William James: Religion and Neurology

I’ve had a bit of a bum run with the reading lately. I had another Maximus book on the go – On The Ecclesiastical Mystagogy – great title, not very interesting. Then I read a book of poems by Gregory of Nazianzus, one of the very early church fathers – again, interesting pitch, awful read. It was mostly just a load of lists of the events that happened in different parts of the Bible – a memory tool, more than anything else. Very bad. Don’t read them. Anyway, third time’s the charm: I’ve started reading William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, which I’ve been meaning to do for a while, and it’s pretty great.

  • The text: The Varieties of Religious Experience
  • The author: William James, late 19th century psychologist
  • Notes: This book is made up of a series of lectures delivered in 1901, in Edinburgh. We’re dealing today with the first lecture, ‘Religion and Neurology’.
  • Read it yourself: I’m using the Penguin Classics edition, but you can also read it online at Project Gutenberg.

So James is a psychologist, and in this text, he approaches religion through a psychological lens – less asking whether or not a given religion is true, and more inquiring into what’s going on in an individual’s brain when they’re, uh, being religious. It’s the sort of conversation that’s likely to upset everyone. For instance, a Christian might insist that whatever is going on in a Christian brain is entirely different to whatever’s going on in a Buddhist brain, simply because the Christian believes Christianity to be true and Buddhism, in the absolute sense, to be false. We saw this tension with the Pope Benny Vs Yoga thing a few weeks back: the Catholics don’t deny that there might be some positive effects of meditation or whatever, but they believe that those effects are ultimately purely physical, and in no sense spiritual. James understands the tensions that he’s walking into, and so, in this first lecture, he sets about defending the task that he’s set himself.

His first claim is that the psychology of religion isn’t any sort of attempt to reduce or deny religious truths. In fact, as he sees it, the psychology of religion is entirely separate to the matter of religious truth. James sets up a distinction between what he calls an existential judgement and a value or spiritual judgement. The existential judgement is about how something came to exist. It’s about history, development, about the nature and qualities of a thing and where they came from. The value judgement is about what something means. It’s about significance or importance. The existential judgement tells you how something got here; the value judgement tells you whether it’s true. This distinction has been drawn elsewhere in Christianity as well – and it’s not always been very popular. For example, there was a point last century where a bunch of historians realised that they could take the ordinary tools of historical excavation and use them on the Bible. All the Christians freaked right the fuck out, because they were worried that historians would somehow disprove God with basic historical analysis. James is similarly aware that some people might see his psychological approach to religion as somehow degrading or undermining the heart of faith. He talks, for example, about how attempts to find the origin of certain emotions or beliefs can feel somewhat invasive. When we hear about such attempts, James argues,

“we feel – quite apart from our legitimate impatience at the somewhat ridiculous swagger of the program, in view of what the authors are actually able to perform – menaced and negated in the springs of our innermost life. Such cold-blooded assimilations threaten, we think, to undo our soul’s vital secrets, as if the same breath which should succeed in explaining their origin would simultaneously explain away their significance.”

James thinks that this fear is valid, identifying a similar mentality in people who write off spiritual experiences as ‘really’ caused by some emotional or mental behaviour: “Alfred believes in immortality so strongly because his temperament is so emotional … Eliza’s delight in her church is a symptom of her hysterical constitution.” Against that attitude, James argues that identifying some emotional or mental factor as playing a part in our faith doesn’t invalidate it. Some people say that Paul’s vision of God on the road to Damascus was ‘just’ an epileptic fit. James would reply – what do you mean, ‘just’? If Paul was having an epileptic fit, how would that change anything about the spiritual value of that moment? “How can such an existential account of facts of mental history decide in one way or another upon their spiritual significance?” Really, he says, it’s just an attempt to write off perspectives that we dislike as stemming from some biological or psychological imbalance, when in reality the biological or psychological facts have no bearing on the question of spiritual meaning.

That line of argument is a big part of James’s work in this first lecture. He spends a bunch of time insisting that the existential and spiritual questions about faith are largely separate. “Neither judgement can be deduced immediately from the other.” It’s a nice idea – but if he’s wrong, then it’s possible that what he’s really doing (however inadvertently) is paving the way for religion to be reduced to a psychological phenomenon. Where he shrugs off the question of Paul’s epileptic fit as irrelevant, a non-believer might say, well, if we can explain Paul’s experiences and symptoms without reference to spirituality, then why introduce spirituality into the conversation at all? Why treat spirituality as something real and meaningful when all of its products and processes can be explained with reference to tangible, material conditions? It’s the same concern that we noted earlier. Back when those Christians were worrying about historians disproving God with basic historical analysis – I mean, I made fun of them, but it’s not an unfounded concern. Christianity makes concrete claims about things that have happened (allegedly) in the real world. The question of ‘is this true?’ hinges on the question of ‘how did this happen?’. I made this point back in 2016 (on Christmas Day, no less) with an A.N. Wilson book: if the spiritual truth of Christianity is not also a historical truth – that is, if the Gospels were not written as true stories of the death and bodily resurrection of the historical Jesus Christ – then our faith is pointless, and we should all collectively quit. We shouldn’t necessarily give up on spirituality, but we should absolutely abandon Christianity.

Given all of that, what do we make of James? Is his opening distinction actually false? Probably, yeah. He takes a scientific, psychological lens to Christianity, and argues that the truth claims of Christianity can continue to exist quite happily somewhere else, separate to his conversation. He’s probably wrong about that, but he’s also clearly being generous, in a way that the scientists who come after him sometimes aren’t. And I have to confess, in some ways I’ve followed in his footsteps. I’ve always made a point here of talking about Christianity from the existential perspective – I talk about what it is, how it got there, how different traditions evolve. I spend more time talking about what different theologians say than whether or not they’re right. I try and throw in a couple criticisms along the way, make it something to think critically about – and while I don’t obscure my opinions (Calvin’s a shitbag), I think it’s pretty clear that I’m more interested in what people say than what’s necessarily true. I dunno. It’s something I think about for myself a lot, whether or not that’s appropriate. At the very least, you know, it’s clearly a tension that continues to shape how we think about religion today. James probably doesn’t succeed at keeping those two things apart, but it’s good that he was able to identify them.

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