Can an Atheist Have a Religious Experience?

Can an Atheist Have a Religious Experience?

The obvious and uninteresting answer is no. An atheist cannot have a religious experience as long as the terms “atheism” and “religious” retain their common meaning. 

That is, so long as “atheism” designates the absence of belief in God, and the supernatural and “religious” refers to some reality that transcends the natural world, then it is not possible for an atheist to have a religious experience. 

However, having laid out the blunt and uninteresting answer, the following considers the question from a different angle. 

Specifically, I consider the possibility of atheistic religious experiences by using the model of how metaphors work as a way to preserve the disbelief of the atheist and the religiosity of an “atheistic religious experience.” 

To begin, let us imagine an atheist. Call him Joe. Joe was raised in an Evangelical Christian household in the Midwest. 

He attended church throughout his childhood, attended the standard church camps and mission trips, and by all accounts—his own included—he took his faith quite seriously. 

So seriously, in fact, that upon entering college, he elected to major in religion in the hopes of one day going into the ministry. 

However, as many religion professors can attest, this dream often ends in tears and an existential crisis as the academic study of religion is frequently toxic to sincere but naïve faith. 

Upon discovering the numerous inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the Bible, the reality that much of Christianity’s purported history borders on pure fiction, not to mention the ravenous destruction of human life wrought by Christians over the centuries and the seeming logical inconsistencies entailed in everything from the trinity to theodicy, Joe abandons his faith, drops his religion major, establishes the college’s Young Atheists’ Club, and becomes a philosophy major. 

Years later, Joe, now a professor of analytic philosophy, has what he can only describe, much to his chagrin, as a religious experience. 

We might, for this thought experiment, simply lift directly from an actual experience recounted by another Joe: Joseph Carpenter, the Principal of Manchester College, Oxford, from 1914 to 1919. In a letter to a friend, Carpenter wrote: “I went out one afternoon for a walk alone…

Suddenly I became conscious of the presence of someone else. I cannot describe it, but I felt that I had as direct perception of the being of God all around me as I have of you when we are together. 

It was no longer a matter of inference, it was an immediate act of spiritual (or whatever adjective you want to employ) apprehension. 

It came unsought, absolutely unexpectedly…This experience did not last long. But it sufficed to change all my feeling.”1 As with the real-life Joseph Carpenter, our Joe did not seek out this experience. He had, in fact, self-consciously repudiated any such possibility. 

Let us imagine, moreover, that as a scholar, he had, in lectures and in his writing, publically denounced such experiences. Despite all of this, our Joe is unable to dismiss the experience—try as he might—and reluctantly comes to only one conclusion: he had a religious experience. 

Nonetheless, Joe insists that he remains an intransigent atheist. There are basically two ways to understand Joe’s situation and his “atheistic religious experience.” On the one hand, Joe is either simply ignorant and/ or straightforwardly irrational. 

On the other hand, if we give credence to his claims regarding his experience and his identification of its so-called “religious” nature, as well as his insistence that he remains an atheist, it would seem that we must reconsider the meaning of the terms “atheist” and “religious experience” in order to allow for both with respect to his experience. 

But this is precisely to go against what was set out in the opening paragraph. It changes the terms. But, perhaps, there is a third way. Joe’s atheistic religious experience brings together two things that typically do not appear in conjunction with one another: an atheist and a religious experience. 

Note the familiar structure of the atheistic religious experience: the conjoining of two dissimilar things to yield an interpretive quandary—this is the structure of a metaphor. 

Thus, rather than compromising the religiousness of the experience or the atheism of the atheist, the atheistic religious experience can be understood as a metaphor. 

This is not to say that it is a metaphor for something else. Rather, it itself is an instance of a metaphor. A popular explanation of how metaphors work suggests that they generate meaning through the interaction of their linguistic parts. 

The result is some new meaning that transcends either of the individual linguistic elements. Thus, when we say “the sea is a cruel mistress” we do not literally mean that a large body of water is an angry lover. 

Rather, the interaction between “sea” and “cruel mistress” generates a third meaning that both transcends and preserves the original meaning of each word. 

In a similar fashion, an atheistic religious experience transcends “atheism” and “religious experience” to generate a third way of framing the experience. This interpretation necessarily preserves the conceptual integrity of “atheism” and “religious experience” while simultaneously transcending them. 

Moreover, like metaphors, there is no need to take the experience literally, and thus there is no threat to the atheism of the atheist or the religiosity of the religious experience. As with metaphors, its meaning is not operative at the level of logic, but rather at a level more akin to aesthetics. 

That is, we do not value metaphors for their logical consistency, but rather for their aesthetic and/or emotional power. 

In short, the atheistic religious experience can have meaning and value in the way a work of art has meaning and value without explanatory recourse to the supernatural that might compromise its atheism or to the logic of scientism that might compromise its religiosity. 

The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur claimed that metaphors are characterized by the dialectic of “event” and “meaning.” By this, he meant that metaphors are an experience. This experience is marked by the tension between literal firstorder reference (event) and second-order poiesis (making or creating) whereby meaning emerges. 

Thus, considered as metaphor, the atheistic religious experience confounds first-order reference inasmuch as God’s existence is denied, and yet meaning arises in the event as a second-order affective experience which preserves the first-order logic that rejects belief in God while simultaneously rendering second-order value that is, as Monroe Beardsley described it, a “logical absurdity.”2

What is logically absurd nonetheless has meaning and value. For example, the metaphor “men are pigs” is a logical absurdity (or perhaps not). 

While there may be ways that men can be considered pig-like—dirty, smelly, etc.—such a list would not finally and absolutely explain the metaphor and wring from it all of its meaning any more than a thorough description of Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night” would equal the painting. 

What then, to use Beardsley’s phrase, is the “metaphorical twist” that arises from the atheistic religious experience? The answer lies in the arena of the aesthetic. 

The “twist” of the metaphor “atheistic religious experience” is an aesthetic disclosure of meaning or value. 

In much the same way that we might declare that the meaning of the metaphor “war is hell” rests in the visceral, emotional sense it conveys—thereby eliding the question of truth—we can similarly declare that the meaning, the twist, of an atheist having a religious experience lies in its emotional, affective tenor. 

Or, to return to Paul Ricoeur, “Does not the tension that affects the copula in its relational function also affect the copula in its existential function? 

This question contains the key to the notion of metaphorical truth.”3 The tension between atheism and religious experience yields non-discursive, and non-translatable, the existential meaning conveyed and realized in and as the aesthetic twist of metaphor. 

I have not indicated what an atheistic religious experience might be a metaphor for, only that it bears the signature of a metaphor. 

That is, it has a metaphorical structure. In his book Metaphor and Art, Carl Hausman writes, “A metaphorical expression functions so that it creates its significance, thus providing new insight, through designating a unique extralinguistic and extra-conceptual referent that had no place in the intelligible world before the metaphor was articulated.”4

If we accept this, we see that it is impossible to ultimately say what an atheistic religious experience might be a metaphor for because, unlike verbal signification, every instance will create significance unique to each individual. 

The significance need not be communicable via a stable linguistic referent, as it is fundamentally experiential and not discursive. 

As Hausman notes, the experience will manifest some extra-linguistic and extra-conceptual referent that “had no place in the intelligible world” prior to the experience itself. 

In the case of an atheistic religious experience, the referent will be the sensations, feelings, and emotions that constituted the experience itself. 

And precisely because metaphors are free of strictly logical truth-value, the experience can be accepted as religious without also asserting it to be “true.” 

Returning, then, to our atheist Joe, we can see that as a former believer, he had what Beardsley called the “potential range of connotations”5 necessary to identify his experience as “religious.” However, as an atheist, he could not accept this religiousness as true. 

Viewing the experience through the prism of metaphor, however, frees him to regard the experience as religious without having to declare the religiousness true. 

There is one final dilemma: should Joe behave or believe differently in light of the experience? In the case of a traditional religious experience, we would, I suspect, anticipate that the experiencer would somehow be changed or elect to change. 

This, however, is based on the assumption that they regard the content of the experience to be true. Because this is not the case in an atheistic religious experience, can we ask the same of Joe? The answer, I believe, is a subdued yes. 

Because the experience did not involve ascent to a rational proposition about the world, any change in belief or behavior need not reflect or be reflected in, an altered view of reality. But the experience was nonetheless affective, visceral, and general aesthetic in nature. 

Therefore, I would expect Joe to change in that he will now be open to experiences of powerful extra conceptual significance, whereas he formerly was not. 

In short, whereas formerly Joe was not open to an experience of the in-breaking of powerful extra-conceptual significance, he should, following the experience, hold himself open to the possibility of these experiences. 

In the same way, a novel metaphor changes our understanding of its referent, the atheistic religious experience should likewise leave one open to the possibility of a new, personally significant, non-linguistic meaning coming into being. 

It is precisely the incompatibility of atheism and religious experiences that makes an atheistic religious experience possible. 

In the same way that the incompatibility of Juliet and the sun yields meaning in the metaphor “Juliet is the sun,” so too does the incompatibility of atheism and a religious experience yield meaning in the metaphor of an atheistic religious experience. 

And it does so by preserving the atheism of the atheist and the religiosity of the religious experience in and as the aesthetics of metaphor.


By J. Sage Elwell

J. Sage Elwell, Ph.D., is an associate professor of religion and art at Texas Christian University.

First published in American Atheists magazine 2017 Q2, republished on Fadewblogs; courtesy to the author.


  1. Marianne Rankin, An Introduction to Religious and Spiritual Experience, (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2009), p. 103.
  2. Monroe Beardsley, “The Metaphorical Twist,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 32.3 (March 1962), p. 299.
  3. Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor: Multidisciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning in Language (The University of Toronto Press, 1981), p. 247.
  4. Carl R. Hausman, Metaphor and Art: Interactionism and Reference in the Verbal and Nonverbal Arts (Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 94.
  5. Monroe Beardsley, Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism, 2nd edition (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1981), p. 133.

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