people who has taken psychedelic drugs like LSD or had particular parts of their brain touched by electric probes, may equally report very vivid experiences, whether visual or aural, and psychotics may also have such vivid experiences. The fact that a person believes very strongly that he has perceived God or the Blessed Virgin or some other angels etc is not sufficient to prove that they "really" encountered God or the Blessed Virgin or angels etc. In all such cases, all they may really be "experiencing" are merely certain "feelings" or a "vague sense" of an "unusual" emotion which they do not normally have. There is no independent evidence that such a "feeling" is actually caused by an external being whom they believe to be their "God". Psychiatrists describe such "belief" without any basis in objective reality as an "illusion" or a "delusions" or a "hallucinations". What we need is independent corroboration are "observable indications within the physical world". The evidence from the description of those who claim to have experienced God seem to suggest that such people wish really hard or otherwise is compulsively pretending to have an experience which their religion has taught them is meritorious to experience or of getting a thrill out of daringly affirming something evidently untrue.
In conclusion, when people claim that they have "experienced" God directly, it is entirely possible that they are reporting something which they "believe" is true because they have been taught that it is good to have such an experience e.g. that they are specially favored by God, that God has taken pity on him and he has been visited by the grace of God etc. Even if they thus "experienced" the so-called "reality" of God in their hearts, it is not certain what attributes of God they have thus "experienced". It is certainly unacceptable to claim as Craig does, that his own experience is its own justification and is "self-authenticated" because of a second belief, namely that the author of such an experience is what they believe is their Christian God. Basing one untested belief upon another untested belief is hardly the way to go to prove the "existence" of God. It is entirely subjective and there are grounds to doubt the contents of such experience, even if the described religious "really" occurred in the mind of the one who reported having experienced it.