A recent Conversation article claims science and religion are incompatible. The claim is based on the notion that science and religion utilise different methods. Science uses “tools” to discover “truth” while religion relies on “belief in supernatural agents.”
This characterization of religion, while not totally inaccurate, is not a fair representation of the nature of religion, the sum total of human spirituality, or its compatibility with empirical discovery.
For example, this characterization fails to distinguish between religions instantiated and developed by elites, and religions rooted in common “mystical experiences.”
Catholicism is an example in point here. Catholicism emerged out of the progressive teachings of Jesus Christ. These teachings resonated with populist sentiment of the time, and were arguably threatening to the status quo..
Since the elites of the time couldn’t smash the teachings out of existence, they co-opted them. They brought them together into what we know today as the canonical bible. They restricted access to that bible so they could control the meanings. They even went so far as to burn people who tried to provide vernacular access.
The monopoly of the “rich male collective” on the writings that surrounded Jesus Christ was finally broken with the invention of the printing press. This made it impossible to prevent the distribution of popular translations. That did not help the cause. Even though today [the bible is readily available for all to read](https://www.biblegateway.com/), priests unabashedly control interpretation. They select passages out of context and sermonizing them to the spiritually hungry. To this day, organised, institutionalised “big religion” is about opiating the masses.
Big religion is the kind of religion critics typically point to when they are bashing human spirituality. Big religion is definitely incompatible with logic, reason, and empirical methods. However, big religion is not the only kind of religion or the only kind of human spirituality.
Besides big religion, we also have human spirituality rooted in mystical experience. This fascinating area of human spirituality does not deserve to be cast in the same light as big religion. In fact, not all academics do so.
In psychology, William James wrote ”The Varieties of Religious Experience.” This book is an extended examination of mystical experience.
Esteemed psychologist Abraham Maslow spent his entire life unwinding “peak experiences.” Peak experience are his name for mystical experience.
Other psychologists have show interest as well. Ralph Hood points out that “persons high in psychological strength are more likely to report intense religious experiences than persons low in psychological strength.” Really? Perhaps human spirituality is not for stupid people after all, but for those with psychological strength and mental health.
Sociologists have also been involved. We carved out a space for the study of mystical experience early. Though largely neglected by sociologists since then, there has been sporadic interest.
There can be no doubt that there is more to human spirituality than churches and church attendance. There is a “mystical” dimension. There is a realm of spiritual experience. This realm is worthy of our interest, time, and attention.
But, “what is mystical experience?”
This confusion in nomenclature makes it hard to pin down. For myself, I prefer to start simple and define, in the most generic and neutral language possible, mystical experience as connection to something more. Mystical experience is connection to something more.
What is that “something more?” That is the rub. Some say mystical experience emerges from brain neurology and structure. Others “reject the popular scientific presumption that all modes of human information processing are completely executed within the physiological brain.” Instead, they point to a “source” outside the brain.
Which is it? The answer to this tantalising question has major implications for humanity and our understanding of ourselves. Unfortunately, addressing this question required more than this short introduction.
What is important to understand here is that whatever the source of our connection experiences, connection experiences are worthy of our personal and scholarly attention. Connection experiences are a significant aspect of human spirituality. Connection experience are amenable to empirical inquiry and logical analysis.
Most important to note, we can no longer afford to ignore them.
We cannot ignore them because connection experience is a fact and feature of human experience.
We cannot ignore them because connection experience may point the way towards a healthier, happier, better adjusted, and more progressive humanity.
We cannot ignore because opening ourselves to an examination of connection experience is the only way to avoid what my sociological colleague Linda Brookover called the stylized and simplistic understanding of religion and human spirituality prevalent amongst academics even to this day.