James’s Answer: Variety of Religious Experience #4

William_James  What is it that I want to tell skeptics to about religion?  It is something essential to the human condition, such as what William James offers at the end of his Study in Human Nature.

He asks what for many are the critical questions concerning religion [pg. 507-8]:

First, is there, under all the discrepancies of the creeds, a common nucleus to which they bear their testimony unanimously?

And second, ought we to consider the testimony true?

His answer to the first is succinct:

I … answer it immediately in the affirmative.  The warring gods and formulas of the various religions do indeed cancel each other, but there is a certain uniform deliverance in which religions all appear to meet. It consists of two parts: —

1. An uneasiness; and 

2. Its solution.

The uneasiness, reduced to its simplest terms, is a sense that there is something wrong about us as we naturally stand.

The solution is a sense that we are saved from the wrongness by making proper connection with the higher powers.

His answer to the second question is more involved, in part, because this philosopher has already stated: [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, although he thinks religious experience is “absolutely authoritative over the individuals to whom they come [pg. 422], those of us who have not had such experiences, must come to conclusions based on our inclinations, our passions, or, as he puts in an earlier essay, our Will To Believe.  However, he does come to one striking conclusion about the truth of religious testimony [pg. 515]:

Disregarding the over-beliefs, and confining ourselves to what is common and generic, we have in the fact that the conscious person is continuous with a wider self through which saving experiences come, a positive content of religious experience which, it seems to me, is literally and objectively true as far as it goes.

(Sometimes, William James sounds like he is imitating his brother Henry, the novelist renown for his elaborate and occasionally impenetrable prose.   Without the background of the previous discussion, the above sentence might seem fairly opaque, so I offer some explication, of course, colored by my own understanding.)

James is laying out what he thinks is objectively true.  He is putting aside, for the moment, the unique mystical or religious experiences that have been the subject of the entire book.  He is also laying aside “over-beliefs”, by which he means propositions for which there is insufficient evidence, but which can be accepted anyway through leaps of faith. James is speaking to the skeptic examining the human condition.  Based on those common experiences that all humans share, James asserts a simple fact: the consciousness of a person is part of something larger.  Further, it is by developing awareness of this larger self, this higher power, that we are relieved from that uneasiness, that sense of wrongness, that is part of the human condition.

James goes further, describing his own religious stance [pg. 516-7]:

If I now proceed to state my own hypothesis about the farther limits of this extension of our personality, I shall be offering my own over-belief — though I know it will appear a sorry under-belief to some of you — for which I can only bespeak the same indulgence which in a converse case I should accord to yours.

… [pg 517]

God is the natural appellation, for us Christians at least, for the supreme reality so I will call this higher part of the universe by the name of God. We and God have business with each other; and in opening ourselves to his influence our deepest destiny is fulfilled. The universe, at those parts of it which our personal being constitutes, takes a turn genuinely for the worse or for the better in proportion as each one of us fulfills or evades God’s demands.  As far as this goes, I probably have you with me, for I only translate into schematic language what I may call the instinctive belief of mankind: God is real since he produces real effects.

…[pg 519]

I believe the pragmatic way of taking religion to be the deeper way. It gives it body as well as soul, it makes it claim, as everything real must claim, some characteristic realm of fact as its very own. What the more characteristically divine facts are, apart from the actual inflow of energy in the faith state and the prayer state, I know not.  But the over-belief on which I am ready to make my personal venture is that they exist….By being faithful in my poor measure to this over-belief, I seem to myself to keep more sane and true. I can, of course, put myself into the sectarian scientist’s attitude and imagine vividly that the world of sensations and of scientific laws and objects may be all. But whenever I do this, I hear that inward monitor of which WK Clifford once wrote, whispering the word bosh. Humbug is humbug even though it bear the scientific name, and the total expression of human experience, as I view it, objectively, invincibly urges me beyond the narrow scientific bounds.  Assuredly the real world is of a different temperament, — more intricately built than physical science allows. So my objective and my subjective conscience both hold me to the over-belief which I express. Who knows whether the faithfulness of individuals here below to their own poor over-beliefs may not actually help God in turn to be more effectively faithful to his own greater tasks.

Thus, William James, the rational pragmatist, finds pure reason insufficient.  He does not attempt to refute atheism or agnosticism, he rejects them.  Human experience is too rich, too multi-faceted, to be fully guided by rational skepticism.  For his own life, he chooses to embrace an over-belief, to make a leap of faith,  because it enables him to live more abundantly.

To use an old Quaker phrase, this speaks to my condition.


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