If religious experiences are reducible to neurological events, can a
pragmatist argue against their value?
William James defends a right to let your “passional nature” decide between belief and unbelief in cases where the evidence is inconclusive. Certain beliefs meet your deepest-felt needs supplies the justification we need to adopt a believing stance in the absence of conclusive evidence. James is only interested in the practical question of what conceptions of God it would be good for us to adopt, while the question of truth is left over to philosophical investigation. To James, pragmatism can be compared to a corridor in a hotel: in one room, there may be an author writing a religious or theological treatise, while in another one somebody else is putting forward an atheistic argument. In a third room someone is working on a scientific problem, and so forth. James wanted to defend “experience”, prayer, guidance, and all that sort of thing immediately and privately felt, against ‘'philosophy” as being the real backbone of the world's religious life. James considered the question of whether a believer’s religious experience could give a good reason for his own religious beliefs, even though this reason is not interpersonally persuasive. The believer may think that these experiences enable him to cope better with the problems of life, and perhaps become a better person.
Rorty’s version of pragmatism proposal is to treat religion as a private affair disconnected from public use of reason and give up normative criteria for adequately evaluating religious discourse. Rorty suggests that religious faith can be seen as resembling romantic projects linked to our “passional nature”. Although we sometimes question, for example, someone’s choice of spouse, we do not normally think that people are under some general obligation to justify such choices, we simply appeal to their passional nature to explain. Something similar is true of religious believers. It is only in public, cooperative projects such as science and politics that we should give and require reasons. Pragmatic reflection on religion's function, what it is good for, is often analyzed in individual terms.
Pragmatism is not simply a philosophy of “usefulness” within our society. The pragmatic philosophy of religion accommodate the value of “useless” activities such as prayer. Engaging in such activities may for a religious person be crucial in satisfactoriness of life. We can say that pragmatists want to know what religion is good for. If we try to define truth in terms usefulness or justification within our society then the fact that it will nevertheless make perfect sense to describe a statement as true but useless, or true but not justified within our society, will immediately show that the definition of truth as usefulness within our society has failed. Any attempt to base norms on facts is a fallacy. Deriving epistemological norms from the facts of human knowledge acquisition would seem to commit some version of fallacy.
The really important question from a pragmatic perspective is whether a religious believer is committed to the type of open critical dialogue that has been central to the pragmatic tradition. Pragmatists need not succumb to the normative self-understanding of religious authorities and institutions which claim that external values are completely irrelevant for genuinely religious believers. As a formal doctrine, fallibilism is most strongly associated with pragmatists. The mentality of pragmatic fallibilism oppose mentality of absoluteness, of rigid dichotomies, of moral certainty based on a religious authority and institutions. Pragmatists are revisionists rather than committed to describing religion from the perspective of believers.
Philosophically may well be that the religious beliefs are part of the cause of the religious experience rather than the other way round. Religious experience does of course often take specific forms depending on particular religions or cultural circumstances. Catholic may report an encounter with the Virgin Mary, whereas Muslims, Jews or Buddhists would hardly do so. The principle of theoretical economy favors the skeptic’s explanation that religious experience provides no objective warrant for religious belief unless the possibility of a naturalistic explanation of the experience can be ruled out as implausible. Well established scientific knowledge is not so easily abandoned.