Matthew C. Bagger

Religious Experience, Justification, and History

Review by Victoria Hart Gaskell, 2008

Bagger, Matthew C. Religious Experience, Justification, and History. New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Matthew C. Bagger is now Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Brown University, teaching in philosophy of religion, theory and method in the study of religion, Christian ethical theories, and modern Western religious thought. This is his first book (of two to date), written while he was Assistant Professor in the Religion Department of Columbia University. He is particularly interested in the understanding and explanation of religious phenomena, especially religious discourse, integrating theoretical and philosophical approaches in his work.

In Religious Experience, Justification, and History, Bagger clearly outlines his project in the first chapter, which also serves as the introduction. He contends that, the “traditional avenues” in the defense of theism being in disrepute, religious philosophers and theologians now try to justify religious belief, rationally, with reference to individual experience and its concomitant deep convictions and feelings (1). In opposition to what he calls a “latter-day revival” of this approach, he denies that religious experience ever rationally justifies religious belief.

Bagger highlights two central concepts in the discussion: experience and justification. He also contends that two other considerations are too often repressed or ignored in the discussion: explanation and historical context; one must commit to that which constitutes the best explanation of any phenomenon in question, and once one does this, more unsympathetic explanations with regard to religious experience as justification for religious beliefs become more persuasive (2).

The historical and cultural context of inquiry regarding religious experience is of paramount importance to Bagger and to his argument. “We experience what we suppose the best explanation of an event or series of events impinging on us. Obviously, the best available explanation will largely depend on context … experience includes tacit commitments as to how best to interpret a stimulus. These commitments rarely reach the light of day” (3). So then, “A justifiable belief is one for which someone has offered explanatory reasons that contribute to the best overall explanatory account of the relevant phenomena …This conception of justification presupposes social standards for acceptability, reflecting shared epistemic values.” Because Bagger sees the argument for religious experience justifying religious beliefs as resting finally on a supernatural explanation, and since for him the shared epistemic values of “modern, educated people” with regard to scientific inquiry and natural law no longer support supernatural explanations, Bagger warns that “religious beliefs must not violate norms and values for epistemic goodness or flourishing. … We shouldn’t seek to protect one subset of our beliefs and values from others.” He is not arguing against religious belief itself, and argues that reflective self-criticism strengthens the relevance and vitality of religious belief, and can be supported by the religious ideals of purity, devotion, and the avoidance of self-deception (17).

The rest of the book supports this argument. Chapter 2 engages William James for Bagger’s explication of “experience” and Chapter 3 expands on the idea of justification. Each chapter highlights the importance of explanation and historical context. In Chapters 3 and 4 Bagger engages two of the “latter-day revivalists” of the opposing argument: Robert Forman and his argument for an experience of pure consciousness that occurs and can be recognized across cultures, and William Alston and his argument for the justification of religious belief based on direct perceptions of God, respectively. In Chapter 5 Bagger presents his study of Teresa of Avila’s mystical theology as a type of explanation for religious experience. Bagger allows that this explanation may have validated belief in Teresa’s time, but, relative to the analysis of contemporary epistemic norms and values in the Chapter 6, he argues that it is not valid for our time due to its supernatural foundation. In Chapter 6, Bagger also returns to Alston and Forman, reasserting his opposition and concluding his argument.

I do recommend this book, with reservations. Bagger raises excellent questions, engages many conversation partners both in support of and in opposition to his argument, and while a bit dense at times the book is clearly written and the argument engages the reader. However, all too often Bagger’s tone with regard to those who he engages in opposition is arrogant and patronizing with loaded language, and his cumulative depiction of them could be read so as to describe a rather feeble-minded and obvious conspiracy of people desperate to hoodwink their captive audience, while he, the honest one, the modern and rational and reasonable one, utterly transparent and objective, makes his unassailable argument. In the final analysis, his attitude detracted from his argument, undermining his emphasis on historical relativity of criteria for rationality, so that I became suspicious of it even as I agreed with many of his points. Caveat emptor.