The Varieties of Religious Experience – Lectures 4 and 5

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

Lecture IV & V – The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness

It’s the power of positive thinking! James starts this twofer lecture by asserting that happiness is the chief concern of human life. Fair enough. What constitutes happiness and how it might be achieved could–and does–fill many, many books. James doesn’t get bogged down with that specifically, but he does address the ability of religion to address people’s happiness. He highlights the fact that, when he was delivering these lectures, there was a liberalizing movement in Western religion. The guilt-trips of established Protestantism and Roman Catholicism were giving way to less depressing worldviews of Unitarianism and reformed Christian denominations, which de-emphasized Hell and focused on, if not Heaven, at least communion with the Almighty. James also looks at the aggressively optimistic writing of transcendentalist Walt Whitman, which make the poet come across as if he’s trying to prove a point, but hasn’t really adopted a natural, knee-jerk indifference to the vagueries of the world. (I’m no Whitman scholar, so I leave such judgments to others.)

And so, James addresses the trend toward blindly happy religion, that which seeks to ignore the evils and horrors of the world, and instead emphasize happiness and oneness with the Infinite. E-liminate the negative; ac-centuate the positive, as it were.

James looks at the collection of mind-over-matter denominations in vogue at that time: Christian Science, “mind-cures,” and “New Thought,” all of which apparently insisted that even physical ailments could be prevented or reversed simply by the power of belief. He outlines several anecdotes in which people claim to have avoided injury or sickness simply by repeating some mantra or consciously calling out to a higher power. James seems alarmingly gullible in accepting these assertions at face-value. Even if one believed that the believers were honestly recounting their stories, it only takes garden-variety skepticism to see that these were, in fact, simply anecdotes that prove nothing.

Sadly, this kind of postive-thinking folderol is common even in the 21st century. One of the biggest-selling books of recent years is The Secret, which is eerily similar to James’s description of the mind-curers’ “doctrine that thoughts are “forces,” and that, by virtue of a law that like attracts like, one man’s thoughts draw to themselves as allies all the thoughts of the same character that exist the world over. Thus one gets, by one’s thinking, reinforcements from elsewhere for the realization of one’s desires…” I guess bullshit never dies.

Now, there’s no doubting the power of a healthy attitude toward life, especially during times of stress and trouble. Considerable research has borne out the benefits of stress-reduction for people with serious illnesses, and the placebo effect is well-documented. But none of this supports claims that the mind can cure the body of illness or injury. And lest you think James is really just documenting the ability of people to convince themselves of the truth of these mind-over-matter claims, he tosses this out at the end of the chapter: “I believe the claims of the sectarian scientist are, to say the least, premature. The experiences which we have been studying…plainly show the universe to be a more many-sided affair than any sect, even the scientific sect, allows for.” Perhaps if James were alive today, and were able to review the vast progress that science has made in the 100+ years since, and the lack of progress religious thinking has made, he would change his tune.

On to Lectures VI & VII!

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