Personal Experience Myth: If You Haven't Done X, You Can't Talk About X

drug treatment

One of the most common challenges heard by members of the helping profession who treat people for substance-related problems is those who have not personally experienced these problems having nothing of value to offer.

Have you ever been an alcoholic? If not, you cannot understand what I am going through and will never be able to help me.
But is it really true that a well-trained helping professional is powerless to treat any problem they have not personally experienced? Of course not! While one's own experience with a problem may offer some benefits, most of these benefits would happen through the enhanced empathy a professional with similar experiences might have for their client. Fortunately, most helping professionals have developed effective empathy despite not having personally experienced every problem for which they provide treatment.

The erroneous claim that personal experience is a prerequisite for competence extends well beyond this scenario and is by no means limited to something like mental health treatment. It will surface whenever someone who is married speaks about marriage, whenever someone without children writes about parenting, and so on. And of course, it has a number of fascinating implications for understanding the religious mind. Consider the concept of personal revelation as one dramatic example.

Much like the person suffering from a substance-related disorder challenging the competence their therapist, some people encountering material on parenting will ask, "Are you are parent? If not, what gives you the right to say anything about parenting?" The implication is clear. Those of us who are not parents, have no credibility when it comes to parenting. It doesn't matter how much scientific literature we've digested. None of our opinions should be considered valid. It doesn't matter whether we've conducted scientific research on parenting practices, attended professional trainings on family law, parenting skills, or related topics. We have nothing of value to offer. You could pick any parent at random, and this individual would know far more about appropriate parenting than we could.

The astute reader may recognize this as an example of "dichotomous" or "black-and-white" thinking. If you have children, you are an expert on parenting. If not, you can offer nothing of value. No shades of gray are permitted. Not surprisingly, research has documented a relationship between this style of thinking and religious fundamentalism.

There are too many ways to shatter the personal experience myth to consider them all, so I'll limit myself to one. There are many ways to obtain knowledge. While personal experience is often relevant, it is widely recognized throughout the sciences that personal experience is deeply flawed (e.g., biases, cognitive errors). For this reason, it is rarely considered a valid form of knowledge in the pursuit of science. In fact, personal experience is typically considered alongside authority and appeals to tradition in texts on critical thinking as examples of what to avoid. Scientific expertise is based on scholarly research and familiarity with the process of science, not on authoritarian pronouncements and personal experience.

When religious believers say that their belief is based on personal revelation, they are treading on similar ground. They make claims about the natural world, justify these claims on the basis of religious dogma, and then attempt to validate the dogma through personal revelation. They know the words in their bible are true because they feel the presence of at least one of their gods. How do they know they are not mistaken? Because they feel the presence so strongly. Why won't their gods reveal themselves to the rest of us so we can understand? Because we don't believe. Personal experience in the form of revelation trumps all.

Consider a question like the following for a moment:

What are the effects of spanking on children of a certain age range over a specified interval of time?
How do we answer this question? Do we just ask a random parent or an evangelical Christian pastor? No! We take a look at the scientific research conducted by qualified experts. We want their qualifications to include advanced degrees in relevant fields, and we want to see that the findings they rely on have been replicated and peer-reviewed. It makes no difference whether the researchers have children.

And what do you suppose all of this means when it comes to those who claim to have special knowledge of gods (e.g., clergy)? It means we ought to take a look at what this "knowledge" is and how they have acquired it. If it comes from scholarly work, we can at least agree that they are knowledgable about a particular "holy" book, set of religious traditions, or something similar. Whether that means they know any more about the beings described in that book or tradition than anyone else is open for debate, but we'd probably agree that they do know more about the book or tradition than those who haven't studied it. But what if their claimed "knowledge" comes primarily from personal revelation (i.e., they know more because their gods talk to them)? Doesn't that seem far less impressive?

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2007. It was rewritten in 2021 since I was never happy with the original.