William James on Original Sin.

William James (January 11, 1842 – August 26, 1910) was born in New York to Henry James Sr, a theologian known for his eccentricity.  William  trained to be a medical doctor and wrote prolifically on the then relatively new field of psychology, most notably the psychology of religious experience and mysticism; The Varieties of Religious Experience.  He spent most of his career at Harvard University as an academic.  His early artistic bent led to an apprenticeship in the studio of William Morris Hunt in Newport, Rhode Island, but he switched in 1861 to scientific studies at the Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard University.

  • Appointed instructor in physiology for the spring term of 1873, as well as instructor of anatomy and physiology.
  • Appointed assistant professor of psychology in 1876.
  • Appointed assistant professor of philosophy in 1881, full professor 1885, and endowed chair on 1889.
  • Returned to philosophy in 1897.
  • Emeritus professor of philosophy in 1907.
  • Gave the Hibbert lectures at Oxford in 1908.

James first came to psychology when asked to write an introduction which appeared in Principles of Psychology, published in 1890.  It was after then when James began to explore his interest in religion.  It is for his works, though they were published late in his life, The Varieties, A Pluralistic Universe, and essays such as The Will to Believe, for which he is best known.

“James studied medicine, physiology, and biology, and began to teach in those subjects, but was drawn to the scientific study of the human mind at a time when psychology was constituting itself as a science. James’s acquaintance with the work of figures like Hermann Helmholtz in Germany and Pierre Janet in France facilitated his introduction of courses in scientific psychology at Harvard University. He taught his first experimental psychology course at Harvard in the 1875-1876 academic year.”

The James family was deeply affected by the American Civil war.  Out of  a total of four brothers, both Henry James Jnr. and William were exempted from fighting on medical grounds.  Their sister, Alice James, also died in her mid-40s.  Biographers have noted that a phenomenon known as ‘survivor guilt’ had huge affect on them.  He was prone to fits of anxiety and melancholy and described ‘visions’ of asylum inmates and the only thing which could comfort him was reciting scriptures despite his ambivalence over the existence of God. One French correspondent hinted that James  was actually a humanist.  It is hypothesised that James’ fascination with religious experience came primarily from his own ‘spiritual’ crises.  I do not think it fair to describe him as a religious man merely due to his interest in the psychological aspect of religion even though he did describe his book ‘The Varieties’ as his “religious act”.

“In his early adulthood, James suffered from a variety of physical ailments, including those of the eyes, back, stomach, and skin. He was also tone-deaf.[2] He was subject to variety of psychological symptoms which were diagnosed at the time as neurasthenia, and which included periods of depression during which he contemplated suicide for months on end. Two younger brothers, Garth Wilkinson (Wilky) and Robertson (Bob), fought in the Civil War. The other three siblings (William, Henry, and Alice) all suffered from periods of invalidism.”

Extremely troubled, but intellectually brilliant, open-minded and humane, William James is certainly to be recommended as an author to those interested in matters of human spiritual exploration.  American universities in 1908 had only just begun to award higher degrees in the fields of psychology and philosophy so he did not actually posses a formal qualification despite his years of experience.  His lectures  explored the human phenomenon of human religious experience from a psychological perspective, rather than one of theology or ecclesiastics and his work was based around evidence produced by other articulate individuals involved in the new science.  James aimed to make a clear distinction between the nature of religious experiences and the value placed on religious ‘truths’ by mankind.  he astutely noted how easy it is to slip from explaining one and into passing judgement on the other.

“During his Harvard years, James joined in philosophical discussions with Charles PeirceOliver Wendell Holmes, and Chauncey Wright that evolved into a lively group known as The Metaphysical Club in 1872. Louis Menand speculates that the Club provided a foundation for American intellectual thought for decades to come.”

James was a Darwinian.  His works require the reader to consider the evolutionary explanation for religion and argues a previous survival advantage.   Mark Vernon of The Guardian Cif, has acknowledged the reasonable precept that everything has causes but adds that these possibilities don’t rule out any authority behind those religious experiences and it is a mistake to do so.  Why?  It may be that as humans we are hard-wired to accept the possibility or even believe in something greater than ourselves but that does not make it fact.  It neither proves nor disproves the existence of god, only that it is possible for humans to believe in God.


Animation. Occipital lobe (red) of left cerebral hemisphere.

Occipital lobe (red) of left cerebral hemisphere.


William James’ works and theories call this medical materialism.  The physical aspects of psychological defects put St Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus down to a symptom of epilepsy (a discharging legion of the occipital cortex) and  Mother Teresa’s visions as hysterical.  Mr Vernon again refuses to accept the natural explanation and will not even consider that religious experiences are physical symptoms of psychological disorders.

“Paul may well have had an epileptic episode. But that’s only to say that there is a biological component to all human experience…Thus, critics discredit states of mind of which they disapprove, not those of which they approve, and it is entirely arbitrary and illogical to do so. If you explain away religious experience, then you evacuate the truth content of all utterances made by human beings.”

As Mr Vernon would have it, we are truly to only discover what is true after forcing it through an “intellectual, philosophical and spiritual” sieve by which we can separate and cast away those facts that we deem unpalatable due to what it would mean about ourselves if we accepted them.  Indeed it is what every good apologist does when they refuse to even consider that they are wrong about the existence of [insert god here].  James made no apologies for his stance and the points he made are still relevant.  Personal happiness bares no relevance to what is factually correct about the natural world and humans are neither separate nor above that world despite our propensity to species chauvinism.

“Old-fashioned determinism was what we may call hard determinism. It did not shrink from such words as fatality, bondage of the will, necessitation, and the like. Nowadays, we have a soft determinism which abhors harsh words, and, repudiating fatality, necessity, and even predetermination, says that its real name is freedom; for freedom is only necessity understood, and bondage to the highest is identical with true freedom.”

If science is not enough to discredit religious belief, mockery can be a useful tool.  If we ignore the sources of the belief then we are at risk of accepting it as truth on principle.  It was quite reasonable for those who came up with these doctrines to do so; they were not in possession of all the facts and nor did they have access to them.  It is quite another matter for us to adhere to that dogma today as it requires us to discount accepted evidence in order to accept them.  The source of our information should be one of the primary considerations of credibility.  Where I differ from James is that where he believed that neither reason or appearance are infallible adjudicators, I believe that what we now know about the brain and the mind has shown us that reason and logic is a far more reliable auditor than what we see or hear.

“The stronghold of the determinist argument is the antipathy to the idea of chance…This notion of alternative possibility, this admission that any one of several things may come to pass is, after all, only a roundabout name for chance.”

Religion stems from the human tendency to ascribe agency to, and anthropomorphise, inanimate forces.  Such simplistic approaches to explanation leaves so much, and even the most interesting information out and the available evidence is trimmed to fit prior assertions.  I am sure that apologists would love the psychological study of religion to stick to matters of categorising those ‘experiences’  but for the more curious of us, we are not content to be so restricted.  Mr Vernon himself would also like his religious ideas placed under less scrutiny because that way he does not have to worry that he is wrong.

“In William James’s lecture of 1897 titled “The Will to Believe,” James defends the right to violate the principle of evidentialism in order to justify hypothesis venturing. Although this doctrine is often seen as a way for William James to justify religious beliefs, his philosophy of pragmatism allows him to use the results of his hypothetical venturing as evidence to support the hypothesis’ truth. Therefore, this doctrine allows one to assume belief in God and prove His existence by what the belief brings to one’s life.”


Original Sin

Now we come to the crux of the matter.  The idea of original sin is as a pernicious and programmed idea as they come. It implies that as humans we are naturally bad and in need of being mended.  Who has this magical cure? Organised religion.  What will it cost you? All sense of self and individual, sacrifice of personal enquiry, an end to questioning those who assume authority over us.  All this and yet the problem is not fixed but given weekly reinforcement in a special building and with others who are ‘naturally bad’.  It is a vile doctrine designed to feed fear and keep congregations dependant on God.  I cannot be the only one who sees something wrong with that picture.

“On account of a superficial resemblance between the doctrine of original sin and the Manichaean theory of our nature being evil, the Pelagians accused the Catholics and St. Augustine of Manichaeism.”

William James believed that while some are able to take whatever happiness that their religion gives them as ample demonstration of its truth, others have decided that religion is a necessity to cure the ills of the world.  He applied the term “twice-born” to describe the latter.  The more optimistic “once-born” treat their faith as a gift while to the “twice-born” it is a burden.  Of course, the majority Christians would have us believe that the world would be a better place if everyone followed their brand of their beliefs. They decry critics as ignorant of Jesus’s teachings (really?  have they read them?) and arrogant in our refusal to accept him as our saviour (master). The rise of modern science writing has thankfully begun to convey the counter idea that humans are not flawed and if we do face a problem then we are able to fix ourselves rather than rely on religion and out-dated superstition.

“I think that yesterday was a crisis in my life. I finished the first part of Renouvier’s second Essais and see no reason why his definition of free will — ‘the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts’ — need be the definition of an illusion. At any rate, I will assume for the present — until next year — that it is no illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.”

Mr Vernon expresses a view that what connects liberal Christianity, scientific optimism and self-help is the belief that people are capable of creating our own sense of well-being and recognise that our higher motivations must be trained to take precedence over the lower.  But is a higher motivation really higher if done for the wrong reasons? Helping the homeless is indeed a noble act but that act is cheapened if it is mercenary act (and yes, religious reasoning, makes any and all acts mercenary whether noble or not).  As humans, we are capable of improving our lot both collectively and individually but the “twice-born” disagree.  To them the human nature is incurably corrupt and no matter what individuals do, we are all doomed to failure and tragedy regardless of whether we accept the authority of their deity or not.  What a horrible outlook on life. While Stoics taught their followers to merely go with the flow and be insensible to life’s pains and trials, the Epicureans went about avoiding pain by eschewing life’s pleasures.  This is not all as one must seek to be ‘born-again’ through a process of redemption for ‘sins’ committed centuries before our birth by other people and by being saved.  They believe that help does not come through either themselves or even by earthly means: help can only come from the supernatural.   The dogma of original sin causes division, even among Christians.

“In William James’s lecture of 1897 titled “The Will to Believe,” James defends the right to violate the principle of evidentialism in order to justify hypothesis venturing. Although this doctrine is often seen as a way for William James to justify religious beliefs, his philosophy of pragmatism allows him to use the results of his hypothetical venturing as evidence to support the hypothesis’ truth. Therefore, this doctrine allows one to assume belief in God and prove His existence by what the belief brings to one’s life.”

William James tried to find truth in both sides.  Mind-cures allow people the dignity to take responsibility for their actions but James did tend to appeal more to the twice-born mentality of a naturally ‘sick-soul’.  Choice may well imply the loss of things not chosen but this is only a negative to those who wish to have everything.  Excellence need not stand out against second best when we acknowledge the effort made.  If one person’s gain is another’s loss then we should question how such gain is made as an unfair trade is generally thought of as a con.    Real optimism is not achieved through ignoring the dark but by searching for positive aspects of life and by accepting personal accountability for our actions and their consequences.  The nature of the twice-born mentality offers only a hopelessly bleak (self-pitying) outlook, a disparate view of humanity (to say the least), and very little in all to recommend it.

“What is meant by saying that my choice of which way to walk home after the lecture is ambiguous and matter of chance?…It means that both Divinity Avenue and Oxford Street are called but only one, and that one either one, shall be chosen.”



32 thoughts on “William James on Original Sin.

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