The Magazine

The Book of James

William James's lectures on religion, a century later.

Dec 30, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 16 • By JOSEPH LOCONTE
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

A CENTURY AGO, the psychologist, philosopher, and agnostic William James delivered the prestigious Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh. His 20 addresses were published in 1902 as "The Varieties of Religious Experience," which soon became one of the most widely read works on religious belief by an American. Before James, no scholar had devoted such attention to the process--and the effects--of conversion. His basic argument: There is something authentic and profoundly beneficial about religious belief. "The best fruits of religious experience are the best things that history has to show," he wrote. "The highest flights of charity, devotion, trust, patience, bravery to which the wings of human nature have spread themselves have been flown for religious ideals."

Coming from a devoted pragmatist, such observations rocked the secular academy. Orthodox religion, especially Christianity, had plenty of foes: Darwinists saw a natural world functioning without supernatural intervention. Empiricists denied hard evidence for belief existed. Historicism was eroding confidence in the reliability of the Bible. And even before Freud, psychologists were wondering if faith itself was the product of sexual desire or even a kind of pathology.

From this academic tower of Babel, James sounded a sober and penetrating defense of religious conviction. As professor of physiology at Harvard, he'd established the nation's first laboratory for experimental psychology. His lectures were based on years of investigation into the claims of religious believers. No scientist had entered more deeply or respectfully into the inner life of the faithful.

With a coolness that must have stunned his materially minded audience, James chastised those who used science as a shield for agnosticism. The scientific mind, he reasoned, fears believing something that may be false; the spiritual seeker longs for a reality that transcends science. Thus, scientific belief was no less a product of emotional commitment than religious belief. "Rationality does not lie on one side or the other," he wrote. "It is a contest between our fears and our hopes, and both the scientist and the religious believer take a gamble."

Numerous reflections on James's work have appeared this year, most notably a short book by philosopher Charles Taylor, "The Varieties of Religion Today." All draw attention to James's preoccupation with individual experience. Liberals love to emphasize his disdain for traditional, institutionalized religion, what he called "the spirit of dogmatic dominion." Without a doubt, James angered orthodox believers by ignoring creeds and doctrines. Aware of how the Methodists valued both theology and "religion of the heart," James told a Harvard divinity professor, "You will class me as a Methodist, minus a Savior!"

Nevertheless, observers often misread the most provocative aspect of his work: his attention to the transformation undergone by individuals claiming an encounter with a fearsome, yet personal God. James recounts scores of examples in his book; at least a third of his lectures retell and analyze stories of conversion and saintliness. In most of the life histories he examines, it seems what did the trick was the old-time gospel religion.

We learn about David Brainerd, an early missionary to Native Americans ("My soul rejoiced with joy unspeakable, to see such a God"); Henry Alline, hymn-writer and leader of the Great Awakening in Nova Scotia ("The word of God...took hold of me with such power that it seemed to go through my whole soul"); English evangelist Billy Bray ("I was like a new man in a new world"); French Protestant Adolphe Monod ("My melancholy . . . had lost its sting. Hope had entered into my heart"); and S.H. Hadley, a drunk who helped found the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions ("I felt I was a free man, . . . Christ with all his brightness and power had come into my life").

James showed little patience for what he considered self-absorbed piety: He was most impressed by believers whose experience of God rescued them from destructive lives and launched them into acts of service. "To call to mind a succession of such examples," he wrote, "is to feel encouraged and uplifted and washed in better moral air."

Interestingly, it is social scientists who today are confirming James's finding. Columbia University researchers, for example, recently found that people who consider religion important are significantly less likely to abuse drugs. At the University of Pennsylvania, scholars reviewed nearly 800 studies of the relationship between faith and positive social outcomes. Their conclusion: Strong religious commitment is directly linked to greater social well-being--whether it's a decline in teen pregnancy, depression, or juvenile delinquency.

People who believe the Bible always have insisted that faith produces good works, that the true believer will "look after orphans and widows in their distress." In this, they have an ally in the skeptic William James. "St. Paul made our ancestors familiar with the idea that every soul is virtually sacred," he wrote. "The saints, with their extravagance of human tenderness, are the great torch-bearers of this belief, the tip of the wedge, the clearers of the darkness." In the end, it seems, James reached a generous judgment of religion--not in spite of his hard-nosed scholarship, but because of it.

Joseph Loconte is a William E. Simon fellow at the Heritage Foundation.