Having just read Oliver Sacks's Hallucinations, I decided to plow through a book that has been on my shelf for a long time: The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James.
My reasoning was as follows: Sacks's book offers a neurologist's explanation for almost any imaginable religious phenomenon. In effect, where God is concerned, the human brain can do it all: hear voices, see angels, receive instructions, imagine the unimaginable.
Sacks did not set out to prove that God doesn't exist, but it's difficult not to draw that conclusion from his survey of humankind's hallucinatory gifts and brilliance.
James's book, by contrast, is a famous analysis of religious experience from the psychological--and, I would add, humanistic--viewpoint. He, too, was an eminent scientist, but I suspected, correctly, that he would offer a "beyond-neurological" account of religion.
The Varieties of Religious Experience began as a set of twenty lectures given in Scotland (James was a professor at Harvard at the time). It's clear that if the audience followed him as he worked his way through the various dimensions of religiousity, it was because in the early 1900s there were no movies, no Internet, no Netflix, no MP3 players, etc., to offer alternative modes of entertainment. And then, of course, you had the tough Scots ready to put up with almost any test of their patience and intellect. Taking all these factors into account, it's possible…but only possible…that James offered his listeners twenty good nights out on the town.
This is a strenuous book, a demanding book, but a rewarding one. I would think it could be used as a fundamental text in a college course on religion. The subject is approached from the point of view of faith, conversion, philosophy, saintliness, mysticism…and yes, even neurology.
Keeping in mind when James wrote this book helps when we ponder his fundamental conclusions:
--Faith in a divine entity emerges out of a relocation of an individual's energy from his/her conscious mind to his/her subconcious mind.
--The acquisition of faith can come from being born into a family of faith or, just as likely, a realization that one's little self (conscious mind) is inadequate to live a good, healthy life.
--It's impossible to "prove" that a divinity exists or does not exist, but we can assess a divinity's reality by the utility that divinity offers the faithful.
--Excitability, or a passionate nature, disposes one to the extremes of purity, self-sacrifice, and asceticism found in the saintly…and the mystical.
--"Healthy-mindedness" was the term James used to describe religions that served as precursors to what we now broadly term "I'm Okay, You're Okay."
--Protestantism will never be able to compete with the aesthetic glories of Roman Catholicism or offer solace equal to that provided by weekly confessions.
--Many great religious figures--St. Augustine, Luther, Tolstoy--came to their faith out of self-disgust…and never quite surrendered that self-disgust.
I could go on in this vein since it's a longish book, but there are a few more general points I'd like to make about it. Consistent with his scientific mind, James made constant use of testimonials, statements, confessions, etc., describing aspects of religious experience. In other words, he felt that given the subjectivity of religous experience, private, personal commentaries were indispensible in really understanding what religion was all about.
James also was modest in his philosophical and intellectual pretentions, although he surely was one of the most erudite scholars of his time. He looked at experience inductively, case by case, wherever possible, and he did not force unities where they could not be discovered.
This, of course, put him somewhat at odds with the fundamental quality of faith in that faith pretends to, or expresses, a sense of cosmic unity.
Two major issues confronting Americans in terms of religion in today's world occur to me:
--First, religions of subjective happiness and well-being and a sense of permanent contact with permanent love must be severely challenged by what we see around the globe, through jet travel or in the media. Setting wars aside, consider the fact that there are hundreds of millions of people who live on about a dollar a day. A God who doesn't push the well-off to work harder at relieving misery is a God who isn't pushing the well-off very hard. Our subjective experience and consciousness has changed since James's time, after all. We see everything, we hear everything, we need to pay attention to everything.
--Second, James was quite prescient in noting how religions can lead to extremist views, dogmatism, discrimination and persecution. He uses the old-fashioned word "excitable" in a way that seems inadequate to describe the furies of jihadism or anti-semitism or Hindu rejection of Islam. Nonetheless, he's very good in highlighting the dangers of certainty.
Again, James was a scientist and a pragmatist. He was suspicious of universals, but he was incredibly eloquent in offering a comprehensive account of what it feels like--and feeling is so critical to religion--to believe in a connection between an individual soul and the cosmic soul…if such a thing exists.
For more of my comments on books, see Tuppence Reviews (Kindle.)
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