Saturday, March 10, 2018

Reading The Varieties of Religious Experience: Lecture 2

In his second lecture, James defines what he would 'religion' consider to be for the purposes of the lecture series.

He stresses right at the beginning that religion is such a complex phenomenon that anybody who thinks they can come up with a clear and simple definition is fooling themselves. He then mentions two aspects, the organisational structure (the church with its office holders and buildings) and the personal beliefs and feelings of each believer, and he excludes the former from consideration to focus his efforts on the latter.

That is unsurprising, given his psychological approach, and fair enough. A historian would perhaps be most comfortable addressing religion as an organised body while excluding personal psychology from their considerations. What I find interesting to observe, however, is that one aspect of religion as I see it is not even mentioned. To me, schools of thought that make truth claims, be they ideologies, religions, or scientific, philosophical, scholarly, and engineering communities, have three main components:
  • The people who adhere to the school of thought; they are the focus of James' lectures,
  • The institutional framework (research institutions, churches, political parties, think tanks, journals, internet fora, conferences, etc.); this James mentioned but excluded from consideration, and
  • The actual body of knowledge or belief system; it appears to remain unexamined so far.
Because 90% of the lectures are still to follow I don't want to dwell on this too much, but I find it interesting even at this stage that James appears curiously incurious about the first question that would come to my mind when faced with a school of thought: are its beliefs true? I guess I will see if he will go there later or if he will remain completely disinterested in that question throughout.

After having settled on the personal relationship of an individual human to the divine as his focus, James clarifies that believing in an actual personal god is not a criterion for him. He mentions 'Emersonianism' and Buddhism as examples of  systems that work to produce religious feelings without having personalised deities. I had never heard of Emersonianism, but it appears to be a variant of pantheism, seeing the whole universe as divine and (believe it or not) benign.

Finally, James spends an astonishingly large part of his second lecture on discussing what mindsets he considers truly religious and what mindsets he does not. Again and again he negatively contrasts the philosophical, Stoicist acceptance of the way the world is with the Christian ideal of a joyous embrace of whatever happens, no matter how terrible. Although he sometimes calls the ascetic or highly spiritual Christian 'extreme', the language he uses leaves no doubt that he considers mindless exultation in the face of, say, seeing a loved one dying terribly to be an admirable state of mind, as evidence that religion is a positive force for humanity.

Again I hesitate to immediately reject his argumentation given how little I have progressed into this book, but even here I cannot help wonder if this view does not rely quite a bit of conflation of many different injustices or tribulations to which, really, we would be justified to react in very different ways. We are not merely talking about "the universe is unfair, and a truly wise person will accept that they can only do their best and be happier for it". No, depending on what we are talking about and if we assume gods to exist we may reasonably take very different stances - and I would actually say that religious bliss is the appropriate stance in none of the various cases.

We cannot always get all we wanted. Some things are unachievable, and sometimes we have to compromise with other people. Accepting that is just a sign of maturity. (Embracing such compromises joyously would seem to be a bit twee, though.)

Then there are the evils we do to each other, such as theft, bullying, rape, murder, etc. Really one of the most frustrating facets of human existence is how much needless misery we cause each other, both deliberately and accidentally, given that we would have quite enough misery left to deal with even if we were all perfectly nice to each other (see next point). Point is, in this case the perpetrators generally have a moral responsibility to do better, and joyously accepting their bad deeds is both unreasonable and counterproductive, as it will set perverse incentives and reward bad actors.

What James must really be talking about, however, would have to be 'natural evils', harm to us that is no other human's fault, everything ranging from having to die of old age across natural disasters to people being born with a genetic disorder. Under the (atheist) assumption that there is no god behind these phenomena, that they just happen, James' preferred stance of a joyous embrace would be ridiculous. Stoicist acceptance of what cannot be undone while trying one's best to undo these evils is a more sensible approach.

But what if we assume that natural evils are caused or at least allowed to happen by an omnipotent god who could, with the snap of their metaphorical finger, deliver us from such needless suffering? Does it make sense, under this assumption, to write, "dear superior intelligence running the universe, please accept my heartfelt thanks for making me slowly die of an untreatable, incredibly painful disease; and while on that topic, thanks also for that landslide that crushed my best friend when we were twelve years old"?

I can't say that this would feel sane to me. I would have some very serious questions about the moral character and motivations of such gods, if I believed for a moment that they existed. But then again, James acknowledges himself that there are some people who are unable to have religious feelings as he defined them. I assume I am one of those people, for better or for worse.

And note also that there are presumably many people who would consider themselves religious but who do not feel what James considers to be the religious impulse at its most pure.

No comments:

Post a Comment