Friday, January 21, 2011

Divine particulars

In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James wanted to give expression to a kind of religion "to which physical science need not object." He struggles to do just that, and ties himself in knots. He is desperate to have his scientific cake and eat his supernaturalism too. He wants something more than the world mystery of the naturalist, something more than a vague sense that more exists than we presently conceive with our science, something more than "Why is there something rather than nothing?" He wants an "other," a "beyond," a parental "supreme reality" that he is willing to call God.

Instinctively and for "logical reasons," he finds it hard to believe that principles can exist which make no difference in facts. "But all facts are particular facts," he writes, "and the whole interest of the question of God's existence seems to me to lie in the consequence for particulars which that existence may be expected to entail. That no concrete particular of experience should alter its complexion in consequence of a God being there seems to me an incredible proposition."

And in this, of course, he is absolutely right.

If the existence of an attentive God does not manifest itself in particulars then the concept is superfluous.

In a lifetime of study of science and religion, I have encountered no particular fact that requires a supernatural intervention for its explanation. Believers, of course, invoke miracles and answered prayers, but their evidence is invariably anecdotal. Every scientific study of the efficacy of prayer has proven negative. Religions do not spring from miracles; "miracles" spring from religion, and every religion has its own catalog of divine interventions.

And what does James offer? "If asked just where the differences in fact which are due to God's existence come in, I should have to say that in general I have no hypothesis to offer beyond what the phenomenon of 'prayerful communion,' especially when certain kinds of incursion from the subconscious region take part in it, immediately suggests." Whatever that means.

A skimpy basis for theology.