Why Science Does Not Break the Spell of Religion

This morning I made a note on a quote by Philip Hefner, from his “The Human Factor” (p. 86):

“Jesus caressed and pressed things until they began to resist, and at that point, his experience moved him to utter “Abba, Father” — the significance being not that “Father” is masculine, but that “Father” is personal.
We err if we think that the chief question that emerges from this portrayal of human experience is whether there is or can be a personal God. More to the point are the questions: What sort of experience of the world is this? If this is authentic experience that some persons share, how significant is it? What does it mean? How is it to be expressed and interpreted? What does the move into God-talk contribute to our understanding and interpretation of this experience? If such experience is significant in the age of science, what account does science take of it and what light does science throw upon it?”

This actually is programmatic for my approach of evolutionary studies of religion. Scientific studies of religion do not break the spell, but they do shed light on the experiences that lead religious people to use God-talk, on how these experiences and expressions are transmitted, and so forth. Theology can interpret these scientific results and can integrate them in theological interpretations of tradition.
The question of whether scientific theories that propose the firing of neurons, spill-over effects from certain mental modules, or the survival strategies of cultural elements (memes) to be the basis for religious experiences, actually show religious experiences to be illusionary, can thus be shown to be misconceiving religious experience in the first place.

The way an experience becomes a religious experience, following Hefner’s account, is not: person X hears/sees/feels/ the divine and thus proclaims his or her belief, but rather: person X hears/sees/feels the world in such a way that referring to the divine to express these experiences becomes an option. When person X does so, these religious expressions can become part of a religious tradition in two ways: (a) they cause religious experiences, i.e., they enable people to hear/see/feel the world around them as personal, as in-relation with humanity, etc.; (b) they identify religious experiences, i.e., they enable people, by using religious language, to express as adequately as possible what they hear/see/feel. Both ways are probably not easily distinguishable in practice.

This implies that God cannot be reached directly, ever, not even through religious traditions. He is always a hidden God, veiled behind layers of religious language, and at the same time only recognizable as God through religious language. Of course, He is also always a revealed God, showing Himself in the world. There is a paradox there, which is age-old of and cannot be solved, but must be integrated into our own, personal lives. I would never have guessed when I started working on my PhD, but reading Hefner and reading science papers on religion seems slowly but steadily to open my mind for a certain appreciation for mysticism, something I would have regarded as completely irrational, until now.

What do you think? Am I too positive about the possibility of integrating scientific studies of religion into theology?

2 thoughts on “Why Science Does Not Break the Spell of Religion

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