Collective thoughts on the pursuit of the individual

Varieties of Religion Today

December 13, 2002

A hundred years ago William James delivered the Gifford lectures at Edinburgh on The Varieties of Religious Experience . The book of those lectures has remained one of the most cherished analyses of religion ever written.

A centenary edition has just been published by Routledge. A big conference on James was held in July at Edinburgh. The contemporary revival of pragmatism in US philosophical circles has spurred renewed interest in James.

Startlingly contemporary as James, who died in 1910, can seem to be, his Varieties appears most dated. First, he approaches religion from multiple angles that today would be kept apart. He seeks to determine what religion is, what its origin and function are, and whether it is true. Today, religious studies would tend to address the first question, the social sciences the second, and philosophy the third. Moreover, James enlists his findings about the function of religion to argue for the likely truth of it. Today's social scientists would shy away from applying their findings to the issue of truth.

Most fundamentally, James seems old-fashioned because he is obsessed with religion and is so conspicuously sympathetic toward it. He writes to make religiosity respectable for the sophisticates of his day. To him it is worthy of serious intellectual consideration and the educated have the "right" to believe.

Among present-day philosophers in the English-speaking world, none is as interested in religion or as favourably disposed toward it as Charles Taylor. Varieties of Religion Today is the book form of his own Gifford lectures, delivered at Edinburgh in 1999. Taylor focuses less on James the philosopher than on James the social scientist. Praising James for his psychological analysis of the temperaments that divide the devout into the "healthy minded" and the "sick", he yet faults him for ignoring the sociological side of religion, a criticism long made.

For James, religion at heart belongs to the individual, not the group; more precisely, it begins with the individual and only subsequently becomes collective. For James, institutionalisation, while ineluctable, invariably stultifies religion.

In response, Taylor notes James's Protestant bias: religion is a relationship between the individual and god, unmediated by a church, which for James means the Catholic church. With the church come rituals, which can turn religious experience from an "inner passion" into an outer, mechanical act. (This Protestant stereotyping of Catholicism as ritualistic matches the comparable stereotyping of Judaism by Christianity generally and the stereotyping of ancient paganism by Judaism and Christianity combined.) Taylor places James's individualist position on a historical trajectory that goes back to the high Middle Ages and that geographically is to be found especially in the "North Atlantic" region. Taylor observes that the modern western stress on personal experience can lead to the spurning of religion altogether.

Against James, Taylor maintains that individual and group are not at odds. In fact, the church can facilitate "the link between the believer and the divine". Taylor even questions whether "one can really have an individual experience", an issue debated most intensely in the study of mysticism. Individual experiences are "immensely enhanced by the sense that they are shared", such as watching at home on TV an event being watched simultaneously in other homes.

Citing Durkheim's classic association of religion with society, Taylor proposes alternative options, which he labels "paleo-Durkheimian," "neo-Durkheimian" and "post-Durkheimian".

In the first, which is standard Durkheim, the individual belongs to a state religion. In the second, which has emerged with modernity, to a denominational church, but one that is still part of a state religion. In the third, which has come to the fore only since the 1960s and of which James is a precursor, the individual rejects membership of any church. Individualism now is "expressive": what counts is how one appears to others, not belonging with others. Expressivism harks back to Romanticism but has recently become a mass phenomenon. Taylor's clearest examples are the consumer revolution and youth culture.

Yet even here the group matters: while one seemingly lives for oneself only, one strives to declare to others who one is and, in the case of fashion, "aligns" oneself with others. In expressivist religion, individual experience is enhanced by becoming collective and even ritualistic. Overall, Taylor's book, which veers oddly between the erudite and the pop, is a plea as much for community as for religion.

Robert A. Segal is professor of theories of religion, University of Lancaster.

Varieties of Religion Today: William James Revisited

Author - Charles Taylor
ISBN - 0 674 00760 3
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £13.95
Pages - 144

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