William James: Happy / Sad Religion

Alright, time for some more William James. Last week we talked about James’s basic approach in The Varieties of Religious Experience: in short, he’s out looking at the psychology of religion. In Lectures 4 – 7, James explores two different psychological attitudes, and how they might manifest in different types of religion. The second part of that sentence is obviously the interesting bit – let’s start with these different attitudes, though, and see how they might conceivably push people towards one type of religion or the other.

  • 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.
  • Read it yourself: I’m using the Penguin Classics edition, but you can also read it online at Project Gutenberg.

The first attitude, then, is “healthy-mindedness,” which James explores in Lectures 4 & 5. He quotes different writers who seem to possess “a temperament organically weighted on the side of cheer and fatally forbidden to linger … over the darker aspects of the universe.” In some cases, he says, “optimism may become quasi-pathological.” He then goes on to explore the “mind-cure movement,” whose adherents take this sort of thing to its logical conclusion by trying to think themselves into wellness. “The leaders in this faith,” James says, “have had an intuitive belief in the all-saving power of healthy-minded attitudes as such, in the conquering efficacy of courage, hope, and trust, and a correlative contempt for doubt, fear, worry, and all nervously precautionary states of mind.” We can see contemporary examples today in The Power of Positive Thinking, or more generally in the New Age people who talk about manifesting realities by thinking really hard about them. The basic assumption for all these people is that the universe is fundamentally, inherently good, and that all of the problems and evils are just misalignments. Evil is an imbalance or maladjustment of parts that are, in themselves, perfect and generally fine.

The second attitude is that of the “sick soul,” which James explores in Lectures 6 & 7. These people are not sick per se, but they might be described as morbid or obsessed with sin. According to James, they “cannot so swiftly throw off the burden of the consciousness of evil, but are congenitally fated to suffer from its presence.” Where the healthy-minded person sees sin as an imbalance, the sick soul sees sin as something deeper, as part of our essence as human beings. “There are others [ie the sick souls] for whom evil is no mere relation of the subject to particular outer things, but something more radical and general, a wrongness or vice in his essential nature, which no alteration of the environment, or any superficial rearrangement of the inner self, can cure.” Subsequently, James argues, these people tend to loathe the real world, seeing it as sinful and fallen. They cannot enjoy any of the so-called pleasures of the world; joy is drained away by the overwhelming reality of sin.

It’s all very melodramatic, and it probably seems self-indulgent – to be honest, though, the people James describes as ‘healthy-minded’ wind me up more. There’s a certain type of Christian, in particular, who goes through life with a sunny-side-up attitude that’s actually kinda based on them ignoring or skating over most of the problems that exist in the world. It’s very white middle-class Christianity. And James comments on this as well: he suggests that the healthy-minded, so-called, ultimately have a less complete idea of the world, because they’re incapable of properly understanding the evils that do exist. I mean, you know, it’s also probably worth noting that both of these attitudes are characterised in their most extreme forms – their milder variants would annoy us less, and in many cases they might allow for complexity that could address or resolve some of the things we dislike about them.

If we had to sum up these attitudes in a pithy way, we might say that the healthy-minded people see humanity as fundamentally good, while the sick souls see humanity as fundamentally evil. The healthy-minded people are probably happier, but also in some ways maybe more superficial, more self-interested. As noted above, James suggests that they often ignore evil, and put it out of their mind as unbecoming – as almost morally inappropriate to dwell on. Or they might try and make out that it’s really not evil and that it’s actually good for you, or some other rubbish. But the opposite problem is true of the sick soul – at the extreme, they are overcome by the thought of all the world’s evils, and fall into melancholy or depression. “As the healthy-minded enthusiast succeeds in ignoring evil’s very existence, so the subject of melancholy is forced in spite of himself to ignore that of all good whatever.”

Now, obviously James is moving very quickly. This whole thesis is worked out over the course of eighty pages, so it’s pretty brief and sketchy while also being an overwhelmingly large claim. But let’s take it at face value, and maybe draw out some initial connections. For example, Aquinas talks about how evil doesn’t really exist – he argues that it’s better thought of as a degraded form of goodness. So, for instance, if you’re cheating on your partner, you have a sexual impulse, which is in and of itself inherently good, but you express it in a degraded way. You use that sexual impulse in a way that is less than what sexuality ought to be. You can sort of see how that might line up with James’s claim about misalignments or imbalances. Everything that is, is good – but it’s also just not quite functioning properly. It needs to be restored to its fullness. That’s quite a cheery thought. It gives you a lot of space to enjoy things. You can go round smelling the flowers, because flowers are inherently good, and they’re there for us to take joy in. The world might not be perfect, but everything that exists is in the absolute sense at least some form of goodness. Alternately, Calvin talks about how everything is fundamentally shit. He’s very big on the idea that at our core, we are all evil creatures, “but rottenness and a worm.” There’s something there that overlaps with James’s argument – that the sick souls see sin as part of our essence and identity. That’s definitely Calvin. James also cites Martin Luther as having a similar attitude. What’s particularly funny about these examples, actually, is that James identifies healthy-mindedness as being a peculiarly Latin trait, whereas “the Germanic races have tended rather to think of Sin in the singular, and with a capital S, as of something ineradicably ingrained in our natural subjectivity, and never to be removed by any superficial piecemeal operations.” When I first read that, I snickered – it might not be true in all cases, but it definitely fits for the German Luther and the Italian Aquinas.

James’s overarching argument, then, is that your decision to follow either Luther or Aquinas might well be influenced by your psychological temperament. Everybody’s got a line where they get upset, and it’s at different levels for different people – some people it’s higher, and some people it’s lower. And people probably spend more time on one side or the other: “the sanguine and healthy-minded live habitually on the sunny side of their misery-line, the depressed and melancholy live beyond it, in darkness and apprehension.” Given that, James says, “does it not appear as if one who lived more habitually on one side of the pain-threshold might need a different sort of religion from one who habitually lived on the other?” The question here is about cause and effect. Are Lutherans actually only Lutheran because Lutheranism fits their psychological predisposition? Are Catholics only Catholic because of Aquinas’s sunny-side-up mentality? I mean, obviously it’s not quite that simple – people can adhere to a denomination for lots of different reasons. Sometimes it’s about how you’re raised. Sometimes one minister will be a better speaker than another. Sometimes the rituals and culture of a place will be more compelling. But also, James argues, maybe it’s partly also because of something in your psychological make-up that predisposes you to be either a bit of a grumpy shit or a bit of a grinning idiot.

This is the sort of thing that James is trying to do throughout this book. He’s thinking about the psychology of religion – what’s going on in our minds when we’re being religious, and, more controversially, how our differing states of mind might predispose us to one type of religion or another. It’s a spicy topic, because believers don’t like to think of themselves as driven towards religion by some mental quirk. Again, it’s that question of cause and effect. For believers, the truth should be true regardless of any person’s psychology, and when we respond to truth, it should be on grounds other than that it suits our frame of mind. We’d like to think that, anyway. Also, as we discussed last week, note that James tries to keep the question of truth separate from the question of psychology, arguing that just because something stems from your psychological disposition doesn’t have any bearing on whether or not it’s true. If the sick souls are right, it’s not because of their psychology – that’s, uh, just why they could more easily grasp the truth. But, as we also discussed last week, James’s separation just isn’t entirely convincing – and it raises a bunch of problems for how believers think about their faith. When you respond to whatever God is saying, are you hearing correctly, or are you just responding to something that fits your particular psychology? Is it God-in-Himself, or are you just acting out your own peculiar brain patterns? And how could you tell the difference? Part of what we’re asking here is how we know what’s real outside of the confines of our own skull, which is not exclusively a problem for religious people. But when we’re suggesting that part of our religious impulse can be shaped by our psychology, it’s hard not to wonder – where does the psychology stop? How do we distinguish true religion from mental specters? It’s not a different issue to last week, but the further you get into James’s work, the more pointed the problem becomes.

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