Believing in Belief: William James’s “Varieties” and the New Atheism

This post is adapted from an assignment for an American intellectual history seminar.

The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (1902) is a collection of William James’s lectures on what you might call the parapsychology of religion. It’s an exploration of personal religiosity through two lenses: first, the philosophy of pragmatism that James would come to symbolize, and second, the experimental psychology that James had pioneered at his Harvard laboratory in the late 19th century.

The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (1902)

James is not interested in mapping specific branches of theology, or in charting the effects of religious indoctrination. “It would profit us little,” he says, “to study [a] second-hand religious life” shaped by a church or community. He wants to get inside the heads of those to whom religion happens, to focus on those unusual souls who have an unsettling or life-changing encounter with some form of divinity or infinity. This often means the founder of a sect or movement, not a follower. He defines religion for this purpose as “the 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.” This is rather more vague than you might expect from James, but it allows him to cover a wide range of experiences, from ghostly visitations to existential dread to ecstatic conversion.

While James wants to get inside unusual heads, he is not too much concerned with unusual brains. Early on he disdains the “medical materialism” that would ascribe religious experiences solely to mental disorders or psychopathology. “In the natural sciences and industrial arts it never occurs to anyone to try to refute opinions by showing up their author’s neurotic constitution…” and so the same consideration should be shown for religious ideas, which James sets out to study pragmatically, taking into consideration the well-known problems of confirmation bias and the cash value of ideas. Much later, discussing the modern trend of the mind-cure philosophy (modern then and now—cf. Oprah lauding The Secret), he cautions his academic audience that “nothing can be more stupid than to bar out phenomena from our notice, merely because we are incapable of taking part in anything like them ourselves.” This open-mindedness is the sort of thing that more recent critics of religion reject out of hand.

Two Horsemen of the Apocalypse

The Four Horsemen
The “Horsemen”

Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and a host of their supporters, apologists, and diluters, churned out a wave of popular and controversial books about the social role of atheism in the first decade of the 2000s. These books have attacked religion as a cultural phenomenon that threatens modern humanist values and poses an existential threat to free society. They have reinvigorated the old debates over scientific positivism for an age in which we know much more than Comte and Huxley could have predicted. They see the religious proposition—-briefly, the one that there is a supernatural, Judeo-Christian God—-as a falsifiable and false scientific hypothesis. Collectively, this group of authors are called the “New Atheists,” and sometimes, to their delight, the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” Dawkins’s The God Delusion and Hitchens’s God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything are probably the most famous of the New Atheist books.

The authorial task of 1902 was different from that of 2006, and it’s obvious from the texts that the authors had different goals in mind. Both of the New Atheists are explicitly concerned with the negative impact of organized religion and superstition on social life, whereas James was careful to stay away from social questions. The New Atheists are deliberately provocative and aim to defeat or correct religiosity; James is careful not to offend or condemn, aiming at a comparative study of individual experiences. “Deliberately seeking to discredit the religious side of life,” he disclaims, “is absolutely alien to my intention.” So while James, Dawkins, and Hitchens are each entertaining in their way, and enlightening on quite different subjects (psychology, biology, and hypocrisy, respectively), they are not intuitively comparable as authors. Still, I think they overlap and argue against one another in a very interesting and philosophically unsteady area: the trust in human testimonial.

The Ability to Believe

William James’s pragmatic approach to the study of experience means that he is very trusting of accounts that might seem, to the unfriendly reader, to range from embellished to impossible. This trust is derived from the pragmatic solution to non-factual questions for which there is little evidence on either side: evaluate the “cash value” of each answer in terms of outcomes: happiness, utility, comfort with its internal consistency, and so forth.

A pragmatist can talk of religious feeling within Charles Peirce’s somewhat confusing semiotic distinction between what is “true,” or workable within a given system, and what is “real,” or somehow objectively extant. This distinction allows William James to subtly claim that religious experiences are “true” for those who have them, and that their relation to “reality,” except insofar as it has consequences that demand modification, is pretty much irrelevant. The New Atheism of the past decade has utterly rejected such a pragmatic view of religious experience in favor of the view that religious claims fall into only two categories, equally invalid: meaningless, fuzzy spiritualism (“God is energy”); and falsifiable scientific hypotheses (miracles, prayer, etc.) In this approach, individual testimony is regarded as statistically insignificant and even biologically determined. “Wishful thinking counts,” Dawkins argues, “because human psychology has a near-universal tendency to let belief be coloured by desire.” James would say instead that wishful thinking in many cases becomes truth.

Walt Whitman
The perpetually healthy-minded among us have little need for traditional religion…

Not all testimony is created equal, of course. James makes a critical and nonjudgmental distinction in The Varieties between healthy-minded people and “sick souls.” The perpetually healthy-minded among us, like Walt Whitman, have little need for traditional religion, and so their religions (like the brimstone-free Liberal Christianity, or theosophy, or maybe James’s father’s Swedenborgianism) tend to be gentle. On the other hand, the sick soul has a keen sense of sin, evil, and melancholy, and to cope with them it uses harsh systems of management like Calvinism or Catholicism.

The state of healthy-mindedness or sick-souledness was by no means permanent, as James knew personally. One anecdote supposedly taken from a Frenchman who underwent an episode of “panic fear” secretly recounts James’s own sudden and horrific crisis of the soul. (See Louis Menand, American Studies, ch. 1, or Jacques Barzun, A Stroll with W. J., 17-18.) Conversion to (or from) religiosity was often prompted by a transition from one state to the other. Count Leo Tolstoy, Saint Paul, George Fox, and John Bunyan provide some of his more famous examples of spiritual crisis, but the entire book is laced with quotations from a fearsome assortment of obscure and well-known historic sources. The problem implied both by this overwhelming supply of evidence and by James’s snuck-in private testimony is that probably not all of these people were lying or mentally incompetent. Most of them, unlike, say, televangelists, had no incentive to lie. James knows he isn’t lying about his own experience, as well as he can know anything. And so the pragmatic thing to do is to evaluate individual experiences as best we can—-paying special attention to those cases apparently least motivated by charlatanism or imitation, and respecting the sovereignty of the “stream of consciousness.”

The Mind Virus

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins explains the memetic view of religion as a sort of hereditary affliction adapted by social evolution to propagate itself down through generations. “Natural selection builds child brains with a tendency to believe whatever their parents and tribal elders tell them. Such trusting obedience is valuable for survival… but the inevitable by-product is vulnerability to infection by mind viruses.” Christopher Hitchens echoes him in postulating that “if religious instruction were not allowed until the child had attained the age of reason, we would be living in a quite different world.”

James’s examples are deliberately limited to adult experience—-he acknowledges that children overwhelmingly adopt their parents’ faith—-but Dawkins would no doubt answer them by pointing to a universal cultural immersion in memetic ideas that conditioned people to accept prayer, reincarnation, miracles, etc., as legitimate paths to knowledge. Indeed most of the examples in The Varieties come from England, the Continent, and the United States: Christendom, as they used to call it. James himself demonstrates this common cultural heritage while addressing the audience directly: surely, he says at one point, you all remember the childhood of St. Augustine. James was raised and immersed in mainstream liberal Protestantism, and as David Hollinger has argued, it is reflected unmistakably in The Varieties. But on the spectrum of belief he falls closer to spiritual agnosticism or Transcendentalism than to atheism. In the book’s unsteady Postscript he claims to believe positively “that in [mystical or religious] communion with the Ideal new force comes into the world, and new departures are made here below,” but not in any organized form of religion. In his iconoclasm there is reason to believe that James counts himself among what he calls the “constitutionally sombre men, in whose religious life… rapturousness is lacking.”

I Want To Believe
UFOs are culture.

A New Atheist might see this as wishful thinking. As Oliver Wendell Holmes put it, James “turned the lights down low so as to give miracle a chance.” Their relevant argument being that religious testimony, even if not based in mental irregularities, is usually inherently untrustworthy due to cultural infiltration. Hitchens points to this by drawing a parallel between religious evidence and the evidence for UFO encounters: both are absurdly limited in scope and in their adherence to cultural norms.

James does not explicitly counter such a criticism, but his examples try to. Many of them are not exactly religious in the sense in which Dawkins and Hitchens speak of religion: Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, and company. Rather, they are transcendental or existential moments of ecstasy or dread, unexpected and overwhelming transformations that bring the “blood-freezing heart-palsying sensation” or the soul of “sky-blue tint.” Mystical encounters are not predictable and often cannot be described to others, even using the specialized languages of rapture that have sprung up with religious systems. So the question remains: can we believe in belief? Are experiences that seem to verify religion somehow just unacceptable, anathema to the rational being? Christopher Hitchens seems to think so—-in a recent article describing his fight against cancer, he has declared that any Hitchens making an embarrassing deathbed conversion “would not in fact be ‘me.’”

Christopher Hitchens
“I hereby state while I am still lucid that the entity thus humiliating itself would not in fact be ‘me.’”

This is the great challenge The Varieties poses to a skeptic: what happens when you have an irrational, irreconcilable mental experience? The rational mind “will fail to convince or convert you all the same, if your dumb intuitions are opposed to its conclusions.” Those who undergo a conversion or a crisis acquire intuitions that “come from a deeper level of your nature than the loquacious level which rationalism inhabits.” Mystical experiences will present themselves as windows “through which the mind looks out upon a more extensive and inclusive world” than the scientifically comprehensible one.

So what can you think when someone else, another free and sovereign bundle of neurons, undergoes such an experience? Can you wave it away by saying, “that’s not real?” What about when it happens to you? Can anyone legitimately say, “that’s not me?” When it happened to him, William James chose not to.

James was as skeptical and contrarian in his peculiar way as Dawkins, Hitchens, & co. are in theirs. His opposition to the American imperialist project of the 1890s gives ample evidence of his distaste for blind obedience to institutional directives. Yet part of his charm and strength is that he was not, and could not be, skeptical of the holistic human condition. He insisted on taking into account the whole of experience on an individual basis, and could not then deny the power and authenticity of (some) self-reported spiritual experiences. The New Atheists ignore or dismiss testimony as culturally or biologically driven and focus instead on the institutional evils of religion, and that is a perspective well-suited to their task of calling for social change. James’s project of a “study in human nature” is consciously more interested in the individual.

It’s hard to tell how the authors would get along. Dawkins does not mention James in The God Delusion, and Hitchens mentions him only as part of a joke. Perhaps James would have seen the New Atheism as distressingly arrogant—-shaped and guided, maybe, by people who are fundamentally healthy-minded, rather than sick-souled, and thus able to sustain themselves with an appreciation of nature. (Somewhere, I have heard this called “Saganism.”) I think it’s more likely he would have accepted their arguments about the evils of Catholicism, or the inconsistencies of the Bible, and stopped short where they begin to advocate the overall abandonment of religious feeling. William James had an insurmountable respect for the free, flexible, and inquisitive mind, no matter what it encountered or experienced. The Varieties of Religious Experience is his testament to that respect. I often find it difficult to emulate the attitude of this book, to accept the solidity of experiences not my own, but it’s rewarding to try.