That 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.” 
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.
In the famous paper “Neural correlates of religious experience” , 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  .
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  – 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. 
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. 
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.
- Einstein: His Life and Universe
- Neural correlates of religious experience
- Neural correlates of a mystical experience in Carmelite nuns
- Cognitive and neural foundations of religious belief
- The Varieties of Religious Experience