In almost any social situation, if anyone dares to question the existence of God someone else will speak up with “first-hand evidence” that God is not only real but has all the qualities described in the local scripture. The witnesser will speak of the “direct perceptions” that they have had of God, for example that he is caring, or eternal, or aware, or (in the minimal case) present (or “manifest”). It is usually thought (or at least claimed) that such reports constitute weighty evidence for the believer’s position, and that if the non-believer wants to be taken seriously, he or she must provide an alternative and more compelling explanation of these experiences. That is, the non-believer has the responsibility of showing how a person can have an experience of God without there being any God for the experience to be about.
The explanation is simple. An object does not have to exist for me to have thoughts or feelings about it. I can have thoughts and feelings about an imaginary object. Such thoughts and feelings do not prove that the object exists. As a refinement, we should mention that it is not always correct to describe these thoughts and feelings as of or about the object, if it does not exist.
It is uncontroversial that people’s reports of thoughts and feelings about God do not necessarily bring us any information about God. If I suspect that no gods exist, someone telling me that they have perceived God’s qualities through their feelings or their imagination is no evidence to the contrary. If God does not exist, then these reports of divine attributes are just wrong. Actually, they are not even wrong. Rather than inaccurate statements about God, they are not about God at all.
Now someone might say, “Why make a special point of saying that my feelings about God are ‘not about’ God? Of course they are ‘about’ God—even if there is no God! If I say I’ve had a thought about the mighty wings of Pegasus, would you say, ‘No, that thought is not about Pegasus, because Pegasus is imaginary’? Surely you can take my word for it, so to speak, that Pegasus is precisely what I was thinking about. Maybe it seems ontologically extravagant, but this is how the word is used.”
Well, let’s acknowledge that there is a huge and intimidating literature on what philosophers call reference (and related terms like ostention, intension, and designation)—and that I am not an expert in this field. I have read a little Quine but it is very hard. So I agree with your proposal that we avoid the intricacies of philosophy and stick to (relatively) practical matters.
Unfortunately, we started with a topic which was already a bit subtle. We are talking about the difference between what people take themselves to be saying, and what they are actually saying, when they talk about God.
Contrary to your Pegasus example, people routinely claim that the thoughts and feelings they have about God show that God is there.
Let’s put the argument more formally.
PREMISS 1. I have thoughts and feelings about God.
PREMISS 2. People can’t have thoughts and feelings about a thing that does not exist.
CONCLUSION. God exists.
Your mention of Pegasus casts doubt on Premiss 2. Of course I can think about things that are not there. We can put even more pressure on this premiss if we think about dreams. Say that on waking up one morning I remember having a dream in which I was trying to solve an intricate geometrical puzzle. I’m still having thoughts about that puzzle—or that’s what my thoughts seem to be about—yet the puzzle does not exist in any useful sense. What is more interesting, my memories of it as being “intricate” (for example) do not even have a truth-value. It is neither true nor false that the puzzle I was trying to solve was intricate. In the dream, I described the puzzle as intricate—to myself. But that description was a feature of the dream. It was imaginary. The intricacy of the puzzle had no more reality than the puzzle itself.
But look. Now Premiss 1 begins to crumble. Because, now that I have awakened, if I say to myself, “That puzzle was intricate,” I am not making a statement about the puzzle in the dream. I don’t know anything about the puzzle in the dream. I don’t know that it was intricate. I only know that it seemed so, in the dream. There is no fact of the matter about whether the puzzle was really intricate. It seemed so in the dream, and that’s the end of the ontology. All I have is the seeming. So my thoughts on waking up are not about how the puzzle was. There is no such thing as how the puzzle was. I am not thinking about how the puzzle was, but about how it seemed. My thoughts are about the seeming, not about the puzzle.
And this is how we can legitimately treat claims about people’s thoughts and feelings “about God.” We can say: That’s an awfully big assumption you’re starting off with—that you can have thoughts and feelings about God. How do you justify such a claim? Here we are trying to have a discussion about whether God exists, and then you say, “Well, I have these feelings about him, so that proves he exists.” It doesn’t, for two reasons.
First, it’s possible to have thoughts and feelings that are about a seeming rather than about something real. So you need to convince us that your thoughts and feelings are about an existent God rather than a seeming God. And second, as my friend here pointed out, it’s perfectly possible to have thoughts and feelings about objects that just plain don’t exist, like Pegasus—or Santa Claus.
In the syllogism above, many people would suspect Premiss 2 of being false. But we have come to a perhaps more interesting result. The seemingly uncontroversial Premiss 1 is false as well. When people say, “I have thoughts and feelings about God,” it is possible for this “about” to be mistaken. Their thoughts and feelings and beliefs could easily be about something other than God. They could be merely about how things seem to the believer.