William James Was Something of an Intellectual Genius When it Came to Religion

Bill James–Great Man

The 19th century American psychologist and thinker William James was, in short, the Victorian version of ‘The Most Interesting Man in the World.’ He attended elementary school in Paris and Geneva, aspired to be a painter in Rhode Island, embarked on a journey through the Amazon Rain Forest, was admitted to Harvard Medical School, trekked across Europe, and read philosophy at Berlin University. And this was all before his real academic life had even begun.

As an instructor of physiology, psychology, and philosophy at Harvard, James rebranded the term ‘religious experience,’ exploring the high-brow, cerebral (literally) concepts of consciousness and mind long before modern brain scans and neuro-physics. This was only several decades after Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published, a time before modern scientific advancements and global warfare–James (1848-1910) would not live to hear about the first shots fired across the trenches of World War I.

Yet, James lived in an age in which faith, that is, religious faith, came into serious doubt. Even before James earned his M.D. and got down to business redefining our understanding of religion, the British poet Matthew Arnold wrote in his 1867 poem “Dover Beach”:

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world.

1867 and already people are claiming that “The Sea of Faith” is waning? Someone call Sam Harris in here! He has to see this.

Doubt is nothing new for humanity. Neither doubt of faith nor doubt of God has burst forth from out of nowhere. The difference nowadays is how ubiquitous the doubt is, but, moreover how much it is taken for granted. This, for James, was the problem—the demand that we must doubt until we have “sufficient evidence.” James did not understand religion to be rationally self-evident like that. For James, as much as for St. Augustine, Jesus, and just about every saint and thinker in the history of the Catholic Church (not to mention the great thinkers of other faith traditions–from Siddhartha to Mohammed), religion was and is primarily about faith.

This point James makes clear in a lecture he gave at Harvard, later published in the 1897 collection The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy. If only it was still a popular read today.

In the first few sentences, James describes his own lecture as “an essay in justification of faith, a defense of our right to adopt a believing attitude in religious matters, in spite of the fact that our merely logical intellect may not have been coerced.” James sets out to explain why it makes sense, why it is justified to believe religiously.

First, James discusses the options we have in our lives, that which we decide ‘to believe or not to believe.’ He categorizes the options in these opposing pairs: living or dead, i.e., relevant or irrelevant; forced or avoidable, that is, one in which we are either forced to choose one thing or another, or one we can simply dismiss, e.g., “either accept my theory or go on without it” gives us no choice (we choose either way, by deciding to accept or, as the only alternative, going on without, regardless of whether we reject it or just decline to answer) vs. “either call my theory true or call it false”; and momentous or trivial, i.e., there’s a lot riding on the choice or there’s not.

As James limns, the decision either to accept God or go on without God is a (a) living, (b) forced, and (c) momentous option. Such an option is, as James classifies it, a genuine one.

However, James says we encounter a common problem when attempting to engage with this genuine option: many people seem to think that any religious belief, belief that doesn’t have “sufficient evidence” is a belief we should avoid at all costs.

Putting aside the question of what would constitute “sufficient evidence,” James observes plainly that very little of what we actually do is motivated by the purely logical side of our thinking: “Evidently, then, our non-intellectual nature does influence our convictions. . . the state of things is evidently far from simple; and pure insight and logic, whatever they might do ideally, are not the only things that really do produce our creeds.” (emphasis mine)

James goes on to explain that we are absolutist by instinct, individuals who “dogmatize like infallible popes.” We always think we’re right. In spite of this, James urges us to allow our beliefs to be flexible, for “there is but one indefectibly certain truth, and that is the truth that the present phenomenon of consciousness exists.” This is the foundational truth that the 17th century French philosopher René Descartes expressed in the Latin phrase cogito ergo sum, I am thinking, therefore I exist. This consciousness, this absolute given that I (we) think at all, that I (we) believe anything, is the infrangible certainty. Beyond that, we must have faith of some variety, for there is no other belief out there that some person doesn’t think (without contradicting himself) is downright baloney.

Amidst this uncertainty, James concludes that we have to allow ourselves to believe religiously that is, without “sufficient evidence,” since gauging what “sufficient evidence” actually is requires some sort of “sufficient evidence” in and of itself. There is no bell that goes off in our heads when we know we’ve broken through that precious space between evidence that is sufficient and that which is inadequate. As James eloquently writes:

“To preach skepticism to us as a duty until ‘sufficient evidence’ for religion be found, is tantamount therefore to telling us, when in the presence of the religious hypothesis, that to yield to our fear of its being error is wiser and better than to yield to our hope that it may be true. . . . This command that we shall put a stopper on our heart, instincts, and courage, and wait—acting of course meanwhile more or less as if religion were not true—till doomsday, or till such time as our intellect and senses working together may have raked in evidence enough—this command, I say, seems to me the queerest idol ever manufactured in the philosophic cave. . . if we are empiricists, if we believe that no bell in us tolls to let us know for certain when truth is in our grasp, then it seems a piece of idle fantasticality to preach so solemnly our duty of waiting for the bell.” (emphasis mine)

To believe religiously, in something, in anything, is an option thrust upon us in the trials and uncertainties of life. It is a genuine option we cannot walk away from, because walking away is itself a choice, when the option is presented to us as “Believe religiously or go on without it.” But this isn’t just philosophical trickery. Our lives demand it. James ends his speech with a quotation from Fitz-James Stephen’s Liberty, Equality, Fraternity  which I would like to end on, too:

“In all important transactions in life, we must take a deep leap into the dark”

Cum Caritate,



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