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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In his philosophic work Pragmatism (1907), James observed that Darwin had displaced "the argument from design," with the result that "theism has lost that foothold." While rejecting conventional theism for himself, he also chastised the overly refined religious believer who worships a deity that never impacts the physical world. Such a believer "surrenders .  .  . too easily to naturalism" so that "practical religion seems to me to evaporate." Why would a religious person concede so much ground? James pointed out that certain ideas are embraced by an uncritical public simply because of their "prestige."

He himself felt "like a man who must set his back against an open door quickly if he does not wish to see it closed and locked." Shrewdly, he noted that, in keeping a door open for faith, he had more credibility because he was not orthodox--indeed, he was irritated by orthodox Christianity--but rather an outside observer.

We can imagine his response to our New Atheists. In dealing with secularists in his own day, he appealed to experience, reason, and pragmatism. James argued that subjective experience has been undervalued as a source of enlightenment. In his essay "The Will to Believe," he explained that personal experience which would confirm religion's truth "might be forever withheld from us unless we met the [religious] hypothesis half-way." In other words, those who reject religion, for fear of being duped, have sealed themselves off from ever knowing whether they are wrong:

I, therefore, for one, cannot see my way to accepting the agnostic rules for truth-seeking, or willfully agree to keep my willing nature out of the game. I cannot do so for this plain reason, that a rule of thinking which would absolutely prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds of truth if those kinds of truths were really there, would be an irrational rule.

Citing God's instruction to the -Israelite leader Joshua, "Be strong and of a good courage" (Joshua 1:6), James argued that it is more reasonable to act from the hope that religion is true than it is to spurn faith out of the worry that it might be false. The religious act could even produce its own confirmation. Action creates reality. This is different from Pascal's wager. It's more like a vote for faith, which can generate the reality it endorses.

The idea wasn't original with him. It had already been crystallized by the book of Exodus (24:7), which records the declaration of the Jews in receiving the Ten Commandments: "Everything that the Lord has said, we will do and [then] we will understand." They would comply now with the commandments in the expectation that later, as a result of casting their vote for God, they would understand why He commands what He does. That illumination would confirm that God is a reality. To believe, and know that you're right to believe, you must first act.

That his religious psychology was anticipated in the Bible would not surprise William James. He appreciated Scripture as a "guide to life," the practical effects of whose guidance can be gauged. According to his philosophy of pragmatism, this is the preferred way to evaluate any truth claim. Pragmatism, he wrote, has "no materialistic bias as ordinary empiricism labors under" and judges theological ideas by the twofold criteria of whether they have "value for concrete life" and whether they mesh with "other truths that also have to be acknowledged."

Religion should make any individual believer better than he would be without it. It should not, rightly understood, violate science. It should provide a framework for diagnosing the ills of a culture, and for prescribing measures for the amelioration of social and political problems. If a biblical worldview does a better job of these than the secular alternative, that makes religion "true."

Yet James, that beguiling man, advocated a sense of humor about the fact that, despite our faith, notwithstanding our arguments for belief, we might have it all wrong. Then again, perhaps it's the New Atheists who have shut their ears to truth. Not that they would be likely to admit the possibility.

David Klinghoffer is the author, most recently, of Shattered Tablets: Why We Ignore the Ten Commandments at Our Peril.