William James on Mystical States and Agnosticism


Mystical States

“One may say truly, I think, that personal religious experience has its roots and centre in mystical states of consciousness,” William James

Our tendency to ‘pyschologise’ our experiences may well have grown since the time of William James but I rather think that now we know more about the works of the human mind, we tend to at least try to attach natural explanations before leaping feet first into the realms of the mystic and supernatural.  Ecstatic states that apparently provide sustenance for a human need for personal affirmation should not be merely issued with unquestioned validity.  Believing something that makes you ‘feel good’, or provides consolation or even offers comfort to the bereaved, does not make it accurate or true in any sense.

Childishly clinging to any imagery is a hindrance to meditation as any instructor will tell you.  So why should we be expected to maintain religious imagery for the sake of tradition? We shouldn’t.  These religions offer us nothing and have now reached the point that the followers of such now struggle to justify the existence of said religion.  This is so much so that very few can do more than bluster about the ‘marginalisation’ of Christianity and how they are being persecuted, waffle on about their country’s tradition being rooted in Christianity (despite all evidence to the contrary), and then parrot what they heard on Fox News the night before.  Tradition, by the way, is no reason to continue any practice, it is merely an excuse used to justify the continuation of a dubious habit.

James acknowledged that mystical experience has a lot to do with emotion along with memory and awe so even he admitted that these experiences are affected by the subject’s own cultural knowledge.  He also admitted that the experiences must be filtered through the subject’s conscious scrutiny so as not to attribute it wrongly to mysticism.  Mr Vernon only gives this acknowledgement a passing mention.  James did not however, believe that the correct means of assessing the truth of these mystical experiences was that advocated by who he referred to as the ‘medical materialists’ for whom mysticism had no meaning other than to suggest hysterical and semi-hypnotic states in an intellectually limited and superstition-biased mind.  Indeed, they would have been the ideal people to test the ideas as they had no interest in their truth.

James’ theories are now at odds with modern conventions of psychology and scholars of mystical experience.  He believed it had little to do with time or place but rather emphasised a need for dialogue of the experience and examination of the historical context in order to distinguish between a real experience and a mere imagining.  James’ interest rested in the individual’s experience more than in the communal as he viewed the former as the ‘real and positive’ version.  The shift in perspective between what is real and what is imagined does little more than add to the religious delusion; because one felt small and alone before, they involuntarily invented an event which allayed a negative and uncomfortable emotional state.  This still does not prove that these experiences were in any way mystical.  However much James wished for there to have been truth to the claims of mysticism, it does not grant them that truth and for or those people to have experienced any positive effects from their moments of epiphany, they would have to have had a negative view of their lives beforehand.  Unless we know their state of mind, what they were doing or how they were living prior to their visions, it is impossible to do anything more than take James at his word that the changes were positive.  It is also likely, considering this was in 19th CE America, that James himself had a preconceived and strict idea of what constituted a good lifestyle and whatever did not fit into that mindset, did not qualify as ‘good’.

Even the great mystics do not claim that their good deeds prove the truth of their visions but instead that misdeeds invalidate them. James’s propensity to disregard the influence of prior knowledge or experience leaves him vulnerable to other charges of biased investigation such as side-lining historical context.  James attempted to judge these accounts based on reasonableness and how well it fit within existing and articulated systems of belief and went on to stress that it is the overall consequences for the individual which matter: the quality he thought of as ‘saintliness’.  I agree that the consequences matter but only in the sense that those who experience these episodes should seek help from the psychiatric profession rather than the church.

Agnosticism

Vernon, wrote in his article that there is an agnostic sentiment in James’ writing.  This may be, but only if he was an agnostic with a desire to believe.  A claim of knowledge which is based only on a religious vision can not truly be taken seriously in scholarly circles.  We have already established that James had become convinced that these visions were helpful to mankind regardless of any ill effects and probed the accounts he had collected in an attempt to prove his case.  One of his observations in from his 18th lecture was that mysticism was too private and varied a matter to be able to claim any form of authority of any overall positive effect on mankind as a species.

“Can philosophy stamp a warrant of veracity upon the religious man’s sense of the divine?” William James

But what is religious philosophy and how does it have any bearing here?  James believed very much that it was a secondary consideration to experience because he felt that humans were driven by passion and emotion rather than reason that drove human this area of inquiry.  He deemed philosophy a necessary, but not sufficient, means of exploration and explanation.  He also had quite a scathing view of intellectualism, describing it as a “preference for concepts over reality” and an insidious means of becoming a spectator of life rather than a participant.  In summary, he felt it encouraged speculation for its own sake with mere ‘intellectual bubbles’ as it’s result.  James detected this intellectualism within religious circles in attempts to prove the existence of God as a fact  but decided that these ‘proofs’ were sought by those who felt the need to separate themselves from what they saw as the randomness of the world.

James charged the Cardinal John Henry Newman of being a ‘vexed spirit’ with a ‘disdain for sentiment’ though considering James’ own disdain for reason and rationality in examining what he believed to be mystical encounters, I do not feel this accusation is entirely a fair one.  Newman made a clear distinction between ‘notional assent‘ and ‘real assent‘ and believed that to determine a belief using only philosophy is to give it only notional assent.  The Cardinal believed that this was an inadequate way to think about such things because it only engaged the rational and that real assent required more than reason.  He also stressed that he believed that in order to achieve a real understanding of mysticism the subject must examine all the evidence and experience as a whole – rational, emotional, cultural and observational.  Though each, on its own, are not conclusive proof of anything but added together, he believed, they supported the truth of a powerful belief.  Newman used the an allegory of a cable to symbolise the elements of religious beliefs.  If one strand is broken then the cable remains intact.  But the more strands that break the weaker the cable becomes until it eventually breaks and thus the individual is freed from the yoke of belief.  The tactic employed by the leaders of organised religion is that they aim to keep their congregations attention away from the man behind the curtain (as it were) by focusing on other issues; the supposed ‘persecution and marginalisation’ of Christianity, for instance. Real assent implies that God is a fact rather than a mere hypothesis and requires a complete suspension of disbelief in order to just accept it as a possibility.

belief in God is “an action more subtle and more comprehensive than the mere appreciation of syllogistic logic”, John Henry Newman

In his essay, ‘The Will to Believe‘, James drew upon the tenuous preoccupation with belief which doctrine requires of its adherents. He admits to the absurdity of the idea that a belief in God can simply be willed.  The essay seeks instead to justify individual belief in God even when those individuals have not been coerced into them.  He began by attempting to define religious belief.  Firstly the beliefs must be ‘real’ to count as such and secondly those individuals must consider those beliefs to be real possibilities.  For example, the subject must consider adherence to a religion and a set belief system to be a viable option for themselves.  They also had to affect the subjects’ outlook on life to be considered ‘religious’.  In the same essay James makes reference to Pascal’s wager, the hypothetical argument in favour of a belief in god, which many have taken seriously in the years since.  The wager is, as James saw it, based upon the logic of the gaming table.  James however had failed to see the wager for what it was; based upon very long odds indeed.  Instead James took it to mean that Christianity was a valid option for the French philosopher and mathematician despite the obvious objections to the suggestion that one may even feign belief if the odds favour a positive result for doing so.

instead of being powerless, [it] seems a regular clincherWilliam James

The wager did not work for Pascal any more than it should have worked for James (it didn’t) or for anyone else for that matter.  Pascal may have had a will to believe but that ‘will‘ does not render one capable of submission to religious belief for to do so we non-believers and agnostics would have to consciously and deliberately ignore all of the evidence and education we have accumulated over the course of our lives (and over human history).  The form of objectiveness demonstrated in the wager does not work in the case of religion because religion requires that we voluntarily lay aside our reason, independent thought and rationality, and our will to question ‘authority’ (rendering objective thought impossible) in favour of becoming a form of intellectual slave to ancient superstition.  That does indeed require a certain willingness but it is not one that I, or anyone in my non-believing activist circle, are in possession of.

Sources

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

Saintliness

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.

 

Sources

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.”

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