Religion and Reason: Variety of Religious Experience #2

William James Idealitachristopher_hitchens5-620x412 Religious people often have difficulty communicating about their faith with people who, on the basis of reason, have already rejected religion.  Usually, both sides are to blame, less interested in understanding the other’s point of view than in winning a theological or philosophical debate.  Thus, the conversation deteriorates into assertions of unprovable “truths”. In the Varieties of Religious Experience, William James offers a totally different approach.  He looks at private, inward experiences, as reported by people in their letters, journals and autobiographies, with the analytic eye of a philosopher and scientist.  In doing this, he provides a ground that can be shared by both the skeptical and the faithful. For example, when he talks about God, James does so as an empiricist, without asserting more than he can prove.  After discussing extended quotations of first hand reports from various saints, he says the following: [pg. 271-3] The saintly character is the character for which spiritual emotions are the habitual centre of the personal energy; and there is a certain composite photograph of universal saintliness, the same in all religions, of which the features can easily be traced.

  1. A feeling of being in a wider life than that of this world’s selfish little interests; and a conviction, not merely intellectual, but as it were sensible, of the existence of an Ideal Power.  In Christian saintliness this power is always personified as God; but abstract moral ideals, civic or patriotic utopias, or inner visions of holiness or right may also be felt as the true lords and enlargers of our life … 
  2. A sense of friendly continuity of the ideal power with our own life, and a willing self-surrender to its control. 
  3. An immense elation and freedom, as the outlines of the confining selfhood melt down. 
  4. A shifting of the emotional centre towards loving and harmonious affections, towards ‘yes, yes’ and away from ‘no, no’. …

I have heard religious people struggle unsuccessfully to explain what they meant by the “Will of God” and why someone would submit to it.  In the above passage, James explains this beautifully, without resorting to religious clichés. Of course, it is this very impulse toward self-surrender which many, particularly atheists like Christopher Hitchens, find so abhorrent, and which, to be honest, ecclesiastical hierarchies, charlatans, and cults have sometimes perverted to their own advantage.  For the most part, James does not discuss this problem, but after one particularly powerful first hand account, he writes the following:

[pg. 337]

A genuine first hand religious experience like this is bound to be a heterodoxy to its witnesses, the prophet appearing as a mere lonely madman.  If his doctrine prove contagious enough to spread to any others, it becomes a definite and labeled heresy. But if it then still prove contagious enough to triumph over persecution, it becomes itself an orthodoxy; and when a religion has become an orthodoxy, its day of inwardness is over: the spring is dry; the faithful live at second hand exclusively and stone the prophets in their turn. The new church, in spite of whatever human goodness it may foster, can be henceforth counted on as a staunch ally in every attempt to stifle the spontaneous religious spirit, and to stop all later bubblings of the fountain from which in purer days it drew its own supply of inspiration. 

When people today say they are “opposed to organized religion”, I think that are instinctively reacting to the characteristics that James has described above. One worry that religious people often have with atheism in particular is that they think it undermines the basis for moral behavior: life without faith means life without a moral compass. Although James deals morality primarily as an outward expression of a person’s inward state, when he does address it, he does so in terms that the non-theist would find congenial:

[pg 278-9]

Let me pass next to Charity and Brotherly Love, which are a usual fruit of saintliness…. When Christ utter the precepts: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you,” he gives for a reason: “That ye be the children of your Father which is in heaven; for he maketh the sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” One might therefore be tempted to explain both the humility as to one’s self and the charity towards others which characterize spiritual excitement, as results of the all-leveling character of theistic belief. But these affections are certainly not mere derivatives of theism. We find them in Stoicism, in Hinduism, and in Buddhism in the highest possible degree. They harmonize with paternal theism beautifully; but they harmonize with all reflection whatever upon the dependence of mankind on general causes; … Religious rapture, moral enthusiasm, ontological wonder, cosmic emotion, are all unifying states of mind, in which the sand and grit of the selfhood incline to disappear, and tenderness to rule.

Thus, James frames the teachings of Christ in a way that separates it from the theological dogmas of Christianity.  The faithful and agnostic alike can read such a passage and find agreement, perhaps with reservations, but without feeling that their core beliefs are being challenged. A similar discussion follows the first hand reports of mystics from various traditions.  Here James evaluates their significance to the rest of us, pinpointing what we can learn from the experience of religious mystics, even though we might not have directly had such experiences ourselves.


My next task is to inquire whether we can invoke [mystic consciousness] as authoritative.  Does it furnish any warrant for the truth of the twice born-ness and supernaturality and pantheism which it favors? …

  1. Mystical states, when well developed, usually are, and have the right to be, absolutely authoritative over the individuals to whom they come.
  2. No authority emanates from them which should make it a duty for those who stand outside of them to accept their revelations uncritically. 
  3. They break down the authority of the non-mystical or rationalistic consciousness, based upon the under standing and the senses alone.  They show it to be only one kind of consciousness.  They open out the possibility of other orders of truth, in which, so far as anything in us vitally responds to them, we may freely continue to have faith.

In a lecture entitled “Philosophy”, James examines attempts to prove the validity of religion through purely rational arguments.  He concludes:

[pg. 455]

In all sad sincerity I think we must conclude that the attempt to demonstrate by purely intellectual processes the truth of the deliverances of direct religious experience is absolutely hopeless. 

Thus, religion is not purely rational, and attempts to make it so, in James’s view, ultimately fail.  However, the thrust of James’s investigation is that religious experiences, though irrational, transitory and irreproducible, are both real and important to the human condition.  No purely rational approach is sufficient to fully understand human nature.  For a rational person who has not directly experienced such things for himself, James says that accepting their authority is a matter of choice, of faith. Nonetheless, ignoring religious experience, as many empiricists are wont to do, simply leaves one with a philosophic point of view that is incomplete and hollow.


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