OST is closed for business but its spirit survives on my blog.
“Variables” are just experiences codified in ways that facilitate their systematic interpretation. An election outcome is an observable event; race is used to understand why the event turned out as it did. Is the researcher going to question the respondent’s race in a self-report study? Usually not: if the respondent experiences her/himself as a particular race, that’s good enough. If the self-report variable turns out to bear some statistical relationship to the observed outcome, then further research can be done to investigate in greater detail. I suspect we’re in general agreement here, Jacob.
“these researchers are interested in explaining and understanding how this experience of “God” is made sense of by the person and community and how it impacts their everyday life.”
Yes, this sort of research is done with some frequency. So, e.g., people of faith in the US tend to be happier and more politically conservative, on average, than unbelievers, with of course substantial individual differences within groups. Again, unpacking these results is how science gains further understanding of these gross-level findings.
“one is not aiming to study “the source of this experience,” as you phrased it.”
But such studies can be done within the normal range of empirical investigation. Studies are conducted to evaluate, say, the results of prayer on the prayed-for outcome, using predictor variables such as religious affiliation of the praying person, whether that person claims to have a personal relationship with the prayed-to deity, the type of outcome being prayed for, wearing of robes, burning of incense, and so on. These are codified observable experiences. If some of the predictor variables bear some association with the outcome, then they too bear closer scrutiny.
One needn’t look at the neural pathways associated with someone claiming to be communicating inaudibly with an invisible being, but such studies could be investigated. E.g., have the person rigged up to a neural MRI, have them report when they receive messages from the invisible communicator, see what changes in the neural activations are evident, etc. A crude method to be sure, but neuropsychological research is a pretty new field. Science didn’t used to be very good at measuring interstellar distances or subatomic structures either.