It’s Not True that Empiricism and Religion Are Never the Same Thing

 

I’ve been mostly just lurking around Ricochet lately, a consequence of traveling. Two weeks ago travel and allergens wore me out enough to allow for (probably) a flu, which was followed by the usual sinus infection, which was followed by the usual prednisone and antibiotics. But I felt pretty good about the flu because I felt I had something to show for being completely exhausted: My article “William James and Allama Iqbal on Empirical Faith” was accepted for publication around the time the headache started, with the nicest words I’ve ever received from a blind reviewer. As of this morning, the article is now up at the Heythrop Journal website.

My recommended one-sentence takeaway is: Don’t trust the popular theory that empiricism and religion are never the same thing. And here’s some of the gist of my analysis of two empirical religious philosophers:

James and Iqbal both believe that religious experiences are an important class of those experiences with which empiricism is concerned. In their way of thinking, the idea that we should look to experience for knowledge is compatible with religious faith and practice, and is also a grounds for understanding, defending, and testing religious belief. James includes this as one important aspect of his pragmatism, . . . . Iqbal . . . presents his religious empiricism as part of his strategy for renovating Islamic thought in the modern world by recovering the empirical aspect of religion. This requires that we learn to see science and religion as distinct but complementary spheres of empirical enquiry.

So what have we learned? Allama Iqbal, twentieth-century Islamic philosopher of the Subcontinent, shows some influence of William James, nineteenth- and twentieth-century American philosopher. They both develop empirical accounts and defenses of religious belief. They both argue that a thoroughgoing empiricism must consider religious experience as a legitimate form of experience and a possible source of knowledge. They both argue that a religious belief is tested by its fruits. James’ analysis comes about in the course of his development of radical empiricism, which leads ultimately to his articulation of a philosophical interpretation of the data of experience. Iqbal’s analysis is part of his attempt to reconstruct traditional Islamic thought in the modern world.

So it appears that James’ and Iqbal’s divergent approaches to religious empiricism are not in dramatic conflict. However, ultimately they do go in two separate directions.

And here I, personally, have one final point to offer. I, a Nicene Christian, go in a third direction. This too, so far as I can tell, is a permissible choice by James’ lights. . . . James says of Pascal in ‘Will to Believe’ that he unduly limits our choices. Perhaps the divergence of James and Iqbal is similar; we do have other options consistent with religious empiricism. The prophets Moses and Jesus may also be subjected to Iqbal’s pragmatic test, and many other philosophers of religion (for example, to name only one of the more famous ones, Richard Swinburne) have offered their own analyses of religious empiricism. In short, James and Iqbal have some interesting (and, it seems to me, insightful) things to say, but they are not the whole story.

There’s a little bit of a Ricochet background here.

At this long-ago post I introduce Iqbal, and (to my shame) left out some really important stuff from his religious epistemology (included in the new article). I’ve had a few other posts from time to time covering James, religious empiricism, or epistemology.

I might just also tag @iWe, who has often recommended what appears to me to be the same pragmatic test of religious belief offered by Iqbal.

There are 34 comments.

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  1. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    I’m flying intercontinentally later today. If there’s any discussion here, I might be slow to respond!

    • #1
  2. Brian Wolf Coolidge
    Brian Wolf
    @BrianWolf

    Congrats Saint Augustine. So good and satisfying to be published that way. I may share some thoughts after I read the whole thing, if I can.

    Edit: I won’t be able to read the whole thing but I wish I could.

    • #2
  3. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Charles Fillmore, one of the founders of Unity, was also an empiricist. One of the mottoes or catchphrases or descriptors of Unity is “Practical Christianity.” There is also a quotation that I am too lazy to look up where Fillmore committed himself to prayer and meditation after he saw his wife’s results. The way he put it was he was “taking it direct to headquarters” and paraphrasing here, either there is something to it beyond belief and it will work, or there is only belief that causes it to work. (At the time, he was not a big believer, but saw the results his wife and others in their circle were having.)

    • #3
  4. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Brian Wolf (View Comment):

    Congrats Saint Augustine. So good and satisfying to be published that way. I may share some thoughts after I read the whole thing, if I can.

    Edit: I won’t be able to read the whole thing but I wish I could.

    It happens. Who has time to read everything?

    I’m honored that you’re even interested.

    • #4
  5. Brian Wolf Coolidge
    Brian Wolf
    @BrianWolf

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Brian Wolf (View Comment):

    Congrats Saint Augustine. So good and satisfying to be published that way. I may share some thoughts after I read the whole thing, if I can.

    Edit: I won’t be able to read the whole thing but I wish I could.

    It happens. Who has time to read everything?

    I’m honored that you’re even interested.

    No it is behind a paywall. If it were not I would make the time. That is what I meant. If you benefit from the paywall I think you deserve the money but I can’t pay to read the article right now.

    • #5
  6. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Brian Wolf (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Brian Wolf (View Comment):

    Congrats Saint Augustine. So good and satisfying to be published that way. I may share some thoughts after I read the whole thing, if I can.

    Edit: I won’t be able to read the whole thing but I wish I could.

    It happens. Who has time to read everything?

    I’m honored that you’re even interested.

    No it is behind a paywall. If it were not I would make the time. That is what I meant. If you benefit from the paywall I think you deserve the money but I can’t pay to read the article right now.

    Oh, and money: Who has money to read everything?

    Still honored that you’re even interested!

    University libraries might work. Inter-library loans definitely would work, using a university library. I don’t know if public libraries even do ILLs.

    • #6
  7. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Sort of a sequel, by the way, to “Augustine and William James on the Rationality of Faith,” previously discussed here.

    • #7
  8. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):
    I don’t know if public libraries even do ILLs.

    They do.

    • #8
  9. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):
    I don’t know if public libraries even do ILLs.

    They do.

    Wow. Just with other public libraries? Or can anyone with a library card get past the paywall for the occasional scholarly article?

    • #9
  10. Brian Wolf Coolidge
    Brian Wolf
    @BrianWolf

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):
    I don’t know if public libraries even do ILLs.

    They do.

    Wow. Just with other public libraries? Or can anyone with a library card get past the paywall for the occasional scholarly article?

    If they do I have to get my library card!

    • #10
  11. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):
    I don’t know if public libraries even do ILLs.

    They do.

    Wow. Just with other public libraries? Or can anyone with a library card get past the paywall for the occasional scholarly article?

    Check your local library and see, but I do believe so. (No guarantee outside the US.)

    • #11
  12. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Brian Wolf (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Brian Wolf (View Comment):

    Congrats Saint Augustine. So good and satisfying to be published that way. I may share some thoughts after I read the whole thing, if I can.

    Edit: I won’t be able to read the whole thing but I wish I could.

    It happens. Who has time to read everything?

    I’m honored that you’re even interested.

    No it is behind a paywall. If it were not I would make the time. That is what I meant. If you benefit from the paywall I think you deserve the money but I can’t pay to read the article right now.

    Oh, and money: Who has money to read everything?

    Still honored that you’re even interested!

    University libraries might work. Inter-library loans definitely would work, using a university library. I don’t know if public libraries even do ILLs.

    Yes, the virtual public libraries subscribe to some, not all, academic and professional publication services. Check your local/regional public library’s website for details. They are much more in the electronic loan business these days. No late fees and no chasing lost copies.

    • #12
  13. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    Saint Augustine:

    They both argue that a thoroughgoing empiricism must consider religious experience as a legitimate form of experience and a possible source of knowledge. They both argue that a religious belief is tested by its fruits. ….

    I might just also tag @iWe, who has often recommended what appears to me to be the same pragmatic test of religious belief offered by Iqbal.

    I would certainly go so far as to say that an empiricist must acknowledge that people are often informed by and driven by their religious beliefs such that every new piece of data tends to be filtered in that way, just as socialists usually see all data as reaffirming their faith, and capitalists do likewise.

    And yes, religions can (and should) be pragmatically tested on their fruits. We may not all care for the same fruits, of course, but we should never equivocate by suggesting that all belief systems are in some sense equal. The only thing they have in common is that they are belief systems!

    • #13
  14. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    I asked my wife, and she says it depends on the state and the networks the libraries belong to. In Michigan, it is definitely public and academic sharing on the same networks. Ohio has at least one academic-only network. So, as Col. Brown said, check your local library’s Website or stop on in.

    • #14
  15. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    Arahant (View Comment):

    I asked my wife, and she says it depends on the state and the networks the libraries belong to. In Michigan, it is definitely public and academic sharing on the same networks. Ohio has at least one academic-only network. So, as Col. Brown said, check your local library’s Website or stop on in.

    You will need to stop in to the physical library desk to show the nice librarian your proof of residence, say a drivers license and maybe a utility bill with your home address. That gets you a physical card with card number on the back, plus a PIN number of your choice.

    • #15
  16. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    Here, for instance, is the Maricopa County Library virtual research page.

    • #16
  17. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    This side discussion about libraries is proof Ricochet rocks.

    • #17
  18. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    iWe (View Comment):
    And yes, religions can (and should) be pragmatically tested on their fruits.

    So says Iqbal, citing the Quran and quoting James, knowing James is quoting Jesus. James is also quoting Jonathan Edwards quoting Jesus, who of course is drawing from Torah and prophets.

    • #18
  19. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Two more likes would make a Recommended Feed promotion. Any takers?

    • #19
  20. Mack The Mike Coolidge
    Mack The Mike
    @MackTheMike

    Great article @saintaugustine. I plopped down my $7 to read it ;)

    • #20
  21. Mack The Mike Coolidge
    Mack The Mike
    @MackTheMike

    I’m a little unclear as to what a ‘religious experience’ actual is. In your article, you contrast religious experience with sensory experience. But is appears that we have lots of experiences that aren’t sensory, are all of these experiences religious? Here are some non-sensory experiences I’ve had:

    • The experience of thinking about this comment
    • Dreams
    • Wondering what I’ll have for lunch

    You get the point. All of what we might call ‘the inner life’ is experienced, but not through the senses. Hardly any of this would normally be called religious.

    On the other hand, many people have what they describe as “religious” experiences that have a strong sensory component. When the Virgin Mary appeared to Juan Diego in Guadalupe, he saw her through his senses.

    Sometimes people have an experience of overwhelming beauty upon seeing a sunset or hearing a piece of music. These sensory experiences are sometimes called “religious.” Are they?

    • #21
  22. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Mack The Mike (View Comment):

    Great article @saintaugustine. I plopped down my $7 to read it ;)

    Thanks. I’m honored!

    • #22
  23. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Mack The Mike (View Comment):

    I’m a little unclear as to what a ‘religious experience’ actual is. In your article, you contrast religious experience with sensory experience. But is appears that we have lots of experiences that aren’t sensory, are all of these experiences religious? Here are some non-sensory experiences I’ve had:

    • The experience of thinking about this comment
    • Dreams
    • Wondering what I’ll have for lunch

    You get the point. All of what we might call ‘the inner life’ is experienced, but not through the senses. Hardly any of this would normally be called religious.

    On the other hand, many people have what they describe as “religious” experiences that have a strong sensory component. When the Virgin Mary appeared to Juan Diego in Guadalupe, he saw her through his senses.

    Sometimes people have an experience of overwhelming beauty upon seeing a sunset or hearing a piece of music. These sensory experiences are sometimes called “religious.” Are they?

    I have no objection to referring to any of those as religious experiences, and as you note plenty of non-sensory experiences appear to be non-religious.

    I don’t believe I did contrast religious with sensory experience. I think Iqbal did, and I just tried to exegete him.

    But if Iqbal meant an absolute dichotomy, he should not have.

    My last footnote in the article touches on this. I do not think it’s correct that all religious experiences are non-sensory. The most important religious experiences, like the witnessing of the resurrected Messiah, are sensory experiences. Also mount Sinai, as described by Jewish philosopher Eliezer Berkovits:

    At Sinai, you knew God . . . by actual experience, in which all of your senses were involved (God, Man, and History, page 17).

    This has come up before around here; see # 200 of my first thread dealing with Iqbal.

    • #23
  24. Mack The Mike Coolidge
    Mack The Mike
    @MackTheMike

    Ah yes! I remember that now. Looks like I have something in common with my past self.

    • #24
  25. Mack The Mike Coolidge
    Mack The Mike
    @MackTheMike

    I wonder if James and/or Iqbal aren’t slicing the apple the wrong way. Instead of dividing experiences between “religious” and “non-religious” we instead should consider the spiritual and non-spiritual aspects of all our experiences. 

    Religion and Science aren’t complementary spheres that sit side by side in our lives. Rather Religion (or maybe Philosophy) is a substrate upon which Science is built.

    • #25
  26. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Mack The Mike (View Comment):

    I wonder if James and/or Iqbal aren’t slicing the apple the wrong way. Instead of dividing experiences between “religious” and “non-religious” we instead should consider the spiritual and non-spiritual aspects of all our experiences. 

     

    Very good!

    Now you’ve got me wondering if I got them wrong, and if that’s a better description of their philosophy than mine!

    At a minimum, it does sound rather like Iqbal’s description of the human being, and his analysis of church and state (or mosque and state).

    • #26
  27. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    What if it’s all spiritual?

    • #27
  28. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Arahant (View Comment):

    What if it’s all spiritual?

    All spiritual, all religious–is there a difference?

    • #28
  29. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    What if it’s all spiritual?

    All spiritual, all religious–is there a difference?

    Yes. Spirit is the breath of God. Religion is how we come together to celebrate and venerate God and His works.

    • #29
  30. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    What if it’s all spiritual?

    All spiritual, all religious–is there a difference?

    Yes. Spirit is the breath of God. Religion is how we come together to celebrate and venerate God and His works.

    Given those definitions, it would seem best to say “spiritual” rather than “religious” for much of this–but not for the corporate realities and experiences.

    • #30

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