The Book of James: William James's lectures on religion, a century later

COMMENTARY Civil Society

The Book of James: William James's lectures on religion, a century later

Jan 15th, 2003 5 min read

Former William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society

Joseph is a former William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society.

It's been a banner year for doubters in this season of skepticism. Religious conflict between India and Pakistan brought them close to a nuclear showdown. Islamic terrorists stepped up their assaults on Western targets from Pakistan to Bali. The Catholic Church has dismissed hundreds of priests for sexually abusing children. Even closer to home, one of the snipers who allegedly terrorized the Washington, D.C. area is a convert to Islam.

Public intellectuals are drawing the darkest of conclusions from this faith-based mischief. Andrew Sullivan of The New Republic argues that monotheism "lends itself to…the terrorist temptation." Not to be outdone, former New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis calls religious belief "the enemy of decency and humanity." There's something about faith in God, they reason, that naturally produces intolerance and violence.

Perhaps only post-modern pundits would claim that pagans and atheists are actually the salt of the earth. Such thinkers could benefit immensely from the observations about religion from a fellow intellectual: William James, the Harvard psychologist, philosopher-and agnostic.

A century ago, James delivered the prestigious Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh. His 20 addresses were published in 1902 as "The Varieties of Religious Experience," which soon became one of the most widely read works on religious belief by an American. Prior to James, no scholar had devoted such attention to the process-and the effects-of religious conversion. His basic argument: There is something authentic and profoundly beneficial about religious belief. "The best fruits of religious experience are the best things history has to show," he wrote. "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."[1]

Coming from a devoted pragmatist, such faith-talk rocked the secular academy. Orthodox religion, especially Christianity, had plenty of foes: Darwinists saw a natural world functioning quite well without supernatural intervention. Empiricists denied hard evidence for belief existed. Historicism was eroding confidence in the reliability of the Bible. And even before Freud, psychologists were wondering if faith itself was the product of sexual desire or even a kind of pathology.

Sound familiar?

From this academic tower of Babel James sounded a sober and penetrating defense of religious conviction. As professor of physiology at Harvard, he'd established the nation's first laboratory for experimental psychology. His lectures were based on years of investigation into the claims of religious believers. No scientist had entered more deeply or respectfully into the inner life of the faithful.

With a coolness that must have stunned his materially minded audience, James chastised those who used science as a shield for agnosticism. The scientific mind, he reasoned, fears believing something that may be false; the spiritual seeker longs for a reality that transcends science. Thus, scientific belief was no less a product of emotional commitment than religious belief. "Rationality does not lie on one side or the other," he wrote. "It is a contest between our fears and our hopes, and both the scientist and the religious believer take a gamble."

Numerous reflections on James's work have appeared this year, most notably a short book by philosopher Charles Taylor, The Varieties of Religion Today. All draw attention to James' fixation on individual experience. Liberals love to emphasize his disdain for traditional, institutionalized religion, what he called "the spirit of dogmatic dominion." Without a doubt, James angered orthodox believers by ignoring creeds and doctrines. Aware of how the Methodists valued both theology and "religion of the heart," James told a Harvard divinity professor, "You will class me as a Methodist, minus a Savior!"

Nevertheless, observers often misread the most provocative aspect of his work: the transformation of individuals claiming an encounter with a fearsome, yet personal God. James recounts scores of examples in his book; at least a third of his lectures retell and analyze stories of conversion and saintliness. In most of his citations, it seems the old-time gospel religion did the trick.

We learn about David Brainerd, an early missionary to Native Americans ("My soul rejoiced with joy unspeakable, to see such a God"); Henry Alline, hymn-writer and leader of the Great Awakening in Nova Scotia ("The word of God…took hold of me with such power that it seemed to go through my whole soul"); English evangelist Billy Bray ("I was like a new man in a new world"); French Protestant Adolphe Monod ("My melancholy…had lost its sting. Hope had entered into my heart"); and S.H. Hadley, a chronic drunk who helped found the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions ("I felt that I was a free man…that Christ with all his brightness and power had come into my life").

James showed little patience for what he considered self-absorbed piety: He was most impressed by believers whose experience of God rescued them from destructive lifestyles and launched them into acts of service. "To call to mind a succession of such examples," he wrote, "is to feel encouraged and uplifted and washed in better moral air."

Contemporary skeptics could use a little washing in this climate of faith. Interestingly, it is social scientists-often the most secular in the academy-who are pointing the way. Columbia University researchers, for example, recently found that people who consider religion important are significantly less likely to abuse drugs.[2] At the University of Pennsylvania, scholars reviewed nearly 800 studies of the relationship between faith and positive social outcomes. Their conclusion: Strong religious commitment is directly linked to greater social well-being-whether it's battling teen pregnancy, depression or juvenile delinquency.[3]


People who believe the Bible always have insisted that faith produces good works, that the true believer will "look after orphans and widows in their distress."[4] In this, they have an ally in William James. "St. Paul made our ancestors familiar with the idea that every soul is virtually sacred," he wrote. "The saints, with their extravagance of human tenderness, are the great torch-bearers of this belief, the tip of the wedge, the clearers of the darkness." In the end, it seems, James reached a generous judgment of religion-not in spite of his hard-nosed scholarship, but because of it.



Joseph Loconte is the Willima E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at the Heritage Foundation and a commentator on religion for National Public Radio.

[1] William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Penguin Books, USA Inc., 1982)

[2] "People With Faith Are Less Likely to Abuse Alcohol and Illegal Drugs," Associated Press, Nov. 18, 2001.

[3] Byron R. Johnson, "Objective Hope: Assessing the Effectiveness of Faith-Based Organizations--A Review of the Literature," University of Pennsylvania's Center for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society, spring 2002.

[4] James 1:27 (New International Version, 1985).

A longer version of an article that originally appeared in The Weekly Standard