Facts of Experience vs. Truths of Experience
by Adam Robbert
Levy Bryant asks some excellent questions in response to my previous post on postsecularity and religious studies. His questions have definitely helped me to further refine my position. Levi asks:
Are you prepared to claim that there must be something to every widespread set of beliefs people have? For example, racism has been common throughout all cultures. Are you prepared to claim that there is truth to racism and that it is something “we shouldn’t explain away” as based on other things, whether they be cultural, neurological peculiarities of our brain, etc? I ask because this is the argument both you and Matter are making with respect to god and religion. You’re claiming that because it is widespread, there must be something to it and that it shouldn’t be “explained away” through ethnography, sociology, cog sci, neurology, etc. Yet all things being equal, I don’t see why I shouod accept this thesis in the case of religion but not racism. In fact, I take it that the fact that belief in the divine has been so widespread throughout history and culture is evidence of a neurological ground of religious belief (it’s a spandrel), not evidence for the truth of that belief. I’m all for investigating why the many myths of the world have such potent meaning and significance for people, but that’s an ethnographic secular project, akin to literary analysis, not a project that argues these things have true referents or that the divine actually exists.
To which I respond:
Thanks for your excellent questions, Levi. In short, I am prepared to claim that any account of the world we generate must not preclude the experiences people have of the world. This is different than claiming that there is positive truth value to those experiences, but nevertheless such moments in human life must be included in our datum of experience. This is my, following Whitehead’s, point about stating that religious experience is a cosmological fact: religious experiences do happen. To do away with the religious experience in our account of the humans and the cosmos, for me, suggests something like the following hypothetical position: there are many ways to experience the “human,” the “divine,” and the “cosmos,” but some of these are false and deluded, having explanations other than what the individuals who believe in such things happens to think is the case, because of this I shall ignore these elements of human experience and produce an account of experience without them. This is not a move I am prepared to make. I don’t see you arguing that we remove religious experience in our accounts of the world either, Levi. However, our approach to the study of the matter is different.
I think approaching matters of humans and religions as cosmic facts actually creates greater ethnographic import, and not less, since excepting the cosmic fact of religious experience at least provides the ground with which to approach a study of religious experiences from a greater number of perspectives. Secularity, for my tastes, reduces the number of ways we can study something in an unhelpful way, particularly in the case of religion. I think this is to our disadvantage, hence I don’t assume secularity when interpreting religious experiences, even as I don’t deny secularizing methods.
Further, I have to return to my statements in the above post and make extra clarifications. I claim that ethnography, biology, sociology, or psychology are not adequate to explaining “away” religion, and I hold this to be true. However, this is not an exclusive property of religion or religious thinking. I do not think biology, sociology, or psychology will explain away philosophy or science, or any other system of ideas for that matter, either. However, I have definitely not denied the importance of ethnographic or psychological studies of religion, or as you as rightly point out, the possible neurological ground that makes religious thinking possible for humans every where. Rather, I prefer to take a more integral approach by suggesting that all phenomena can be treated and approached with a mix-methods, transdisciplinary mode of research. You wrote: “I’m all for investigating why the many myths of the world have such potent meaning and significance for people, but that’s an ethnographic secular project, akin to literary analysis, not a project that argues these things have true referents or that the divine actually exists.” I totally agree with this statement, with one caveat. Ethnographic research is one mode of studying the significance of religious and mythological systems, not the only one. Thus while I wouldn’t reduce religion to biology, culture, or psychology, I am all for employing all of these disciplines (and more) in the study of religious experience, practice, and belief. What I will not do, however, is somewhat arbitrarily decide that one of these fields can dominate religion (or any other mode of thought) and explain it in terms of its own language. I need more thorough descriptions of phenomena in order to feel satisfied that I have done the experience justice, a singular approach just won’t do it for me. Again, this is not because of a special property of religion per se and is rather an approach that I would take with any subject.
Your comparison to racism is apt. Racism is a fact of the world that must be confronted and dismantled in ourselves and in our culture. Like religion, the fact of racism’s existence must be taken into account in order to treat it as the real, live, and contentious issue that it is. We can’t start with racism by saying “well its not really true and has no basis in biology,” which of course is an absolutely true statement, but often doesn’t do a thing to stop racism in the world. Racism, in order to be dismantled, must also be encountered as a real fact of people’s experience. We know, for example, that biological discourses on race themselves have a racist history (as does ethnography and anthropology), we also know that the actual biological evidence against racism doesn’t stop racism from acting in the world. Thus, for me, treating racism as a real phenomena is essential to its possible extinction. I hope this answer helps clarify things for you, as I found your question to be very provocative and important, it has definitely helped to further refine my position.
In sum, I am not looking for the evidence of a truth of belief in the case of religion or racism as the sole means to approach the topic. Rather, I move to study the effects of those practices as well (this is also consistent with the ethnographic approach you suggest, but I still don’t have to reduce the phenomena to ethnography). For me, then, moving ahead to the truth claim aspect of an experience is only one part of a larger move that involves multiple sets of actions and multiple methods of research, each only partial in its account of a phenomena. I do not hear you disagreeing with this and hopefully drawing it out more gives you a better sense of my position. Thanks for the great questions.
(A brief “confessional” might help to further situate my perspective: I have never been to church and have virtually no contact with religious communities -product of being Swedish I think- I do not necessarily have something personal at stake in this conversation, I’m more drawing out what I see as an important aspect of religious studies.)