September 29, 2005

THE VAGARIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE By Daniel Gilbert

THE VAGARIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE By Daniel Gilbert

"(I had) a deep religiosity, which, however, found an abrupt ending at the age of 12. Through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true. The consequence was a positively fanatic orgy of freethinking coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies. It was a crushing impression. Suspicion against every kind of authority grew out of this experience, a skeptical attitude towards the convictions which were alive in any specific social environment — an attitude which has never again left me." (Autobiographical Notes, 1949)

Einstein's orgy of freethinking forever changed our understanding of space and time, and the phrase "Religion for Dummies" became, in the view of many scientists, a redundancy.

But this conceptualization of religious belief misses an important point, namely, that people don't believe in God simply because they are told to by their elders, but because they are compelled to by their own experience. William James understood that religious belief grows out of human experience, and he urged scientists to investigate the experiences that spawned it:

"I speak not now of your ordinary religious believer (whose)... religion has been made for him by others, communicated to him by tradition, determined to fixed forms by imitation, and retained by habit. It would profit us little to study this second-hand religious life. We must make search rather for the original experiences which were the pattern-setters to all this mass of suggested feeling and imitated conduct." (The Varieties of Religious Experience, 1902)

If belief in God is compelled by experience, then what sorts of experiences compel it?

Curious Order and Empty Form

Nobody needs God to explain why orgasms feel good and root canals don't. God's job is to provide an explanation for experiences that are otherwise baffling and inexplicable. These curious experiences need not involve seeing angels or speaking in tongues, but may instead be of the garden variety. Consider the ordinary experience of order. The naturalist, William Paley, laid the groundwork for the modern notion of intelligent design when he asked us to imagine what we would conclude were we to come across a watch lying on the ground.

"The inference we think is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker — that there must have existed, at some time and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer, who comprehended its construction and designed its use." (Natural Theology, 1802)

In other words, a watch is not a random assemblage of parts, but a structured, ordered, obviously non-random assemblage of parts — and non-random assemblages require explanations. The existence of an intelligent assembler is a tempting explanation if only because it is at once so familiar and so complete. For most people, the material universe, biological life, and human consciousness are the kinds of curious, complex, well-ordered phenomena that require explanation, and an intelligent designer seems to provide just that.

But there are at least two problems with this explanation. First, explanations that rely on the inexplicable are not explanations at all. They have the form of explanations, but they do not have the content. Yet, psychology experiments reveal that people are often satisfied by empty form. For instance, when experimenters approached people who were standing in line at a photocopy machine and said, "Can I get ahead of you?" the typical answer was no. But when they added to the end of this request the words "because I need to make some copies," the typical answer was yes. The second request used the word "because" and hence sounded like an explanation, and the fact that this explanation told them nothing that they didn't already know was oddly irrelevant.


In short, what William Paley did not realize is that statements such as "God made it" can satiate the appetite for explanation without providing any nutritional value.