The Legacy of William James The American psychologist William James (1842-1910) was one of the most influential intellectuals of the nineteenth century, and as the decades following his death increased in number, his influence increased as well. By the twenty-first century, he was considered the “Father of American Psychology,” and his famous cross-cultural study on religious experience had become a fixture on the syllabi of college courses throughout the United States. Yet when the weightiness of James’ legacy is considered, his specific impact on the study of religion is incommensurately difficult to evaluate. Most scholars agree that he is a foundational figure, but few have continued his research, even fewer utilize his methodology, and almost none would publically recognize the validity of several of his conclusions. Compared to his contemporaries, including Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917), James George Frazer (1854-1941), and Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), James’s approach to studying religion is unique; he was one of the few who did not believe scientific knowledge would—or should—become a replacement for the religious “truths” that shaped the values of the nineteenth century. Though James maintained that modern science was better equipped to address questions regarding the evolution of man and the creation of the universe—answers previously deemed the intellectual property of religion—he also believed that science needed to do more to account for mankind’s spiritual evolution. Moreover, James maintained that each academic discipline and/or intellectual tradition’s approach to analyzing the physical and metaphysical components of life was based on fallible methods of inquiry, and thus no matter how thorough each believed its methodology to be, each was limited in terms of the scope of data that it could effectively account for. Therefore, James insisted that scholars supplement their findings with those of other fields, and rather than treating religion and science as wholly separate objects of study, or as being at odds with another, he believed a more comparative approach would be beneficial to all. The impact of James’ legacy is seemingly evident in the field’s movement towards a more scientific study of religion, yet each of the figures previously mentioned, Tylor, Freud, and Frazer (among others), also claimed to favor a scientific approach. Religious studies scholars have, like James, attempted to avoid exclusionary Christo-centric religious jargon in an effort to better analyze the social function of various religious traditions, yet as the field moved in this direction religious studies also became increasingly specialized. As of today, many focus on one aspect of a single culture’s religion during one historical epoch, and few engage in comparison across traditions.
No matter where you open [history’s] pages, you find things recorded under the name of divinations, inspirations, demoniacal possessions, apparitions, trances, ecstasies, miraculous healings and production of disease, and occult powers possessed by peculiar individuals over persons and things in their neighborhood. We suppose that “mediumship” originated in Rochester, N.Y., and animal magnetism with Mesmer; but once you look behind the pages of official history, in personal memoirs, legal documents, and popular narratives and books of anecdote, and you will find that there never was a time when these things were not reported just as abundantly as now. — William James, What Psychical Research Has Accomplished” (1902)
In contrast to the specialization of most contemporary scholars, James’ seminal contribution to the field, The Varieties of Religious Experience, is, as on might expect, an analysis of a variety of religious experiences. Although the “variety” among the experiences he studied is debatable, the work is a paradigmatic example of James’ interdisciplinary approach. By incorporating observations drawn from the physical sciences, the social sciences, and multiple religious traditions, James analyzes the more exceptional experiences of the world’s great “religious geniuses,” arguing that through these more extreme cases we can better understand the unique features of experiences deemed religious, and we can better understand the function of religion in terms of the individual and their communities. As evident in his studies of psychical phenomena, included extrasensory perception (ESP), mediumship, and in his co-founding of the American Society of Psychical Research, James maintained that there was a deeper level of consciousness beyond the ever-present and recognizable waking thoughts of most individuals, a subconscious that connected them to a hidden world. But unlike many psychologists of his time (or since), James believed that the subconscious provided an opportunity to access a far “greater reality” that extended well beyond the individual’s suppressed or hidden memories, thoughts, and emotions. He hypothesized that spiritually-gifted persons throughout history possessed an enhanced ability to access their subconscious, or “subliminal self.” To James, this access to the subconscious also came with a dark side, and he believed that the intense suffering many revered religious figures experienced prior to religious conversion was the product of a “divided self”—a psychological state indicative of an ongoing internal battle with this subliminal self. He believed that a divided self often drove persons with exceptional “religious” abilities to madness, and even suicide, and he hypothesized that the “religious geniuses” of history avoided such a fate by eventually giving in to this subliminal consciousness, thereby affecting a life-altering connection with divinity that he maintained was another term for a “greater reality.” As a result of this religious conversion experience, James argued that the saintly figure achieved the lasting peace and happiness that eludes most of us. Despite the field’s admiration of James, contemporary religious studies scholars have since favored approaches that recognize the socially constructed nature of religious experiences, steering well clear of James’ interest in paranormal phenomena and his claim that distinctly “religious” experiences signify a contact with a greater reality that can alter the reality of individuals and communities. If a contemporary scholar were to make such a claim regarding religious experiences, they would be widely criticized because (1) the nature of religious experience is relative, differing from culture to culture, and thus (2) claiming that a religious experience is universally “X” or “Y” would indicate bias or ethnocentrism. (3) Moreover, to argue that religious experiences possess any distinctive features would be to ignore #1 and be guilty of #2, and to naively engage in apologetics or crypto-theology, both of which are unwelcome in a field that has undergone significant reform since the late nineteenth century. Though James would undoubtedly approve of criticisms ostensibly aimed at removing the remaining vestiges of colonialist Christian-centric biases, he might argue that in the process scholars of religion have stopped studying religious experience; he might also argue that those interested in studying the psychological affect of “profound” religious and paranormal experiences on the individual must now search for comparable studies and replicable methodologies within parapsychology, a discipline where his legacy is a bit easier to understand.
See also: American Society for Psychical Research, Mystical experiences, Parapsychology, Religion and the paranormal Further Reading: James, William. 2012. The Heart of William James. Edited by Robert D. Richardson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Blum, Deborah. 2007. Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death. New York: Penguin Books.