Re-read W. James Varieties 3.0


One more post on my re-reading William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience from 1906 before I move on to other things.  As I mentioned in the previous post James called for science of religion, for the study of religion just as we study optics, and he gave a preliminary hypothesis to start off the effort.  Based upon his review of religious experiences (mostly Christian but some from Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism) James saw the basic principles of religious thought as first, that we, or some of us do, believe that there is another reality other than the physical one we generally perceive, second, that humans somehow lack or are deficient in some way, and three, that connecting to the unseen reality is a way of remediating that lack.  He further (as discussed in my re-read post 1.0) described how religions and gods were different for different people and changed over time because human needs were changing.  The basic experience here is that of a mystic, one who directly apprehends the other reality.  James called this experience ‘noetic’ meaning it was one of learning and knowledge more than emotional arousal.  While the mystic ‘knows’ it is real, James says that puts no one else under obligation to accept its validity–it is, as so much of human experience, a purely subjective experience and unavailable to objective sharing.

Pretty low key stuff, here, but James was very articulate in his explication and used copious examples of religious peoples’ writings.  James was philosophically a pragmatist, following his colleague Charles Sanders Pierce, so that the truth of any matter lies in its effect, and James saw plenty of effect in his survey of religious experiences.  Following the psychological theory of his day which was developing what James called the sub-liminal mind or the subconscious, he hypothesized that this sub-liminal part of the mind mediated between the unseen reality and the conscious mind.  Okay.  Something has to and it might as well be that until we discover a mystic organ that senses the otherworld or how the other world lies at the inception of each life so we can apprehend it somehow in ourselves.  I like Langer in Mind, v. 3, when she says that humans changed mightily when we realized that each life was one act, complex but unitary, and that before each act begins and after it is over then became an object for further reflection.  But how do we gather the data?

James focused on individual experience and excluded considerations of religious institutions.  Looking at the effects of religious experience on individuals he writes that “treating [creeds and faith state] as purely subjective phenomena, without regard to the question of their “truth,” we are obliged on account of their extraordinary influence upon action and endurance, to class them amongst the most important biological functions of mankind.”  Just so.

But context, what about the context here?  James ignores religious institutions, the actions of which, following some like Christopher Hitchens, reflect a more destructive facet of humanity. When James considers religion “without regard to the question of their truth” he misses one of the main religious claims, that believers know the truth and all too often have “corrected” others to the point of their death.  So yes, religion is an important biological function and we must consider the object whole if we are to understand its roots.

And so we travel on . . . .

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