Thursday, 24 March 2016

No, the debate about religious experience is not about whether we should trust emotions

Christians who often have and highly value religious experiences are “feelers” and people who don’t and are more sceptical (fellow Christians or not) are “thinkers”, right? Apparently, the difference between the camps can be boiled down to a very simple dispute about emotion. Enthusiasts for religious experiences chide the sceptics for a distrust of emotions. And sceptics chide the enthusiasts for a naïve trust of emotions.

So which is the correct attitude: trust or distrust? My answer: I have no idea what on earth either side are talking about. We need some further context. I just can’t make any sense of the idea that without qualification I wholesale trust my emotions (or wholesale distrust them). It seems to me that I trust emotions for certain things and distrust them for other things.

I mean, suppose I’m learning about physics and I’m told about two competing interpretations of quantum mechanics. If I believe one of them over the other just because I found myself feeling happy as I looked at its maths, then I’m rather foolish. No matter how much of a “feeler” I am, if I take a stand on the physical nature of the universe based on a happy feeling, I am irrational. You should distrust emotions for insight about physics.[1]

On the other hand, suppose I find myself surprised at a flutter of affection I feel for a female friend. Maybe she means more to me than I had realised? I won’t right there and then conclude that I like her. But, no matter how much of a “thinker” I am, as I start to explore what she means to me, I’m going to consult my emotions from time to time. They won’t be all I consult, but it would be crazy to totally disregard them. You should, to some extent, trust emotions for insight about what’s important (or what’s important to you.)

So whether you are an enthusiast about religious experiences or a sceptic, you are going to have to trust emotions for some things (like what matters to you), and distrust emotions for some things (like physics.) Neither camp can sensibly say that the other wholly trusts or wholly distrusts emotion. So if their disagreement is about trust and emotion, it must be a disagreement about what emotions can be trusted for.

It seems to me that the disagreement is about whether emotions can be trusted for evidence of God’s activity. The sceptic of religious experience is very happy to have religious affections. He or she can be deeply moved by the gospel accounts without falling into any inconsistency. But that’s because he or she is not claiming that God supernaturally caused, say, the joy felt when reading the resurrection account. All that happens in this everyday case is that the drama of the gospel account naturally evokes emotional sympathy in those who appreciate it.

Where the sceptic draws the line is in thinking that the presence of an emotion – even if the context in which it arises is striking – provides evidence that God caused it. That is, the sceptic is very suspicious of inferring that God has miraculously reached into a person’s mind/spirit and given them emotional sensations. At least, he or she is suspicious of making this inference on the evidence that normally satisfies the enthusiast. The fact that someone arrives to church feeling depressed and then suddenly and dramatically finds himself or herself happy when worship begins is not good grounds, so says the sceptic, to infer that God’s Spirit has wrought a minor miracle.

Otherwise put, the enthusiast is typically much happier than the sceptic to attach a particular meaning to the mere occurrence of emotions in certain contexts. The enthusiast is much happier to say that having certain emotional experiences means that God is supernaturally doing things.  But the sceptic has the suspicion that such meaning is only how things subjectively appear and that it would be shown to be illusory if we took a more objective approach. If we stepped back and viewed the situation in a more detached way, a plausible and preferable naturalistic explanation would be available. 

If I’m right, this is what enthusiasts and sceptics should be discussing. Can emotions be trusted for evidence of God’s activity? Is a detached, objective perspective really the more privileged perspective for assessing cases of religious experience? Posing the question as one of whether emotions should be trusted or distrusted full-stop over-simplifies the debate and the people on either side of it. It's simply not a case of Spock versus the Romantic.

(And this is just keeping in view those religious experiences centred around emotions. There are plenty of other religious experiences that aren't, like those involving dreams and visions.)

[1] You might have theoretical intuitions that you trust but these are not emotions even if they have a felt component.

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