Where the Spell Can Be Broken: A Natural Naturalistic Approach to Religion

by Mitchell Erickson

Alfred North Whitehead once observed that science and religion have always been in conflict, and that both science and religion have developed and changed throughout history--religion often changing because of the findings of science. Whitehead, a defender of religion, claimed that if we accepted the fact that the two discourses are concerned with different domains--science with the observations of natural phenomena and religion with holiness and the eternal--the conflict would end.[1] Now, even if one does not agree with Whitehead's characterization of religion, it seems clear that religion and science have, historically, been at odds. In Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Daniel Dennett is on the one hand presenting another challenge to religion--he wants to present a naturalistic explanation of religion as a social phenomenon, which would seem to preclude religion being "about" the eternal and holy; on the other hand he is offering is own solution to the conflict: that the religious should accept a no-holds-barred scientific (naturalistic) investigation of religion.[2] I suppose we are to imagine that once the no-holds-barred investigation was over, the religious would realize that there is no basis for their religious beliefs; given that situation, religion would, once and for all, disappear. It seems to me that whether or not religious believers accept a no-holds-barred investigation, an empirical investigation of religion could proceed, anyway. The question is whether the religious would accept the conclusions of the investigation. I suspect they would not. At least they would not as long as the investigations are of a type like Dennett's, because there is a "last line of defense" that is not taken seriously in most empirical accounts of religion, and as long as it is not, no believer need accept those accounts.[3]

In what follows, I want to make two main points. First, that there could be a naturalistic explanation of religion that is more closely tied to certain human experiences that are considered uniquely religious, and attempting to work out this explanation could be a better approach to a naturalistic explanation of religion. Secondly, as long as naturalistic explanations ignore these "religious" experiences, the explanation will be incomplete and those explanations need never be accepted by religious believers. Of course, it may be the case that those believers will never accept any naturalistic explanation, anyway. However, my point will be that if a purported naturalistic explanation of religion does not include these religious experiences, it cannot be a complete explanation. I do think Dennett's account does not include these experiences, and so is incomplete, but ultimately, I am going to be discussing Dennett's account to make a more general point: if any naturalistic explanation of religion is incomplete in the way I will indicate, religious believers need not accept it, because they have a perfectly reasonable response to the explanation.

Dennett's account has, as I see it, two levels. At the first level is a theoretical entity called a meme. A meme is an "information packet" that can be passed on from one human brain to another. In the process of transfer, the original meme might be duplicated more or less faithfully as a meme in another brain. Change might occur in the transfer process, and so memes, in general, evolve, given particular historical circumstances.[4] At this stage of the account, the second level, an evolutionary explanation of some features of religion is given. The general idea is that a meme might occur in some human brain, and because this information packet can be transferred, and is in some way useful to something in the human organism, the information packet "survives" by evolving, with modifications if necessary, through some portion of human history. Specifically, Dennett offers five theories as evolutionary explanations for every designed feature of religion (i.e., religion as a social phenomenon). The explanations (theories) are all possible accounts of the development of the features of religion, and are meant to answer the cui bono? question for these features--who does it (the feature) benefit?[5] I don't think that we are meant to conclude that we could pick any particular feature of a religion and indicate precisely who or what that feature benefits. It would be too much to expect from this kind of theory to ask, for example, "Who or what does the ritual of the offertory in the Catholic mass benefit?" and get an answer that tells us precisely the particular persons, or the particular parts of persons it benefits. The general idea, I believe at this early stage in the development of the explanation, is that there is something, at present unknown, that is benefited. This something might be a human need, or perhaps something in humans that is attracted to the feature, but we must remember that the feature was "designed" by the evolution of memes through a natural selection process.

Let me mention a few other comments Dennett makes, so that his approach can be more readily contrasted with another account I am going to suggest. Dennett's tentative definition of religions is: "social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought."[6] Although Dennett admits that this definition would eliminate some social phenomena we call religions (some versions of Buddhism would be eliminated, for example), he wants to focus on the core phenomenon of religion: "The core phenomenon of religion, I am proposing, invokes gods who are effective agents in real time, and who play a central role in the way the participants think about what they ought to do."[7] But by expressing the issue in this way, his analysis can be limited to the social phenomena of religion, which might turn out to have a naturalistic explanation of the type he is offering. What is left out are certain other phenomena, which might also have a naturalistic explanation, but of a different type. These other phenomena are religious experiences, and unless they are accounted for in a naturalistic explanation, that explanation is incomplete and can be rejected by a religious believer.

To begin the contrast with Dennett's approach, let's consider another characterization of religion, given by John Hick: "They [religions] are not primarily philosophies or theologies but primarily ways of salvation/liberation."[8] Salvation is, for Hick, "an actual change in human beings, a change which can be identified when it can be identified--by its moral fruits."[9] Glossing over the vagaries at this time, if we were to understand seeking salvation/liberation as the core phenomenon of religion, we would notice two things: 1) some of the things characterized as religions or as religious, excluded by Dennett's definition, would be included in Hick's (for example, some versions of Buddhism); 2) the resulting explanation of the core phenomenon of religion would probably be different. This explanation might, indeed, turn out to be a naturalistic explanation, but a different kind of naturalistic explanation. In this kind of explanation, we would be inquiring as to the (natural) cause of the above-mentioned change--the "salvation/liberation experience."

So, the alternative account begins with another proposal for the core phenomenon of religion: the origin of religious motivation, or religious belief is religious experience, not the exposure by an individual to a meme. I have no theory here; I'm not mainly concerned to explain how religions developed as social systems. That may seem a failing, because one of the most striking features about religions (to a Martian, say) is that they appear to be systems of human organization. My account won't be the type of account offered by Dennett, because I am not concerned to explain why a particular kind of observable feature of religion came to be as it is. So, let's not call it a theory, yet, but the Experiential Account. How it differs from the type of account offered by Dennett will develop shortly. But, if it is not amenable to some kind of empirical examination, then it can't be offered as an alternative to any naturalistic explanation.

The Experiential Account is based on this hypothesis: religious experience is real. I am supposing that people do have, and have had, what they call mystical (or religious) experiences. I see no reason to deny that some people do; even the strict logical positivist A. J. Ayer admitted that they do.[10] However, Ayer claimed that these experiences do not connect with any supernatural reality independent of the experiencer's mind. But, we need not address that issue here, because whether or not they do, it still could be the case that people have these experiences. My account will probably need elaboration and more precision to meet the membrane of the empirical world via testing. But our investigation is still young, and anyway in what follows I just want to characterize at least one kind of religious experience in order to see how the Experiential Account differs from Dennett's approach. I want to get away from any explanation of religion based on evolution or natural selection.

In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James offers four "marks" which characterize mystical experience.[11] I suppose we agree that a mystical experience is a religious experience (although not every religious experience is necessarily a mystical one). I won't to get into detail about what James' "marks" are, or whether they adequately capture mystical experience.[12] They are meant to be marks by which one could identify a mystical experience, from the inside, so to speak. They are phenomenological marks. How plausible is this kind of account of religious experience? Let me make a basic case about why a religious experience would seem authentic and different from other experiences. First, there does seem to be a phenomenological difference between certain mental states or processes. Take the emotion and reason, for examples. If one were to experience an emotion, for example, anger, and a few moments later do a mental calculation of sums, the two processes or experiences would "feel" different. Also, I think it is uncontroversial that historically (and in different intellectual traditions) people have distinguished between reason and emotion. Why is this? I don't think it's an arbitrary distinction, but simply that these people noticed that the process of reasoning "felt different" than the experience of emotions. And so, you might also say that anger felt different than shame, and pain felt different than pleasure, and so on. So, if we were to inquire into the "felt quality" of emotions, for example, we might look for "marks" of emotion (or marks that distinguished emotions from reason). This is what James is up to, with respect to mystical experience.

So, is there a phenomenological difference between mystical experience and emotions, on the one hand, and mystical experience and the reasoning process on the other? Well, one reason to think so is that when people do have mystical experiences they don't identify them with emotions or the reasoning process. I imagine a typical case would be something like the following. A person, having been brought up in the company of others has learned the difference, in a rough and ready way, between an emotion and the reasoning process. This person, in some way, knows what it feels like to have an emotion, and knows what it feels like to engage in the reasoning process. Now, suppose this person has a mystical experience. Again, I am not claiming these experiences are "connections to god," or anything like that, but I see no reason to deny that people have these experiences, whatever they are. But, having the experience must "feel" different to the subject. The subject does not identify the experience with emotion, or the reasoning process, or any other kind of mental state. The experience is of a different type. The most I want to claim here is that, at least from the point of view of the subject of the experiences, the felt qualities of emotions, the the felt quality of the reasoning process, and the felt quality of mystical experience are all different from each other. And I would go so far as to claim that the felt quality of mystical experiences differed from that of the felt quality of dreams, and hallucinations, and so on. The experiencers of mystical experience do not do not seem to confuse them with other types of experiences.[13] James was trying in some way to characterize mystical experience in such a way as to "mark" it from other kinds of experience. We want to ask, with respect to a mystical experience, "What marks it off?"

Now, a non-believer might not admit that the experience mentioned above is a mystical experience. But this is because a non-believer maintains that gods do not exist, and so there could be no experience of them. Obviously, there can be no real experiences of non-existent entities. There can be no real experience of a god, just as there can be no real experience of a unicorn. Nevertheless, there can be experiences that are believed to be of god, just as there can be experiences that are believed to be of a unicorn. If experiences like the one above are believed to be about god, or a transcendent reality, then the experiencer might call them mystical or religious. Why the experiencer calls them "mystical" is an issue that I can't address here, mainly because I have no idea (not having had the experience). But I do believe that people have these experiences (whatever they are), and I would like to know how to account for them in some empirical way.

So, could the Experiential Account be a good naturalistic explanation of religion? I will give three reasons to answer in the affirmative. 1) In this account there is some "religious" phenomenon (religious or mystical experience) that is the origin of religious belief and theology. 2) The account is amenable to empirical investigation. 3) The account is, or could be, more complete than a type of account like Dennett's.

As to the first point, we only want to establish a naturalistic account of the origin of religion and/or religious belief. How might the account go? As an example, let's take the case of Siddhartha Gautama. This person had a certain experience, came to have beliefs--what we might term religious beliefs--based on this experience (and other experiences, perhaps), and passed on these beliefs in the form of "teachings" (one supposes) onto others. The teachings were believed by others; given enough believers, a religion came into existence. That's pretty simple. In this account, the motivation for any future individual to believe in or practice the teachings is to have the experience the Buddha had. More generally, then, the motivation for an individual to believe in a religious teaching is to have the salvation/liberation experience promised in the teaching. Notice that this account includes some mention of teachings and beliefs (memes?) being passed on. Perhaps this process is evolutionary in nature. The origin of belief and the motivation to believe, however, are connected to a human experience, not an information packet.

Regarding the second point: some people seem to have what are called religious or mystical experiences. What's that all about? Surely, as philosophers and empiricists we have to examine this question. Mystical experiences must be a set of synapses firing in the brain, or a result of the action of certain brain chemicals (if we hold to a materialist account). This is what non-believing materialists must claim. I fail to see what else mystical or religious experiences could be, on any materialistic, empirical account. And so, it is in principle possible to study these events or processes. Perhaps mystical experience is due to a chemical imbalance, and some pharmaceutical can be developed to treat it, if treatment is wanted.[14] More likely, since mystical experiences are short-lived events, they are a set of synapses firing. These events could be studied empirically. If we were to investigate these experiences, we might discover that there are standard causes of the experience. We might discover only certain people can have these experiences. We might discover that religious experience occurs is the same area of the brain in which drug-induced hallucinations occur. I don't know. But people do have religious experiences, and the issue is amenable to scientific investigation.

As to the third point, let me illustrate the difference between the Experiential Approach and Dennett's by use of an analogy. Suppose we wanted to give a naturalistic account of the phenomenon of marriage. We could begin by supposing that marriage began as meme at some point in human development and "survived" because it satisfied some human interest or need. We would go on to explain how the cultural phenomenon of marriage evolved to its present state. This account might be partially adequate, but it seems to leave a crucial part out, namely love (or at least lust). This, one supposes, is an emotion. Not every marriage begins with love, but some (I hope many) do. And I think a similar case can be made for religions. Very many have their origin with a religious experience of some sort, and many continue because the practitioners expect to have some kind of religious experience. The main point is that appealing to memes and some evolutionary explanation is not a complete explanation of religion or marriage. The cause of love, for example, is not a meme, not an information packet, passed from one person to another. And love itself (i.e., the feeling) is not a meme or information packet. The language of love, and the discussion of love in human culture might be cultural memes, but love itself is not--it's an emotion. And similarly, while religious beliefs might be memes, religious experience is not.

Believers are aware of this incompleteness. And so the "last line of defense" for believers is going to be that their religion is not simply about belief, but also, and primarily about the promised religious experience to be had by the believer. Dennett is aware of this last line of defense, and he explains it through the words of an imaginary character "Professor Faith."

Here is what Dennett has Professor Faith say:

...you talked about "fake it until you make it," but you never got around to describing the wonderful state of those who do "make it," whose honest attempt to imbue themselves the spirit of God succeed in a burst of glory. Those of us who know the experience know that it is unlike any other experience, a joy warmer than the joy of motherhood, deeper than the joy of victory in sports, more ecstatic than the joys of playing or singing great music. When we see the light, it isn't just an "Aha!" experience, like figuring out a puzzle or suddenly seeing the hidden figure in a drawing, or getting a joke, or being persuaded by an argument....it's like falling in love.[15]

Dennett is obviously aware of the "last line of defense" a believer might have to his analysis of religion. Unfortunately, Dennett avoids this issue. He responds to Professor Faith by saying:

"...it isn't just like falling in love; it is a kind of falling in love. The discomfort or even outrage you feel when confronted by my calm invitation to consider the pros and cons of your religion is the same reaction one feels when asked for a candid evaluation of one's true love."[16]

Dennett may be correct in his description of the response of some believers to a candid (and perhaps true) evaluation of their religion, but he has avoided Professor Faith's main point. The point is that some believers want or claim that they have had the experience described. They might love their religion, also, but the payoff for them isn't the love of their beliefs, but the promise of salvation/liberation. The response that probably should be made to Professor Faith's point is along this line: "Yes, I have heard about this type of experience, but you must understand that the experience you are describing can't be about God, because God doesn't exist." But we can't go there. That way is a dead end, and everyone in the debate realizes it. However, if an empirical study could link the religious experience Professor Faith describes to some brain activity, then some purchase can be made on the last line of defense to make it less firm. We can't expect that that the first or second study that links mystical/religious experiences to some brain activity is going to absolutely convince all religious believers. But the acceptance of scientific "fact" is usually a slow process, inroads are made here and there, and eventually the facts are part of general cultural knowledge. Depression and disease, for example, were once believed to have supernatural causes, but very few now would sacrifice their future to those beliefs. This process of replacing belief in supernatural or mysterious causes with belief in natural causes is present in the history of any science. In any case, even if religious experience cannot be linked to some kind of brain activity, scientists should want to investigate the phenomenon in some other empirical way. However it goes, the empirical position must be that religious experience is a natural phenomenon, and so amenable to empirical study. It seems to me that this is the "natural" naturalistic approach that should be taken.