The Role of Religious Experience?


There is an interesting debate on Youtube between Sam Harris and David Wolpe where they discuss the importance of religion and the role of religious experience as it bears on faith, morality and politics.

Sam Harris is a well known anti-religious speaker and author whose fairly simple message is that religious discourse should be subjected to the same type of critical analysis that any other discourse is subjected to – especially the “supernatural” or otherwise non-common-sensical claims of religion.

According to Harris we should look askance at, or doubt the reliability of people who make bizarre (supernatural) religious claims (e.g., the angel Moroni appearing to Joseph Smith, the resurrection of Jesus, transubstantiation, etc.) the same way we doubt the reliability of people who claim they have just met Elvis.

This view is interpreted by critics like Wolpe as unrealistically narrow and “materialistic”, with a na├»ve belief in the scope and power of science. Wolpe is a Jewish rabbi who has written a number of books in which he tries to explain how the concept of God is necessary to help us make sense of the world. A recurring theme for Wolpe is that life as we know it cannot be adequately explained without reference to religious experience.

The Status of Religious Experience

This notion is central to the debate between these two men. Wolpe believes in religious experience that is beyond the reach of science. Harris essentially says if it cannot be examined by science then it cannot be considered “experience” in the way we normally use that term. Wolpe wants to say “There is more to life than what the scientist can examine. There is a whole range of experience – creativity, love, art, poetry – that defies scientific analysis. Harris agrees that different types of experience exist, but denies they are not open to scientific examination.

The appeal to religious experience is a common technique made against what religious believers often refer to as “materialists”. However, I suggest this term is outmoded and misleading. A “materialist” is generally thought to be someone who claims all that exists is “material”. But what exactly does that mean? Does it mean that things like ideas, concepts, and emotions don’t exist? Perhaps, but if so it is not correct to call someone like Sam Harris a “materialist”; because clearly he believes in the existence of ideas, spiritual experiences and even objective good and evil.

So, as I said, it is misleading to refer to someone like Harris as a materialist. And I suspect this is also the case with other “new atheists” such as Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss and Daniel Dennett. What they do, as far as I can tell, is deny the intelligibility of the “supernatural” and claim the only explanatory tools we have are to be found in science. They are, in this sense, pragmatic empiricists – open to whatever is observable and analyzable using the tools of science. Generally, skeptical non-believers think that the claim that religious experience is categorically different opens the floodgates to all kinds of weird ideas, putting things like miracles beyond the reach of critical examination.

Sam Harris is the clearest example of a “scientist” (his field is neuro-science) who does not rule out the importance of things such as meditation and spirituality. But he thinks these are amenable to scientific observation and analysis. In other words these are not radically different types of experience. This is an important point. The pragmatic empiricist will admit the existence of religious experience, but only insofar as it can be subjected to scientific analysis like all other experience of the world.

In the debate referenced above Wolpe repeatedly claims religious experience is different – non-scientific. Unfortunately, Harris does not explicitly call him out on this. I think it would have been instructive to ask, “Where does this religious experience come from? How is it different from other kinds of experience? How can it be examined if not by scientific analysis? And if not amenable to scientific examination how do we know it is trustworthy in any meaningful way?

In my next post I will look at David Wolpe’s arguments a little more deeply.

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