Intellectual debates which command rock-star levels of mass appeal are rare, to say the least, but ‘religion versus science’ can still pull in the crowds like the best of the old stadium bands. It goes without saying that an Oxford debate between the Archbishop of Canterbury and Richard Dawkins in February this year was packed out on the day, but it’s now also currently near 30,000 hits on YouTube.
But just like a Status Quo concert, it’s really the old standards that keep this sort of thing going: the problem of evil, unweaving the rainbow, Darwin’s revolution, etc. Dawkins’s The God Delusion, to take the most notorious example, is now eight years old and was hardly the first time Dawkins had put this type of argument in a bestseller. Nowadays, these ‘religion versus science’ events, and the bestsellers that accompany them, often seem less a debate and more a slightly hollowed-out ritual.
William James, writing over a hundred years ago, did not recognize the antagonism between religion and ‘popular science’. Indeed, he was a popular scientist of formidable credentials himself. He’d trained at the Harvard Medical School, before using his extensive professional knowledge of physiology and particularly neurology to become one of the pioneers of the emergent science of psychology. He’s probably better known today as Henry James’s brother, and also as a key philosopher in the American pragmatist tradition. But as he confessed, he couldn’t really get on with his brother’s novels and pragmatism was an enthusiasm that he developed relatively late in his career. It may be that we’ve undervalued the areas where James might most effectively speak to us now. In fact, at the time of writing his best-known work, The Varieties of Religious Experience, we find him at the tipping point between psychologist and philosopher — a productive tipping point for him, but also for us.
The Varieties was based on a series of lectures James gave in Edinburgh in 1901-2, and as the name implies, it looks at a huge and heterodox range of testimonies united by one common thread. They’re all grounded in the experiences of individuals who are in some way exploring their relationship with what they consider to be ‘the divine’. Today, a lot of discussion of experiences like this (be they religious conversions, mystical experiences, or simply vaguer feelings of ‘some kind of presence’) basically cast them as symptomatic of a mental dysfunction, or of a wider anxiety or lack. ‘Individuals in asylums think they are Napoleon or Charlie Chaplin’, Dawkins says at one point in The God Delusion; ‘religious experiences are different only in that the people who claim them are more numerous.’ This is patently the language of psychology and not evolutionary biology, but the interesting thing is that James, a psychologist, doesn’t actually disagree that much. Indeed, he’s the first to recognize that pathological mental abnormality lies at the heart of much religious experience. (He calls the founder of Quakerism George Fox a ‘psychopath’ at one point!)
What he absolutely can’t accept is that having ‘diagnosed’ a religious feeling (i.e. having established a physical or psychological cause for it), we’re bound then to the view that science has ‘solved’ it or indeed finished with it. To assign a cause, says James, is not the same thing as defining something’s essential character, let alone its worth. Just as we wouldn’t say that we’ve ‘solved’ a painting, for example, by discovering that the artist painted it because he or she desperately needed the money that week. What James does throughout the Varieties is to probe the shortfall between the rich variety of our experience and the thin partiality of our attempts to explain it by recourse to terminology, abstraction, and authority. He’s constantly worried that we’re being encouraged by a certain type of scientific analysis to put our faith in abstracted explanations, often at the expense of our own experiences — the only things that we can truly know anyway. In the Varieties James is examining the emotional fundamentals not only of religious belief, but of all belief. And now, when we live with a constantly re-staged theatre of antipathy between religion and science, it might be that a book which reminds us how provisional, how contingent, how emotional, but also how enriching are the foundations on which we all build our beliefs about the world around us… Well, it might just be helpful in moving us on a bit.