William James on The Psychology of Conversion and Saintliness

The Psychology of Conversion

William James reported the case of 14 year old Stephen Bradley who purportedly saw a vision of Jesus.  It is said to have lasted only a second (so obviously, the boy was certain of what he saw in detail, and the vision was not at all a result of his indoctrination?) but he was certain that Christ was in his room and from that day on he called himself a Christian.  When, in his 20s, he visited a revivalist meeting and it left him cold he became troubled as he had considered himself religious.  That evening he had another experience even more pronounced than before.  The symptoms he reported were palpitations, feelings of both elation and self deprecation, apparently a stream of air passed through him (hysterical reaction).

Bradley claimed to have rushed to his neighbours to discuss the experience.  This is something which he was supposedly unable to do before.  He also challenged the deists and atheists to shake his faith.  That’s right, the blind faith of the credulous urges them to make a challenge to which they intend to automatically reject all evidence to the contrary (For a really good demonstration of this imbecilic attitude, go to YouTube and have a look at some of ShockofGod’s videos.).  William James conceded that Bradley may well have had a ‘religious experience’ but also took a look at similar cases which showed a sense of regeneration, reception of grace, or a gift of assurance (delusion of grandeur and hallucination expressed in familiar imagery).  The difference between the religious experience and the more ordinary decisive changes we make to our outward persona is the depth of the change.  It is quite normal human behaviour to partition our characters so we have one mode of behaviour at work and quite another at home or in social circumstances.  However, the religious conversion is, whether slow or sudden, a stable change.  Whether it be from being religiously apathetic to religious, between religions, or from religious to non-religious, the change goes on to dominate other aspects of the personality.  James believed it was personal drama that lead individuals to become religious, but also that the unconscious mind can play a considerable role in the life of an individual.

“Enlightenment is not imagining figures of light but making the darkness conscious.” – Carl Gustav Jung

The damaging influence of the unconscious is an idea which stems from Sigmund Freud (a psychologist who has now had a number of his ideas discredited).  Freud viewed the unconscious as a force to be suppressed and be wary of as a disruptive influence on our conscious mind, whereas James (as do I) sided more with the Norwegian, Carl Gustav Jung (pronounced yoong) who believed that the unconscious provided us with an ability to problem solve and a way to filter information and memories.  According to Jung, within the ‘collective unconscious’ exists images and symbols that have given rise to the multitude of fairy-tales, mythology, and legends that have been passed through the generations.  Jung called these symbols archetypes. Why did conversion matter to James? It was for more than mere personal religious reasons. He recognised that the only ‘evidence’ of God’s existence was rooted within personal psychological experience.  He attempted to explore and discuss the testimonies of experiences in ‘The Varieties’ and does well to mention that in reality one’s belief in God’s existence is as personal as one’s taste in literature, art and music.  There IS NO solid evidence for god’s existence and it is a logical fallacy to claim that there is.

“This means it will always be contested, though to reduce extraneous argument and focus on the evidence that is mostly likely to be illuminating, James examines what he takes to be the most valuable material: the best articulated and most profound records of conversion. For him, to do otherwise would be like declaring you were going to study music by excluding the work of Bach in favour of nursery rhymes, on the grounds that more people sing Three blind mice than the St Matthew Passion.” – Mark Vernon

Mark Vernon, of the Guardian’s Comment is Free, claims that this is why it will always be contested, but I disagree.  For there to be a contest on this subject there must be solid, testable and observable evidence in favour of those assertions of God’s existence.  There isn’t and personal testimony based on personal psychological experiences will not suffice.  James’ examination on this subject was inefficient because he relied entirely on personal accounts of religious conversion.  These do not prove the existence of God, these accounts only prove that people have converted to being religious.  If James was correct, that religious belief is comparable to taste in music, then it makes sense that some will be more susceptible than others. Vernon claims that statistical methods tell us that the broad mass of ‘religious phenomena’ will tell us as much but statistics only show correlation and correlation does not equate to causation. Statistics can be applied to ‘prove’ any claim no matter how dubious.  Vernon squirms through his peace by trying to claim that conversions are not even possibly delusions and that James presented these accounts without “forcing them into a frame that prejudged the significance of the experience, one way or the other”.  What this does not do is rule out all known natural causes before attaching a ‘supernatural’ explanation.

“They maybe excellent persons, servants of God in practical ways, but they are not children of his kingdom.” – William James

James also questions why some people at least appear to be immune to the process of conversion.  In order to be converted you need to want to be.  The same way that you have to want to give up smoking in order to be successful in the attempt.  Religious faith is, quite simply, a form of psychological delusion and requires an individual to believe absurdities on the say so of others.  We must remember though that religious delusions are a merely symptom of cultural conditioning, not an outright disorder, BUT those that have a hand in that conditioning also have a invested interest in our conversion; they believe that THEY will be granted an eternal reward in return for converting as many people as they can.  They knock on our doors, not out of their concern for our welfare, but concern for their own.  Those converts you hear of, who were formerly atheists and lived good lives while being so, were bullied into their conversions: it was merely the fear of the unknown that inspired them to make otherwise noble acts of altruism into acts of mercenary self-interest.  I disagree with William James, while remembering that he was a product of a Victorian upbringing himself, in that these accounts were anything more than psychological episodes which had been improperly diagnosed due to lack of understanding in what was then a relatively new field of study.  I would urge Mr Vernon not to attached any more meaning to his findings on the matter than that.  We are more than just the passive recipients of sensory information.  In order to make sense of that information and react according to a given situation our minds rely on previous knowledge and experience.  This knowledge includes cultural references and any religious imagery we might have tucked away in the back of our mind.  (Isn’t it funny how ‘visions’ of religious icons nearly always look like well-known and widely circulated works of art?)

“Even late in life some thaw, some release may take place, some bolt be shot back in the barrenest breast, and the man’s hard heart may soften and break into religious feelings.” – William James


Nietzsche believed that Christianity was dehumanising and demoralising, that encourages a slave mentality within it’s adherents and rendered all humanitarian acts worthless due to the demand from the established Christian authority, of serving others in return for the love of God and Jesus.  He was right.  Christianity has always demanded credit for basic human sympathy.  It twists a normal instinct for empathy into a demand to act for selfish reasons and demands  respect for its own sake which it does not deserve.  Nietzsche believed that the human desire to ‘do good’ and the instinct to take pity on those less fortunate was really a desire to make them indebted to us rather than to another (sounds like debt consolidation companies to me).  He believed that pity enables humanity to set itself above those who are suffering and, though we may not congratulate ourselves for our ‘goodness’, it may well be that we prefer helping to relieve the suffering of others than to face our own dilemmas and problems.  This is where my agreement with Nietzsche ends.  He also thought that it was better that individuals deal with their suffering on their own but not in isolation; to learn to accept their lot and rejoice in it in order to ensure that the suffering is not spread.

“The highest flights of charity, devotion, trust, patience, bravery to which the wings of human nature have spread themselves have been flown for religious ideals,”

This conclusion worried William James considerably and he devoted 5 lectures to challenging the idea.  The problem he had was not the insensitivity of merely allowing someone to needlessly suffer when there is some practical help we can offer, but that James was attempting to show religious experiences as a positive influence on humanity and that they were morally helpful and not at all damaging or selfish.  He set out a lengthy case to try to prove his point but his case was limited to the church’s account of the behaviour of the saints and tries to claim sanctity as the true motivator in acts of humanitarian aid.  It is a delusion of a spiritual existence outside of humanity which inspires people to believe that they are part of a cosmic plan greater than their own self-interest.

“Religious experiences are so powerful and positive a moral force, James argues, because they have an ability to overcome the inhibitions that prevent most from behaving in morally exemplary ways. “Few people who have not expressly reflected on the matter realise how constantly this factor of inhibition is upon us, how it contains and moulds us by its restrictive pressure almost as if we were fluids pent within the cavity of a jar.” Moreover, inhibition is typically a subconscious force. So counterbalancing subconscious forces, such as those that are religious, are required to release the individual from their withholding impulses.”

William James argued that religious experiences are a powerful and positive moral force because they allow us to overcome inhibitions which prevent many of us from behaving in ‘morally exemplary’ ways (Like what?  Not systematically dismantling the state safety net designed to protect those who have found themselves in hard times, you mean? How about NOT making cuts to public spending that will cost 500,000 people their jobs and then cheering that prospect?  Okay, dig against Christian majority coalition over).  Again, I will correct Mr Vernon, by pointing out that religion owns neither morality, nor kindness.  People are quite capable of behaving humanely and offering assistance to those in need without being steered their under the yoke of an oppressive religion.  Where altruism ceases to be noble is when it becomes either expectation or compulsion and in so doing  Christianity is guilty of trying to own and control the basic instincts that make us human.

It is not that Religious experience is alone in being able to warp an instinct to do the decent thing for another person for the sole reason that it’s the right thing to do.  Soldiers are paid to follow orders which require a great deal of personal courage in the face of very real danger and their experiences bring them to closely identify with their comrades on a level in which civilians are ill-equipped to do so.  Religious experiences have been granted a level all of their own, and are deemed by the religious to release the unconscious mind to the fore.  Like the soldier who chooses to submit their will to the training, so does the religious convert, but the soldier does not pledge to serve the military for the rest of their lives in the hope of a reward once they have died.  James’ study led him to conclude that these experiences can radically change someone but I do not believe he took the study far enough.  It seems to have stopped there with not even an attempt to explore how ‘natural’ experiences and periods of high stress can also inspire a person to change their outlook and behaviour.  If he did, then Mr Vernon has not alluded to it.

“the fanatic madman delivers himself over, blindly, and without reserve, to the supposed illapses of the spirit, and to inspiration from above” David Hume

The power of these accounts of mystical and spiritual enthusiasm is not what repels us, the critics of religion.  What repels us is the demands made upon the individual to live a life, subjugate ourselves to a force for which there is no evidence, merely forget reason and rational thought in favour of merely being told what to think, believe and to say, and more importantly to adhere to ‘morals’ which we find more than merely objectionable. James’ saints have not earned their adoration for being magnanimous, they earned their high esteem by saying supportive things about the church and Christianity for there is plenty of real humanitarian work going on which is not attributed to godliness or even claimed to be divinely inspired and yet it is the do-nothings such as Mother Teresa and her so-called missionaries of charity who are granted far more respect than they are due for merely perpetuating a problem.  Nietzsche’s ‘strong-man’ may very well be the ruin of humanity but so equally will be the prostrated and artificially humbled slave to religious dogma.

Even James admitted that devoutness is followed by fanaticism and that religious piety has a pathological element to it.  As yet where religious experience can be of true benefit to the world is still in the Undiscovered Country (to steal a phrase from a rather old Star Trek film).  There is no better way to see how religion is a harmful influence on the world in general by simple observation of the conflict in world around us.  It is no coincidence that most of the world’s poorest, war torn and disease stricken countries are the most religious.  Where the Church and other religious institutions have a strong enough hold on the people, misery follows.  India’s caste system hasn’t helped their people out of hardship but the influx of refugees into large cities like Calcutta has been caused by sectarian clashes and warfare.  These are but a few examples and it would be arrogant in the extreme for Christianity to claim that all converts are Christian converts.

Vernon claims that these moral ‘geniuses’ provide ample demonstration of the helpfulness of religion.  I say they fail entirely because what he claims that William James has ‘proven’ neither squares with what I already know nor with what we see in the news every day.




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