Friday, September 15, 2017

William James on Religious Certainty

Part of William James' project in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) was to evaluate whether having personal religious feelings and experience makes human life on average better or worse. Another part was to assess whether our experiences of the divine presence, or those more fully developed experiences of mystics, have any value as evidence about the truth of religion. As he explains at length in this passage from Lecture 14, he is trying to assess these things using a method that might be called common sense. Note that he is using "secular" in the old sense of "pertaining to a particular age of history."
Abstractly, it would seem illogical to try to measure the worth of a religion's fruits in merely human terms of value. How can you measure their worth without considering whether the God really exists who is supposed to inspire them ? If he really exists, then all the conduct instituted by men to meet his wants must necessarily be a reasonable fruit of his religion — it would be unreasonable only in case he did not exist. If, for instance, you were to condemn a religion of human or animal sacrifices by virtue of your subjective sentiments, and if all the while a deity were really there demanding such sacrifices, you would be making a theoretical mistake by tacitly assuming that the deity must be non-existent; you would be setting up a theology of your own as much as if you were a scholastic philosopher.

To this extent, to the extent of disbelieving peremptorily in certain types of deity, I frankly confess that we must be theologians. If disbeliefs can be said to constitute 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.

But such common-sense prejudices and instincts are themselves the fruit of an empirical evolution. Nothing is more striking than the secular alteration that goes on in the moral and religious tone of men, as their insight into nature and their social arrangements progressively develop. After an interval of a few generations the mental climate proves unfavorable to notions of the deity which at an earlier date were perfectly satisfactory: the older gods have fallen below the common secular level, and can no longer be believed in. Today a deity who should require bleeding sacrifices to placate him would be too sanguinary to be taken seriously. Even if powerful historical credentials were put forward in his favor, we would not look at them. Once, on the contrary, his cruel appetites were themselves credentials. They positively recommended him to men's imaginations in ages when such coarse signs of power were respected and no others could be understood. Such deities then were worshiped because such fruits were relished.

Doubtless historic accidents always played some later part, but the original factor in fixing the figure of the gods must always have been psychological. The deity to whom the prophets, seers, and devotees who founded the particular cult bore witness was worth something to them personally. They could use him. He guided their imagination, warranted their hopes, and controlled their will — or else they required him as a safeguard against the demon and a curber of other people's crimes. In any case, they chose him for the value of the fruits he seemed to them to yield. So soon as the fruits began to seem quite worthless; so soon as they conflicted with indispensable human ideals, or thwarted too extensively other values; so soon as they appeared childish, contemptible, or immoral when reflected on, the deity grew discredited, and was erelong neglected and forgotten. It was in this way that the Greek and Roman gods ceased to be believed in by educated pagans; it is thus that we ourselves judge of the Hindu, Buddhist, and Mohammedan theologies; Protestants have so dealt with the Catholic notions of deity, and liberal Protestants with older Protestant notions; it is thus that Chinamen judge of us, and that all of us now living will be judged by our descendants. When we cease to admire or approve what the definition of a deity implies, we end by deeming that deity incredible.

Few historic changes are more curious than these mutations of theological opinion. The monarchical type of sovereignty was, for example, so ineradicably planted in the mind of our own forefathers that a dose of cruelty and arbitrariness in their deity seems positively to have been required by their imagination. They called the cruelty 'retributive justice,' and a God without it would certainly have struck them as not 'sovereign' enough. But today we abhor the very notion of eternal suffering inflicted; and that arbitrary dealing-out of salvation and damnation to selected individuals, of which Jonathan Edwards could persuade himself that he had not only a conviction, but a 'delightful conviction, as of a doctrine exceeding pleasant, bright, and sweet,' appears to us, if sovereignly anything, sovereignly irrational and mean. Not only the cruelty, but the paltriness of character of the gods believed in by earlier centuries also strikes later centuries with surprise. We shall see examples of it from the annals of Catholic saintship which make us rub our Protestant eyes. Ritual worship in general appears to the modern transcendentalist, as well as to the ultra-puritanic type of mind, as if addressed to a deity of an almost absurdly childish character, taking delight in toy-shop furniture, tapers and tinsel, costume and mumbling and mummery, and finding his 'glory' incomprehensibly enhanced thereby — just as on the other hand the formless spaciousness of pantheism appears quite empty to ritualistic natures, and the gaunt theism of evangelical sects seems intolerably bald and chalky and bleak. Luther, says Emerson, would have cut off his right hand rather than nail his theses to the door at Wittenberg, if he had supposed that they were destined to lead to the pale negations of Boston Unitarianism. . . .

Is dogmatic or scholastic theology less doubted in point of fact for claiming, as it does, to be in point of right undoubtable? . . .

The gods we stand by are the gods we need and can use, the gods whose demands on us are reinforcements of our demands on ourselves and on one another. What I then propose to do is, briefly stated, to test saintliness by common sense, to use human standards to help us decide how far the religious life commends itself as an ideal kind of human activity. If it commends itself, then any theological beliefs that may inspire it, in so far forth will stand accredited. If not, then they will be discredited, and all without reference to anything but human working principles. It is but the elimination of the humanly unfit, and the survival of the humanly fittest, applied to religious beliefs; and if we look at history candidly and without prejudice, we have to admit that no religion has ever in the long run established or proved itself in any other way. Religions have approved themselves; they have ministered to sundry vital needs which they found reigning. When they violated other needs too strongly, or when other faiths came which served the same needs better, the first religions were supplanted.


Unknown said...

Well, this passage certainly has plenty of that pre-1914 whiggish, blinkered optimism that makes some later folks like me want to exclaim, "But, the Somme! Auschwitz!" It's a problem with most pragmatist writing of that era (or perhaps all pragmatist writing; see again Bell's The End of Ideology).

I'm not a believer in or a practitioner of religion, but I also generally find these belittling, psychologically simplifying approaches unenlightening. I simply don't find "we keep what's useful and discard what's not" to be how most humans work, except perhaps on such an aggregate scale that it becomes irrelevant to understanding actual people. (This is a problem I find with a lot of big-scale history, though not all: it's so big-scale that there's not much place for actual people in it. I'm thinking, for example, of Guns, Germs, and Steel.)

Finally, that bit about monarchy and retributive justice is just silly. "You shall take an eye for an eye," where you is the whole Chosen People is a positively anti-monarchist sentiment. Historical examples show retributive justice to be arguably more characteristic of societies with weak or no monarchy (eg., north English borderlanders, premodern Basques, Torah Judaism, pre-Islamic Arabia) than those with strong monarchy. New Testament pacifism depends, one could also argue, on divine absolute monarchy ("Vengeance is Mine") and, in this world, reliance on a distant Caesar ("he bears not the sword in vain").

John said...

James certainly has the Victorian self-satisfaction. But I think his approach to religion is fascinating. He has the religious temperament, and he wants to believe. He also likes church. Yet he is otherwise very skeptical, and also very cosmopolitan and broad-minded. He can't believe that all the good Muslims and Hindus are worshiping Satan. He is also well-educated in science; for example he has a deep appreciation for Darwinian evolution and what it implies about the nature of the universe. He is trying to find a religion that (as he admits) fulfills his own needs while not violating his commitment to the truth as he sees is. What's wrong with that?

I think millions of people do "keep what's useful to them and discard the rest." Consider how Americans use yoga. Conservative Christians are always complaining that most so-called Christians do exactly that; it drives them crazy when church members roll their eyes over the trinity or the distinction between God being everywhere and God being everything.

I think the observation about how god changes when we change is spot on; that's the real reason I posted this. Imagine explaining the prosperity gospel to St. Francis. James is simply right that most modern Christians are bothered by the idea that God would condemn people to hell for not having the right sort of faith, and he is right that 300 years ago many more people loved this idea. Religion changes, despite the best efforts of legions of fundamentalists. Modern Christianity is not medieval Christianity. I think the main reason it changes is the one James points to: because we have changed psychologically and therefore need a different sort of faith to comfort us.

Unknown said...

I guess what I react against is that tone in James that, to me, says, "I've got this, I'm mastered it, it's all simply that we've kept what was useful and discarded the rest, and we've changed, and now we're modern people, and there it is." Yes, millions do take what is useful and leave the rest, but that's never the whole explanation, nor does religion "simply" reflect its society or its needs.

A brilliant thinker can provide us with a brilliant insight that we can't get away from, but when it comes to history and human affairs, no one will ever master it all (though an advanced enough computer might), and the conceit that one has found the explanation for everything is--well, it's just that, a conceit. One could say the same about Marx or Freud. We still can't get away from them, for good reasons, but few now accept all their ideas as, well, gospel. You might say we've kept what is useful and discarded the rest, but I think that wording ignores the intellectual complexity and difficulty that's entailed--and the fact that ideas like Freud's survive less because they are "useful" in any meaningful sense, than that they seem to itch at us with their own truth, even when they've been proved, say, relatively useless for therapy.

The approach also, I think, ignores the debates and divisions about these matters that are always going on in most societies. All societies are divided--there's a "simply" statement I'll make. They are defined by their internal contradictions and cognitive dissonances, and these are what give them life. The idea that the mass damnation of the other was somehow useful for a given time ignores an issue like the fact that, for example, in the later Roman Empire there were many who weren't swept up in the idea that hell awaited them if they weren't sinless, and many who were. And if one says, well, there are always people who lag behind and cling to the old ways, that to me completely impoverishes the human reality.

Maybe that's it: a passage like that, to me, seems to impoverish the understanding rather than enrich it. And since truth is elusive, I find that sense of impoverishment to be an itch that tells me James has missed a lot of the truth.

Unknown said...

To give an example of what I mean, I found Weston La Barre's Ghost Dance--the third or so that I've so far read of it--absolutely enriching and fascinating. His fundamental insight about crisis cults is something I can't get away from, and it's become part of my intellectual firmament. I can no longer do without it. But at the same time, my memory is that at times he can slide over into a tone that suggests he's got a huge part of human experience distilled down to its disreputable core, and he's got that core pinned and wriggling against the wall, and we're done here, so move on.

John said...

I'm glad you're taking on La Barre. I thought exactly the same thing, that he was sometimes amazing but sometimes pompously fatuous.

It is perhaps unfair to James to judge him on the conclusion to such a long work, most of which is examples. I can't think of another work I have read on religion which comes across as so consistently open-minded and searching.

Shadow said...

That was James's greatest asset -- open mindedness -- a great quality often frowned upon in our politically charged atmosphere.