William James wrote, “The overcoming of the barriers between the individual and the Absolute is the great mystical achievement.”
Richard Dawkins said, “If you’ve had [a religious] experience, you may well find yourself believing firmly that it was real. But don’t expect the rest of us to take your word for it, especially if we have the slightest familiarity with the brain and its powerful workings.”
How can we adjudicate the conflict between affirmative and skeptical interpretations of religious experiences?
One of the Institute’s research projects investigates the value of an “engagement” model for religious experiences rather than a “perception” model. That is, instead of picturing the beliefs that arise from religious experiences as like those that come from a visual experience, we can picture them as arising from exploring an uncertain and complex environment.
When we are exploring a new place, blind-folded perhaps, we do not immediately know how to identify what we are feeling and hearing and smelling. We form beliefs about our environment based on our existing experiences, and stretch those beliefs from there to adjust to what we encounter. Our exploring helps us engage a complicated environment that goes beyond what we already know.
We think this is how religious experiences work, too: they engage us with our environment in ways that produce the “best beliefs we can manage at the moment.” Such beliefs often derive from our cultural and religious background–whatever is ready to hand for us. When we pay attention to our religious experiences, we discover that the beliefs they produce require considerable modification. If we are willing to make those adjustments, our exploration of the ultimate environment of human life becomes more nuanced and perceptive.
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