Moral and Religious Experience

The result seems to be a draw. The evidence from personal experience for an objective Spiritual Reality is significant but not overwhelming. But perhaps it is misleading to concentrate on special "religious" experiences, whether of conversion, mystical union, or numinous feeling. If we do that, the crucial question seems to be whether the experiences can guarantee the reality of their objects. It is then hard to see what sort of guarantee could possibly be provided.

If we look back at religious morality, while there are intense experiences that convert some people to an altruistic outlook, the normal moral experience among religious believers does not seem to lie in the occurrence of intense, identifiable, and transient experiences. It is more a matter of interpreting many of life's situations than a matter of having a remarkable and discrete feeling state.

We do not normally speak of having "other-person experiences," of trying to describe what such experiences feel like, and then asking whether they show that other persons exist. We interpret the bodily behavior of others as the behavior of persons with thoughts, intentions, feelings, and desires. Our attention is focused on the persons, not on the nature of our feelings. And we are not trying to prove they really think and feel; we assume that they do, in order to have personal relations with them.

So, in regard to morality, we might interpret various events as demanding a moral response of compassion or as leading us to set aside personal prejudice in order to get at the truth. We do not infer the demand from our feelings; we accept that the demand is there. This may not seem religious, as we may feel we encounter a moral demand without believing in any God. But this is one important root of belief in God. For a Confucian, to feel the rightness of living in accord with the will of heaven is to respond to an element of reality. The physical elements of certain situations mediate the objective demand, the inmost moral structure of being. But because there is little or no talk of God, some may regard Confucianism as humanistic rather than religious.

Perhaps we could trace a spectrum of personalization in "transcendental" interpretations of morality. Confucian reticence about the reality of a transcendent being would lie at one end. Buddhism, being a "Middle Way," would appropriately speak of an objective state of compassion and wisdom. The Abrahamic faiths would lie at the other end, seeing compassion and wisdom as embodied in a personal creator God.

There may be no specifiable "feeling" to our interpretation of our sensory data as mediating moral claims upon us. What is significant is that some views of morality find it natural to speak of transcendent claims or ideals of beauty and goodness mediated through the objects we see, hear, and feel. Others find such talk unhelpful and think of morality as a matter of decision and the will.

We rarely speak of "moral experience," but we could (or some of us could) speak of apprehension of a moral dimension of reality. Religious morality ties such apprehension closely to apprehension of a Spiritual Reality. Indeed, it partly defines Spiritual Reality in terms of such moral apprehensions. Specific "religious experiences" would then be occasional and particularly intense feelings of such an apprehension. But the disposition to interpret all experience in terms of mediation of a Spiritual Reality, with a strong moral dimension, would be a more permanent, less intense, and often unnoticed cognitive orientation that might seem entirely natural.

Perhaps specific "religious experiences" could not establish the reality of their alleged objects. But maybe that is the wrong way to approach religious and moral cognition. It may not be a matter of inferring from inner states to unverifiable outer realities. It may rather be a question of whether we wish to divide "inner" and "outer" in this way at all. We might think of general interpretations of human experience and ask whether it is more reasonable to say that we experience a purely physical reality, to which we have purely subjective value responses, or to say that we experience a many-leveled, multifaceted reality that is mediated by means of our senses and involves our whole cognitive equipment, including our feelings.

If we do choose the latter option, surveys of "religious experience" may show that about half the population has occasional intense and memorable transcendental experiences, experiences of reality as more than purely physical. Such "peak experiences" may be given a naturalistic interpretation, but they do seem to be apprehensions of a spiritual dimension of reality, however they are more precisely interpreted.

We do not ordinarily speak of "moral experiences," but common sense assumes that there is an objectivity about morality; truth, happiness, justice, and beauty seem to exercise an influence upon us that is not causal but the influence of an ideal that calls us to realize it. As the philosopher J. L. Mackie (1977) said, believing in moral objectivity is just too "queer" if there is nowhere moral objects could be. There may just be "queer moral facts," facts of what G. E. Moore called "ought-to-beness." But a very natural place to put ideals of beauty, truth, and justice is in the mind of a God who is perfect beauty, truth, and goodness.

Morality can lead to religion, when the transcendental sense of goodness is linked to religious experiences of a spiritual sense of presence and power. If such a link is not made, morality can lose its binding and captivating force—as it is almost bound to do on a purely sociobiological account. As Michael Ruse once said, "A better understanding of biology might incline us to go against morality" (1995, 283). But equally importantly, religion can lose its moral basis and degenerate into a prudential bargaining with an authoritarian God, rather than being a free submission of the heart to a supremely beautiful and good Creator.

In conclusion, a purely naturalistic account of moral and religious beliefs can be given, but it is not the role of evolutionary biology to do so. Evolutionary biology can give us a better understanding of the development of our basic moral and religious inclinations and account for some of their peculiarities. But it cannot answer the question of what we ought to do or the question of whether, in our moral and religious lives, we are encountering a transcendental aspect of reality. The more we know about human nature from a scientific point of view, the better we will be able to reflect on what we should do. But science itself cannot tell us what to do, and our fundamental choice still lies where it always has: between seeing morality primarily as a matter for decision and seeing it primarily as a matter for discernment and response. Evolutionary psychology might help us to see that choice more starkly and to be better informed about the nature and limits of our choice. But whether morality puts us in touch with a Transcendental Reality remains, for science, an open question.

 
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