January 15, 2003
By Joseph Loconte
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
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,
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
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.
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. 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.
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." 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.
William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New
York: Penguin Books, USA Inc., 1982)
"People With Faith Are Less Likely to Abuse Alcohol and Illegal
Drugs," Associated Press, Nov. 18, 2001.
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.
1:27 (New International Version, 1985).
A longer version of an article that originally appeared in The Weekly Standard
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.
William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society
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