On Roots, Fruits, and Religious Disputes

Ian Johnston invokes William James in arguing for tolerance of those who hold religious beliefs. Religion has persisted, even prospered, in the face of rationalist criticism. Perhaps it fills an important human need.

Ian Johnston invokes William James in arguing for tolerance of those who hold religious beliefs. Religion has persisted, even prospered, in the face of rationalist criticism. Perhaps it fills an important human need.

The truth of the matter can be put in this way: God is not known, he is not understood; he is used—sometimes as meat-purveyor, sometimes as moral support, sometimes as friend, sometimes as an object of love. If he proves himself useful, the religious consciousness asks for no more than that. Does God really exist? How does he exist? What is he? are so many irrelevant questions. Not God, but life, more life, a larger, richer, more satisfying life, is, in the last analysis, the end of religion. The love of life, at any and every level of development, is the religious impulse.
~James H. Leuba

Why is it that so many champions of science like to attack religion with all the rhetorical force they can muster? I’m not talking about occasional quarrels over the school science curriculum or the design argument or the hijab (all easy enough to resolve most of the time). No, what I’m referring to is a full broadside designed to obliterate an opponent, the stock in trade of, among others, the so-called four Horsemen of the Non-Apocalypse (Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett), who keep firing hyperbolic volleys at all religious belief, all organized religion, and whatever else is associated with the term (one sample out of a great many: “This is the true horror of religion. It allows perfectly decent and sane people to believe by the billions, what only lunatics could believe on their own” (Harris).

Now, I’m not a particularly religious person myself, but these onslaughts strike me as (at the very least) excessively broad and remarkably ineffectual. They are also in some respects unintelligent as well, because they often fail to explore in any significant detail why religious belief has been such a permanent feature of human culture. Why would “perfectly decent and sane people” from time immemorial up to and including the present day freely choose to behave like “lunatics”? To claim that they are all compelled or seduced into doing so is, to my mind, a simplistic evasion, because the most obvious reason for the enduring presence of religious belief is that many people (in most cultures the majority) find it useful: religion provides something which enables them to live their lives more fully, happily, and purposefully than they otherwise might.

To unpack what this means in more detail, let me briefly sketch what William James, the co-founder of Pragmatism, has to say about ideas generally and religious ideas in particular. According to James, human beings experience reality as a “buzzing, blooming confusion,” and their minds make sense of it by applying their ideas to experience in order to determine the most appropriate action to take. When an individual seeks the right thing to do in a particular set of circumstances, she focuses on a “pragmatic” search, looking for what is going to succeed in these circumstances. If she comes up with a new idea, she first has to square it with her older ideas, a process that usually involves some adjustment to her older ideas and to the new idea. She does not consult some ideal blueprint or some universal rule—instead she focuses on the consequences of various possible actions. And she tests her decisions, not in accordance with any rational formula, but on the basis of how she feels about them. If the practical effects of acting on the idea enriches her life, then the idea is useful and true; if it does not, she discards it. “It is the character of inner happiness in the thoughts which stamps them as good, or else their consistency with our other opinions and their serviceability for our needs, which make them pass for true in our esteem.” The whole process starts and ends in sense experience:

The structural unit of the nervous system is in fact a triad, neither of whose elements has any independent existence. The sensory impression exists only for the sake of awaking the central process of reflection, and the central process of reflection exists only for the sake of calling forth the final act. All action is thus re-action upon the outer world; and the middle stage of consideration or contemplation or thinking is only a place of transit, the bottom of a loop, both whose ends have their point of application in the outer world. If it should ever have no roots in the outer world, if it should ever happen that it led to no active measures, it would fail of its essential function, and would have to be considered either pathological or abortive. The current of life which runs in at our eyes or ears is meant to run out at our hands, feet, or lips. The only use of thoughts it occasions while inside is to determine its direction to whichever of these organs shall, on the whole, under the circumstances actually present, act in the way most propitious to our welfare.
~James, Reflex Action and Theism

The value (or truth) of the idea is determined by its results for the individual who acts upon it. This whole process is, for James, radically individual. Human beings lead purposeful lives. We make decisions for ourselves on the basis of who we are as individuals, driven by the unique make up of our experiences, desires, unconscious motives, temperament, and particular circumstances. Our choices arise out of the organic natures we possess as individuals.

How we arrive at our ideas is unimportant in any discussion of their worth; what matters is the actions they promote. In assessing the value of an idea, we consider not its roots but its fruits. For example, in appraising, say, natural selection (seeking to answer the question “Is it a useful and true idea?”) we pay no attention to the disputes about its origin (Did Darwin get the idea from Lucretius? Did Alfred Wallace and Charles Darwin conspire to filch the idea from Patrick Matthew? What role did Wallace’s fever play in shaping the idea? And so on). Such questions are irrelevant. We attend to the practical results of the idea. And often such an evaluation takes time, as the reception of Darwin’s idea demonstrates. For some people, the clarity, elegance, and usefulness of the idea were immediately sufficient to override the objections of their older ideas (including some significant scientific objections—like the age of the earth, the mathematics of heredity, and the absence of transitional types). For a great many others, however, the objections remained firm obstacles for about fifty years or more until newer ideas reinforced the utility of Darwin’s work (suitably synthesized).

James is particularly concerned about those he calls medical materialists:

. . . people who attempt to counter or neutralize an idea by declaring that it is merely the result of some pathology in its originator: St Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus is “a discharging lesion of the occipital cortex”; St. Francis is a “hereditary degenerate”; George Fox a “psychopath or détraqué of the deepest dye” and also a “hereditary degenerate.” James concedes that many of the religious people he wishes to discuss are eccentric in varying degrees but insists that we should not for that reason dismiss their ideas and actions out of hand, any more than we would cast aside John Napier’s invention of logarithms because he wanted to produce a tool that would enable him more readily to compute the Number of the Beast.

Emphasizing this distinction between roots and fruits is important to James’s argument because he has little interest in the “ordinary religious believer, who follows the conventional observances of his country . . . [and whose] religion has been made for him by others, communicated to him by tradition, determined to fixed forms by imitation, and retained by habit.” His sole concern, he tells us is with “the original experiences which were the pattern-setters to all this mass of suggested feeling and imitated conduct. . . . [E]very imitative phenomenon must once have had its original, and I propose that for the future we keep as close as may be to the more first-hand and original forms of experience. These are more likely to be found in sporadic adult cases.” Hence, his study of religion confines itself almost exclusively to incidents in the lives of particular individuals who underwent a private religious experience:

Religion, therefore, as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.

One should note here that this definition of religion does not stipulate any particular way in which the psychic experience should describe itself. It might be interpreted in an orthodox Christian manner, or with some mélange of eastern and western religions (as in many mind-cure or New Thought therapies), or as a spiritual experience without any immediate connection to a recognized system of belief:

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
~William Wordsworth

Given this definition of religion and James’s radically empirical frame of mind, his argument requires him to present a long list of those who offer detailed evidence of a personal apprehension of what they believe is the divine. And in judging the value of such a revelation, we must, as with all ideas, concentrate on its effects for the individual involved: “If the fruits for life of the state of conversion are good, we ought to idealize and venerate it, even though it be a piece of natural psychology; if not, we ought to make short work with it, no matter what supernatural being may have infused it.”

… individuals differ in their religious and philosophical sensibilities and in the physical and mental circumstances they face in coping with their lives

James’s argument has been criticized for, among other things, its very narrow definition of religion (and for, in James’s words, “the admirable congruity of Protestant theology with the structure of the mind as shown in such experiences”), his neglect of ecclesiastic forms and practices and of the social aspects of religious experience, and its apparent relativism. But, whatever its limitations, his study of a large number of different individual experiences enables him to conclude that religious experience is an established fact (some people do have real feelings of a direct personal interaction with what they apprehend is the divine) and that the results of this interaction are often beneficial to the individual.

Establishing the truth of the experience is beyond the powers of rational thinking:

What religion reports, you must remember, always purports to be a fact of experience: the divine is actually present, religion says, and between it and ourselves relations of give and take are actual. If definite perceptions of fact like this cannot stand upon their own feet, surely abstract reasoning cannot give them the support they are in need of. Conceptual processes can class facts, define them, interpret them; but they do not produce them, nor can they reproduce their individuality. . . . Philosophy in this sphere is thus a secondary function, unable to warrant faith’s veracity, and so . . . in all sad sincerity I think we must conclude that the attempt to demonstrate by purely intellectual processes the truth of the deliverances of direct religious experience is absolutely hopeless.

James points out that individuals differ in their religious and philosophical sensibilities and in the physical and mental circumstances they face in coping with their lives. Hence, we cannot expect all people to address their problems in the same way. Thus, we should leave them free to choose for themselves: “No two of us have identical difficulties, nor should we be expected to work out identical solutions. Each, from his peculiar angle of observation, takes in a certain sphere of fact and trouble, which each must deal with in a unique manner.” We all obviously require science, which brings us “telegraphy, electric lighting, and diagnosis, and succeeds in preventing and curing a certain amount of disease.” But “Religion in the shape of mind-cure gives to some of us serenity, moral poise, and happiness, and prevents certain forms of disease as well as science does, or even better in a certain class of persons.” That being the case, “for each man to stay in his own experience, whate’er it be, and for others to tolerate him there, is surely best.”

James pleads for tolerance here because for him science and religion “are both of them genuine keys for unlocking the world’s treasure-house to him who can use either of them practically. Just as evidently neither is exhaustive or exclusive of the other’s simultaneous use.” This comment leaves me wondering why more scientists do not accept religion as perfectly explicable in terms of natural selection. After all, if a predisposition to religious belief is a heritable characteristic (as some scientists have already suggested) and if religious belief provides, as James asserts, valuable ways of coping with experience, then we have a perfectly acceptable Darwinian explanation for an unwillingness to accept Darwinism.

The great power of the religious experience (as James has outlined it) stems from the fact that it is personal, for “To-day, quite as much as at any previous age, the religious individual tells you that the divine meets him on the basis of his personal concerns.” Science, by contrast, has no room at all for a personal and direct relationship with reality:
Probably a crab would be filled with a sense of personal outrage if it could hear us class it without ado or apology as a crustacean, and thus dispose of it. “I am no such thing,” it would say; “I am myself, myself alone.”

The disgruntled sea creature is here echoing the well-known complaint of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, who, for all his admiration of deterministic science, acknowledges that it is not nearly enough:

You see, gentlemen, reason is no more than reason, and it gives fulfillment only to man’s reasoning capacity, while desires are a manifestation of the whole of life—I mean the whole of human life, both with its reason and with all its itches and scratches. . . . I quite naturally want to live in order to fulfill my whole capacity for living, and not in order to fulfill my reasoning capacity alone, which is no more than some one-twentieth of my capacity for living.
(Notes from Underground)

Furthermore, this personal quality of the religious experience is much deeper and more powerful than any rational discussion about it:

Your whole subconscious life, your impulses, your faiths, your needs, your divinations, have prepared the premises, of which your consciousness now feels the weight of the result; and something in you absolutely knows that that result must be truer than any logic-chopping rationalistic talk, however clever, that may contradict it. This inferiority of the rationalistic level in founding belief is just as manifest when rationalism argues for religion as when it argues against it. . . .

James states this as an empirical psychological fact derived from his numerous observations and is careful to add a note of caution: “Please observe, however, that I do not yet say that it is better that the subconscious and non-rational should thus hold primacy in the religious realm. I confine myself to simply pointing out that they do so hold it as a matter of fact.”

This promise of a personal connection to an eternal reality is presumably what many of those “ordinary religious believer[s]” whom James dismisses are seeking in their organized worship, even without having undergone a conversion experience of the sort James describes. One can hardly blame them for preferring that promise to what reductive biologists nowadays tell us we have become: nothing more than survival sites for DNA (most of it junk), genetically determined robots, temporary and random products of a process that didn’t have us in mind, without free will, individual significance, or higher purpose, with a consciousness that is simply the product of mechanical biochemical reactions, a creature whose psychic wants can be reliably and conveniently met by anti-depressants or Ecstasy or soma on demand. Is it any wonder that some human beings think about this for moment and say, “Thanks, but no thanks”?

Of course, it is important for all of us to be on our guard against and to call out as effectively as we can the charismatic religious scoundrels eager to transform their flocks into watered-down versions of the “God Hates Fags” quasi-Taliban brigades or into child-abusing polygamists. To that extent, those who like to voice their distrust of organized religion have a worthy mission. But when they seek to throw out the very dirty bathwater, they should take more care not to drown or disown the baby in the tub.

*Main image by <a href=”https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Viking_raid_on_monastery_(25803897025).jpg”>Thomas Quine</a>, <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0″>CC BY 2.0</a>, via Wikimedia Commons.