Monday, May 24, 2010

William James and Varieties of Religious Experience

On In Our Time two weeks ago (this post kept getting pre-empted by breaking news!) on BBC Radio 4 the host Melvyn Bragg and his guests, three philosophers, talked about William James' book, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A study in human nature. James (left) was a psychologist, invited to Edinburgh in 1901 to deliver 20 lectures on "Natural Theology" in the prestigious Gifford lecture series, which he then published. He spoke, and then wrote, about religious experience from a personal point of view, which laid the groundwork for a new field, the psychology of religion.

'Personal' meant to James that what we choose to call 'religious' is strictly personal, whether or not one experiences that in terms of an external being--'god' in some form or other, is about one's inner experience, not an outer set of truths or claims. James claimed that, upon surveying religious experience, what was shared was something like the feeling of being a part of some larger cosmos (our term), rather than a boost for one's ego, or the idea that one is a special creature of God.

James basically limited his thoughts to the religions of the west or to some extent of other civilizations, including humanistic reports, but not an anthropological survey in pre-agricultural peoples. He was trying to explain the widespread nature of religious experience in psychological rather than theological terms.

James was originally trained as a biologist, and thought of himself as a Darwinian. But his arguments about religious experience, were about the internal world we each experience (as far as one can determine it scientifically), and in a sense from a philosophical point of view. That is he did not want to reduce it, or materialize it, in Darwinian terms, but to take it as something in itself, as experience.

To those who are aware, science has for a couple of centuries now been putting dogmatic religion on the run. Darwin helped, but industrialization and the successes of physical science were at least as important: the world could be manipulated and understood empirically, and that did not gibe with sacred texts.

Religion is far from being on the run in terms of its nature as a motivating social fact, often with tragic consequences, as various conflicts between peoples continues to show. These are based on religion as a rallying cry for tribal conflict, and presumably many who engage in religious conflict would say that they have had relevant religious experience. James would say, probably, that they were interpreting that experience as if it came from the external world--some actual deity out there. But his point, which still seems relevant, is that people still have the experience of being only a small part of a larger whole, a feeling that, in itself, is not dependent on any specific doctrinal explanation of what that part, and that whole, are.

James, a Harvard faculty member, was one of the founders of modern psychology, and wrestled in his other works with the nature of consciousness, which is a related issue. He was a pragmatist, avoiding grand theories of the mind and instead trying to understand what mental states were, and meant. He was quite nervous about giving his Gifford lectures to Presbyterian (often stern Presbyterian) Scotland, but his lectures were a major success. In the end, the last lecture and last chapter of his book, he asks whether, after all, he'd come down on the side of there actually being an external, real 'God' of some form. And, perhaps in a concession to avoid too much controversy (maybe to stay out of trouble with his Harvard administrators, colleagues, and students?), he said he'd bet on the 'yes' side.

Today's arguments by Darwinians often try to explain why we have what we call religious experiences. The arguments are about materializing or geneticizing the experience, and to show what they assume, that such experiences are illusory rather than reflecting an externally real deity, and to provide a selective argument why that would have evolved. James was after something different, and influenced a century of psychological (and philosophical) thinking after his own time.

But his target was to explain the nature of the experience, not its evolutionary origins. Both have proved elusive targets for science.


James Goetz said...

Hmm, if varieties of various experiences such as romance are highly subjective for each person, then the same would be for varieties of religious experiences regardless of external deity or not.

Ken Weiss said...

James would say that of course the experiences are 'real' and that it's inappropriate to ask the question that way. He acknowledges that it's a separate question whether they represent a specific external reality (in his case,a specific existence or type of deity).

Your question sent me to James' 2-volume classic if not defining tome The Principles of Psychology (1890). I expected he must have had a lot to say about romance (or 'love' or some equivalent). But he hardly mentions it, at least as far as I can tell from looking at what he indexes and from his chapter headings (I won't read the whole 1400 pages to try to find it!).

Anyway, to him the inner person was real and could not entirely be dismissed as being but an automoton.