Thinking with You



Experience: How the Religious and the Atheists Are the Same - Part 1

I did a study once.


In fact it was a long study; at a secular university. It took up two years of my life (part-time); but, it had taken up an apartment in my head space (rent free – cheeky sod) for years before that.

It centred around the phenomenon of God and the human experience of God.


Firstly, I wanted to know how different and/or similar people’s concepts of God were.

Secondly, I was convinced that it wasn’t just religious people that held answers to this; but, maybe most fascinatingly (to me at least) that the non-religious and the Atheist held answers to this question. Answers just as deserving, as insightful, as fundamental as the religious.

Years later, if I tried to count up the number of people who have read my thesis using my ten fingers – one of my hands would get jealous.


it has framed every conversation I have had with the religious, the non-religious, and the spiritual since.

If you asked, “what was the main thing I learned?”

I’d respond by answering your question; detouring a number of times along the way; adding a number of anecdotes (that I thought were humourous … you may not have laughed on the outside, but I could tell you were on the inside); continually trying to remember the original question and after hours of waffling hoped that I didn’t sound like to much of a nerd who just geeked out on one of his favourite topics. (Wait, you left … where did you go …  … and how is it that I did not notice you were no longer standing in front of me?!).

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To those who are still with me – let me boil the learnings from my thesis down to the main point relevant to this article:

“Regardless, of whether you are religious or non-religious; atheist or theist you have an articulable experience of a phenomenon that you will draw from when you engage with the label referred to as, God”.

Yes I said experience!

For every Atheist who first said, ‘… are you sure you want me involved in your study … um, because I don’t believe in God?’. I have at least 3 pages full of their detail explanation (Complete with drawings and visuals) of a clear intelligible conception of God.

The sceptic inside you might say, ‘Well, Nathan, I am willing to, MAYBE, concede your point; but, only because you are probably dealing with contaminated subjects’, i.e. they have absorbed certain notions about God from media, friends, family, religious community contact. Fair point, except that credible researchers in the area of psychology of Religion have found that children, starting as young as 2 or 3, chosen specifically because they fall into a category that indicates they haven’t been ‘contaminated’ (Your words) by religious expressions of media, friends, family, communities, i.e. brought up in environments strictly devoid of God; those children, when asked to draw a picture of God; respond to stimuli; use figurines indicating God, do so and similarly express psychological constructs that you and I (who are unlike us are not, i.e. in your words, ‘contaminated’ subjects) would do so. Let’s side step wasted time on a hypothetical that maybe there is some child, somewhere, abandoned by all other human beings who has survived only by the kindness of two wolves in a cave. Therefore, a child whose never been truly, religiously contaminated; and would be perplexed as to what to draw when prompted on the notion of God.

If you are reasonable and satisfied by arguments that have an evidentiary basis, then you’ll concede this point and if you are open as you perceive yourself to be - we can continue on and explore further the nature of the human experience of the phenomenon of God.

Despite my level of geekdom on the subject and the point that no one has ever read this thesis;

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not one religious or non-religious person doesn’t, when my studies have come up, on some level have their interest piqued; and, particularly the non-religious, want to know:

‘What did you find?’.

 Before I tell you…

… particularly in case other academic nerds, and the fastidiously minded individuals, are amongst us I need to mention a few relevant academic house keeping notes:

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The research included:

  • Jews, Atheists, Muslims and Christians.

  • a balance of male/female.

  • the aim to solely to describe how young adults described their experience of the phenomenon of God.

The specific methodology:

  • the methodology used to conduct the research is called phenomenography.

    (Hence, why I’ve been using the language of describing the human experience of the ‘phenomenon of God’. DO NOT confuse this with phenomenology – NOT THE SAME THING).

  • Individuals were prompt to respond to stimuli through various different mediums and open-ended questions.

  • What you see presented is a result of two years of interviews, processing and rigorous work. (After hours/days/weeks trawling over the same interviews and rigorous processing of the data categories of description emerged which authentically represented the original meaning of the participants’ interviews. This was rigorously checked by the eyes of both a University supervisor and an advisor, A PhD in Phenomenographical work; the work was not just a haphazard pulling together of the English language to present ideas that I think, ‘Like are real and … you know … represent my truth and what the universe revealed to me. You know!’)

Aims of Phenomenography:

  • Seeks to gather data on the relationship existing between a phenomenon and an individual. This is called one’s conception. An individual’s conception represents any component of the relationship of an individual and their experience of an object or phenomenon (i.e. God).

So here’s the rub,

There are five various ways in which young adults describe their experience of the phenomenon of God. These do not purport to be the only ways the phenomenon may be experienced; but, on a list of ways humans can experience God these will, non-negotiably, be on it.

 Five various ways humans describe their experience of the phenomenon of God:

1.      Interpersonal

2.      Autonomous

3.      Metaphysical

4.      Theoretical

5.      Incongruous

 These categories are not hierarchical or exclusive in experience; by this I mean:

  • one experience is not ‘better’ than the other.

  • Nor, is it that an individual only experiences one of the five.

  • It might be conceivable that one individual could experience the phenomenon of God in all five of these ways (Though none of the participants did so).

 Here is a brief explanation of these five categories of description:

Interpersonal, designates, where participants experience God as a phenomenon through a personal relational connection or transactional experience.

Autonomous, a phenomenon carrying characteristics of personality the existence of which is not contingent upon human experience.

Metaphysical, an experience that is intangible, non-physical.

Theoretical, a phenomenon experienced as a cognitive idea; and finally,

Incongruous, an impossibility in light of their experience of the world and if the phenomenon does exist, its existence is abhorrent in light of their experience of human life on earth.

Click here to continue reading Part 2 of this article.

Nathan Harding