Looking for a Science of Religions

Here is a quote from William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, this resonated with me, I would like to be a part of the sort of Science he proposes (maybe at the risk of being labled a heretic and apostate):

“What religion reports, you must remember, always purports to be a fact of experience: the divine is actually present, religion says, and between it and ourselves relations of give and take are actual. If definite perceptions of fact like this cannot stand upon their own feet, surely abstract reasoning cannot give them the support they are in need of. Conceptual processes can class facts, define them, interpret them; but they do not produce them, nor can they reproduce their individuality. There is always a plus, a thisness, which feeling alone can answer for. Philosophy in this sphere is thus a secondary function, unable to warrant faith’s veracity, and so I revert to the thesis which I announced at the beginning of this lecture.

In all sad sincerity I think we must conclude that the attempt to demonstrate by purely intellectual processes the truth of the deliverances of direct religious experience is absolutely hopeless.

It would be unfair to philosophy, however, to leave her under this negative sentence. Let me close, then, by briefly enumerating what she can do for religion. If she will abandon metaphysics and deduction for criticism and induction, and frankly transform herself from theology into science of religions, she can make herself enormously useful.

The spontaneous intellect of man always defines the divine which it feels in ways that harmonize with its temporary intellectual prepossessions. Philosophy can by comparison eliminate the local and the accidental from these definitions. Both from dogma and from worship she can remove historic incrustations. By confronting the spontaneous religious constructions with the results of natural science, philosophy can also eliminate doctrines that are now known to be scientifically absurd or incongruous.

Sifting out in this way unworthy formulations, she can leave a residuum of conceptions that at least are possible. With these she can deal as hypotheses, testing them in all the manners, whether negative or positive, by which hypotheses are ever tested. She can reduce their number, as some are found more open to objection. She can perhaps become the champion of one which she picks out as being the most closely verified or verifiable. She can refine upon the definition of this hypothesis, distinguishing between what is innocent over-belief and symbolism in the expression of it, and what is to be literally taken. As a result, she can offer mediation between different believers, and help to bring about consensus of opinion. She can do this the more successfully, the better she discriminates the common and essential from the individual and local elements of the religious beliefs which she compares.

I do not see why a critical Science of Religions of this sort might not eventually command as general a public adhesion as is commanded by a physical science. Even the personally non-religious might accept its conclusions on trust, much as blind persons now accept the facts of optics — it might appear as foolish to refuse them. Yet as the science of optics has to be fed in the first instance, and continually verified later, by facts experienced by seeing persons; so the science of religions would depend for its original material on facts of personal experience, and would have to square itself with personal experience through all its critical reconstructions. It could never get away from concrete life, or work in a conceptual vacuum. It would forever have to confess, as every science confesses, that the subtlety of nature flies beyond it, and that its formulas are but approximations. Philosophy lives in words, but truth and fact well up into our lives in ways that exceed verbal formulation. There is in the living act of perception always something that glimmers and twinkles and will not be caught, and for which reflection comes too late. No one knows this as well as the philosopher. He must fire his volley of new vocables out of his conceptual shotgun, for his profession condemns him to this industry, but he secretly knows the hollowness and irrelevancy. His formulas are like stereoscopic or kinetoscopic photographs seen outside the instrument; they lack the depth, the motion, the vitality. In the religious sphere, in particular, belief that formulas are true can never wholly take the place of personal experience.”

For full text of this great book go to: Varieties of Religious Experience Chapter 18 (Philosophy)


5 responses to “Looking for a Science of Religions

  1. Good post. Being a philosopher I’ve gotten a lot out of James. He was way ahead of his time. I have two comments: 1) Spiritual experience is (or can be) empirical. The Subud spiritual exercise (www.subud.org) is a generic “receiving” of the power of God (or whatever you want to call It) which is felt in the body. In essence, it is the “proof” (I use the word loosely) of religion. 2) Alfred North Whitehead has successfully combined science and religion in his metaphysical system. Whitehead is extremely complex because he proposes a whole new ontology (and accompanying set of neologisms) based partly on ideas in quantum mechanics, yet his ideas about God resonate easily to the open-minded. The two books to start would be “Science in the Modern World” and “Religion in the Making.” (see http://alimansearsbooks.wordpress.com/2008/01/11/lets-get-started-religion-in-the-making-rm/).


  2. Thanks a lot of your comment. I have studied philosophy as an undergrad but was not aqainted with Whitehead’s work on the subject. I will check it out.

  3. Do keep in mind that James wrote a long time ago, and the Religious Studies academy has done quite a bit and changed quite a bit in the last hundred years–as fundamental as James’s work is, it just can’t possibly keep up in theory, details, or execution with a constantly developing field of study.

  4. I agree, James is outdated, I just like the way he writes.

    That said, it has only been very recently that scientist have took up rigorously studying the brain science of religious experience.

    Here is a fascinating overview of a recent study.

  5. Jared C:

    Just found your blog from your comment at Irresistable Disgrace. Some good ideas, so I hope you’ll post some more.

    You have probably looked at Whitehead by now; he’s the founder of what became the process theology school of thought. However, be aware that ideas of physics underlying Whitehead’s approach have changed so drastically in the past century that I personally doubt that Whitehead would have pursued his approach if he started over today.


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