Religion between the Sciences and the Humanities and Social Sciences

This brings us back to the topic of religious experiences. In the life of religion, such experiences were seen to be fairly rare and to be associated with outstanding individuals of great wisdom and sensitivity. They were interpreted in different ways, depending on the concepts available to the cultures in which those individuals lived. But, at a general level, they seemed to have in common an apprehension of a Reality of Supreme Value, of beauty and wisdom, of bliss and compassion. This was interpreted as encounter with God or as union with a Reality of Supreme Value, either in a personal or an impersonal form.

Most religious traditions are at pains to say that the concepts in terms of which such experiences are described are metaphorical, not literal, for the reality is beyond precise description in any human language. It is also clear that conceptual interpretation enters into the description of experience, producing differences even at the highest level. But humans are, in general, so unbalanced and benighted that a great many so-called "religious experiences" will be pretty obviously harmful or irrational. For that reason, religions usually seek to make the normative experiences of their founding prophets or teachers authoritative for the tradition. They do not deny that believers in general may have religious experiences, but they do not grant them independent status or authority.

I introduced into the discussion an imaginary "tough-minded scientist" (but there are real-life cases of people who think like that), who argued that only scientifically established truths should count as truths and that religious experiences belong to the realm of subjective feelings and have no cognitive content. For such a person, religious experiences could certainly not be evidence for God: their interpretation is disputed, even at the most general level; there is no way of publicly verifying these claims; and many, perhaps most, religious experiences are irrational and occur to mentally unbalanced people. Evidence has to be available to everyone, publicly checkable, and carefully inspected to guard against trickery and delusion. Religious experiences fail these tests, so they are not evidence for anything, except the mental states of deluded maniacs.

Religious believers may be grateful that at least they are allowed to have mental states. But it is perhaps not so clear that their experiences are delusions. In this chapter, I have suggested that the claim that all evidence must be publicly testable, universally agreed on, and repeat-able under controlled conditions, like much scientific evidence, is not really defensible.

In courts of law, there is rarely universal agreement—at the very least, the prosecution and the defense lawyers do not agree. The evidence cannot be repeated or controlled, and, if it lies in the past, it cannot be publicly tested. We have to make do with a lower standard of evidence and say that we rely on the majority judgment of people exposed to all available evidence, guided by expert opinion as to what the evidence suggests.

This is true of human history in general, where there is no question of control, repetition, universal laws, or universal agreement. There is evidence, and it should be made available to everyone. But there will always be differences of interpretation, and they will be partly due to differences in the personalities and experiences of the persons doing the interpreting. Some judges are better, more perceptive and discerning, than others. They are the leading historians, and most people will be wise to accept their guidance, even though experts often disagree.

When it comes to the thoughts, feelings, motives, and intentions of others, there is even more room for disagreement. Some are completely hidden from the observers' view. Many are ambiguous, and, even when the subject says what they are, many questions remain about how to interpret such statements and how much credence to give to them.

We know other people have thoughts and motives, but we have to rely for our knowledge of what they are on behavioral and linguistic clues that are more-or-less revealing and ambiguous. In such cases, the evidence is not always available to everyone or open to public observation, and it is almost always open to variant interpretations.

People often try to express how they see and feel about the world of their experience in art and literature. Literal description is eschewed, and metaphor and imagery are used to evoke in others something of what it feels like to live in the world as the artist does. But what is evoked depends even more upon the observer, who must engage in a personal interaction with the work of the artist in order to understand, in a uniquely personal way, what is being communicated.

We are now far removed from the alleged scientific world of impersonal control and analysis of publicly verifiable facts. The practice of science is not in any case, I have argued, as impersonal and value-free as this may suggest. But science does attempt to investigate a testable world of publicly verifiable facts. The humanities do not. They try to enter, though empathetic feeling, into semantic worlds that express perspectives on human experience, less literally describable or mathematically denumerable, more intensely felt and passionately committed.

These worlds are part of reality, too. They are worlds of thought and feeling, and sometimes they may change the interpretation we have of our own lives, as they present a perspective that makes sense of the complexity of experience in a way that nothing else has done.

Religion may no longer be the "queen of the sciences." But it may be a bridge between the humane world of empathetic feelings and the scientific world of objective facts. For there may be forms of objectivity that are only accessible through empathetic feeling and passionate commitment. Religious sensibility may be one, even the primary one, of such forms.

 
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