Writing as catharsis

Book review and reflection on William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience

Posted in Book review, Philosophy, psychology, Ranting and rambling by Lachlan R. Dale on September 25, 2012
William James - The Varieties of Religious Experience © eoopilot (Flickr)

William James – The Varieties of Religious Experience © eoopilot (Flickr)

For a while now I’ve held the nagging suspicion that there is much that a populist scientific-rationalist critique of religion fails to account for.

If we truly want to understand how and why people believe what they do, then how much value can really be drawn from a literalist interpretation of the Bible? As many of the proponents of “new atheism” note (with a mixture of bewilderment and ridicule), believers seem to pick and choose which verses they pay attention to, and which they ignore. To me, this would signpost the idea that religious belief itself is not a wholly conscious, rational process, but moreover a complex synthesis of emotion and experience that is driven by mankind’s need for meaning rather than the pursuit of objective, empirical truth.

In short, there is a need for deeper psychological analysis on the subject.

Over the last six weeks I’ve worked my way through William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, a series of lectures which seek to study:

“the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.”

James’ goal is not to busy himself with the proclaimations of theologians or the secondary claims of religious creed and dogma. His criticisms of the former are scathing:

“What is their deduction of metaphysical attributes but a shuffling and matching of pedantic dictionary-adjectives, aloof from morals, aloof from human needs, something that might be worked out from the mere word ‘God’ by one of those logical machines of wood and brass which recent ingenuity has contrived as well as by a man of flesh and blood. They have the trail of the serpent over them. One feels that in the theologians’ hands, they are only a set of titles obtained by a mechanical manipulation of synonyms; verbality has stepped into the place of vision, professionalism into that of life. Instead of bread we have a stone; instead of a fish, a serpent. Did such conglomeration of abstract terms give really the gist of our knowledge of the deity, schools of theology might indeed continue to flourish, but religion, vital religion, would have take its flight this world. What keeps religion going is something else than abstract definitions and systems of concatenated adjectives, and something different from faculties of theology and their professors…

So much for the metaphysical attributes of God! From the point of view of practical religion, the metaphysical monster which they offer to our worship is an absolutely worthless invention of he scholarly mind.”

Instead, he moves to focus in on the very essence of religion – that is, the individual’s direct relationship-with and experience-of religion; how he believes, and how this process shapes the context by which he views his existence. He notes that for many, religious experience works as a psychological process by which individuals alter their perception of existence; how, through a spiritual/philosophical framework, individuals come to unify their “higher and lower feelings, (their) useful and erring impulses” into a “stable system of functions in right subordination”.

This book, in essence, anticipates the key existential question of the last century: how do we go on, make meaning, find stable identities of ourselves and the world – and how does religion fulfill this function? To me, such an approach is of real worth if we wish to truly understand this quaint and rather persisent aspect of the human condition.

The Varieties of Religious Experience gets to the very root of what atheistic rationalists so obviously ignore: individual experience. Despite the claims of Ayn Rand, men cannot live on abstract scientific formulae alone, and our minds are far from perfect processing machines. So much of our life is guided by sub-conscious process, emotion and experience. For instance, we know through scientific inquiry that electromagnetic radiation has no inherent colour – that colour is merely an illusionary function of our imperfect perception – but this does nothing to change the fact that for all intensive purposes we still think and see with colour. We cannot wholly divorce our existence from imperfect perception, emotion or personal experience – nor do I believe there is particular value in doing so.

I found much to love about this book. I picked it up with specific interest in James’ lectures on mysticism (which were incredble – they offered some of James’ most inspired prose and tantalising insights), but I put it down with a far deeper understanding of how and why people believe, and a far greater appreciation for the various nuances of belief.

The Varieties of Religious Experience is a brilliant piece of psychological literature with profound existential scope. It is regarded as a masterpiece for good reason, and should be a mandatory companion piece to temper the enthusiastic throes which seemingly follow a reading of The God Delusion by the more boorish of faux-rationalists.

“Ought it to be assumed that in all men the mixture of religion with other elements should be identical? Ought it, indeed, to be assumed that the lives of all men should show identical religious elements? In other words, is the existence of so many religious types and sects and creeds regrettable?

To these questions I answer ‘No’ emphatically. And my reason is that I do not see how it is possible that creatures in such different positions and with such different powers as human individuals are, should have exactly the same functions and the same duties. No two of us have identical difficulties, nor should we be expected to work out identical solutions. Each, from his peculiar angle of observation, takes in a certain sphere of fact and trouble, which each must deal with in a unique manner. One of us must soften himself, another must harden himself; one must yield to a point, another must stand firm, – in order the better to defend the position assigned him. If an Emerson were forced to be a Wesley, or a Moody forced to be a Whitman, the total human consciousness of the divine would suffer. The divine can mean no single quality, it must mean a group of qualities, by being champions of which in alternation, different men may all find worthy missions. Each attitudes being a syllable in human nature’s total message, it takes the whole of us to spell the meaning out completely. (…) We must frankly recognize the fact that we live in partial systems, and the parts are not interchangeable in the spiritual life. If we are peevish and jealous, destruction of the self must be an element of our religion; why need it be one if we are good and sympathetic from the outset? If we are sick souls, we require a religion of deliverance; but why think so much of deliverance, if we are health-minded? Unquestionably, some men have the computer experience and the higher vocation, here just as in the social world; but for each man to stay in his own experience, whate’er it be, and for others to tolerate him there, is surely best.”


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  1. William James | Episyllogism: Phil & Lit said, on October 28, 2012 at 12:02 pm

    […] A review of and reflection on William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience (writingascatharsis.wordpress.com) […]

  2. […] A review of and reflection on William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience (writingascatharsis.wordpress.com) […]

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