(Attempts at) "Faith seeking understanding."

Google+ Badge

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

On William James and the "Science of Religions"

What follows is a paper I wrote for a class on religious experience back in Fall  2009. 


According to William James, religious experience is explanatorily prior to rational accounts of religion, such as those of philosophy and theology. On p. 470[1] of his The Varieties of Religious Experience he says, “I do believe that feeling is the deeper source of religion, and that philosophic and theological formulas are secondary products, like translations of a text into another tongue.” James thought, for example, that theistic arguments cannot be the basis of belief in God (pp. 476-478). First, theistic arguments have been subjected to intense criticism, and there are a great many people who do not find them convincing (p. 476). This shows that theistic arguments are not likely to persuade those who do not believe in God. Second, the God whose existence theistic arguments attempt to establish is not the God who most people believe in (pp. 485-488). I am inclined to agree with these charges. I would wager that most people, for example, do not believe in a God who is a wholly simple and impassible being; a being who is pure Existence, who cannot be affected by anything creatures do and who is without any semblance of emotion. For most people God is a personal being, but the God of the theologians is not, despite their protestations to the contrary. 

However, although we must grant that reason comes second in religion, this does not mean that it has no role to play. In what follows I will try to vindicate James’s view that it plays a positive role by being a part of what he calls a "science of religions".

James thinks that reason can play a positive role in religion, in the form of a philosophically-based "science of religions" (p. 496). What James says, basically, is that philosophy can make religion more universal by eliminating those aspects of it which are peculiar to certain times and places (p. 496).  It can strip "historic incrustations" from religious doctrine and worship (p. 496). Finally, it can rid religion of those of its claims that are inconsistent with the results of scientific inquiry (p. 496).  Science can then take the remaining religious claims and test them just as they would any other claim (p. 496).  “As a result”, James says, “she can offer mediation between different believers, and help to bring about consensus of opinion” (p. 497).
What are we to think of this? Religious people might object that this science of religions does violence to religion itself. If science is the ultimate arbiter of religious truth, are not any potential conflicts between science and religion automatically resolved in favor of science? My answer is a qualified “yes”; but this is not as bad as it may sound. For we must keep in mind that religion can go beyond science without contradicting it. For example, it would seem unlikely that any scientific experiment could prove the existence of God, but it seems equally unlikely that any scientific experiment could refute it. The same could be said of moral claims.

Nevertheless, there are cases where science and religion genuinely conflict. Whether or not religion must give in such cases depends on the content of the scientific claim in question and the strength of the evidence supporting it. For in science claims can be accepted with various levels of confidence, and range from mere hypotheses to time-tested models to well established theories. While I do believe that science is our best means of coming to know the physical world, this does not commit me to thinking that it is perfect. It should not be assumed that a hypothesis ought to be believed simply because it has gained some acceptance in the scientific community. History provides us with examples of hypotheses, such as those that formed the basis of phrenology and eugenics, which were accepted not because they were empirically sound but because they were, for the most part, flattering to their adherents. Were non-scientists obliged to accept such theories simply because they were embraced by a sizeable portion of the scientific community? We must also consider that it is not always easy for non-scientists, who know next to nothing about a given issue, to evaluate studies which aim to test hypotheses concerning it. They may not even be able to understand the language in which the studies are framed, due to an excess of technical terms. For all these reasons, it is not incumbent on people to accept all scientific-sounding claims they encounter. (Of course, this is not to say that they should reject them either; the proper attitude may be one of agnosticism.)

It might be objected that those who lack the requisite knowledge to evaluate certain scientific claims ought to defer to the experts in the field. This is a good rule of thumb, provided that one knows enough to determine who is an expert and who is not. But even if one knows who the experts are, this may not be enough to solve one’s problem. Sometimes experts disagree with each other, and when they do it can be well-nigh impossible for a layperson to determine which of them, if any, is right. When this happens, I think one is not obliged to defer to any of them.

From the foregoing we may conclude that, if a scientific claim is not yet well established, people may have reasons that justify them in not accepting it; and I see no reason why these reasons cannot be religious beliefs, provided that they themselves are justified.

But what about cases which are not like the above? What if one is reasonably well-informed about an entrenched theory, accepted by all the experts in the field, which has passed all experimental tests with flying colors, but which contradicts some tenets of one’s religion? In such cases I think religion must give, but doing so is probably beneficial for it in the long term. For science is an empirical discipline, and whenever any theory becomes entrenched it is because there is a very large amount of evidence to back it up. If religion were to dig in its heels in such a case, it would pit itself against this evidence, and would either have to deny its existence or explain it away. I think such a gambit is unlikely to succeed, as I know of no cases in which a scientific theory has been overturned by an apologist defending their religion. When it becomes obvious that the apologists have failed, they will have achieved nothing besides making themselves and their religion look bad in the eyes of the public. If those who practice that religion had instead chosen to modify some of their beliefs to accommodate the scientific evidence, they would have spared themselves some embarrassment, and may have even gained new adherents by showing that they are not closed-minded.

Neither should the faithful be troubled by having to admit that their religious beliefs can be overturned. After all, no one takes science to be infallible. Many previously accepted theories have eventually been falsified, and some of our most well-confirmed theories, namely general relativity and quantum mechanics, are inconsistent with each other. In spite of that, science is the most successful knowledge-gaining enterprise that people have ever devised. If this fallibility is not enough to cause us to lose faith in science, why should it be enough to cause us to lose faith in religion?

In conclusion, the relations between reason—whether in the form of philosophy, science, or some hybrid—and religion are complex, and the question of which of them makes a stronger claim on our belief is delicate. James's view is that in the end science wins out. I have argued that this is true, but just barely. Thus science may have the upper hand when it comes to determining the truth of factual claims, but if religion is to give us guidance as to how we should live in the real world it should have nothing to fear from the facts. At the end of the day it may turn out that neither science nor religion gives us a complete or infallible picture of reality, but if we combine them we might get a better picture of it than we would have if we had to work with either alone.


            James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. The Modern Library, New York 2002.

[1] All subsequent page references are to The Varieties of Religious Experience.