In the book ‘the varieties of religious experience’, James concluded that religious experience testifies that “we can experience union with something larger than ourselves and in that union find our greatest peace”. He defined such experiences as “experiences of the divine” and believed that religious experience was at the heart of religion. For James, religious teachings, practices and attitudes are second hand religion, which later develop as individuals reflect on their common experience. It is the actual experiences that directly point to God. However this theory does little to prove religious experiences simply because many of his claims do not stand up to critical analysis.
James looked at a variety of religious experiences, particularly mystical experiences, this refers to experiences where God is revealed directly and there is a sense of oneness with the divine. James claimed that there are 4 criteria which are all characteristics of mystical experiences. Firstly an experience has to be ineffable in that it is beyond proper description as it cannot adequately be described in words. It must also be noetic, mystical states are not just feelings, the experience gives the mystic a deep and direct knowledge of God. Another criteria of mystical experiences is that it must be transient, although its effects may last a long time the experience is temporary and cannot be sustained. Lastly, it must be passive, the experience is not initiated by the individual but they have a sense that something is acting upon them instead.
James accepted that religious experiences are psychological phenomena that occur in our brains. However, for a number of reasons, James argued that these experiences may well have a supernatural element as well as a physical element. Firstly, he believed that the sheer volume of his case studies are empirical evidence of the effects of religious experience. These provide us with clues of the reality which lies beyond this world. Secondly, James believed that religious experiences from the different faiths were similar. They were experiences of the same ultimate reality which is then interpreted into the ‘second hand’ religious structure of that person. A Christian might interpret an experience as the presence of the Holy Spirit, whereas a Hindu might interpret it differently.
James also argued that despite the wide variety of religious experiences there is a common core to all of them, they will normally include similar elements, like the sense of being in the presence of a greater power or the recipient has relatively little control over the experience. Also includes an insight into “usually unseen dimensions of existence which are of intrinsic value and fundamental importance”. For some they may consist of a direct experience of the divine or may be a gradual realisation that there is more to life than the world around us and it often leads to a greater understanding of God. James claimed that this common core pointed to a single objective source of all religious experiences.
In response, many critics claim that it is difficult to even define or interpret what a genuine religious experience is let alone decide if they have a common core. Many scholars claim a common core is simply not true and the sheer variety of religious experiences suggest they have a human rather than a divine origin. Critics further point out, that it is very difficult to maintain, as james did, that the religious experiences of Jews, Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, etc. are fundamentally identical. In addition, most religions make claims that conflict with each other, for example, Christians claim that Jesus is the Son of God whereas Muslims claim Jesus was simply a prophet who did not die on the cross and Jews reject Jesus’ divinity. For some scholars these conflicting claims in different religious traditions cancel each other out, weakening James’ claims.
Another thing James believed was that religious experiences were valid and objective because of two observable effects they had on people both in the immediate and long term. Firstly, the immediate impact which may be quite dramatic and involve visions and voices and may last a few minutes or hours. Secondly, the moral helpfulness of the experience, they usually involve a recognition that their current lifestyle is wrong or lacking in something. This will then normally lead to profound and significant changes to their moral perspective. People will often feel more fulfilled and purposeful in their understanding of the world and their place in it. Examples of this include St Paul, who after conversion on the road to Damascus ceased persecuting Christians and became a leader of the early church. Similarly, John Wesley after his conversion founded Methodism. Another famous example of someone who has been inspired by their beliefs and experience of God would be Martin Luther King. For James, no use of drugs or auto-suggestion could produce the visions and voices which often play a part in religious conversion. Nor could they produce the moral change conversion brings.
In constructing his argument James was influenced by the work of the mystic St Teresa of Avila who argued that the genuineness of a religious experience is the permanent change it creates in someone’s character and whether it is consistent with the teaching of the church in what it reveals. But this does not prove that the claimed religious experience reveals God: it demonstrates only the sincerity of the believer. If I sincerely believed I had received a vision from God, it would change my life, perhaps for the better but my sincere belief might still be mistaken. Others pointed out that the fact that what a voice says fits in with Church teaching in no way proves the person heard the voice of God rather than a voice in their own mind. If this is the case, there is still no objective way to differentiate between religious experiences, drug induced visions and hallucinations and James’ argument is further weakened.
In addition many people claim that the common core of religious experiences do reveal a consistent picture of God, for example, visions and voices reveal a God who communicates with his people. In response, many philosophers have pointed out that, for example, the majority of visions and mystical experiences seem to consist simply of a feeling of peace and union with the world but tell us nothing about God. Similarly, the Toronto Blessing where people break into hysterical laughter seems to reveal little about God. For Freud religious experience is an example of wish fulfilment and a desire for security, many of helpless to face life’s terrors so our unconscious minds invent God. Unlike James who claimed that religious experiences had to be real because of their observable effects on the individual were so real, for Freud, they were caused by our desire for security and meaning and were illusory. For this reason, James’ argument for religious experience is significantly weakened.
James’s belief that his case studies provided evidence for the effects of religious experience is backed up by Alistair Hardy and David Hay who found that between 30% and 45% of have been aware of a presence or power beyond themselves. In addition, most people claimed that religious experiences had a common effect and in all cases we life-enhancing and made them mentally stronger and more able to cope with difficulties. Most of these fit all the features analysed by William James. They had a great impact on the individual and almost always they did not seek the experience. They were passive recipients and the experience happened to them in a totally unexpected way. For this reason both Hardy and Hay believe there is a common element of truth and value in religious experience. However, the fact that a large number of people claim to have had a religious experience does not in itself prove that such claims are true. One could equally argue if the fact of unusual experiences in the lives of the minority is allowed to count as evidence for the existence of God, surely the lack of experience for the majority must count against the existence of God.
Richard Swinburne also argues that we should accept reports of religious experience because of two important principles. Firstly, the principle of Credulity argues that in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we should trust that what appears to be the case is in fact the case. Secondly he put forward the principle of Testimony, arguing that in the absence of evidence to the contrary we should trust reports of religious experience, we should accept that other people normally tell the truth.
In response, Peter Vardy has quite rightly pointed out that an acceptance of these principles would also necessitate us accepting as valid, claims to have sighted UFOs and fairies. Furthermore, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that people do not always tell the truth and are rarely altruistic. Hume claimed that religious people were not averse to telling lies to promote something they believe to basically true.
Many scholars claim that in addition to the difficulties with the arguments put forward in favour of religious experience there are alternative and more acceptable explanations of religious experience, for example, it could be the result of extreme emotional trauma e.g. the death of a loved one. An experience could also easily be the result of religious hysteria or being carried away by the religious intensity of a service or place e.g. Toronto Blessing. Religious experiences could also be for financial reward and improved status and authority within a religious group. It is also thought that the experience could be deceptive. As a consequence scholars claim that religious experiences are illusory.
In conclusion, although James is supported by others, it is clear that his position is open to severe criticism and that there are a variety of different explanations for religious experiences such as religious hysteria, illusions or just simply fraud. For these reasons, James’ arguments for religious experiences are fatally weakened and do not stand up to close investigation.