Some of our recent discussions on theism/atheism have met with immovable doctrinal objects quite possibly as a result of our adherence to a framework that doesn’t permit compromise. For example (although I cannot remember the author) it has been said that a framework of thought that is based solely upon materialism will necessarily reject any attempts towards transcendentalism, and explanations that may tend to the latter are rejected with exclusive preference for materialist explanations.

Two questions arose recently of some importance. The first was a challenge to present a religious idea that was immune to criticism. The second was what is RD and the atheist materialist allowed to criticise about religion when the defenders of religion keep moving the boundaries (so to speak).

An answer to these perhaps come in the form of William James, and his series of lectures The Varieties of Religious Experience.  James was a pioneering psychologist and his work on religion, now over a hundred years old is still a recommended text. Although not immune from criticism James’ work garners support from both traditional defenders of science and religion, and represents an interesting mid-point.

I want to present a very brief overview of his work and then  answer those two questions about religious ideas and what can critics of religion criticize?

William James in brief.

James took a psychological approach to his subject, which was religious experience. He thought it prudent from a scientific perspective to work with accounts of individual experiences and to ignore religious institutions. He thought it unscientific to argue from his accounts of religious experience towards drawing conclusions in support of, or against the supernatural. The religious ‘idea’, he proposed, was less important than the effect it had on peoples lives. And from the perspective of empirical science he believed it was impossible to answer, or even to formulate the question ‘does God exist’, so he said we must leave that to the theologians and philosophers (pre-empting Wittgenstein). However from the perspective of empirical science he said it was possible to enquire and investigate the effects such ideas and experiences had upon peoples lives. Thus was coined the phrase fruits not roots, to describe the focus of his studies.

He talks about the different personality types engaged in religion. Two in particular interest him, ‘the healthy minded soul’ and ‘the sick soul’. The former is positive bordering manic, the latter is negative bordering depressed. The former may find religious expression in ideas of self-negation and humility, the latter may find religious expression in religious ideas of salvation and reward. James comments that the manic and depressed cover a wider range of human emotions than the ‘healthy’ does, so a religion is more complete when it engages these varieties.

In talking about religious experience James says it elicits various responses including: unification of the self, sense of a higher controlling power, loss of mundane worries, sense of the world having objectively changed, and the knowledge of truths previously unknown.  He also talks about ineffability and certitude and countless other elements of religious experiences, or peak-experiences, that go beyond the remit of a brief outline.

He describes the positive side of religious experience as a process of moving from ‘tenseness, self-responsibilty and worry’ towards ‘equanimity, receptivity and peace.’

Revisiting the two questions through James

First of all presenting religious ideas. As mentioned James favours ‘fruits not roots‘ and considers theological speculations as belonging to a language game that science is not involved nor should be interested in. Unless solid claims are made that overstep. James rejects the model that religion is born out of a religious idea. And proposes instead that a religious experience presupposes the development of an explanatory theology. He acknowledges that some may critisize this postulation of the existence of ‘religious experiences’ as pressupposing spiritual realities, but he defends this claim by stating that this is the description that is given to the experience by its participants. This he points out is the fundamental difference in interpretation between someone who has a religious experience and someone who observes/comments upon it. The observer and commentator is always externally situated and operating from a framework, the experiencer usually is not.

It is also the case that beliefs and religions continue, not because some intellectual conclusoin has been reached about their validity, but because people benefit from them. One could say that beliefs do not work because they are true, but that they are true because they work.”

So what room is there for a critical analysis of religious experience, such as RD would attempt to provide? Again James would point to fruits, but he accepts the question, what if the beliefs cease to work? His explanation comes only through commentating on history, again he reminds us that we ought not engage in theological speculation as to why religious beliefs change, but instead should acknowledge that human cultural impulses are subject to evolutionary change. Thus the gods of the past (once palatable to Grecians and Romans) lose their vitality to modern day humans because we no longer see the appeal in blood-thirsty deities, or such sort.

I am (for once) going to point out an element of RD that is worthy of praise. I often criticize him for his amplification of the negatives and his negating of the positives. In other words for engaging in data selection that confirms his bias. Now although I still assert this criticism and would wish for his critique to engage in an affirmation of positives, I will credit him for getting 50% of the approach correct.  I’ll let James speak on this one.

It always leads to a better understanding of a thing’s significance to consider its exaggerations and perversions, its equivalents and substitutes and nearest relatives elsewhere. Not that we may thereby swamp the thing in the wholesale condemnation which we pass on its inferior congeners, but rather that we may by contrast ascertain the more precisely in what its merits consist, by learning at the same time to what particular dangers of corruption it may also be exposed… Insane conditions have this advantage, that they isolate special factors of the mental life, and enable us to inspect them unmasked by their more usual surroundings. They play the part in mental anatomy which the scalpel and the microscope play in the anatomy of the body.

This approach he informs us must also instruct our criticisms of deities, or beliefs held in the past, and merely compels us to reject a theological approach concerned with proving/disproving the supernatural but to look more fervently at the fruits.

To the extent of disbelieving peremptorily in certain types of deity, I frankly confess that we must be theologians. If desibeliefs can be said to constitue a theology, then the prejudices, instincts, and common sense which I chose as our guides make theological partisans of us whenever they make certain beliefs abhorrent… Today a deity who should require bleeding sacrifices to placate him would be too sanguinary to be taken seriously… Once, his cruel appetites were of themselves credentials. Such deities then were worshiped because such fruits were desired.


Unfortunately such a short post can’t do justice to the complete Varieties of Religious Experience. I can recommend (other than reading the text in full) this abridged (16,000 word) summary of his lectures. Or may be able to answer some questions. One common theme that emerges from James’s work, and which has led to his influencing many thinkers across many disciplines is his pragmatic approach. This approach, applauded by many had three key principles and they should suffice as a conclusion to this post.

1) Religious experience should be the primary focus of religious study, not religious institution. Institutions are the descendents of experience.

2) Intense and even pathological experiences (religious or otherwise) should be studied as well as normative experiences, for they represent the closest thing to a microscope of the mind, drastically enlarging the normal processes.

3) In order to usefully interpret the realm of common, shared experience and history, we must each make certain “over-beliefs” in things which, while they cannot be proven on the basis of experience, help us to live fuller and better lives.