Evidence-Based Spirituality — Part 6 of 10
Tart gives “Evidence-Based Spirituality” as a completely new idea, but I’d argue most spirituality, and indeed most religion, is actually evidence-based. Of course the scientific form of the evidence-taking is new, but that’s not the only form of evidence.
It is indeed a strange set of circumstances that has obscured this fact from our view — essentially, Christianity and Scientism have been in cahoots for a while now in asserting that there can never be any actual evidence for anything spiritual. And everyone went right ahead and believed them. When religions admit this, who’s going to argue against it? A few people on the margins to whom no-one pays attention.
Thus we’ve had a lot of arguments about ‘faith as opposed to evidence’ being the reason for religious belief. Yet all this time, people have been going to Lourdes and being cured. Leaving aside the contested nature of those cures, doesn’t the fact that people believe they have happened show that spiritual belief has sometimes been held for evidential reasons? That is, if some person has (as they think) been cured of a deadly disease by a spiritual agency, don’t they have something more than unevidenced ‘faith’ to justify their belief?
This is what I call the Hufford Point, after brilliant folklorist and researcher David J. Hufford, who has shown how Dismissivist/Exclusivist assumptions about spiritual belief have shaped our perception of it in recent times in a number of excellent papers (eg. 1995, 2008). No-one ever stopped having spiritual experiences, yet these were dismissed by the ruling Scientistic religion as impossible. That left two interpretations — either ‘hallucination/madness’ or ‘high-interpretability ordinary events’, those latter being events ambiguous enough to be misinterpreted as something spiritual (“swamp gas” and the like).
As Hufford shows (2008), NDE research, his own research into sleep paralysis, and research into after-death visitation, amongst many others, demonstrate that such dismissive explanations don’t really wash. But whatever one’s belief about these experiences, the people who have NDEs, sleep paralysis episodes with entity appearances, and after-death visitations from loved ones (and the percentages in the US population are sometimes quite high — 35%, 17% and 27% respectively, on the surveys used by Hufford) usually tend to believe in their reality. And this is a basic reason why spiritual and religious belief is not likely to go away anytime soon, even if Dawkins manages to get a death penalty put in place. :) It is, to that extent, evidential.
This has always been the case. As MacMullen points out (1999), at the time of the Christian takeover of Roman religion from the 4th century on, the average farmer would have known better than to convert without some evidence that the religion being proposed to him would do what was necessary in the way of divination and healing. Prior to the Christians, the pagan systems had handled that, and you find just as many ancient testimonies to the healing power of Asclepius, say (see Edelstein & Edelstein 1998), as you will find modern ones to that of Lourdes. The usual method was to sleep in the temple, and a curing dream would come during which the god operated on the sufferer, healing lameness, paralysis, blindness, etc. Who could afford to give up such benefits as those? They were believed in from evidence, from experience — not universally, and not always considered ‘proved’ (certainly not by intellectuals) but the reason they were perceived was not ‘faith’ merely, it was experiential in large part.
This of course is the reason for the magical face-offs that an exclusivist religion such as the Hebrew one had to have with the prophets of Baal, or a Christian like Saint Patrick had to have with the Druids. They had to show they could do the job, and others couldn’t, because that was part of their belief system — and in the case of Christianity, sales pitch. And however galling non-Christians might find it, in modern Christianity you have many people who still believe their god, or Jesus, the Virgin, etc. not only hears their prayers but has answered them, so the religion in their view still does the job. Not all followers of old religions are following “empty” forms therefore.
All of these are more evidential ways in which a spirituality could make its reality felt. By the time of the era of Biddy Early, the Irish clergy couldn’t match Saint Patrick’s feats, whilst she, a redoubtable pagan-shamanic worker, was capable of divination and healing to a very high standard. Consequently, the farmers went to her with their lame livestock, simply because she could deliver the goods. The bishop didn’t like it but what could he do? What was against him wasn’t superstition, nor was it Satan — it was plain old evidence.
A major change in our culture is being made simply by being able to talk about these experiences, which have been taboo so long. In his presentation, Tart shows how Moody (2001) completely altered the game by bringing the NDE experience into the open and popularizing accounts of it. (He also mentions that, since the concept went viral, actual NDE evidence is not always of the same quality, although he doesn’t make clear whether that’s because people have standardized their language, or because they might actually now be altering their accounts to fit in with preconceptions — either is an interesting evidential result in my view.)
But not all modern experiences have become so popular to read about as NDEs, yet. Wade’s Transcendent Sex (2004) hasn’t gone viral in the same way, but is just as extraordinary, and certainly, with its 100-odd examples of spiritual experiences that occurred in the act of making love, mounts (no pun intended) a considerable challenge to the standard Christian worldview. Books like Wade’s, or that of Mark Fox on Light Events (2008), are part of a new publishing-based evidentiality which has embraced OBE and NDE too, and many other things besides. I detect in Wade’s work particularly a very smart classifying mind that embraces both the experiences themselves, and the way these can be understood ‘scientifically’. What we have here unquestionably is already evidence-based spirituality.
Surely all of the experiences themselves have always occurred. Once the modern phenomena are seen it is relatively easy to see their counterparts in older times, written into the surviving records. As a rule then, spirituality has always had a level of evidence attached to it — empirical observation has been part of its basis.
The ‘Bud-Offs’ I’ve mentioned before, the techniques that spin off from religion, are another example of its fundamentally evidential nature. Could bone marrow Nei Kung (Chia 2006, Yang 2000), a Chinese meditation technique which (for very good spiritual reasons which it’s not possible to go into now) regrows the bone marrow, have evolved without a lot of thought and experiment? Certainly such experiment involved careful observation of actual outcomes. Come to think of it, isn’t it rather easy to test that Bud-Off now, since it’s been made available to the general public? (More on that subject later.) Similarly with any meditation technique, any energy technique — they have survived because they are at least perceived to do something. Evidence.
It will be the task of any ‘evidence-enriched spirituality’ to try and determine just how true these claims of experience are, of course, from the scientific point of view, to the extent that seems possible. Initial testing of Chi Kung produced some promising results, for example, but much more work needs doing on it and on other Bud-Offs. Still, these new scientific forms of evidence-taking aren’t the only forms. They join a long tradition of basing spirituality on empiricism, and even on replicability to some extent. It’s worth remembering that. The alternative to science isn’t simply and only ‘blind faith’, which has become a scientistic cultural marker for ‘idiocy’. These people weren’t fools.
Come to that, can science always actually determine and arbitrate truth in all these areas, let alone the heights of mysticism? Does that form of evidence-taking reign deservedly supreme? I see a danger here as our figuresmiths go prying in the Soul Lanes. That’s the subject of my next post.