Quote of the week: William James on theology

June 4, 2012 • 7:42 am

James was no atheist, and did believe that one could find evidence for God, but he thought theology was useless in adducing that evidence. In his classic book The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902, based on the previous year’s Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh), he argues that religious “truth” emanates from a consciousness different from our normal rational consciousness, and that “truth” about the divine is produced by revelation and then verified by its salutary effects on human behavior.   There are many problems with his arguments, which I won’t go into here, but at least the man had no truck with theologians. This is from p. 436 of the 1928 edition, where he talks about the philosophy of religion, that is, theology:

“I believe, in fact, that the logical reason of man operates in this field of divinity exactly as it has always operated in love, or in patriotism, or in politics, or in any other of the wider affairs of life, in which our passions or our mystical intuitions fix our beliefs beforehand. It finds arguments for our convictions, for indeed it has to find them. It amplifies and defines our faith, and dignifies it and lends it words and plausibility. It hardly ever engenders it; it cannot now secure it.”

Shorter version: theology is the post hoc rationalization of what you want to believe.

17 thoughts on “Quote of the week: William James on theology

  1. Incidentally, Carl Sagan gave the 1985 Gifford Lectures in Glasgow, which were posthumously publised as The Varieties of Scientific Experience, in reference to James. And a book I highly recommend for its clarity and well-expressed insights.

    1. which is, in itself, another post hoc rationalization of what they want to believe.

      1. Agree the piece is hardly surprising given the source, but I was surprised to see that sane people read it and take the time to blast it.

  2. In Daniel Kahneman’s ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ he makes a strong argument that one of the functions of our brains is to automatically make sense of situations of which we have little knowledge. This is one source of cognitive bias. He writes

    The amount of evidence and its quality do not count for much, because poor evidence can make a very good story. For some of our most important beliefs we have no evidence at all, except that people we love and trust hold these beliefs.

    The Greatest Story Ever Told?

    1. That’s superbly well put.
      Although the book “The Measure of God: Our Century-Long Struggle to Reconcile Science & Religion” is religion-friendly, I felt it (inadvertantly to a degree) made a good case that much theology (or at least apologetics or compatibilism) is just rationalization.

      James was interested in the practical side of religion and distinguished “healthy-minded” from “morbid” religion in a way that reminds me of Dan Dennett’s toxic and non-toxic religion.

  3. What particularly bothers me when believers agree with the atheists that theological, rational, and scientific arguments don’t really work — and persuade only those who didn’t need to be persuaded — is what is left to explain why some people believe in God and some people do not: faith. In the religious context, the ability to have faith or want faith or choose faith is supposed to reflect something important and essential to someone’s character. Deciding to take that “leap” means you’re more open, more sensitive, and more loving than if you had decided otherwise. Exercising the “will to believe” is like exercising a virtue.

    And where does that leave us atheists?

    Oh, sure, we’re smart enough — all rational and scientific and all — and we can follow an argument and look at evidence. But we lack that certain special something that allows us to put it all together and sing, don’t we? Or so they assume.

    No offense intended, I’m sure.

    Sorry, but I don’t buy this, and I don’t see much improvement in religious people who admit their arguments and evidence and reasoning are not very good. They don’t believe because of reason — THEY believe because of LOVE. Or hope. Or some stupid unacknowledged version of ESP.

    If the evidence doesn’t support the conclusion than the thing to do is not accept it. Don’t make up some insulting song and dance about how you just have this humble little insight into how your desires are signs that they’re true and gosh I just gotta believe ’cause I do, God calls me and I respond. The nonbeliever is the casualty of the elevation of faith as virtue.

    I’d rather be considered wrong because I’m ignorant on facts.

    1. Those who have had unbidden religious experiences should keep silent about them. Whatever they learn from the experiences should be taught through the way they live their lives after the experience.

      That is, the way they live should speak for their faith in the truth of the experience.
      We don’t need to know that they have had an experience of THE TRUTH. WE need the benefit of that truth. To know that truth we must ourselves experience it unbidden.

      Bidden religious experiences are different. If I have an experience of the THE TRUTH as a result of beseeching God’s help then others may be able to. I can then tell of how God answered my pleas for help.

      The problem here is that one can never be sure that one has not unconsciously created the answer to one’s prayer. However much it may feel like God is something other, it is impossible to prove. But if that is how it feels then that is how it has to be reported.

      As for theology, Jerry sums up William James perfectly. And James had it nailed.

      1. Leigh Jackson wrote:

        To know that truth we must ourselves experience it unbidden.

        Do you think it conceivable that people can have completely natural spontaneous experiences of the brain which inspire them to become kinder, nicer, more patient, etc?

        I do. Which means that what you call “unbidden religious experiences” call for neurological explanations — and the way people live stands or falls on its merits.

        1. Yes, that’s my conviction. But if I spontaneously experienced an apparently revealed higher reality I might only continue to believe that it was all entirely in my brain if it was possible to manipulate my brain so as to replicate the experience for me. Otherwise the nature of the experience might be altogether too convincing for me to believe that it was sui generis.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *