“The Varieties of Religious Experience” by William James

William James anticipated the modern debate on the relationship between science and religion, and provided good reasons to take religion seriously. His personal and common sense approach works particularly well within a pluralistic and consumer culture.

Choosing a Religion For Yourself

First, every human being must face the reality of life, death, suffering, and something beyond ourselves. How do we respond to this reality? James surveys responses from atheists (Voltaire), transcendentalists (Emerson), Stoics and Christians. The atheists’ attitude is the least appealing to his moral and aesthetic sense, and therefore atheism is not an option.

Second, there are many religions in the world, with practitioners earnestly promoting their wares in the Vanity Fair. How do we choose? James didn’t study theology in-depth and probably didn’t care to, his pragmatism led him to ask the question: Which religion provides the most benefits with the least risks?

Third, to gauge the benefits and risks associated with each religion, he studies the lives of individuals who exemplify the best and the worst in each, the most famous and infamous. It is the highest and lowest potentials that set things apart one from another, not the qualities that all have in common. The question we need to ask: What is truly special about each religion?

Finally, once we identify the characteristics of religion that are most desirable and beneficial, the question becomes: How do we attain to it?

What about Truth?

For James, a religious experience is “true”, not in the sense that an idea or theory is true, but in the sense that it is a psychological/experiential fact — something actually happened that made the person happy/healthy. As in medicine, what restores a sick person to health is good and useful. So the religious experience is good and useful. “The true is what works well”.

One can build a systematic theory upon these experiential facts, and test the truth of the theory, but the facts themselves cannot be disputed. James is concerned not with theory but with experiential facts, and tries to steer clear of theology — which he terms “over-belief”– as much as possible, not realizing that his psychology and philosophy are also “over-beliefs”, i.e., theories and interpretations derived and distinct from facts.

He relies on an a priori moral and aesthetic sense to determine what is good and useful in religious experiences, and doesn’t take into account their origins. An experience is valid as long as it produces a desirable psychological effect, even if its origin is an undigested bit of beef, or in James’ case, nitrous oxide. In the last analysis, he assigns the origin of religious experience to the activity of the subconscious, though he doesn’t exclude the possibility of the divine working through the subconscious.

James suggests a sort of Darwinian evolution of religion: the “fittest” religion survives while the others become extinct because they are ill-adapted to the moral senses of evolving human beings. He seems to believe in inevitable progress, though Darwinian evolution only asserts change not progress, and envisions a sort of Hegelian synthesis of happiness and sorrow into a higher joy as the ultimate goal of religion.

An Incisive Criticism of Christianity

In the following passage, James gives the most incisive criticism of Christianity.

Were it true that a suddenly converted man as such is, as Edwards says, of an entirely different kind from a natural man, partaking as he does directly of Christ’s substance, there surely ought to be some exquisite class-mark, some distinctive radiance attaching even to the lowliest specimen of this genus, to which no one of us could remain insensible, and which, so far as it went, would prove him more excellent than ever the most highly gifted among mere natural men. But notoriously there is no such radiance. Converted men as a class are indistinguishable from natural men; some natural men even excel some converted men in their fruits; and no one ignorant of doctrinal theology could guess by mere every-day inspection of the “accidents” of the two groups of persons before him, that their substance differed as much as divine differs from human substance.

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