Saturday, June 27, 2009
Book Review: William James Varieties of Religous Experience
Modern Library said that this was the second best non-fiction work of the twentieth century, after Henry Adams, "The Education of Henry Adams"...neither of those things are true.
Admittedly I didn't read this whole thing, I got sort of frustrated. So maybe I'm leaping to conclusions, but...
I guess I'm a a little confused at what William James is suggesting. If I understand correctly he is attempting to rebut intellectual atheism of the Bertrand Russel (and Ben Feldman!) sort. He suggests that it IS acceptable to believe without evidence if that belief creates positive spiritual or emotional experience, a sort of anti-rational, religious utilitarianism.
There seem to me, a couple of obvious problems with this.
Firstly, he does not make proper allowance for the possibility [reality] that the notion that belief without evidence is harmless when it brings an individual joy tends to fall apart with the realization that, far too often, this individual joy necessitates robbing someone else of their individual joy, negating a pretension toward a utilitarian defense of religious belief.
Second, He suggests that while belief without evidence is acceptable, belief IN THE FACE OF EVIDENCE is unacceptable. So this means, for example, that while it may still be ok for James's Christian to belief in God, it is no longer acceptable for James's Christian to believe in an earth that is only six thousand years old.
History suggests that the progression of scientific knowledge inexorably erodes the possible veracity of revelation. So In essence, James's religious philosophy is suggesting that we believe in whatever makes us happy until, inevitably it is no longer intellectually tenable; this seems immediately...naive at best...self-deluding and dishonest at worst.
To me, james's philosphy could be seen to have value only to an individual, born without knowledge of human history and progress, living in complete isolation, devoid of curiosity. Scintillating.