The Varieties of Religious Experience I: “Religion and Neurology”

January 16, 2007

(This is the first of a planned twenty part journey through William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience lectures).

Oh boy. If this first lecture, “Religion and Neurology,” is any indication, I’m in for a treat. The primary purpose of James’s introductory lecture is to provide a foundation for the specifics to follow, but it is full of insight and discernment, and has me very intrigued by what’s to come.

The first part of the lecture distinguishes between two separate “orders of question” concerning the discussion and evaluation of religion and belief. The first, the “existential judgment” deals with the facts of religion: its origins, its history, etc. The second, the “spiritual judgment,” is entirely different, as it concerns the worth and value of religion. Spiritual judgments necessarily come from “a sort of general theory as to what the peculiarities in a thing should be which give it value” — namely, a worldview by which the judge weighs the pros and cons of religious belief, according to the theory to which he holds. For James, as he makes very clear from the start, this theory is psychology: “not religious institutions, but rather religious feelings and impulses must be its subject.”

James kicks off his discussion of religious experience with this:

There can be no doubt that as a matter of fact a religious life, exclusively pursued, does tend to make the person exceptional and eccentric.

Specifically, James wishes to understand the experiences of true, passionate religious believers, as opposed to the “ordinary religious believer,” who simply follows the custom of his country. This is in keeping with the focus James outlined earlier: on the the psychology of religious experience, not on broader cultural and doctrinal matters. He cites the example of George Fox, quoting from his diary. About Fox, James writes:

No one can pretend for a moment that in point of spiritual sagacity and capacity, Fox’s mind was unsound. Every one who confronted him personally, from Oliver Cromwell down to county magistrates and jailers, seems to have acknowledged his superior power. Yet from the point of view of his nervous constitution, Fox was a psychopath or détraqué of the deepest dye.

The example James quotes is particularly apt: the Lord calls Fox to go the city of Lichfield (after he takes off his shoes and leaves them with a shepherd) calling out “Wo the the bloody city of Lichfield!” Further, Fox has a vision of a river of blood flowing through the town. Fox has no clue why the Lord has called him to this, but afterwards he learns that there was a great massacre of Christians in the town during Roman times. James follows the passage with a plea to face the bizarre aspects of religion experience: “Bent as we are on studying religion’s existential conditions, we cannot possibly ignore these pathological aspects of the subject.”

The main, middle part of the lecture following this quotation is an attempt by James to resist the typical, materialistic, method of explaining religious pathology. “Medical materialism,” as James calls it, always attempts to explain a thought or emotion by exposing “the causes in which the thing originates.” This judgment is typically cast by “unsentimental people” on their “more sentimental acquaintances.” It’s the equivalent of Ebenezer Scrooge’s response to the ghost of Marley: “You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

James dismisses this as mere “existential judgment,” which does not “decide in one way or another their spiritual significance.” Upon reading this, I was very critical: James here is attempting to distance the veracity of a belief from its “spiritual value” — a the value or significance of a belief is not depended upon its being true. This is disconcerting.

James, however, has a good answer:

Scientific theories are organically conditioned just as much as religious emotions are; and if we only knew the facts intimately enough, we should doubtless see ‘the liver’ determining the dicta of the sturdy atheist as decisively as it does those of the Methodist under conviction anxious about his soul. When it alters in one way the blood that percolates it, we get the methodist, when in another way, we get the atheist form of mind. So of all our rapturer, and our drynesses, our longings and pantings, our questions and beliefs. They are equally organically founded, be they of religious or of non-religious content.

I think this is a devastating critique of the materialist aim to explain beliefs they find to be merely the product of material process. I am sure modern neurology has addressed this claim, and I would love to hear how it is countered — but for now I’m impressed.

In place of materialism, James wishes to present a different set of criteria by which to judge religious belief:

Let us play fair in this whole matter, and be quite candid with ourselves and with the facts. When we think certain states of mind superior to others, is it ever because of what we know concerning their organic antecedents? No! it is always for two entirely different reasons. It is either because we take an immediate delight in them; or else it is because we believe them to bring us good consequential fruits for life. […] It is the character of inner happiness in the thoughts which stamps them as good, or else their consistency with our other opinions and their serviceability for our needs, which make them pass for true in our esteem.

A few paragraphs later, James boils this down further:

Immediate luminousness, in short, philosophical reasonableness, and moral helpfulness are the only available criteria. Saint Teresa might have had the nervous system of the placidest cow, and it would not now save her theology, if the trial of the theology by these other tests should show it to be contemptible. And conversely if her theology can stand these other tests, it will make no difference how hysterical or nervously off her balance Saint Teresa may have been when she was with us here below.

Near the end of the essay, James further dismisses the notion that the origin of a belief is a deciding factor for its judgment: “By their fruits ye shall know them, not by their roots.” He correctly points out that religious communities have thought this very thing for years: it is the practice of belief and visions, not the experiences themselves, that determines their veracity. He quotes both Jonathan Edwards and Saint Tersea to prove this point.

I am still very concerned by James’s project to distance usefulness from truth, but I know this is part of his general theory of pragmatism, and I know he plans to develop it further in the remaining lectures. My anticipation is that it will be the guiding principle by which I read and evaluate his ideas. I find his counter to materialism is sound, and think luminousness, reasonableness, and helpfulness are good qualities to prop up — we’ll see how it turns out.



  1. Off to a great start! This first lecture sounds fascinating. I like how you used Dickens as an example. What do you find concerning in James creating a distance between usefulness and truth?

  2. That is the question. In general, I think that determining the “value” of truth, according to its usefulness, is unsettling in that it separates actuality from experience. If truth is truly real, and is waiting to be discovered, then we should judge our actions and beliefs according to whether they align with truth. If the measuring stick for beliefs and actions is whether or not they are “useful” to us, then you’re one step away from affirming that it doesn’t matter what the truth is, as long as you find your belief useful.

    I’ll be harping on this more, I hope, and will, with some luck, arrive at a more lucid explanation of what I mean after reading more.

  3. I really liked that book – still considered a classic, was on the required reading list when I was at the U of Chicago divinity school. I remember being impressed with his criteria for what makes for an authentic religious experience, including “fruitfulness for life.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: