As a scholar of religion I employ a materialist or naturalist method, one which takes accounts of paranormal phenomena or religious experience as mere data to be explained (even explained away). Other scholars, however, are interested in exploring paranormal phenomena; a few years ago I attended a session at the AAR on the evidence for paranormal or parapsychological phenomena. And many scholars are interested in religious experience, most notably Ann Taves in her recent book, Rethinking Religious Experience. (It’s worth pointing out that it appears Taves is every bit as much of a naturalist in her approach—it seems, for her, that experiences can more or less be explained with social and scientific research.)
But even if paranormal phenomena are real, and even if people do have religious experiences, are these relevant for the study of those social formations colloquially called religions?
Let’s say someone out there can move things with her mind—will this knowledge help me understand why Protestants in the Bible Belt are predominantly opposed to gay marriage but Protestants in the northeast US are not? Let’s say that people do have religious experiences—will this knowledge help me understand why Neopaganism appeals to middle class white people but glossolalia doesn’t?