The Science of Religions

This article is part of a series called The Scientist Theist. See also:
1. The View From High; 2. The Science of Religions; 3. A Reasoned Happiness

einsteinThat Albert Einstein – the great physicist of the 20st century – was a religious man surprised many. Einstein’s views were nuanced: the scientist described himself, alternatingly, using terms ranging from “agnostic” to “religious nonbeliever”. “I believe in Spinoza’s God,” Einstein said, in his perhaps most-quoted explication of his own views, “who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.” [1]

The last article in this series seems to have predicted accurately. Einstein’s religious sentiments appear more aligned with feeling than with thinking.

But should we be unsettled – as many were – that the greatest scientist of perhaps all time embraced beliefs which seem so, well, unscientific? To what extent must religious believers such as Einstein, in embracing feeling over thinking, do so at the expense of their own scientific stature? Can we scientifically validate religious experience?

We’ll first attempt to demonstrate that religious thought – unscientific as it may seem – corresponds to a collection of phenomena scientifically distinct indeed.

Neural Correlates

In the famous paper “Neural correlates of religious experience” [2], Azari et. al. observe that “During religious recitation, self-identified religious subjects activated a frontal-parietal circuit, composed of the dorsolateral prefrontal, dorsomedial frontal and medial parietal cortex.” Similar results are found in other papers [3] [4].

We need not decipher the medial parietal cortex to draw important conclusions here. Religious experience robustly correlates with a distinct collection of neuroscientific manifestations. These experiences are neurologically both consistent (every religious experience triggers a similar collection of manifestations) and unique (this collection of manifestations is associated with religious experience alone). We observe a two-directional correlation.

These findings don’t tell us that God exists. They do tell us, though, that when (and only when) individuals purport to commune with God, something physiologically special happens within their brains.

But what do we know about these experiences’ subjective characteristics? Are they, too, unique, or do they vary wildly across individuals? Neuroscience can tell us what God looks like. The “Science of Religions” alone, though, can tell us what God feels like.

Science of Religions

Subjective religious experience too can be studied scientifically. Indeed, the Science of Religions – a term coined, and exemplified, by William James in his Varieties of Religious Experience [5] – refers to the systematic study of the religious experience’s subjective characteristics. Sociologists study the reports of those in poverty. Psychologists study the reports of those with mental illness. Why can’t a scientist of religions methodically study the reports of the religious?

The implication of James’ work regarding these experiences’ subjective distinctness is equally promising. James points to a number of consistent and unique beliefs characteristic of religious thought, including:

1. That the visible world is part of a more spiritual universe from which it draws its chief significance;
2. That union or harmonious relation with that higher universe is our true end;
3. That prayer or inner communion with the spirit thereof— be that spirit “God” or “law”—is a process wherein work is really done, and spiritual energy flows in and produces effects, psychological or material, within the phenomenal world. [5]

These themes are robust across James’ collected depictions of religious experience. These experiences’ subjective characteristics are, indeed, meaningfully distinct.

Does God Exist?

Religious thought might depend more on feeling than thinking. Nonetheless, though, its distinctness is scientifically demonstrable. And why can’t we – giving a nod to pragmatism – simply refer to this distinct collection of phenomena as God?

This could be unsatisfying to some. Just as the old psychological behaviorists defined internal mental phenomena in terms of their outward manifestations, philosophical pragmatists tend to define truth itself in terms of its outward manifestations: whether universal convincingness, empirical support, or predictive power. Isn’t there, though, – we might demand – something more to truth? Doesn’t truth refer to some internal correspondence with deeper reality itself?

Here, unfortunately, we might just be out of luck. James, in his Varieties, hints at a deeper point: that in certain fields (religion is one of them), feeling is simply more fundamental than thinking. Feeling forges belief. Thinking merely explains it.

I believe, in fact, that the logical reason of man operates in this field of divinity exactly as it has always operated in love, or in patriotism, or in politics, or in any other of the wider affairs of life, in which our passions or our mystical intuitions fix our beliefs beforehand. It finds arguments for our conviction, for indeed it HAS to find them. It amplifies and defines our faith, and dignifies it and lends it words and plausibility. It hardly ever engenders it; it cannot now secure it. [5]

The last article in this series made the empirical observation that religious belief tends to lie closer to feeling than thinking. James’ insights, though, tell us something further: that feeling is all we’ll ever get.

Limited to the emotional sphere, though, perhaps the scientifically minded believer might find consolation. Sure, religious experiences can never be scientifically true. They’re scientifically robust, though, and these emotive experiences – the stuff of wisdom, power, and love – are, sure-as-could-be, not scientifically false.

  1. Einstein: His Life and Universe
  2. Neural correlates of religious experience
  3. Neural correlates of a mystical experience in Carmelite nuns
  4. Cognitive and neural foundations of religious belief
  5. The Varieties of Religious Experience
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2 comments on “The Science of Religions

  1. Josh says:

    Your pragmatic definition of God refers to a set of phenomena that occur inside the mind. A scientist could make no claim–not even a pragmatic one–that God exists outside of the mind. Feelings that God exists outside of the mind are certainly amenable to study, but the contents of these feelings aren’t.

    Love is a similar example. Like religion, love refers to a consistent set of subjective experiences, and has neural correlates. A scientist would certainly concede that a man who feels that “his partner is the single best match for him in the world”, and has higher-than-normal oxytocin levels, and so on, is in love. But he wouldn’t claim that this man’s love consists of anything more than neural phenomena, and he wouldn’t claim that his wife really is the single best match for him, and so on.

    A scientist can safely claim to feel that God is real, and to feel that he has found “the one.” He should be wary, however, of claiming outright that God is real, or of claiming outright that he has found “the one.”

    Feelings are always compatible with a scientific outlook. Confusing these feelings for thoughts based in reason, however, is not.

    I would urge the scientist to resist the tendency James describes: that tendency to use reason to justify our convictions. One should recognize the distinction between these two areas of thought. And one should allow a conviction to remain so, without needing to call up reason for support. One’s reason need not agree with one’s convictions. In fact, one’s reason might well contradict these convictions. This may occur frequently in the mind of the scientist.

    • Ben says:

      Religion, and for that matter, love, don’t elicit claims as factually rigid as those which you’ve described.

      Sure, a scientist should resist claims like “She’s the best woman in the world” or “God is a real, physical entity.” These claims, though, are not the natural rational outcroppings of love and religion. These feelings’ rational formulations are more likely to resemble “This person seems to radiate brilliance” or “The universe is full of goodness and purpose.” These claims are not subject to scientific falsification.

      They’re reason-based understandings of our feelings. Reason isn’t being used to “justify our convictions”. Reason is being used to understand them, to characterize them, and to assimilate them. Reason doesn’t justify conviction. Conviction inspires reason.

      Rather than the enemy of these feelings, reason is the tool by which they can be understood, characterized, and assimilated — and even, ultimately, communicated. The relationship between “feelings” and “thoughts based in reason” is much more challenging than you’ve made it out to be. Feelings accrue reason-based characterizations. These characterizations express feelings in the language of reason. They need not extend to full scientific facts, subject to scrutiny at the hands of the scientific method.

      Scientists use reason to express their emotional convictions. They need not unduly extend these expressions into the territory of falsifiable facts. The pervasive mistake of today’s “militant atheists”, indeed, is to persistently mistake the one for the other.

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