Tuesday, 26 April 2011

William James Arguments from Religious Experience

Religious Experience

  • Arguments from religious experience from William James
Who is William James?
William James was a pioneering American psychologist and philosopher who was trained as a medical doctor. He came from a rich family where his father was an eccentric Swedenborgian theologian.
How does he define a religious experience?
‘The feelings, acts and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatsoever they may consider divine.’
A mystical experience is one where is revealed directly and there is a sense of oneness with the divine.
To justify calling an experience mystical, James lays out four ideas which he believes constitutes a religious experience. 
  1. Ineffability (cannot be articulated): Words cannot be used to explain these experiences because all descriptions fall short of their goal. A pseudo-description will usually be used by the way of a paradox or poetry but most importantly the individual will emphasis that you must experience it yourself to understand it.
  2. Noetic Quality (cannot be learnt through normal means): Religious experiences carry some sort of knowledge and truth that the individual did not know before. They always leave a lingering feeling that they did in fact mean something.
  3. Transiency (temporally short but effects are long-lasting): The experiences are short and difficult to sustain but the experience can be bought back to the mind and when they recur the mystic can recognise it immediately.
  4. Passivity (loss of self-control): “(the) mystic feels as if (her) own will were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if (she) were grasped and held by a superior power.”
James’ conclusions:
  • Religious experiences are psychological phenomenas that occur in our brain. However, these experiences don’t only have physical element but rather a supernatural one too. This conclusions rests on three principles:
  1. Empiricism: We interpret all our situations and the same way we interpret religious experiences. The noetic quality and transient nature provides us with hints that there is a reality beyond this world.
  2. Pluralism: Although, religious experiences in different religious are distinctly different, they all experience the ultimate reality and interpreted as proof for God.
  3. Pragmatism: James was a pragmatist and believed the truth was not fixed, it changes as the things which are valuable to us change. Observing the effects of religious experience should us there is truth to be found in religion.
General problems:
If two people experience the same calmness and peace of mind - one believes it is a divine experience and the other appreciates it as something environmental, we have no way of knowing who is actually right.
If there is one divine being then why does Hindus, Christians, Sikhs etc all have different experiences involving different Gods. Fundamentally however, all religious experiences do follow a similar idea as identified by William James.
Sceptics views some of these examples proposed by James as examples of psychological order. It is important however, to note that James disagreed and placed such accounts as central to any understanding of religion.
And finally, the views expressed by James are vague and many scholars argue they don't convey much information.

1 comment:

  1. your information is really good, concise and helpful! you just just need to check a few sentences as a couple don't quite make sense :)
    "Observing the effects of religious experience 'should us there' is truth to be found in religion"