August 30, 2002 | Commentary on Religion and Civil Society, Civil Society

ed083002: Religious defense taken from work of William James

Religious belief has taken some pretty hard knocks in the last year, from the terrorist attacks of September 11th to the sexual abuse of young boys by Catholic clergy. But people who dismiss religion as a ready source of vice and violence should reflect on the observations of a fellow agnostic, William James, the Harvard psychologist and philosopher.

In 1902, James delivered the prestigious Gifford(ph) lectures in Scotland which became his seminal book, "The Varieties of Religious Experience." A century later it still exasperates skeptics and true believers alike.

Orthodox religion, especially Christianity, had plenty of critics in James' day. Darwinists saw a natural world functioning quite well without supernatural intervention. Philosophers of an empirical bent claimed that no hard evidence for religious belief could ever be discovered. And psychologists were wondering if faith itself was the product of sexual desire or even a kind of pathology. Sound familiar?

Into this academic 'Tower of Babel' stepped William James. As professor of physiology at Harvard, James had established the nation's first laboratory for experimental psychology. His lectures were based on years of investigation into the claims of religious believers. His basic conclusion: There was something authentic and beneficial about religious experience, something that atheistic science could not explain.

Nevertheless, James angered orthodox believers by ignoring the truths of revealed religion. He showed little interest in creeds and doctrines, what he called the 'spirit of dogmatic dominion.'

James was fascinated by the workings of faith in individual human lives. He examined the conversion stories of scores of Christian believers,from renowned evangelist Charles Wesley to a little-known drunkard in Harlem named S.H. Hadley. And though he didn't share their experiences, he admired them. He wrote: 'To call to mind a succession of such examples is to feel encouraged and uplifted and washed in better moral air.'

James was pragmatist, meaning he emphasized the practical effects of faith on individual believers and society. Unlike many critics then and now, he took the redemptive power of religious belief seriously.

Modern social scientists are finally coming around to his point of view. At the University of Pennsylvania, scholars recently reviewed nearly 800 studies of the relationship between faith and positive social outcomes. Their verdict? Strong religious commitment is directly linked to greater social well-being, whether it's battling drug abuse or juvenile delinquency.

William James would not be surprised. "The best fruits of religious experience are the best things that 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."

For those who can't bring themselves to make the Bible their bedside reading, they should pick up this skeptic'sstudy of faith commitment and perhaps find their doubts softened a little for the effort.

Joe Loconte is the William E. Simon fellow at The Heritage Foundation

About the Author

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

Originally aired on National Public Radio's All Things Considered