Thursday, 29 January 2015

Religious Experience and William James

In the 1900s, faith in the Christian God began to diminish. People began to turn away from the Church, and religion became much more about the individual’s personal relationship with God. William James, in his book “The Varieties of Religious Experience” (1902), reinforced this idea of an imminent God, and indeed he wrote one of the first theological books devoted wholly to the study of religious experiences. He was originally a psychiatrist and a Darwinian scientist, and also an agnostic until he had his own experience of God. His faith was sparked, and yet he did not give up on his scientific pursuits – he tried to examine his religious experience in terms of psychology. Thus, he did not ask whether believing in God was justifiable, as most theologians from Aquinas onwards had done, but why people believed in God at all, and whether belief in God is useful.

James differentiated religious experience from religious tradition – it does not matter which religion you belong to when we are talking about experience of God. In that sense, he was a pluralist, believing that all religions are worshipping a different form of the same God. Moreover, James did not try to rationalise God as other theologians had attempted to do – like Rudolf Otto, he believed that God was part of the non-rational world. Thus, a religious experience is a feeling of the non-rational, being aware of an external power that you just know is God. This is what James meant when he said religious experiences were ineffable – they cannot be explained or adequately put into words. As St Teresa of Avila says: “I wish I could give a description of at least the smallest part of what I leaned, but, when I try to discover a way of doing so, I find it impossible.” For James, then, religious belief, as well as religious experience, is non-rational, because there is no objective proof, only subjective proof that cannot be explained. James, through these ideas, highlights the “extreme difficulty of discussing non-empirical  concepts in terms of the intellect.” (R. A. Gilbert)

It is because they are non-rational and because they are personal that they have such a profound transformative effect on the subject – he cites Saul as an example. When somebody has a religious experience and this confirms or sparks their belief in God, this is called first-hand religion. Conversion can serve as validation of these experiences. James did not believe, however, that someone else’s religious experience could justify one’s own belief in God (e.g. second-hand religion). This is because religious experiences have Noetic Quality, providing insights into unobtainable truths, and these cannot be expressed to others. Aquinas noted that the idea of the Trinity, for example, had to be revealed, and could not be obtained through logic. Religious experiences are “illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for aftertime.” Thus, at the core of religion and the Church is, or at least should be, personal and authentic experiences, rather than dogma and doctrine. For James, “Feelings, acts and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine…” should be at the centre of religious belief and the Church.

James did not necessarily believe that every religious experience was true. He agreed that many of these experiences could be caused by mental illness (as in the stabbing of George Harrison by Michael Abrams, who said God told him to kill), or by intoxication. However, he did believe that the Transciency and Passivity of religious experiences does suggest their veracity. He explained that the Transciency of religious experiences (which usually only lasted from between a few minutes to two hours), contrasted with the dramatic effect these experiences have on peoples’ lifestyles, implies that they are important and therefore likely to be the result of the divine. Moreover, because of the power felt during a religious experience (Passivity), they are again likely to be supernatural. Genuine religious experience is beyond human control, and this can be seen as evidence against the idea that people will will their own religious experiences. However, he said that the only real sign that these experiences are from God is a ‘good disposition’ as the result of the experience. Those with a good disposition have healthy minds, and are spiritual optimists who know that God loves and forgives them.

James was not on a mission to prove God’s existence through religious experience. He simply wanted to learn more about these experiences and to compare evidence from different experiences. His methodology of pragmatism, a philosophy of open-mindedness which considers ideas “in terms of their fruits, not their roots” led him to say that religious experiences all shared these characteristics: Ineffability, Noetic Quality, Transciency, and Passivity. He defined his own religious experience thus:

“There came upon me a sense of immense exultation and joyousness followed by an intellectual illumination impossible to describe… The vision lasted a few seconds and was gone but the memory of it and the sense of reality of what it taught have remained.”

The fact that a large amount of his subjects said their experiences shared these qualities does suggest that they are telling the truth. However, he still explored other possibilities, studying the psychology of dreams and hallucinations. He concluded that religious experiences were ‘psychological phenomena’ and that they could they could be explained in terms of a person’s psychological make-up. However, for James this did not deny that they are linked to God. Just as God is personal, so were these experiences.

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