Is Religious Experience Really That Unique?


In my previous post we briefly looked at David Wolpe’s claim that a some aspects of experience cannot be properly captured in a “scientific” analysis of the sort most skeptics are talking about when they say religious claims lack “evidence”.

According to Wolpe, and others who share his opinion, looking for evidence of God’s existence (to take the most obvious example) in the way a scientist looks for evidence is to make a “category mistake”. The classic example many religious people like to use is the comment supposedly made by Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin after his 1961 flight into space: “I went into space but could see no God”. This comment was actually made by Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev, not Gagarin.

But regardless of who made it, it is often held up as a clear example of how normal observation does not apply to questions of God. According to the “category mistake” position, comments like this just reveal ignorance (either real or feigned) of spiritual “truths”. Obviously God cannot be seen floating around in space. God is not the kind of thing we can “see” at all.

Category Mistakes

In his book, Why Faith Matters Wolpe makes this claim over and over again. The book is filled with examples of “spiritual” experiences that Wolpe and the people he describes (most of them members of his synagogue), are convinced give evidence of truths that go beyond simple statements of fact like the kind of nuts and bolts observations we make thousands of times every day: the sky is blue, the wind is blowing from the west, the Titanic sank off Newfoundland, my dog has fleas, etc., etc..

What kind of categorically different experiences are we talking about here? Wolpe seems to assume we all know deep down inside what he means. His examples include stories about the way we tend to react to life-threatening disease, losing loved ones, having life-changing experiences, falling in love, etc.

Each day of my life is touched by experiences that have nothing to do with proof. The music of my daughter’s laugh, the thrill of reading a profound thought, a quiet moment at home with my wife. Who can prove these are important? Who would wish to prove it? The deepest experiences of life are not the fruit of reason but of love. [Chapter 8, Why Faith Matters]

There is no denying that deeply emotional experiences are often thought of as having a “spiritual” dimension, but simply saying this and assuming it is unfathomably mysterious does not really advance the religious cause. Because as Sam Harris says more than once, the religious skeptic does not want to willy nilly deny the existence of “spiritual” experiences, the so-called “numinous”, or whatever else you want to call it. He just wants to deny that, first, it requires some “supernatural” explanation, and second that it provides any kind of evidence or support for the specific claims of specific religions – things like the resurrection of Jesus, the authoritative role of scripture, the effectiveness of prayer, the special revelations of Moroni to Joseph Smith, etc., etc.

To be more specific, the rejoinder of the religious sceptic is that these experiences are amenable to observation and analysis just like any others. In fact Harris and others are specifically engaged in applying neuroscientific study to phenomena like supposed end of life experiences, mystical visions and the physical and psychological effects of things like contemplation and meditation.

Getting Specific

On the spectrum of religious apologists David Wolpe is clearly a “moderate”. First, he is Jewish, and on matters of “God” mainstream Jews tend to have fairly abstract ideas. Secondly he is quite non-exclusive in his claims about “who has the truth”.He makes no pretense that he or his faith community have all the answers.

With respect to exclusivity, religious people tend to fall into two camps. On the one side we have fundamentalists who claim to have the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. On the other side are moderates who are not so sure. Wolpe is in the second camp, although this needs a bit of elaboration.

Moderates range from “all views are equally valid” to “I have the truth, and you probably have it too” with any number of subtle positions in between. Wolpe’s position seems to be that there are religious facts and experiences that we all share, and that different cultures have developed different ways of making sense of them. As he says in the debate with Sam Harris [1:21:30]

I’m not concerned to make truth claims over other religions because religion is not just a matter of propositions it’s also a lived life. The way I understand it is, religion is an orientation and a system of patterns and behaviours that allows you to live in the presence and with the consciousness of God. I assume that other religions can do that too…. I have no idea to what extent a Muslim or a Christian exists in the presence of God except inasmuch as they tell me they do.

In another place Wolpe’s takes the focus off the individual as the primary interpreter of those facts and experiences and places it on the religious community. That is to say, we must respect the fact that thousands of people over hundreds of years have worked at interpreting specific religious traditions and sacred texts.

If this leaves you a bit uncomfortable, you are not alone. The standard criticism of religious moderation kicks in at this point. Saying that virtually every religious tradition is valuable simply by virtue of the fact that it exists, completely overwhelms the idea of “truth”. Does the fact that, for example, Mormonism has a hierarchy of elders, a tradition of dedicated scholarship, and a canon of authorized scriptures mean that we can just ignore the fantastically un-historical claims made by that faith?

The Religious Moderate and Absolute Values

The moderate also inevitably has a problem dealing with values. If you are familiar with the debate between religious believers and religious skeptics you will know that one of the arguments marshalled in favour of the religious position is that belief in God provides a basis for objective morals. Without this belief, it is claimed, all we have left is a sea of moral relativism.

How exactly a belief in God is supposed to account for morals is a question religious people just assume has an obvious answer. But is it really so obvious? If we grant that different religions all basically have an equal claim to knowing the moral truth, then how do we account for differences between the religions? Is one sect’s tradition of polygamy as morally valid as another’s insistence that polygamy is to be condemned? Or how about slavery, or abortion?

If, on the other hand, we take the fundamentalist position and claim that our tradition is correct and all others that don’t agree are incorrect we have a different, equally obvious problem. On what authority do we make this claim? Is it because of divine revelation? Is it because our holy book is more powerful than theirs, or our interpretation of the Bible is superior to theirs?

These are important and difficult questions and are at the heart of the religious skeptic’s rejection of religion. I will deal with the question of religion and morality in a future post.


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