Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.


David Ray Griffin

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From Journal of the American Academy of Religion 68/1 (March 2000), 143-149. This replies to criticism by Professors Preus and Segal of "Religious Experience, Naturalism, and the Social Scientific Study of Religion," all in the same issue.


Rejoinder to Preus and Segal

David Ray Griffin


In their responses, Preus and Segal have raised far more issues than I can address in the space allotted.  Although confronted with an extraordinary number of charges and misunderstandings, I have tried to restrict my replies primarily to matters of potential general interest, organizing my comments in terms of six major issues.

1. Apologetics and Neutrality. Saying that we are engaged in very different enterprises, Preus dubs me an “apologist” and himself an “intellectual historian.” Calling the question of the truth of religious ideas “irrelevant to their meaning” as well as “unanswerable,” later adding that “advocacy of the truth or falsity of religion . . . has no place” in the university, Preus says that he teaches his students “how, not what, to think about religion.”  Part of what he evidently teaches them, however, is that all religious ideas are to be taken only as “part of the data,” never as “part of the final explanation of that data.”  In other words, as he had said in Explaining Religion (174), the scholar of religion “does not believe” the religious participants’ own account of their religious experience, according to which it is rooted in “mysterious transcendent powers beyond the realm of natural causation.”  If that is not telling students what to think about religion, what would be? Although I had distinguished (in Section 3) between positive and negative apologetic intentions, Preus still seems to find only the former objectionable.

Furthermore, in portraying me as a (positive) apologist, with a “fervent wish to supply ‘religious explanations’ for religious phenomena,” he distorts the main point of my essay (stated in the introduction and several times later), which was not to argue for religious explanations but simply to argue against the Preus-Segal claim that all “social scientific,” even all “academic,” studies of religion should exclude such explanations.  Segal, portraying me (under the Second Claim) as imposing on social scientists the burden of accepting a theistic account of religion, also distorts my intention, which is simply a call for pluralism.  Although Segal thinks I consider theological accounts neutral while criticizing antitheological accounts for bias, my argument is that neither type of explanation should be ruled out a priori, with my focus being on the point that anti-theological accounts cannot legitimately claim the kind of neutrality and thereby privilege that would come from following a uniquely “scientific” approach.

2. Religious, Theistic, and Supernaturalistic Explana-tions. In portraying their kind of naturalistic explanation as privileged (within the academy) over religious explanations, Preus and Segal, as I pointed out, seemed to trade heavily on the idea that religious explanations are inherently “supernatura-listic.”  Because of the widespread conviction (which I share) that supernaturalistic explanations are antithetical to “scientific” and, more generally, “academic” explanations, the equation of “religious” and especially “theistic” explanations with supernatu-ralism lends rhetorical weight to the idea that their a priori exclusion is justifiable.  One of my main concerns was to point out that this basis for the a priori exclusion of all religious explanations is undermined by the fact that some religious, including some theistic, positions reject the possibility of supernatural interruptions of the worlds normal causal structure.  One of my disappointments with the responses by Preus and Segal is that they did not address this issue—aside from Preus’s closing claim that religious experience as actually reported would contradict my naturalistic theism (which he calls my “natural theism”), preceded by his suggestion that my interpretation of religious experience in terms of this theism would be more “high-handed” than his own interpretation of it in wholly nonreligious terms (evidently because he would have first listened to the testimonies more carefully).

3. Genuine Religious Experience. At the core of my critique of the Preus-Segal position is that it entails that academic or social scientific explanations cannot affirm genuine religious experience.  Preus alleges that I not only do not define this concept but also fail to make the “elementary distinction between an experience as experienced a subject and its actual cause.”  In the second paragraph of my first section, however, I defined a “genuine religious experience” as “an experience of a divine reality distinct from the totality of finite causes,” adding in the next paragraph this clarifying phrase: “genuine religious experience of, and thereby causal influence of, a divine reality distinct from the totality of finite causes.”  Strangely, Preus reveals two paragraphs later that he did grasp my definition, wondering how one could know if “any particular experience was genuine in [Griffin’s] sense (i.e., divinely caused).” (Like other things that Preus criticized me for not discussing, incidentally, that topic would have required another essay.)

Segal, while raising no quibbles about my defini-tion, disputes my statement that, according to him, “social scientific explanations thereby deny the genuineness of religious experience.”  Segal says that he “never claim[s] that.”  This is a difficult denial, given the fact that the “thereby” in my statement followed upon my quotation of his statements that every social scientific explanation of religion involves “a naturalistic rather than divine origin” and that the social scientific naturalist argues that “believers never encounter God.”  Segal’s allegation that I have falsely characterized his position is based on the claim that I have portrayed him as saying that social scientific explanations render the truth of religion impossible, whereas he, in fact, says only that they render it improbable.  But I fail to see how this distinction is relevant to the point at hand, which is simply whether Segal’s position amounts to a denial that theistic religious experience is ever genuine (which by definition would mean having, at least in part, a “divine origin”).

Far from overlooking Segal’s claim that, given his view of the origin of religion, its truth would be rendered improbable, I had defended him on that point.  Against those who cry “genetic fallacy” at every attempt to link origin and truth, I agreed (in Section 3) with Segal’s claim that, if a nontheistic account provided a sufficient explanation of the origin of religious belief, then a theistic account would be superfluous and the truth of the belief rendered improbable.  Strangely (and rather ungraciously), Segal accuses me of having thereby committed the genetic fallacy.  Stranger yet, four paragraphs later he says that my recognition of the truth of his stance is to my credit—although this fact does not prevent him from repeating the accusation of conflating truth and origin twice more.  This sort of thing makes dialogue difficult.

4. Preus, Segal, and Naturalism. Another bone of contention is whether my account of the version of naturalism implicit in the writings of Preus and Segal truly apply to them.  Preus, whose book provided the primary basis for my account, says that “Griffin’s elaborate concoction of eight kinds of ‘naturalism’ . . . has little to do with my use of that word.”  I am unsure how to interpret this statement.  The claim that my distinctions have “little to do” with his meaning seems to imply that they have something to do with it, although not as much as I suggested. Does it imply that, for example, he affirms only three of the doctrines?  If so, it would be helpful to know which five he rejects.  Of course, one might suppose his disclaimer simply to imply that, as I had pointed out, “Preus himself did not draw attention to these distinctions”—perhaps because he had not thought them through.  However, Preus’s comment that “[Griffin] solemnly assures us that all eight kinds are ‘there to be seen’” seems to imply that, in Preus’s view, they are not.  The problem with this claim, however, would be that I had supported each of the eight doctrines with quotations from Preus.  Preus deals with this fact by warning the reader (n. 2) not to “be misled by [Griffin’s] many quotations,” even accusing me of “misrepresentation-by-quotation.” Having in all my years of writing critiques of the work of other thinkers never been accused of misrepresentation, I regard this as an extremely serious charge.  And if Preus had shown me that I was guilty of it, I would certainly apologize. Unfortunately, Preus only proffers one example and, even after his attempted explanation, I cannot see why his statement that Tylor “rightly saw religious explanations of the world as relics” should not be taken as an endorsement of that opinion.  Assuming that, if there were a clearer example of misrepresentation-by-quotation, Preus would have used it, I have no basis for concluding that it is Preus to whom an apology is due.  In any case, given the fact that I had devoted one full section to the explication of the eight dimensions of the version of naturalism that Preus seems to assume, it would have been helpful if he had explained why he finds it less than illuminating.

Segal, in rejecting my assertion that he has “accepted the identification of science with naturalismsam,” might also appear to resist my characterization of his position.  But his point seems to be related not to his own position but to science as such.  Segal, in fact, devotes most of his discussion of the Third Claim to refuting the idea that science as such is materialistic, thereby implying that I had claimed this.  However, one of my main points, here and elsewhere, is that science as such need not and should not endorse naturalismsam.  My critique of the Preus-Segal program is that it seems to propose that scientists should base their work on this form of naturalism.  I grant that I had more evidence for Preus’s position on this point than I had for Segal’s. But the very title of Segal’s response seems to show his endorsement of the type of “social scientific naturalism” of which I wrote.

In any case, Preus and Segal both seem to hold that, even if they do affirm the version of philosophical naturalism I attribute to them, this fact would not be very important.  Preus claims that for those who try to understand religion, their method is far more relevant than their “metaphysical com-mitments” (thereby positivistically implying that the latter do not seriously affect the former).  But if Preus’s metaphysical commitments have led him to portray all religious ideas as devoid of truth-value regarding the nature of the universe and to convey this conclusion to his students as sober scientific fact, then these commitments would seem rather relevant.  Segal (under the Third Claim) suggests that I should have “focused not on the inadequacy of the philosophy underlying the social sciences but on the inadequacy of the [nonreligious] social scientific account of religion.”  My point, however, is that the latter inadequacy (which I address in the next point) is largely explainable in terms of the former.  At the close of his response, Segal seems to say that social scientists are not to be expected to think for themselves in these matters, or even to pay attention to critiques by philosophers, because “[b]y definition, the social sciences take . . . their ‘worldview’ from the natural sciences,” so that, if the present worldview is questionable, “it is the responsibility of natural scientists to question it.” This suggestion should certainly provide fodder for discussion.

5. Religious Experience and the Inadequacy of Naturalismsam. In introducing his response to the Third Claim, Segal claims that, although I do cite some phenomena, such as extrasensory perception and out-of-body experiences, that cannot be accounted for in terms of naturalismsam, I cite “no comparable aspects of religion itself.”  As a preliminary rejoinder, I could point out that, from the perspective of the majority of actual religious believers (to which both Segal and Preus appeal), this distinction would surely seem strange, as if extrasensory perception, including genuine religious experience, and out-of-body experiences, including life after bodily death, were not aspects of “religion itself.”  Even if Segal’s distinction is accepted, however, I certainly did point to an aspect of “religion itself” to which naturalismsam, its sensationism in particular, cannot do justice.  This aspect was mentioned in the partly/partly position proffered in Section 4, in which I suggest that religious (as distinct from psychosocial) explanations are needed “to account for the religious nature of religions.”  The meaning of this point was clarified in the discussion of sensationism (in the fourth point of Section 2), in which I quoted Durkheim on the necessity of explaining why people have the concept of the “sacred” even though nothing in “sensible experience” suggests this concept.  More generally, I argued (in the second point) that Preus’s own account suggests that even the best theorists who rely wholly on psychosocial causes have not come close to providing an adequate answer to his question (cited in the first section): “if ‘God is not given,’ how is one to explain religions— that is, their universality, variety, and persistence until now?”

6. Partly/Partly Explanations. The overall point of my essay was to challenge the idea that “academic,” including “social scientific,” explanations of the origin and persistence of religion are necessarily in opposition to “religious,” “theistic,” or “theological” explanations.  My positive suggestion was that the most adequate explanation would probably be one based partly on psychosocial factors and partly on genuine religious experience.  My argument is that there is no good reason why academic, including social scientific, explanations could not supplement psychosocial factors with a distinctively religious explanation (at least if it does not violate domain uniformitarianism).  My respondents, however, either ignore or summarily dismiss this suggestion.

Segal’s response was, for the most part, written as if I had not argued that the true division is between religious and antireligious philosophies, not between “religionists” and “social scientists.”  For example, he says, in his discussion of the Second Claim, that social scientists “simply do not make [an appeal to the holy],” thereby ignoring my suggestion that social scientists could.  Segal’s unquestioning retention of the stance of “confrontation” between religionists and social scientists is also shown by his complaint that my proposal would require social scientists to accept “their rivals’ philosophies,” whereas my suggestion was that social scientists, without losing their status as bona fide social scientists, could regard a religious explanation as complementary to, rather than a rival of, the standard psychosocial factors.

Part of the problem here is surely reflected in the fact that Segal begins his discussion of the Second Claim with the statement that “Griffin strongly contests [it].”  The one possible ground I found for this assumption is my statement that I reject the Preus-Segal view “as expressed in the second and third claims.” However, in the accompanying note (3), I made clear that I was challenging the third, not the second, claim.  Had Segal realized that I was not denying that “any explanation, to be acceptable in the academy, must be a social scientific explana-tion,” he might have understood that I intend a reference to divine influence, and thereby genuine religious experience, to be part of, not an alternative to, such an explanation.  Actually, in the final section of his response Segal does seem to grasp my position, remarking that I would allow theological accounts “to use social scientific accounts.”  But he immediately returns to his dichotomy, asking if any religious thinkers have “done better than social scientists.”

Preus, by contrast, correctly understands my partly/partly position, according to which religious experience would account for the religious nature of religions while the psychosocial factors standardly treated by social scientists would account for most of the concrete details.  But Preus considers this distinction “bizarre,” suggesting that it would be like distinguishing between the “political nature” and the concrete details of political systems.  Precisely.  The distinction that Preus finds so bizarre is the familiar distinction between genus and species.  Although political scientists may differ on exactly how to characterize the common element, they have no trouble in speaking of monarchies, oligarchies, and democracies as various types of “political” systems.  Although they recognize that without the concrete details the “political” would remain extremely abstract, they do not thereby find the concept useless.

Conclusion. Although this was not a very successful attempt at cross-disciplinary dialogue, I hope that the exchange will prove useful in stimulating discussion within the academy of the issues I sought to raise.

David Ray Griffin Page