America has been searching its religious soul for a number of years now. The results of this search describe a cultural rift that can be neatly measured by data on church attendance. And by book sales.
On the right, everyone knows, one finds Jesus with a loaf of bread in one hand and the entirety of the Christian publishing industry in the other.
On the left, one finds . . . well, what does one find?
Strafing across recent titles on religion from mainstream publishing reveals a trend:
- Breaking the Spell: Religion as Natural Phenomenon
- The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into our Genes
- Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought
- Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief
- The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason
The argument from the left seems to be that if we stick to the old guns of evolution and reason we’ll soon banish the bugbear of superstition once and for all.
But is it correct to accept religion and science as squaring off across a red-blue scrimmage line? Cracks in the wall of fundamentalist Christianity appear to be widening, politically. And the latest book to claim that science has finally killed God—Richard Dawkins’s un-subtitled The God Delusion—was met with a hammering, led by Marilynne Robinson in Harper’s. Robinson eviscerates poor Dawkins (in a way that should get Oxford rethinking that tenure appointment), demonstrating in Dawkins’s own terms that his science wasn’t particularly scientific and that the rap sheet recited against religious history was matched by a list of indictments compiled against scientific history. And then some.
That religion would find defenders on the left is hardly new, and three recent books about William James, whose The Varieties of Religious Experience set about defending religion from just that perspective, may indicate another trend in modern publishing. One of the three books is my own, The Devil is a Gentleman: Exploring America’s Religious Fringe, which examines James’s thinking on religious matters as measured through narratives to modern “new religious movements.” The other two are Deborah Blum’s The Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death, which looks at James’s work with the Society for Psychical Research, and Robert D. Richardson’s just released William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism, an intellectual biography that completes the substantial trifecta Richardson began with celebrated biographies of Thoreau and Emerson.
Using science to evaluate religion returns directly to James. The Varieties of Religious Experience suggested that a “science of religions” could usefully examine our ever-growing set of myths, dogmas and metaphysical theologies. But obviously there’s a difference with James’s science. He didn’t want to exhaust religion, or strangle its mystery. He wanted to justify it. And James—who protested the occupation of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War, crusaded against lynchings, worked on behalf of the mentally ill, and lent his name to the anti-vivisectionist movement—was decidedly on the left.
But here he is explaining why, even as a scientist, he argued for religion:
The first thing to bear in mind (especially if we ourselves belong to the clerico-academic-scientific type . . . for which to ignore others is a besetting temptation) is that nothing can be more stupid than to bar out phenomena from our notice, merely because we are incapable of taking part in anything like them ourselves.
Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins appear unmoved.
James would not be surprised by our divided society. Indeed, he may have anticipated it with the basic classifications of people he distilled in The Varieties of Religious Experience. His “sick souls” and “healthy-minded” categories are perhaps the best-known aspect of his thinking, and together they very nearly describe the way things stand today.
The most troubling thing about our divided society, as I see it, is that each side appears discomfited that there’s a rift at all. Both the scientists and the fundamentalists conclude that their counterparts would be better off if they simply gave up their silliness and hopped on board with the living truth.
James would have been cynical of this prescription for a uniform world.
“Philosophy has often been defined as the quest or the vision of the world’s unity, he wrote, “but how about the variety in things?”
The Varieties of Religious Experience celebrated just that. Strict reason was no refuge. Even in James’s own time, “Science’ [was] . . . genuinely taking the place of a religion” and he worried about “the hideous rift that science, taken in a certain narrow way, has shot into the human world.”
One hundred years later, both America’s promise of religious pluralism and its cultural diversity rely on the strength inherent in variety—the same variety that James made the heart of his system. But philosophically we’ve lost this as our soul-searching has set us on divergent paths. Marilynne Robinson reminds us that we have as much to fear from the scientists as the fundamentalists, and advises that “it is diversity that makes any natural system robust, and diversity that stabilizes the eccentricity and arrogance that have so often called themselves reason as science.”
In 2000, when asked who his favorite philosopher was, candidate George W. Bush responded, “Jesus Christ.” And when Oprah Winfrey asked Al Gore roughly the same question, Gore responded, “Jesus Christ, you have to say that . . . “
Wouldn’t it have been nice if just one of them had said William James, a made-in-the-USA philosopher now fading from memory but still prepared to address the rift growing between us? Perhaps the new slate of James books means that, like those fundamentalists rethinking their fidelity to the right, at least some on the left have begun to question a science which, with its cold dead “no,” seems just as fundamentally wrong.
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