The Varieties of Religious Experience – Lecture 3

Chapter-by-chapter thoughts on William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience (hardcoverKindle).

Lecture III – The Reality of the Unseen

“Were one asked to characterize the life of religion in the broadest and most general terms possible, one might say that it consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.” James opens his third lecture with this definition of belief, and I think it’s a pretty good one–certainly, it takes care of the problem of whether a religion must include a diety (answer: no). Simply some unseen (dare I say “spiritual”) realm.

James discusses the belief of Immanuel Kant (a dense thicket if ever there was one) that abstract or conceptual beliefs can be as concrete as actual physical things in front of us. Things have meaning in practice. We behave as if they are true, even if they are not directly observable.

James looks at several cases of religious experience, in which the experiencers have a profound sense of presence, even seeing something or someone, or having a feeling of being actually touched. Sometimes these experiences trigger strong emotions (e.g. fear). Sometimes the experiencer a direct connection to something transcendent. Of course, various experiencers interpret their experiences in different ways. Some dismiss them a mere (albeit powerful) hallucinations; some see them as direct connections to the Almighty. In any case, James presents these experiences are real and not manufactured; in other words, people who are otherwise physically and mentally healthy really do have these personal experiences, and are not lying about them.

That these experiences are not rational (or cannot be supported through rational analysis) is immaterial to their power. James briefly mentions the then-new movement of the ethical societies, and the attempts some were making to apply rational methods to religious systems. But, James so far withholds final judgment: “I do not yet say that it is better that the subconscious and non-rational should thus hold primacy in the religious realm. I confine myself to simply point out that they do so hold it as a matter of fact.”

(Nearly 100 years later, the scientific approach to religious experience is still controversial. Researchers have been able to trigger “religious” experiences in some volunteers by stimulating their brains with powerful electromagnetic fields. And even “New Atheist” Sam Harris has raised eyebrows by claiming to have had profound experiences through psychodelic drugs and/or meditation: “I was not overwhelmed by a new feeling of love. The insight had more the character of a geometric proof: It was as if, having glimpsed the properties of one set of parallel lines, I suddenly understood what must be common to them all… Love was–as advertised by mystics and crackpots through the ages–a state of being… Now I knew that Jesus, the Buddha, Lao Tzu, and other saints and sages of history had not all been epileptics, schizophrenics, or frauds.”)

On to Lectures IV & V!

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