Dawkins and his critics – 2

December 22, 2010

This is a continuation of my 12/21 post; I shall repeat the first paragraph for orientation:

The springboard for today’s post is one of many critiques of Dawkins from what can be called a modern, open-minded theistic perspective, which I just stumbled on yesterday and found to be rather more nicely written than some of  its kind: “Selling the Soul of Science for a Pot of Message: Evangelizing Atheism in The God Delusion” by Steven C. Walker, published in Brigham Young University Studies 47:133. (This link is to an online version, which appears substantially identical to the hard copy as far as I can recall.)


Now – I was on the subject of religious/spiritual experiences, and was trying to explain my sense that whatever these are, they do not add up to a coherent picture of a (or a part of the) world outside the mind of the experiencer.

I would like to distinguish between types of experience: there are on the one hand those that appear in the form of (or are reported as if they appeared in the form of) normal sensory experiences, just not normal in their content. I mean the sort of “revelations” which abound in most religious traditions – voices from the sky, visions of old men with messages – mostly with some very specific doctrinal content. One nice thing about these is that they are, on one level, easy to understand. That is, I can certainly imagine what it would be like to hear such a voice or encounter such a person. What is hard to do is determine whether the report is accurate. It is very easy to suspect that either the experiencer was not in his/her right mind, or not being entirely honest, or that the story was created later on by others; or perhaps a different, less sensory experience – or even a mere personal moral or other conviction – is being described, using sensory language as metaphor, in which case the instance belongs in my other main category to be addressed later.

Now if it were my own experience, and it really did have a sensory but supernormal character, I would be responsible for first deciding to my own satisfaction whether I was hallucinating, or the victim of a hoax, or the recipient of a real revelation; and if the latter, for attempting to persuade whomever I felt called to persuade. If it were the experience of someone I knew or could look up personally, I would have some ability to examine the person’s character and record and come to some sort of plausible conclusion on the subject. But as it happens all the really specific revelations I have heard or read of seem to have happened far away, long ago, and without much of the documentation that would allow any sort of real “diagnosis.” The best-documented instances I know of are the reports of Joseph Smith and other early Latter-Day Saints; and frankly I don’t know quite what to make of them. I do note that opinion is divided, and that  few if any of the promoters of the cognitive value of spiritual experience – other than LDS members themselves – point to these as exemplars. Well, I suppose this is natural,  for anyone really persuaded by them would probably become a member. But the fact remains that all I have to go on is the consensus of opinion, unless I take the time to do a lot of research; and that consensus isn’t encouraging. But if I grew up in an LDS community I might well feel differently, and this would not be irrational. Remember my point from the last post, that almost  everything we think we know about the world we learned from somebody. I can accept most of Dawkins’ world view but not the edge, the intolerance, the smugness as my friend Carty calls it.

One argument of course against the ready acceptance of reported revelations of this sort – at least in their literal sense – is that there are so many of them that flatly contradict one another, so that they can’t all be right; also, very few of them really break from the immediate cultural environment in which they took place. People don’t turn up in the Arabian desert with visions of the Virgin Mary for instance. All of this however would be consistent not only with hallucinations or hoaxes, but also with real experiences which may have been essentially of a non-sensory and not-doctrinally-specific character, which had the ineffability of truly “inner” experience and were simply reported in the best language culturally available at the time.

So this brings me to my other main category of religious/spiritual experience, the non-sensory ineffable kind, which is what most people today whom I hear claiming for themselves seem to mean. (Even the LDS I’ve spoken to, who believe very strongly in everyone having a personal testimony of their faith; mind you I’ve never been to a testimony meeting though I have been invited and maybe I’ll go someday, but from what I’ve heard and read my impression is that most of what they talk about as their personal testimony is far from the sort of specific sensory encounter that the original prophets spoke of, but something far more like an inner emotional conviction; but I am open to correction on this.)

So now I come to inner, non-sensory, non-verbally-specific religious experience; but I’m already pushing 900 words so it will have to await another instalment… Sorry, I can’t help padding everything I say on the subject with caveats, but dang it all I want to get it down right. See y’all tomorrow maybe.


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