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Who is GM Skeptic

Genetically Modified Skeptic is the name of a very popular YouTube Channel (487K subscribers as of March 2022) and also the alias of his owner, Drew McCoy, an American atheist YouTuber who makes videos about atheism, responses to religious videos, and has also criticized alternative medicine (source).

GM Skeptic is special among popular atheist YouTubers because he not only is a former Evangelical Christian, he also claims to have had a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ" and plenty of "personal spiritual experiences" prior to his deconversion. On August 19, 2018, he uploaded a video titled My Personal Experience with God (As an Atheist) (~ 220K views). The description reads:

I'm an atheist, but I've personally experienced God in the same way that many religious people have. I left Christianity and my "personal relationship with Jesus Christ" a while back even though I had those experiences, and I think I have good reasons for that. The argument from personal experience is thrown at me often, so I wanted to have this on the record, as well as explain why personal experience isn't evidence for god.


Summary of the argument in the video

In simple words, GM Skeptic argues that:

  • Over a century of Psychology & Neuroscience research on religious experiences can provide a naturalistic explanation for these sorts of experiences. Religious experiences are simply the result of brain activity under special circumstances.
  • People from different religions experience very intense and religion-specific spiritual experiences with their own respective deities. These religions cannot all be true at the same time, because they contradict each other on several key points. Therefore, this shows that personal spiritual experiences do not constitute proof of the veracity of a given religion. Otherwise, we would need to conclude that mutually contradictory religions are true at the same time, which is a logical contradiction.
  • Therefore, personal spiritual experiences are unreliable, and should be dismissed entirely as supportive evidence for religious claims.

Question

For Latter-day Saints, spiritual experiences play a very important role in the confirmation of the veracity of their beliefs (e.g. see Has any Latter-day Saint published a very detailed description of how the Holy Spirit confirmed to them the truth of the BofM, as per Moroni 10:3-7?).

How do Latter-day Saints rebut GM Skeptic's argument against the epistemic value of personal spiritual experiences?


Related questions


Appendix - transcript of relevant excerpts from the video

0:00:

I was raised Christian fundamentalist and have only been an atheist for about two and a half years. Hopefully my regular viewers all know that by now. I believed it all fervently. I wasn't the kid that always had their doubts and asked too many questions in Sunday school and got kicked out for it. I was a leader in my church youth group. I prayed constantly. I studied the Bible diligently and I evangelize to any of my acquaintances who weren't Christian. Most of all, I had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ ... or, so I thought ...

A major part of my Christian life was personally experiencing and interacting with God. Some but not all atheists I know say they've never experienced anything they felt was supernatural even when they were religious. But, I have, and I want to take you through the story of a deeply meaningful experience I had, tell you what it meant to me then, and tell what it means to me now.

3:37:

[...] and suddenly I wasn't alone in the room. Something intense swept over me. God's presence was there and I was overcome with indescribable peace. Time became imperceptible and my sense of self was stripped away. I was meeting with God. No words were needed to communicate what happened from there. I was to become more open, more vulnerable, more compassionate. God would allow me to feel emotion like I never had before for a few days from that point on [...]

4:56:

As unique or life-changing as that experience sounds, it's far from the only one I've ever had. I actually had to choose between several experiences I could tell you guys about for this video. Growing up how I did, those moments were definitely special but they weren't uncommon. The presence of God was something I felt pretty often. Not always in huge miraculous ways but also in still small ways that felt like the comfort from a close friend. I mean, I had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. If I hadn't felt like he was there with me sometimes then, I wouldn't have ever called it a relationship.

To run through just a few other spiritual experiences I've had, I asked God for wisdom like King Solomon's at 9 years old and he told me it would come through him as I got older. As a preteen I rededicated my life to Christ and I felt him at the church alter with me. At church camp I felt God in the room with me more than I could feel people there. In high school I intensively studied apologetics so I could effectively share the gospel with my acquaintances who were unsaved and God met me multiple times in that process. During college, I even had experiences much more intense than the one I described here. The point is, I've had a lot of powerful personal experiences with God in my life. So, why then am I an atheist?

The answer is my view of personal experience. See a few years ago a lot of people I knew started using and selling essential oils. A lot of them claimed that the oils cured medical issues of theirs like chronic migraines, heart diseases and even cancer, and that oils could do the same for other people. I found that there was no research showing that essential oils could do any of those things, and those selling them actually admitted as much. They believed oils could do those miraculous things based solely on their personal experiences.

I was studying scientific methodology at that time and I learned that reliable scientific medical studies always test one factor at at time by putting certain controls in place which allow researches to rule out the placebo effect, the effects of other medications, dietary and exercise changes, etc. That way the really know what caused the effects they observed. I realized that people claiming they know what essential oils do based on their personal experience didn't have a leg to stand on. What they experienced could have been and more likely was effects of factors they didn't account for. That realization led me to stand pretty firmly against essential oils and a lot of other types of alternative medicine. After all, they were using them as medicine and making huge parts of their lives based on nothing but unreliable personal experiences ... and then ... it hit me. My personal experiences with God strengthened my faith, but were they any more reliable than others' personal experiences with essential oils? Probably not.

I went on to learn that psychologists have been studying religious experiences for over a century. They've found that experiences of the supernatural had certain triggers, like music, large crowds, extended exercise, meditative states, sensory deprivation, drugs, sleep, food & water deprivation, and much much more. Scientists have even tracked brain activity during supernatural experiences and have seen predictable patterns. Many of which can be even replicated with electrical and chemical stimulation. After that I learned about the religious experiences of those of other faiths. Apparently people of basically every religion on the planet have reported experiences very similar to my own. Personally sensing and interacting with one's own deity is a universal experience regardless of the deity that one worships. People even have unique religion-specific experiences in religions which actively contradict other faiths. For instance, Pentecostals experience the baptism in the Holy Spirit or speaking in tongues, meanwhile Pentecostalism claims to be the only true religion which allows for actual connection to God. Many Muslims, however, experience a connection to Allah during prayer, in which they're bathed in a green light, green being a sacred color in Islam. Meanwhile, Islam claims to be the only true religion which allows for actual connection to God. Because of the exclusive nature of these religions, they can't both be right. One or both of them must be mistaken about the origins of their own divine experiences.

At a certain point, after learning all of this for myself, I ran through the implications of what I discovered. Maybe my experiences were real, but I hadn't controlled for any of the influences on me so I couldn't be sure what I felt was a result of something supernatural. Maybe they were real but they happened in meditative states which are known to cause brain activity, which scientists can both predict and replicate with natural means. Maybe they were real but people of religions that contradicted my own had experienced things just as real and religion-specific as I had. Maybe they were real, but I had no valid reason to think they were supernatural, and every reason to think they were natural. I could no longer be honest with myself and say that I had good reason to believe that my experiences, however powerful, were anything divine. I was dishonest to continue to think that my experiences were special while all others in different religions were most likely just a product of the mind. While that realization disappointed me in a way, it also taught me that all I need to create amazing self-transcending experiences is my brain. In fact, I've had experiences like that since becoming an atheist and they were just as powerful all while being completely naturalistic.

In my deconversion, I lost nothing and gained a greater understanding of the human condition than I had previously. Honestly, I'm glad I experienced what I did as a Christian so that I can know exactly what religious people mean when they talk about supernatural experiences. And ... if nothing else, I love that when a Christian asks me if I've ever experienced what it's like to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, I can honestly say "yes".

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    Sorry, but I don't think your recent questions like this are productive. There's an uncountable number of ways that Christians can respond.
    – curiousdannii
    Mar 8 at 2:26
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    Yes perhaps, or perhaps not. Let GM Skeptic do their thing. Let others do their own thing. Talk to real people and when they have their own personal concerns, then think about what a Christian response may be. Debates between strangers on the internet are rarely useful.
    – curiousdannii
    Mar 8 at 2:28
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    He's using personal experience to try to discredit the value of personal experience. This may work as a "shock & awe" or scare-tactic, but as a logical argument it is circular. Mar 8 at 2:38
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    As I said originally, there are uncountable ways to respond. That link doesn't really explain things to me either, sorry. It seems to me that one non-Christian is sharing the experiences of another non-Christian to a third person (you), who I don't know the actual spiritual state of but appears to be a relative outsider to Christianity, who then asks other Christians how they'd respond to the non-Christian the original person shared. Whatever answers this question gets, I don't think it will help you actually learn very much. It's just too convoluted.
    – curiousdannii
    Mar 8 at 3:09
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    I think a lot of your questions should be asked in person. I think it's much better to get answers when you can observe their lives. Text is very limited, and this site aims to be rather impersonal, and many of the things you ask about are subjective, hard to reason about, and even hard to describe and be self-reflective about. Christian experience is important, but it is lived, not dictated. I can't describe much of my experience to you, but if we knew each other in real life, then you could observe me. I think many of your questions would find answers by observing the lives of Christians.
    – curiousdannii
    Mar 8 at 3:18

2 Answers 2

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Logical fallacies

This argument commits:

  • Circular reasoning--personal experience is used as a premise to argue for a conclusion about the validity of personal experience
  • Self-refutation--personal experience is used as evidence to show that personal experience is not valid evidence
  • Fallacy of division--GM Skeptic states: Because of the exclusive nature of these religions, they can't both be right -- if we grant that this statement is true, it does not mean that everything taught within these religions is false.
  • Third-cause fallacy - as already noted by depperm, GM Skeptic appeals to correlation and suggests it requires causation. (Furthermore, explaining how something happens does not necessarily explain why something happens)

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Doctrinal disagreements

  • Spirit is matter: the suggestion that something "spiritual" behaves like matter is not a problem for Latter-day Saint beliefs. "There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes" (D&C 131:7)
  • Ask & ye shall receive: we don't believe that revelation is intended to be mystical; we believe it is intended to be instructive, and that God answers questions. See an example of this argument here: Quality Revelation Comes From Asking Quality Questions (note this is not an official church source). A response like "yes!" makes a lot more sense if it's clear what the question was.
  • God is no respecter of persons: we believe God is willing to witness of the truth to all who are willing to seek Him. We are not surprised by spiritual experiences in other faiths; we believe there are elements of truth therein, even if they do not have the fulness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ:

5 If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.

6 But let him ask in faith (James 1:5-6a)

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Epistemological Musings

All evidence of any form rests upon a foundation of experiential evidence. Whether that evidence came from an equation, a machine, or human senses, take it back a few steps and you’ll end up with a human mind. A human mind developed the mathematical axioms and the machine, and a human mind interpreted information presented by the senses.

We cannot get around experiential evidence. Those who suggest it be excluded from consideration discard their own worldviews along with those of their opponents. Even the claim that something should be trusted because it is reliable is an appeal to experiential evidence.

One of the strengths and weaknesses of experiential evidence is that one individual's experience is not directly accessible to other individuals. If someone else appeals to experiential evidence I may not know if the claim is true or false; this is one reason why aggregators like language and scientific inquiry are so powerful. Language allows people to convey their experiences using mutually understood symbols (like words). Scientific inquiry calls for outlining a process that can be repeated, allowing others to learn--through the experience of testing--what someone else has already learned.

I am not the least bit bothered by the possibility that someone may claim an experience that wasn't real, or may interpret an experience incorrectly--just like I'm not bothered by the possibility that language is sometimes misinterpreted or that good scientific practice sometimes leads to erroneous conclusions that are later overturned. But if the reliability of anything flowing through experiential evidence is subject to error, how can we be sure of anything?

2nd best method: Induction. If something is repeatable, with successive iterations we can raise our level of confidence.

Best method: Reasoning in the absolute. One who can reason in the absolute can rule out all competing possibilities (we fallible mortals cannot do this). If there is an Omniscient & Omnipotent Being who can reason in the absolute, information learned from Him would be epistemologically superior to anything learned from sources that cannot reason in the absolute. The claim that I have learned something by revelation from God would be the most secure statement epistemologically possible for a non-omniscient being (such as myself) to make.

A claim that is one step removed from Someone who can reason in the absolute is epistemologically inferior--that is, between:

  1. Abraham says he met with God
  2. God says He met with Abraham

Both statements may describe the same incident, but claim 2 is epistemologically superior.

For the same reason, any epistemological claims made by other people--supporting or opposing the existence of God--will never be so powerful as obtaining that answer directly from the source. A Being that has all power would necessarily be able to make Himself known unmistakably. I claim that He has.



Disclaimer--these thoughts are the product of my own study and do not constitute official statements by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

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    Truly great answer. +1 :)
    – Rajesh
    Mar 9 at 6:20
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    I agree. Excellent answer, +1 and check mark :-) Mar 9 at 8:22
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    Regarding the fallacies: he had a personal experience which he found compelling at the time, but no longer finds compelling and now considers to be explicable through natural means. That doesn't disprove (nor attempt to disprove) anyone else's experience, but it does raise the question of how we can know the personal experiences of anyone else is reliable (especially given that many of those experiences happened under very similar circumstances as his). It's like flipping a coin to show that coin flips are unreliable: that's sufficient to distrust coin flips until someone proves theirs works.
    – NotThatGuy
    Mar 10 at 19:06
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    No matter how many personal experiences we read about or experience ourselves, ultimately belief is a choice. The difference between me and GM Skeptic, at its core, doesn't have much to do with experiences. Any experience can be explained away by someone who doesn't want to believe it. The difference comes down to what we've decided – what we've decided to believe, and what we've decided to go and do. Experiences support those decisions, but they can't make decisions for us. Our ability to choose is a God-given gift that he will not violate. Mar 13 at 19:22
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On GM Skeptic's main argument seems to be that religious experiences are simply the result of brain activity under special circumstances

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe that God follows natural laws (including scientific/natural)1.

From Articles of Faith, by James E Talmage:

Miracles are commonly regarded as supernatural occurrences, taking place in opposition to the laws of nature. Such a conception is plainly erroneous, for the laws of nature are inviolable. However, as human understanding of these laws is at best but imperfect, events strictly in accordance with natural law may appear contrary thereto. The entire constitution of nature is founded on system and order

So even if* spiritual experiences are explained by science/brain chemistry, that does not degrade it as a spiritual experience, it would mean man is seeing how God works.


*With the above said it is also important to not fall victim to logical fallacies. Correlation does not mean causation (irregular/unique brain chemistry with spiritual experiences does not necessarily mean one caused the other).

There is also the modus ponens argument2

  1. If it is likely that spiritual experiences are the result of material spirits working on material humans, then it is likely that spiritual experiences are not the result of merely neurochemical reactions.
  2. It is likely that spiritual experiences are the result of material spirits working on material humans
  3. Therefore, it is likely that spiritual experiences are not the result of mere neurochemical reactions.

On the statement that:

People from different religions experience very intense and religion-specific spiritual experiences with their own respective deities. These religions cannot all be true at the same time, because they contradict each other on several key points.

The LDS church believe:

  • Anyone (non-LDS included) can feel the Holy Ghost and/or receive answers to prayers (see related answer)
  • they(the LDS church) have the whole truth, this does not mean there isn't truth other places3
  • Good things come from God, and can be found all over (Moroni 7:12-19)

Therefore, personal spiritual experiences are unreliable, and should be dismissed entirely as supportive evidence for religious claims.

Is a fairly ridiculous argument. If your phone/internet/transportation service is unreliable do you dismiss it entirely as a possible service or understand why it is unreliable?

1 2 Nephi 2:13-14

2 FAIR apologist site (unofficial source)

3 What is Truth, 2 Nephi 28:30

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    – Ken Graham
    Mar 14 at 4:15

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