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Religious experience is easy. Evidence is hard.

March 23, 2014

In response to Charles Taylor’s recent book, Rod Dreher and Damon Linker labor to defend the legitimacy of religious experience in the modern, scientific world. Neither grasp the real problem with religious experience, or where the modern world puts it to risk. Let’s begin with Linker, who defends something that needs no defense:

[Modernity] fosters a pluralism that denies any one religion the power to organize the whole of social life. It teaches that public authorities must submit to the consent of those over whom they aspire to rule, thereby undermining the legitimacy of all forms of absolutism. It employs the systematic skepticism of the scientific method to settle important questions of public policy. It encourages the growth of the capitalist marketplace, which unleashes human appetites and gives individuals the freedom to choose among an ever-expanding range of ways to satisfy them. But none of this is incompatible with individuals continuing to have divine experiences — which many millions of modern people clearly do.

Which, of course, people do. They talk to Jesus, hear ghosts, serve the loas, and exorcise demons. As Robert McCauley explains in a recent book, that kind of experience is the most natural thing in the world. Not only are our minds naturally attuned to agency from childhood, but what we experience is influenced by our expectations, social setting, and the steps that lead to that experience. Religious experience isn’t hard. It is easy. The most hard-core rationalist who befriends charismatic Christians and attends their services will indeed feel the spirit. So will anthropologists, who participate in the rituals they are studying. It is catching.

The question is: Does such experience provide evidence of anything other than the context-sensitivity of human experience? The modern world doesn’t deny religious experience, but the conclusions that the religious draw from that experience. The opposition isn’t to religious experience itself, and the analytic key isn’t any of the things that Linker lists, but the awareness that there is a gap between the experience and what it allegedly evinces, a gap that can be investigated by asking what other people saw, by looking toward objective data left behind or recorded, by querying the contexts and motives of the observers, and by looking for the parsimonious explanation of the evidence. Those kind of investigatory questions and techniques involve more artifice than spiritual experience, require thinking in ways that are analytic rather than natural, and yet, are as much a part of the modern world as any of Linker’s items. They belong as much to the detective, journalist, and debunker as they do to the scientist. The prototypical modern figure there isn’t Einstein or Darwin or Dawkins. But Houdini, who investigated many kinds of paranormal phenomena. (See photo.)

The problem isn’t that the modern world makes religious experience difficult, but that it makes clear religious experience that is subject to such investigation ends up (so far) not providing much evidence for the gods, demons, loas, ghosts, and spirits that allegedly are “perceived.”

Dreher does worse than Linker, falling almost into presuppositional nonsense. He offers an interesting example:

A Haitian immigrant livery driver in New York City told me chilling stories of the paranormal in his home country, adding that Americans don’t believe these things, because they haven’t experienced them, and can’t imagine that these things can exist.

Given its popularity as a genre of fiction, it’s rather silly to say that Americans can’t imagine zombies, communication with ghosts, demon possession, or a variety of other paranormal phenomena. The reason rational people are skeptical of such is rather different: that these phenomena have not been verified when they are investigated carefully. The magic disappears when the cameras get turned on.

Dreher complains this is because skeptics have a “prior acceptance of the authority of scientific materialism.” That is wrong. I’m skeptical of the sasquatch and the chupacabra, animals that would fit comfortably into a biologist’s taxa, for the same reasons that I’m skeptical of demon possession. This has nothing to do with metaphysical assumptions, except those that are required to conduct careful investigation. And if that is all Dreher means by scientific materialism, then he is doomed to angst-fill struggle with the modern world. Because the investigatory mind that is part of the modern world is here to stay. And the cameras are not going away.

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