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Chapter 4: William James and Religious Expedience

I. DOCTRINE OF W. JAMES ON RELIGION — His point of view: religion aa personal and inward life — Method: radical empiricism — The psycho-physiological soil in which religious feeling begins to grow — Mysticism — Religious experience properly so called; elementary belief — The value of religious experience — The pragmatistic point of view — The theory of the subliminal self as a scientific basis — Over-beliefs.

II. DOCTRINE OF W. JAMES ON THE RELATION BETWEEN RELIGION AND SCIENCE — Science and religion, two keys with which to open nature's treasuries — The psychology of the range of consciousness, replaced by the psychology of states of consciousness — Religion and science differ as concrete and abstract.

III. CRITICAL REMARKS — Remarkable reinstatement of religion in human nature, and its strong position with respect to science — Difficulty: Has religious experience objective value? — Universal subjectivism would not be a solution — Faith, the integral element of all experience — The essential rôle of symbols — The value of the social side of religion.

WHILE theologians, scientists and philosophers—eager for definitions, for arguments, for proofs—wasted their energies in trying to establish the logical possibility of religion, of science, and of their harmony, there have always been found men for whom all this subtle investigation was superfluous, inasmuch as they lived by a conviction grounded on a principle that outweighs in value all argument, viz. experience. Such souls are called mystics. For them the objects of religion are given, and quite as immediately certain as are, for the scientist, the facts which he seeks to conform to laws.

The spirit of the mystical method is to be found once again in certain contemporary doctrines, exempt from ecclesiastical prejudice, but especially constituted so as to agree with living reality. The finest illustration of this tendency may be seen in the doctrine of Religious Experience as expounded by the psychological specialist, William James—that profound and delicate thinker whose literary style is so captivating.1


The DOctrine of W. James on Religion

What standpoint ought we to adopt, if we would realise that which, in religion, is characteristic and essential? According to William James, of the two aspects under which religion is presented, the external aspect and the internal aspect, the second is the superior. It is of no consequence that, chronologically, the various religions may have appeared as institutions before being displayed as personal life: at bottom, they are the creations of those religious geniuses who founded the institutions. At all events, personal religion has, in the course of ages, repelled institutions, and, henceforward, they will only continue if they are upheld by believing and pious souls.

It is not, therefore, simply because psychology is his special study, it is because he sees in personal religion the groundwork of religion, that William James sets himself to examine religious phenomena from the single standpoint of psychology.

The method employed by him is that which he regards as in conformity with psychology properly so called: what may be named radical empiricism. This phrase, ordinarily used to designate a system, can be retained, even by those who reject the system, for the purpose of characterising a method. Imputing to psychology the atomic hypothesis, we have sought too long—in the data of consciousness—so-called simple facts or psychical atoms, in order to establish between them connections analogous to those which are formulated by physical laws. Such elements neither are, nor can be, given. They are inventions of the systematic mind. That which is given, in psychology, is always a certain field of consciousness, embracing a multiplicity and a diversity shifting and incessant. It is under this figure, the only true one, that we may hope to understand religious phenomena.

We must, in the first place, consider the psychophysiological totality of which they form part; then gradually distinguish concomitant and kindred phenomena, and push forward, in this way, to the determination of the strictly religious element.

This task accomplished, another is enjoined: that of determining the value of the fact thus revealed by analysis.

(a) The Nature of Religious Experience

It was formerly possible to imagine that religious facts were unique of their kind, and for a long time they were treated as such. But absolutely singular facts would be doubtful facts, the progress of knowledge leading us generally to discover continuity just where superficial observation has made us believe in unbridgeable gaps. To this law of continuity religious phenomena offer no exception. They belong to a class of phenomena ever more clearly defined, that of the modifications of personality.

The study of these phenomena among the subjects in whom they are produced with most intensity—such as those who suffer from nervous disorder or are temperamentally disposed towards mysticism—makes us recognise, as belonging to human nature in general, the characteristics which are, so to speak, the soil from which the religious consciousness springs.

The hallucinations of certain subjects, for instance, are specially remarkable: instead of attaining their full development, which is made manifest by the appearance, in the imagination of the subject, of a concrete object similar to those that carry meaning for us, they stop at a stage wherein the subject has a sense of presence and of reality, without any definite image (or even any image whatsoever) appearing to him. And this bare presence produces faith, and this faith determines action. In like manner, the moral imperatives of Kant, without being, in any way, objects of sensible representation or of theoretical knowledge, determine in the soul a practical and efficacious faith.

Now, certain mystics experience analogous states. An object which they conceive as the Divine Being, but of which they have no representation, is given them as real, and affects their heart and their will; and the sense of this reality and of this action is, for them, all the stronger in that they conceive the object as pure reality, stripped of every sensible image.

This sense of presence, apart from every object of perception, has never, says William James, been properly explained by Rationalism. It outlives, for the subject who experiences it, all arguments which are given him with a view to proving it illusory: belief in the reality of sense-objects, for example. But pathological cases only differ, apparently, in degree from the phenomena of normal life. There is, therefore, every reason for allowing that man possesses a sense of reality other than that which is comprised in the working of his ordinary senses.

Another indication of the religious consciousness is inherent optimism or pessimism, and a remarkable development of this is seen in certain neuropaths.

We may divide men into two categories; those who, in order to be happy, have only to be born once, and those who, congenitally unhappy, need a new birth: “once-born”and “twice-born”characters.

The first are naturally and instinctively optimists. They see the world governed by beneficent powers, who are bent on deriving good from evil itself. And this optimistic faith is wonderfully effective in over-coming evil and in obtaining happiness.

Opposite the born optimists Nature sets the pessimistic temperaments. The latter are haunted by the sense of an irremediable misery. All performance, all existence, seems to them to end in failure. They cannot reflect upon the objects of our desire without seeing futility in them—upon the causes of our joy without piercing through them to emptiness. But chiefly, reflection upon their own deeds, upon their thoughts, upon their inmost wants, afflicts them throughout with a cruel malady: scrupulosity. Worry, anxiety, persistency in fretting—this secret ill follows them everywhere. How can they be freed from it? The melancholiac has a distinct feeling that the charm of life is a free gift, that the elect alone are entitled to taste it. If healing is possible, it can only come through a supernatural intervention.

Certain neuropaths present a remarkable particularity—what may be called the divided self. There are within them two selves: the one pessimistic, the other optimistic; the one mediocre, the other well endowed. And they are impotent to reconcile these two characters. We are reminded of the duality which St. Paul found within him, and which he expressed in the familiar passage: “What I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.”

Lastly, the conversions—sometimes instantaneous—of individuals, the revivals which take sudden possession of an entire multitude, are connected with a phenomenon classed among neuro-psychical affections: the substitution, more or less abrupt and complete, of one personality for another within the same consciousness.

Thus religious manifestations are not, for man, adventitious and foreign expressions: they form part of a group of manifestations which result from human nature itself.

This is not tantamount to saying that religious phenomena may be identified with the pathological states which resemble them. Even genius, in an altogether superior way, has for condition a rupture of equilibrium in the organism, and is accompanied by abnormal manifestations. Concentration of energy upon one faculty means the withdrawal of that faculty from others: superiority in a particular domain involves almost feebleness and insufficiency in others. Religion, in proportion as it is the more mingled with enthusiasm, must therefore be a rupture of equilibrium, a frenzy.

It cannot be defined through organic conditions which, so far as we are able to judge, may be sensibly identical for phenomena that are absolutely different as regards their rôle in our life. It ought to be considered in itself, according to the immediate feeling of consciousness.

This feeling is indescribable. Viewed from without, it enters—like all that is viewed from without—into such or such category of the understanding: to see from without is to assimilate. But, for the subject, it is unique—possessing originality, richness, fulness in the highest degree; no one can speak about it, except he who has experienced it.

As far as it is possible to suggest the idea through words, it is a feeling of intimate and perfect harmony, of peace, of joy; it is the feeling that all is well without us and within us. It is not a passive and inert feeling. It is the consciousness of sharing in a power greater than our own, and the longing to coöperate, with that power, in works of love, of concord and of peace. It is, in short, the exaltation of life—of life as creative enemy, and of life as harmoniousness and joy.

Sometimes, as with those whom we have called the once-born men, this feeling is, from the start, installed within the soul: religion is then a constant impression of order, of love, of power, of confidence, of security; it is a spontaneous and unalterable optimism. With those, on the contrary, who, in order to be at peace with themselves, need to be regenerated, the desire for religion is made manifest by anxiety, dissatisfaction with self and with things; and the second birth is signalised by what is felt to be a shifting of the seat of personal energy. Instead of saying no! to everything that happens to him, the regenerate man will say yes! Instead of falling back upon himself, he will seek out others with affection and with devotion, urged by a sense of genuine brotherhood. Henceforward he looks at everything in a new light, he reacts, after another manner, in response to all actions that affect him. And those who, in this way, obtain good through overcoming evil, have probably a wider career before them, and can reach a higher perfection than those who, from birth, find their lot an easy one. Every victory is, for the twice-born man—for the man who strives and who knows the cost of the struggle,—the prelude of a fresh victory.

From these observations it follows that religion is essentially a matter of personal concern. In reality there are as many forms of religious experience as there are religious individuals. Religion is bound up with life; and everybody lives according to his own temperament and bent of genius.

Several traits of the religious consciousness are brought out in strong relief through the consideration of certain phenomena or of certain subjects.

Prayer, that religious act par excellence, implies the conviction that, thanks to the action of a Being who transcends our self and our world in their finitude, events can be realised, either within us or without us, which this world could not have brought about.

Conversion is accompanied by the sense of a supernatural action which, abruptly or progressively, transforms our being in a profound and definitive fashion.

In mystical states, the subject recognises his union with God, as well as the shifting of his centre of personal energy which results from this union. Mystical states could otherwise be mistaken for aberrations of the religious sentiment: they are the extreme form of that consciousness of the individual's exaltation through fusion with a greater than self, which is inherent in religious life, i.e. in religion.

The study of such phenomena as prayer and the mystical state makes clear this fact—that, although religion may be at first mere feeling, intellectual elements, beliefs, ideas, are always more or less involved therein. Prayer makes prominent the faith or initial belief which appears inseparable from religious emotion. The religious man considers himself as related to a superior being, with whom he can come into the closest union, and who will grant him a self-harmony, a joy, a power, that, of himself alone, he could never secure.

This belief comprises all the intellectualism that can be found in elementary religious experience. But human imagination and intellect, eager to fashion models of things and to arrive at an explanation of them, formulate additional beliefs and theories which are increasingly determinate and intellectual, and which, by degrees, transform religion properly so called into theology and philosophy: an efflorescence in some degree natural, seeing that it follows from the tendencies of human nature; yet adventitious, for it does not form part of the simple development of religious experience, but exists as the combination of that experience with the various acquisitions of the intellect.

(b) The Value of Religious Experience

Such are religious facts, regarded from a purely descriptive standpoint. It would not be permissible to rest content with this study, and to set aside, as out of date, the question of estimating the religious consciousness, and of learning to what extent its beliefs are rationally justifiable.

William James approaches this second task from the Pragmatistical standpoint.

There are, says he, two kinds of judgments: existential judgments concerning origin, and spiritual judgments relating to value. The second kind of judgment has nothing to do with the first. Whencesoever an idea or a feeling may come, if the idea is verified by fact, if the feeling is fruitful and beneficial, this idea, this feeling, have all the perfection that the word value can represent.

The determination of value ought, moreover, to be made, as well as the determination of the fact itself, according to an entirely empirical method. An idea, a belief, a feeling, possess value if experience confirms them, i.e. if the event corresponds to the expectation that they contain.

This being so, for him who would know the value of religion, consideration of its existential conditions, of its origins, of its genesis, is beside the mark. It is valuable in so far as it is productive.

It is, therefore, exclusively by its fruits (adopting the Gospel phrase) that William James will judge the tree. He will try to discover what, in truth, are the effects of religious emotion—if these effects are good and desirable, and if they can be obtained in any other way than that of religion.

The fruits of the religious life are to be found in Saintliness. It is possible that the manifestations of saintliness: devotion, charity, strength of soul, purity, austerity, obedience, poverty, humility, may sometimes be exaggerated and of doubtful value. It is no less certain that, where it is inspired by the religious principle properly so called, saintliness increases, in the world, the sum of moral energy, of kindness, of harmony and of happiness. Doubtless, the ascetic does not always make the best use of his strength of soul: he readily attributes an excessive importance to the life of the body. But he manifests the capabilities of will. He creates energy and power. Now, it is a mistake to suppose that man can exist without struggle, and that heroism, henceforward, must be regarded as a thing of the past. Nature has not formed man, he obtrudes himself upon her. He only lives and grows through maintaining and increasing human energy. His very existence depends on continual self-renewal and re-creation. The saints, with their ideal of love and peace, may be ill adapted to the community wherein they live. What are we to infer from this? Does the saint, does the mendicant, personify the human ideal? If the saint is at variance with his time, it is because, in advance, he strives to fit himself for a more perfect society; and, in thinking of it as already existing, he contributes towards its realisation.

The efficacy of religion is not only moral. The Gospel tells us that Jesus came to heal the sick without distinguishing between sickness of body and sickness of soul. His word gave health of soul to fishermen, sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, life to the dead. In other words, purity of heart and faith in the beneficent almightiness of the Creator, influence even man's physical condition to an extent that we cannot measure.

Das Wunder ist des Glaubens liebstes Kind.2

That is not all: among the effects that faith produces there are some for which it is a condition, not only sufficient, but necessary. Neither individuals nor communities have yet discovered else-where an equal source of disinterestedness, of energy and of perseverance. Just where man believes that he can act through material means, he adds thereto, knowingly or unknowingly, what is to-day called “suggestion”; and frequently it is suggestion that proves effective rather than the material means. In this way are cures wrought by the doctor, who, indeed, frankly allows that all treatment of disease is partially suggestive. Now, whether for the patient, or for the doctor, the suggestion that is here in question implies faith in the healing power of nature and in the efficacy of faith itself; such a belief is analogous to religious belief.

Religion is useful, and, in certain cases, irreplaceable: what more do we need in order to call it true? If truth is, in the last analysis, that which is, that which continues, and that which engenders, religion is quite as true as our belief in natural beings and forces.

In given religions, however, are involved special beliefs which cannot be connected directly with observable facts. Of what value are these beliefs?

Two ways of proving their legitimacy have been attempted, viz. that of Mysticism, and that of Philosophy.

According to the mystics, there should be—particularly in certain subjects—a perception of God and divine things, similar to perception of the material world. Not that the subject can define and describe that which appears to him. But he has, in certain privileged moments, the irresistible impression that his feeling is knowledge, that he sees with the heart. And, although our concepts and our words may be insufficient for interpreting this singular intuition, the imagination seems able to combine them so as to cause, in the soul that has had the experience, a reawakening of these supernatural states. Perhaps music also has at command similar accents, direct and spiritual in a sense, which our spatial and traditional language fails to express.

It is, no doubt, true that mystics are powerless to prove the truth of their intuitions and the value of their experiences. Still, it has to be allowed that mysticism, through the suprasensible significance which it adds to the ordinary data of consciousness, strengthens and makes more efficacious the religious sentiment. If it does not furnish the knowledge that we are led to expect, it brings, at least, fresh arguments for maintaining, against Rationalism, the original reality and power of religious emotion.

For their part, certain thinkers believe that they are on the way to prove, in a rational manner, the objective truth of religious conceptions: they are philosophers proper. According to William James all the philosophico-theological arguments which have in view the demonstration of God's existence, and the determination of his attributes, are illusory. In fact, only those notions have a real content which are interpreted by the differences in practical conduct. But all these speculative constructions have no bearing upon life.

Does this mean that every attempt to connect the religious sentiment with the nature of things, and to determine its objective significance, is necessarily barren?

As a matter of fact, in the religious sentiment itself, however strictly we limit it, there is implied a faith which claims to be objective in its range: faith in the existence of a Being, greater and better than ourselves, who, in communicating with our consciousness, shifts the centre of our personality.

Can we regard this faith as legitimate, or is it, indeed, merely the metaphorical expression of a subjective somewhat that we cannot hope to understand in the least?

On this fundamental question William James thinks that new light has been cast through a discovery which only dates from 1886, but which appears destined to have a brilliant future—that of subconscious psychical states, or (following the terminology which Myers3 has made current) of the Subliminal Self.

Long ago Leibnitz loved to repeat that there are far more things in the soul than those which consciousness perceives; that innumerable lesser perceptions are to be found therein, exerting an influence greater than we imagine; that, through these subconscious perceptions, man is brought into communication with the Universe, so that nothing happens in it without some echo being produced in each one of us. These lesser perceptions were, for Leibnitz, the very substance of feelings. And if, from the standpoint of knowledge, feeling was very inferior to thought, from the standpoint of being, it realised a participation of the individual in the life and in the harmony of the Whole, infinitely greater than that which our distinct perception could claim.

The theory set forth by Myers is an experimental transposition of these views of Leibnitz.

According to Myers, we may consider human personality as composed of three concentric circles: (1) the seat or central part; (2) the margin, which extends round the centre to a limit marked by the disappearance (at least seemingly) of consciousness; but (3), beyond the very limit of this marginal self, Myers believes that he has demonstrated experimentally the existence of another self, in comparison with which the preceding two—differing only in degree—make but one: the self situated beneath the threshold of consciousness, the subconscious or subliminal self. We encounter here a kind of second consciousness, which, in ordinary life, is unknown to consciousness properly so called. For certain subjects,in certain circumstances, the existence and efficacy of this subconsciousness are made manifest in a direct and sure fashion. This is what Myers tries to prove in his account of various more or less exceptional observations.

Even in man as normally constituted we find many facts which seem inexplicable; now this theory accounts for them very well. Thus, man verifies within him the presence of faculties which do not conduce to the preservation of the species, and which, consequently, cannot be developed under the sole influence of the law of natural selection. The productions of genius are like revelations of a world other than our own. In a general way, man's ideal aspirations are disproportionate to his actual condition.

These facts are explained if we admit that, on the side of his being which transcends his conscious self, man is related to another world than that which comes within the reach of his senses—to beings whom, for this reason, we may call spiritual. Accordingly, this theory gives a very satisfactory interpretation of the most characteristic religious phenomena.

Conversion, for instance, would be regarded as the more or less sudden introduction, in the field of normal consciousness, of dispositions which have been formed and accumulated secretly within the subliminal self.

In a similar manner, mystical states would be the consequence of an interpenetration—realisable by certain subjects—of the subliminal region and of the supraliminal region. The subliminal self communicating, in fact, with a world inaccessible to the ordinary self, the latter, confronted by realities exceeding its power of apprehension and of expression would remain dumfounded, or would endeavour to obtain some representation of the supernatural visitant proportioned to its normal condition.

Lastly, prayer would be nothing else than an appeal from the ordinary self to powers with whom the subconscious self, underlying the ordinary self, is able to enter into communion.

And thus the doctrine of the subliminal self would secure an objective foundation and a scientific value for the elementary belief immediately involved in religious fact. That belief consists in affirming the existence of an external power whose action the religious man experiences. Now, according to the doctrine of the divided self, the determinations of the subliminal self which enter into the ordinary self are not explained by the history of that self; they take objective form, following the general law of its perceptions, and give the subject the impression that he is dominated by a foreign influence. As, moreover, the subliminal self contains faculties higher and more powerful than those of the ordinary self, the latter is justified in connecting the inspirations derived there-from with a Being, not only external, but superior to it.

It may, therefore, be said that, in affirming its relation to a greater-than-self whence proceed salvation, power and joy, the religious consciousness expresses a genuine fact, and that, in this way, the reality of the object of religious experience is given in that same experience.

It is otherwise with the special beliefs relating to the exact nature of the mysterious realities with which our subliminal self communicates. These are undemonstrable for the theory of the subliminal self as well as for mysticism and for philosophy. They are over-beliefs, i.e. beliefs added by the imagination by the intellectual and moral temperament of communities and of individuals.

Undemonstrable, they are not, on that account to be deemed valueless. We must remember that religion is an essentially personal matter. It ought, in its effect upon the individual, to shift the centre of his personality, to transport him from the region of egoistic and material emotions into that of spiritual emotions. Now, if this phenomenon implies, before all else, an action originating beyond the conscious self and producing a change in it, the explanations, ideas and beliefs which the understanding intercalates between the cause and the effect, are themselves capable of exercising an influence upon the dispositions of the conscious self, upon its readiness to receive the inspirations of the higher self. And the conditions of the religious impression necessarily vary with periods and circumstances, with the knowledge and growth of individuals. It is, therefore, not only tolerable, it is desirable that every one shall view the religious phenomenon in the way which is, for him, the most efficacious.

William James, for his part, without pretending to attribute to his own over-beliefs the same value as to the fundamental belief immediately involved in the religious phenomenon, adopts, with regard to several important points, the affirmations of positive religion.

The invisible world, he holds, is not merely ideal: it produces effects in our world. It is, accordingly, very natural to conceive it as a reality corresponding to what religion calls God. Similarly, it is well to believe that “we and God have business with each other,”and that, “in opening ourselves to his influence, our deepest destiny is fulfilled.“

Besides, as man's destiny is clearly linked with that of other beings, the religious person, in order to gain confidence in things and the inward peace for which he longs, must needs believe that the same God to whom he is related, supports and governs the entire world, in such a way as to be not only our God, but the God of the Universe.

Lastly—and here William James, without any dissimulation, deserts the camp of the scientists to range himself on the side of popular opinion—since every fact is, after all, particular, since universals are but Scholastic abstractions without reality, we must attribute to God no mere general and transcendent providence: he is not the God of the religious consciousness if he is incapable of giving ear to our prayers, and of attending to our individual wants. The practical God in whom we believe has then the power of intervening directly in the course of phenomena, and of working what are called miracles.

As to belief in immortality, there is really nothing to show that it is unfounded: it has not been proved, and it seems unprovable, that the actual body is the adequate cause, and not a purely contingent condition, of our spiritual life. But this question is, indeed, secondary. If we are convinced that the pursuit of those ideal ends which are dear to us is guaranteed in eternity, I do not see, says William James, why we should not be willing, after having accomplished our task, to leave the care of furthering the divine work in other hands than ours.


The Doctrine of William James on the Relation between Religion and Science

In this way, taking religious experience as the starting-point, is developed the theory of religion, William James does not fail to inquire into the position of this theory with reference to science.

Experimental like science, why should not religion claim our adhesion to an equal extent?

According to certain critics, such an assimilation would be impossible. For religion does not mean experience in the same sense as science: she means it in an anti-scientific sense. Experience, as science conceives it, is the depersonalisation of phenomena, i.e. the elimination of all that which, in given phenomena, is relative to the particular subject who observes them. Everything in the nature of final cause, prepossession of utility, of value—in a word everything that expresses a feeling of the subject, is outside scientific fact; or, if these elements become, themselves, objects of science, that will be through our success in considering them, not per se, but in some special condition or observable substitute for internal feeling. Religion, on the contrary, rests upon facts taken in their subjective and individual elements. She has to do with man in so far as he is a person, and she personalises all that affects him. She cares little for the necessary universality and unity of natural laws: the salvation of an individual is more important, in her eyes, than the entire order of Nature. That is why there is fundamental incompatibility between the standpoint of religion and that of science. The relative persistence of religion amounts to no more than a survivial, destined to disappear before real experience—before impersonal and scientific experience.

These objections, in William James's opinion, are not conclusive. It is not clear why the circumstance that a succession of states seems purely subjective, should suffice to prevent these states from constituting an experience. Let the subjects be deluded in believing themselves sick, in believing themselves healed, and in attributing their healing to a super-natural intervention; what matter, if we have to admit in all this a series of facts which follow one another in accordance with a law? Now, it is a fact that certain painful and injurious feelings are cancelled by certain beliefs, and do not seem curable by other means. Are you going to refuse religious aids to the miserable whom they can save, on the plea that to heal by means of religion is to heal against rule? The production, by faith, of the object of faith, is not only an experience for the subject, it is an experience.

Why should there be merely one way of handling Nature and of modifying the course of her phenomena? Is it not conceivable that, vast and multifarious as she is, she ought to be approached and treated after various methods, if we would make the largest possible use of her resources?

Science fastens upon a particular element of Nature, such as mechanical movement, and, in this way, arrives at the phenomena which are dependent thereon. Religion, through other means which equally affect our world, realises both similar phenomena, and phenomena of another kind. “Science gives to all of us telegraphy, electric lighting, and diagnosis, and succeeds in preventing and curing a certain amount of disease. Religion in the shape of mind-cure gives to some of us serenity, moral poise and happiness, and prevents certain forms of disease as well as science does, or even better in a certain class of persons. Evidently, then the science and the religion are both of them genuine keys for unlocking the world's treasure-house to him who can use either of them practically. Just as evidently neither is exhaustive or exclusive of the other's simultaneous use. And why, after all, may not the world be so complex as to consist of many interpenetrating spheres of reality, which we can thus approach in alternation by using different conceptions and assuming different attitudes, just as mathematicians handle the same numerical and spatial facts by geometry, by analytical geometry, by algebra, by the calculus, or by quaternions, and each time come out right? On this view religion and science, each verified in its own way from hour to hour and from life to life, would be coeternal.”4

But, it may be said, all these considerations are exclusively practical, and the scientific point of view consists properly in distinguishing between Practice, which is quite other than knowledge—is, indeed, one of the very objects that Nature offers for our investigation, and Theory, or the determination of the elements and relations of things, according as they are capable of being proved and acknowledged real by every intellect. That is why science, in regarding those experiences which the religious apologist invokes, separates them into two parts: the one subjective and foreign to science, the other objective and scientific, but destitute of all religious significance.

We know that this radical distinction between theory and practice is expressly rejected by William James, whose pragmatism reduces to purely practical criteria the very principles on which rationalism relies.

As regards the relation between religion and science, William James brings forward considerations which outstrip mere pragmatism.

All our knowledge, says he, starts from consciousness. That is, henceforward, an established truth. Now, a revolution was made in psychology, and consequently in the philosophy of science, on the day when it came to be understood that the psychological datum is not, as Locke believed, a certain number of simple elements: sensations, images, ideas, feelings, comparable with letters or with atoms, which we should have to relate externally in order to make of them the representation of a distinct and transcendent reality; such a datum was found to be, in truth, what is now termed the “field of consciousness,”i.e. the state of total consciousness which, at any particular time, exists in a thinking subject.

The distinctive character of this new datum lies in this: instead of being clearly defined and circumscribed, like a collection of atomic elements, it has a range to which we cannot assign exact limits, or, rather, in which limits are undiscoverable. The state of consciousness, in fact, involves both a centre and a margin, but the periphery is more or less floating and indeterminate.

We may now learn that this margin itself is connected, in a continuous fashion, with a third region, which, unsuspected by our consciousness—even hidden—cannot, in any degree, be measured by us with respect to its range and to its depth. Hence, that which is really given, that which is the necessary starting-point of all speculation as of all practice, is not the imaginary sum of our states of consciousness, but this illimitable field, wherein the seat of clear knowledge—already so complex, and undoubtedly irreducible to a determinate number of conceptual elements—is only a point, ceaselessly modified, moreover, through its relations with the media to which it is bound.

If such are the primordial data over which the activity of the human mind is exercised, what use do religion and science respectively make of them?

Religion is the fullest possible realisation of the human self. It is the human person, marvellously raised through his close communion with other persons. It is, in some measure, an apprehension of being as it is constituted before having been limited, arranged, distributed in categories by our understanding, so as to comply with the conditions of our physical existence and of our knowledge.

Science, on the contrary, is the selection and the classification of all that which, at any time and for any mind, can be the object of clear and distinct knowledge. The sum total of these elements is what we call the objective world. So long as we consider them apart, as happens in the clearly conscious perception from which scientific knowledge proceeds, we do not find within us their ground of existence, and, therefore, we represent them to ourselves as pictures of things that exist independently of us. We shape these images, we label them, we observe the order of their usual presentment, we create formulas which help us to anticipate their return; and by means of these formulas we obtain any states of consciousness that we may desire.

If such is the respective origin of religion and of science, how could the latter ever take the place of the former? Religion takes as her starting-point a concrete bit of experience, a full fact, comprising thought, feeling, and, perhaps, the faint sense of participation in the life of the universe. The starting-point of science is an abstraction, i.e. an element extracted from the given fact and considered separately. We cannot expect man to be satisfied with the abstract, when the concrete is at his disposal. That would be “something like offering a printed bill of fare as the equivalent for a solid meal.”Man uses science, but he lives religion. The part cannot replace the whole; the symbol cannot suppress reality.

Not only is science unable to replace religion, but she cannot dispense with the subjective reality upon which the latter is grounded. It is pure Scholastic realism to imagine that the objective and the impersonal can suffice, apart from the subjective, in our experience. Between the subjective and the objective no demarcation is given which justifies, from the philosophical standpoint, the divisions which science imagines for her own convenience. Continuity is the irreducible law of Nature. And our so-called impersonal concepts need to be constantly revivified through contact with reality, i.e. with the subjective, in order that they may not degenerate into inert dogmas, at variance with scientific progress. Personality is not, compared with impersonality, a kind of initial disorder of which nothing would remain, once everything were put straight. It is the wondrously rich and ever-renewed source from which science must borrow without intermission, if she would not sink into unprofitable routine.

The relation between religion and science has this appearance when we bring them into opposition. But such an opposition is the result of our defining both science and religion in an artificial manner. On the one hand, we identify science with the physical sciences. On the other hand, we make religion consist in dogmas which symbolise it. But if science is, above all, knowledge of facts, of data, there exists a psychological science as legitimate as physical science, and there is no reason why the characteristics of the latter should be imposed upon the former. And, if religion is essentially an experience—something felt and lived—it need not, a priori, be contrary to a science which, itself, only leads up to a certain interpretation of experience.

Now, it is found that a like fact, the continuous extension of the conscious self into a subconscious self, on the one hand is recognised by psychologists, while, on the other hand, it offers a satisfactory account of what is essential in religious experience. The relation between the conscious self and the unconscious self serves, therefore, to connect religion with science. It is, in short, the common starting-point of scientific activity and of religious activity: the latter tending to enrich consciousness by means of subconsciousness, the former to reduce invasions from the subconscious region to the forms and to the laws of consciousness.

The fundamental affirmations of the theologian, and his general method in the establishment of religious beliefs find, moreover, a justification even in science, so regarded.

The theologian would have man brought into relationship with One greater than himself, distinct from himself. Now, the subconscious is distinguished from the conscious in consciousness; and the psychologist has every reason to suppose that, in the subconscious region, the human soul communicates with beings that are—some of them at least—greater than itself.

The theologian affirms the reality of the beings which appear to be given in religious experience. This belief is like that of the scientist, who imagines a permanent world of forms and of laws as the pledge of a universal and never-ceasing possibility of uniform perception.

Last of all, we come to the great religious conceptions around which crystallise the systems of theology. These conceptions are not formed otherwise than are the principles on which scientists base their theories. They are hypotheses, arranged so as to group facts and to represent their connections in a manner agreeable to the intellect and to the imagination. Science could not find fault with theology for imitating her method.

One reservation only is enjoined on the theologian. Imaginative theories and symbols are not the essence of religion; they aim at expressing religion in human language. Now, it is clear that the actual sciences snare, to an ever-increasing extent, in this language. Doctrines ought, therefore, to be unceasingly reconciled, as regards their formulas, with the essential results of science, just as these latter, in their broad hypotheses, evolve with the whole of human experience, and with reason which is the living witness of that experience.

To sum up, according to William James, religious experience is as useful and real as scientific experience. It is even more immediate, concrete, expansive and profound. Further still, it is presupposed by scientific experience. It can, moreover, from this time forward—thanks to the psychological theory of the subconscious—look to science herself for support.

It is developed in the same way as science, and is in harmony therewith. There is, then, no ground for believing that it is only a survival of the past, and no longer an essential element of human nature.


Critical Remarks

This doctrine is not a logical construction which is made up of materials taken here and there, shaped so as to fit into one another, and collected from without according to a plan. Much rather would it appear to be the religious life itself, understood, as far as possible, in its given complexity, and elucidated by sympathetic and penetrating reflection. Hence the special character of William James's works, wherein, expecting to see an author, we find a man.

Rich and varied as it is, this doctrine has a central point—a focus from which light is shed upon the whole. This centre is the theory of the field of consciousness, regarded as the basis of psychology. To apply this theory to religion, and, thereby, to bring religious phenomena within the normal life of man: that is the task which William James has given himself.

From this standpoint he maintains that religion is essentially an experience—something that we feel and live: it is the sense of spontaneous and re-established harmony of man with himself, i.e. of the actual man with the ideal man; it is, at the same time, the sense of man's communion with a Being greater than himself—a Being who produces this harmony and is revealed as an inexhaustible source of energy and of power. This twofold sense becomes, in the religious person, the very mainspring of conscious life.

Furthermore, and still adopting this same standpoint, religion is an essentially real and personal affair. Religion in itself, one and immutable, is but a shadowy Scholastic entity. We must look only for religious persons, for religious lives, and we shall then find that there are as many religions as individuals. It is not without purpose that William James entitles his work: The Varieties of Religious Experience.

These views are of the greatest interest.

They actually eliminate from the essence of religion all that is chiefly objective, intellectual, or practical in the material sense, and that can be transferred, indifferently, from individual to individual: for instance, dogmas, rites, traditions. They put in the foreground the emotional and volitional element, which is embedded in personality and cannot be separated from it.

Consequently, they find the religious type par excellence in Mysticism, disengaged from visions and ecstasies which are not essential to it, and referred to its principle—the intensity and widening of the inward life. And they set up, as examples of the religious life, the great originators for whom religion was primarily a life, a personal experimentation, an extension of human nobility and power: men like St. Paul, St. Augustine, Luther, Pascal.

Such a religion is no organised affair; we cannot enumerate and class its elements, observe and describe its evolution, or foretell its destiny. It is a living thing, creating and re-creating itself continuously, which would only cease to exist if the energy and will of its representatives died away.

Such a religion is not, moreover, a passive mysticism ingulfed in contemplation: it is an enlargement of activity, pursuing ever loftier ends, and appropriating to itself the forms necessary for their realisation. At the same time, far from being a plea in favour of ruling men and of enjoining upon them uniform beliefs, it is, for every one, the duty, not only of reverencing, but of cherishing what, in another's religion, is peculiar and personal; since only that which is connected with the person exists and is efficacious, and persons are and ought to be different from one another.

And, while preserving its own character, viz. relation to that which is, for us, supernatural, religion—as William James interprets it—is expressly reinstated in human nature. Just as he linked mystical experience with normal religious experience through exhibiting, in the former, faith become intuition, so he makes religious experience re-enter ordinary experience through seeing therein the development, conformable to general psychological laws, of elements which are present, though usually unperceived, in every working of immediate consciousness.

Religion, then, forms part of man's normal life; and since, besides, it contributes to the preservation, to the integrity and to the prosperity of that life, even reason combines with instinct and tradition in favouring its continuance.

Not less strong is the position that William James's doctrine secures for religion, in comparing it with science. No conflict is conceivable between them, seeing that religion lies altogether in changes of the feeling which forms the centre of our personality, while science has to do only with represented phenomena, and is limited to observing and noting their usual course.

On the other hand, science and religion are interconnected. They have one and the same end—the happiness and power of man; one and the same method—experience, induction and hypothesis; one and the same field—human consciousness, of which religion is the whole, science a part.

However brilliant and clever may be this doctrine, is it proof against every objection that can be urged either by scientists or by religious men?

As regards the scientists, their opposition was only to be expected. They deny that the mode of knowledge invoked by William James corresponds to what they call experience.

Scientific experience ends in affirming—not only does such a thing appear to me, but it is. And the statement that it is, means this: it is capable of being perceived by everybody endowed with normal sense and intellect, who observes the phenomenon in those conditions wherein it is offered to me now.

But the descriptions that William James puts forward, usually borrowing them from the subjects themselves, reveal to us merely subjective impressions They tell us that some person, more or less abnormal had the feeling of an objective presence, either of the unreal, or of communion with supernatural beings. They make known to us the circumstances, the changes of this feeling. They carry us back, apparently, to the subjective descriptions of hallucination and of psychical disturbance. And William James himself from the very first, hardly seems to attribute to them any other significance. By degrees, however, in proportion as he studies the higher forms of the feeling of possession, and particularly the emotions of the great mystics, he comes, almost, to regard this feeling as denoting, by itself, the real and objective existence of a spiritual being, distinct from man, with whom his consciousness may enter into communication.

Doubtless, William James confidently sets aside, as pure fictions of the imagination and of the understanding, all detailed and precise descriptions concerning the nature of these myterious beings, and their relations with our world. But of the intellectual element which is usually associated with the emotions, he retains something in the end: viz. the affirmation of a higher intervention that is given, in some way, with feeling itself. Similarly it would seem, the metaphysical psychologist Maine de Biran taught that a special feeling—the feeling of effort—contained within it and revealed to us the action of an external force, operating conjointly with our will. But Biran could not successfully establish his point; and it is not clear how William James can show that the proposition—“I feel within me the divine action,” is identical with this other proposition—“The divine action is exerted upon me.”

Must we, with certain writers,5 interpret the doctrine in a strictly idealistic sense, and maintain that, from beginning to end, it is merely concerned with feelings, with emotions, with beliefs, considered from the purely subjective standpoint? After all, that which saves us, is not a God separated from our belief, but our belief in God.

It is certain that William James adopts the standpoint of radical empiricism, and that, in the objects existing outside us, he can only see fictions of the imagination and artificial contractions of the understanding. Between hallucination and perception, he clearly allows only a difference of degree, and, consequently, he is able to begin his analyses with the study of cases which evidently illustrate nothing but a morbid hallucination.

But it does not seem that this recourse to a universal subjectivism suffices to remove the difficulty. In order that even a subjective experience may be called experience, in the philosophical as well as in the practical meaning of the word, we must be able to distinguish—at least ideally—between the given subject who feels certain emotions, and a knowing subject, who verifies impersonally the existence of these emotions. Otherwise, it is a question of being, of reality—not of knowledge. A tree is not an experience.

Now, the state of the subject, in the religious phenomenon, appears to be especially incompatible with the duplication here necessary. The subject, wholly absorbed in the feeling of communion with the Infinite, no longer distinguishes between the real and the imaginary. Are his very emotions true, under such conditions; or are they only those simulated factitious emotions (objectively insincere in spite of their intensity and of their evidence) which are described in the forcible English phrase: sham emotions? Far from a mystical state being able to constitute an experience, it is necessary to ask, further, if it is a state of consciousness, since mystical absorption actually tends to annul consciousness.

Here we encounter the real problem which is at the heart of this discussion: is there no other experience than that which the duality of a subject and an object implies? May not this experience, belonging to distinct consciousness and to science, be derivative and artificial, in comparison with that primary and genuine experience which is truly one with life and reality? Such a doctrine, in fact, appears to follow from the substitution of the field of consciousness for states of consciousness in William James's psychology.6 The primary datum, according to this doctrine, is an infinite continuity of impression and living experience, from which our clear perceptions only emerge in an elaborated and altered shape, calculated to assist us in the pursuit of certain practical ends.

Upon this matter opinion is divided. Some are inclined to see in the subliminal self-an enlargement, an enrichment of consciousness, while others declare that they can only see therein an impoverishment, a contraction, a vestige, a residuum. In regarding it closely, say these latter, we find nothing in this so-called higher consciousness which was not previously in the ordinary perceptive consciousness. The super-natural aspirations of the mystics are reminiscences; such purely spiritual creations are forgotten states of consciousness which, according to ordinary psychological laws, have been mechanically combined with other states of consciousness, thus engendering a psychical organism which consciousness does not recognise. This “unknown”cannot escape the fate of all mysteries that have been opposed to science: the progress of observation and of analysis will bring it into the region of the known and the natural.

However evident such a refutation may appear, it must be noted that it admits and takes for granted the said psychology of states of consciousness, i.e. atomic psychology: in other words, it adopts the very standpoint that William James considers factitious and inadmissible. It may be, therefore, that this refutation is merely a petitio principii.

Most certainly, science assimilates an increasing variety of phenomena. But it is not through preserving, purely and simply, her ancient forms—after the manner of shallow minds, of William James's old fogies—that she obtains this result: it is through enlarging them, through adapting them, and, in case of need, through transforming them. In fact, none of her forms—not even those which support all the rest, viz. mathematical and logical forms—are really immutable. When it can be shown that there exist phenomena irreducible to the classic psychological types, psychology will do what physics and chemistry do in a like case: she will seek other principles.

In truth, how is it possible, in the present state of our knowledge, to prove that everything presented to the mind—inventions, contrivances, ideas, objects to be defined, ends to be sought and to be realized is only what we have already observed? Did not the already-observed itself begin by being observed in some way? Bo we know precisely what is meant by observing, and where the limit of our observation is reached?

The possibility of an experience, wider than, and even different from, that of the five senses which we have actually at command, seems, indeed, scarcely contestable. But, in order that he may claim to have in view a genuine experience, and not a mere feeling, there must assuredly be, in the notion conceived by the subject, something which corresponds to what is called objectivity. To believe in God is, in some way, to believe that God exists independently of our belief in him. Now, no subjective particularity of experience—not even a sense of overplus, of beyond, of illimitableness—can, by itself, guarantee the objectivity, the reality of that experience. William James himself appears to admit this fully, when, analysing the immediate data of the religious consciousness, he tries to discover therein, not an indication or a testimony, but the very reality—immediately given—of a relation between the soul and some higher being.

How are we to understand this transition from the subjective to the objective?

Even the theory of the subconscious is insufficient to justify it, for the subconscious itself only becomes real for consciousness through entering therein, i.e. through taking the subjective form.

The essential phenomenon is, here, the act of faith by which, experiencing certain emotions, consciousness declares that these emotions are real and come to it from God. Religious experience neither is nor can be, by itself and separated from the subject, objective. But the subject gives it an objective import by means of the belief which he inserts in it.

Thus mingled with faith, does religious experience cease, on that account, to be an experience? This can scarcely be the opinion of William James. For certainly, in his thought, the very idea of objectivity, characteristic of sensible experience and of scientific experience, contains necessarily a portion of irreducible belief. The category of positive existence, independent of every subjective element, is, after all, a belief. Belief or faith is at the heart of all knowledge.

Just as some have questioned if William James's religious experience is an experience in the scientific meaning of the word, so others have wondered how far it deserves to be called religious.

The subject, says William James, knows that the religious mystery is wrought within him, when—in response to his cry of distress: “Help!”—he hears a voice saying: “Take courage! Thy faith hath saved thee.”The human self is naturally in a divided and failing state. If harmony is re-established, if strength beyond its own resources is given, it is through the assistance of a greater than itself.

But, according to Hœffding,7 the truth of the matter would seem to be that these phenomena themselves are insufficient to characterise an experience as religious, if there is not combined therewith an appreciation of the value attaching to the harmony and to the power which the subject sees thus bestowed upon him. Conceived as purely analogous to natural things, this harmony and this power call for no divine intervention. But if the psychical phenomenon is interpreted by the subject as the restoration of union between God and man, between the ideal and the real or—adopting Hœffding's precise doctrine—between values and reality, then the subject will attribute the appearance of this harmony and power to the action of God as the source of values; and experience will in that way, present a religious character.

And, truly, it is concept or belief combined with feeling, which, alone, effects such a characterisation. In order that an emotion may be religious, it must be regarded as having in God—himself understood religiously—its principle and its end. It is, therefore, faith, involved in religious experience, which characterises it both as experience and as religious.

The importance of faith is, here, all the greater, because, according to William James himself, it does not only accompany emotion, but has a real influence upon it, and can, in certain cases, actually produce it. Religious faith, which, maybe, manifests God within it, is not an abstract idea: it heals, it consoles, it creates its object. Even in the midst of his painful search, Pascal hears the Saviour say: “Be comforted: thou wouldst not seek me, if thou hadst not found me!”

But, if this is really so, religious experience is not that principle, completely independent of concepts, of doctrines, of rites, of traditions and of institutions, which the analysis of William James seemed to disengage and to indicate. For these external conditions are, in some way, elements of faith. As they assume it, so they react upon it, and determine its content. In the religious experience of a given individual, if we analyse it, we shall always find—incorporated in his faith—a multitude of ideas and of feelings bound up with the formulas and practices which are familiar to him. Of religious faith, indeed, it must be said that it is, in part, a translation of action into belief.

It appears, then, permissible to inquire, with Hœffding, if the very fact of religious experience would survive the disappearance of all the intellectual elements—external and traditional—of religion.

Have these elements, moreover, no other value than that which they derive from their connection with the religious consciousness of individuals? Is personal religion, by itself, the one essential of religion?

Doubtless the social rôle of religion, however considerable history shows it, does not suffice to prove that religion is, originally and essentially, a social phenomenon. It may be that religion was, indeed, born within the souls of individual enthusiasts, and that, spreading through imitation, through contagion, it took, by degrees, the form of doctrines and of institutions—as happens when beliefs are needed to secure the preservation and the power of a given society. But, even though the social aspect of religion were an effect, and not a cause, it would not follow that purely personal religion is, at the present day, the only important and deep-rooted form of religion.

The individual, in so far as he strives after religious perfection on his own account, already shows that he cannot confine himself to a solitary holiness. No one can work out his salvation quite alone. For human personality only develops, only realises itself, only exists, through the effort that men make to understand one another, to become united, to enjoy life together. And thus, common things, acts, beliefs, symbols, institutions, are an essential part of religion, even in its personal form.

But the individual person is not alone in having a religious value. A community, also, is a kind of person, capable of exhibiting its own virtues—justice, harmony, and humanity, which exceed the limits of individual life. In bygone days the control of the material and moral destinies of the community rested with religion. If to-day it no longer exercises political authority, can it not still claim to show the nations their ideal ends, and to develop in them the faith, the love, the enthusiasm, the spirit of brotherhood and of self-devotion, the ardour and the constancy, that are required in order to work for the carrying out of such ends?

A common task surpasses a purely personal religion. It implies, among the members of a given community, collective reverence for traditions, beliefs, and ideas, which tend to the fulfilment of its mission and to the realisation of its ideal.

If feeling is the soul of religion, beliefs and institutions are its body; and there is only life, in this world, for souls united with bodies.

  • 1.

    William James, The Will to Believe, 1897; The Varieties of Religious Experience, 1902.

  • 2.

    Goethe, Faust: Miracle is the beloved child of faith.

  • 3.

    Myers, Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death, 1903.

  • 4.

    William James, The Varieties, etc. pp. 122–3.

  • 5.

    Cf. Flournoy, Rev. Philos., Sept. 1902.

  • 6.

    Cf. the theory, similar in certain respects, of H. Bergson: Introduction à la métaphysique. Rev, de Mét, et de Mor., 1903.

  • 7.

    Hœffding, Moderns Philosophie, 1905. Cf. the same writer's Religions-philosophie.