The Magazine

James's Faith

The pragmatist who understood the value of religion.

Oct 8, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 04 • By DAVID KLINGHOFFER
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William James

In the Maelstrom of American Modernism

by Robert D. Richardson

Houghton Mifflin, 622 pp., $30

The series of New Atheist tracts that have shot up the bestseller list seem like distress flares launched from the deck of a foundering ship at sea. Surely the enthusiastic reception bestowed on these books, led by Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great and Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, signals that something has gone wrong in an unprecedented way with our supposedly religious national culture.

Or has it? A comforting observation to be drawn from Robert Richardson's fine biography of the philosopher and psychologist William James is that America went through a similar crisis more than a century ago, pitting atheism against theism. That we emerged intact then may have been thanks partly to insights offered by James. Those insights remain fresh, both in their expression--he was a fantastic writer (as is Richardson)--and in their content, which has lost little of its relevance. The only fault in Richardson's William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism is that the biographer doesn't draw out the contemporary relevance, the echoes of our times, in his compelling narration of the life of his subject.

William James (1842-1910) grew up, like his brother the novelist Henry James, in a household saturated with God-talk. Their father, Henry James Sr., was permitted by family money to spend his time writing a succession of cryptic, mystical theological texts. Yet as a young man, William James was less interested in religious enthusiasm than in Darwinian evolution. His mentor at Harvard was the anti-Darwinian zoologist Louis Agassiz, whose views James ultimately rejected.

James was a born teacher, going on to teach psychology and philosophy to Harvard students for 35 years. He also had a knack for counseling, possessing as he did a tremendous--if erratic--sympathy for others. James was devoted to his wife Alice, but Richardson describes him as a "philanderer," if not an overtly sexual one. He indulged in "a mad crush on every other woman he met," which he didn't bother to hide from an increasingly wounded Alice.

Despite bouts of hypochondriac worries and genuine ill health, he was massively productive. James's groundbreaking explanations of how the mind works--as in his Principles of Psychology (1890)--seem less provocative now than they once did. On the other hand, his less academic contributions to what we may call the field of self-help still captivate. Some of his views sound like a less flaky version of Rhonda Byrne's The Secret. This phenomenally popular, Oprah-endorsed film-and-book combo purports to explain how, by imagining what you want (wealth, health, anything), you can have it. James thought that there are, indeed, areas where believing in something can make it so. He gave as an example that, if you want to win a woman's heart, it improves your chances to think and act as if she already loves you.

He might have been recalling his own affection, at age 28, for a gravely ill young woman named Minnie Temple. It was her death in 1870 that initiated James's engagement with religion. A month after, he was overtaken by a terrifying vision. While fully awake, he suddenly saw in his mind an epileptic patient from an asylum he had visited, "a black-haired youth with greenish skin, entirely idiotic," who "sat there like a sculptured Egyptian cat or Peruvian mummy, moving nothing but his black eyes and looking absolutely inhuman." Reeling at the thought that such a condition could befall himself, James took refuge in Biblical verses.

The defense of religion became a salient theme in his work. Why the continued attraction to it? Richardson smartly observes that much of William James's best intellectual energy was poured into defying academic and elite assumptions: "James moved toward a major idea by starting out in opposition or resistance to received ideas." One such idea was Darwinism. James the instinctive contrarian lived through Darwinian evolution's earliest acceptance, which he often noted with approval even as he perceived its challenge to religion. It led to a view--"widespread at the present," he said in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)--that religion was only a relic surviving from the primitive past. In opposing this "survival theory," James saw that "the current of thought in academic circles runs against me." He relished that fact.