In 1901, William gave a series of lectures in Edinburgh – The Varieties of Religious Experience – in which for the first time, there was an examination of religion not as a body of beliefs, but as an intimate personal experience.
2010 is the 100th anniversary of James’ death and yet, despite this distance in time, this was the first time I have heard someone explain a philosophy of religion which comes closest to my own. The parts of the discussion that most rung true with me were :
– James believed that people who are irreligious are not those who don’t believe in God, but those who are careless about the cosmos or morals;
– different kinds of religion suit different kinds of people;
– you contour religion to your own personal experience and there is no rigid, one true path;
– as a Darwinian scientist, James believed the most important aspect of the theory of evolution was random variation which leads to a new unexpected forms of life and the same is true of our intellect – your mind should always remain open to new ways of thinking as the world is constantly changing.
After listening to the programme, I read a summary of James’ Gifford lectures and here are some of his thoughts in his own words:
“Religion shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.”
“Religious awe is the same organic thrill which we feel in a forest at twilight, or in a mountain gorge; only this time it comes over us at the thought of our supernatural relations”
Personal religion is more fundamental than organised religion:
“And although the favor of the God, as forfeited or gained, is still an essential feature of the story, and theology plays a vital part therein, yet the acts to which this sort of religion prompts are personal not ritual acts, the individual transacts the business by himself alone, and the ecclesiastical organization, with its priests and sacraments and other go-betweens, sinks to an altogether secondary place. The relation goes direct from heart to heart, from soul to soul, between man and his maker. “
Religious experiences do not prove the existence of God:
“The only thing that it unequivocally testifies to is that we can experience union with something larger than ourselves and in that union find our greatest peace.”