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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Most people are just idiots when it comes to religious issues

An und für sich “This is more a comment than a question…” September 10th, 2007
The Neurology of Religious Experience Posted by Adam
One periodically reads of scientific studies with the astounding conclusion that religious experience actually has a correlate in brain chemistry. Presumably, this means that religious experience does not come from God, deeply challenging our ingrained &c.
My question about this: How common is co-called “religious experience,” really? It seems to me that in actual fact, it is rarely the basis for one’s religious identification, but is rather produced by said identification. You don’t hear of many Christians who suddenly have a vision that convinces them to convert to Islam or something. If they do have such a vision, it’s usually going to be because they were already starting to think that Islam was a better religion, studying it, maybe observing the mosque — that is, the decision was already unconsciously made, and the vision provides a dramatic conscious ratification. The more usual case, of course, is that one has a vision or experience that confirms an already consciously held belief, normally one that is held as a matter of course due to upbringing, etc.
The mainstream of theology seems to have moved away from “religious experience” as a foundational category. In my mind, the turn to “religious experience” was a reactionary move within the categories set up by the Enlightenment anyway — the Enlightenment scapegoats something called religion, so someone like Schleiermacher turns around and says that religion is good. Yet he can’t simply identify religion with morality, etc., anymore, so we get “religion” as a deep feeling that provides unity and coherence, a sense of mystery, whatever (I know this is something of a parody). In the 20th century, the spell is broken with the advent of Barth’s Romans, though there are obviously still remnants of the older view. (I don’t know exactly where to place Tillich in this respect.)
The big counter-example to what I’m saying is of course Pentecostalism, which is one of the fastest-growing things in the world outside the realm of speculative finance. But Pentecostalism does not seem to me to be in the mainstream of religions — it is one of the only movements I can think of in history that has tried to produce something like a “religious” or “mystical” experience on a mass basis. In the majority of situations, religion is a matter of going along with the accepted cultural milieu, and most popular religion is actually very practically-oriented, in terms of “superstitious” practices that try to influence the course of everyday events, etc.
I don’t think it’s an accident that Pentecostalism started in America, given that our society is so radically defined by the Enlightenment privatization of religion. That’s right: I’m saying that Pentecostalism, the most “creepy” (and often very reactionary) religious movement out there, is actually “blowback” from the Enlightenment. Same as fundamentalism: as I’ve said before, fundamentalism is the bastard son of vulgar empiricism.
Our brave secular liberals today are primarily battling against their own children, but they can never admit it. Although I think the dangers of “religion” are often exaggerated, this blindness on the part of secular liberals is a very real weakness. Within the frame provided, I of course side with the secular liberals — nonetheless, the only real solution is to get rid of the frame altogether. Posted by Adam Filed in politics, religion 8 Responses to “The Neurology of Religious Experience”
cynic librarian Says: September 10th, 2007 at 11:18 pm
I’m not sure that you can do much better than James’ Varieties of Religious Experience. I don’t think that James begs the questions about religion and experience, but perhaps that is so. Maybe it does depend on what you mean by “experience” and “religion,” so that the scientist’s studies do fit the definition. But then would all agree on that definition? I’d suggest that “real” faith can’t be studied by science because it operates with what Kierkegaard called the wrong mood. By that he meant that science see religion from an objectifying, theoretical manner.
With these comments in mind, I think it’s safe to say that there are religious experiences. I’ve certainly had experiences that I’d characterize as such. These could–I guess–form the only basis for further religious life, but if so then I think you fall into the trap that Kierkegaard calls aestheticism. As to this latter, we can certainly see Pentacostalism as a form of the aesthetic as Kierkegaard understood it. It’s a purely emotivist experience.
The more interesting aspect for me is how the scientistic and religious emotivist’s paths intersect. That is, both seek a form of certainty and certitude. The scientist finds it in empircal data permuted through a causal framework. The religious emotivist finds it in that “high” they get by tuning in to God.
One wonders what would happen should the latter find that “experience” ultimately unethical and a betrayal of God. As Kierkegaard points out, in terms of the religious there are no certainties, only acts of faith. At its highest level, these acts are done in the face ob total and absolute objective uncertainty.
Anthony Paul Smith Says: September 11th, 2007 at 12:48 pm
Adam, I’m convinced that most people are just idiots when it comes to religious issues. A good litmus test of idiocy regarding religion is to see if they want to defend either Lewis or Dawkins. If they do, they are likely an idiot.
Adam Says: September 11th, 2007 at 3:31 pm
Funny thing about William James is that his fucking book comes before the big break produced by WWI — a consolidation of a certain trajectory that has since been decisively critiqued. Apparently people regard him as the end-all — I had no idea. Over 100 years, and absolutely nothing has happened in the field! I’m so embarrassed not to defer to him in all things!
Seriously, does it ever occur to anyone that maybe there’s a reason something like the William James comes out around that time? You don’t even need to know academic theology — haven’t you ever read the chapter debunking the late-Victorian concept of the sacred in fucking Homo Sacer? That’s common currency, even though I know Karl Barth isn’t.

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