The Problem of Empiricism | The Sociology of Religion

Empiricism is a philosophical position that holds that all “truths” should be backed up by something verifiable. Empiricists hold that we should never claim to know anything unless we can refer to some sort of experiential evidence that supports our claims to truth. Thus, for example, we know gravity exists because we can see its effects in the natural world. We also know humans are at least potentially aggressive (or loving) for that matter because we can see the evidence of this all around us.

The “ism” of empiricism was a force of enlightenment and emancipation. The general spread of empiricism was a great advance over the superstition cultivated by the ancient church and elite feudal state. However, we often take empiricism too far and when we do it can be used, just like we use superstition, to control the population and dismiss knowledge that is threatening to the status quo. This is what happens when scientists, philosophers, or debunkers try to dismiss spiritual experience as nothing more than a fantasy production, or a biological epiphenomenon. The problem here is that they extend the empiricist prescription that we provide evidence for our knowing to mean, “If I don’t have direct experience of it, I don’t believe it exists.” Since scientists, philosophers, and debunkers don’t ever remember having spiritual experiences, they argue they don’t exist.

This solipsistic position is seductive to anyone without authentic spiritual experience (and yes, batman, this is such a thing). If you have never had an authentic spiritual experience it seems safe to conclude that they simply don’t exist. However this conclusion is based on an erroneous interpretation of empiricist philosophy. Empiricists have never said that a phenomenon must be visible or personally experienced to be real. If they did, then we would have to dismiss gravity as a real and verifiable phenomenon because not a single individual anywhere has ever seen gravity, they’ve just seen its effects! We know gravity exists because of its effects on the natural world. In the same way, we know that spiritual experience is valid because it is extremely pervasive in the general population, because those we experience it can feel discernible and powerful impacts, and because we can see (whether we experience it or not) the impact of spiritual experience on the world around us. Unless the skeptic is willing to dismiss the experiences of the vast majority of individuals on this planet as nothing more than self delusional ramblings (something that any sane empiricist would be loathe to do), then the case for the validity of spiritual experience was made a long time ago.

So what are you going to take from this? My advice would be that if you are a student or scholar seriously interested in religion and spirituality you do not dismiss religious/spiritual experience without taking a much closer look. Keep an open mind but, better yet, seek the experience for yourself. William James  (1982) and others (Bucke, 2009/1929; A. H. Maslow, 1962; A.H. Maslow, 1971; A. H. Maslow, 2012) accepted the validity of spiritual experience, but he inexplicably denied himself the possibility of a valid experience. Perhaps open inquiry for him was blocked by fear of the professional assassination that may have occurred. He certainly would not be the first academic interested in these phenomenon to criticize his colleagues for being so close minded. If you can’t engage in personal inquiry for whatever reason, keep an open mind and listen carefully to those who do. Don’t make the naive mistake of assuming that just because you aren’t “experienced” that the experience itself is irrelevant or not existent as a result.


Bucke, R. M. (2009/1929). Cosmic Consciousness. New York: E.P. Dutton.

James, W. (1982). The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study of Human Nature. New York: Penguin.

Maslow, A. H. (1962). Lessons from the Peak-Experiences. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 2(1), 9-18. doi: 10.1177/002216786200200102

Maslow, A. H. (1971). The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. New York: Viking.

Maslow, A. H. (2012). The “Core-Religious” or “Transcendent” Experience. In J. White (Ed.), The Highest State of Consciousness (pp. 339-350). New York: Doubleday.