Wednesday, December 06, 2006

William James on the Unconscious and Religious Conversion

According to William James, the unconscious mind plays a key role in religious experience and conversion. People who have conversions are especially susceptible to "incursions" from the unconscious into the conscious.

But even if a person’s individual psychological makeup is the cause, James argues it does not reduce the religious significance of a conversion. In James’s formulation, we ought to judge a conversion by its “fruits, not its roots.” James also argues that the "subliminal theory" does not rule out the participation of a Diety in a conversion. He proposes that higher spiritual agencies might touch us through a “subliminal door.”

Here James confronts the medical-materialist view, which posits a natural explanation for all supposedly religious phenomena, and James tries to accommodate religion by building a doorway between the natural and the supernatural. It’s the sort of accommodation that tends to displease both sides of the issue, and it makes the whole system less elegant.

Overall, James’s conception of the unconscious and its role in conversion is powerful and coherent in either the psychological or the theological realm. The trouble comes when James tries to argue that the unconscious can serve both masters at once. Scientists find his accommodation of religion superfluous, and theologians find the psychological mechanisms insufficiently supernatural or even heretical. James says both camps are excessively sterile, dogmatic, and monistic. Forget about One Big Truth in favor of billions of individual truths, says James.

James’s pluralism is admirable. And his pragmatism – judging beliefs by their fruits, not their roots – is a remarkably good way to live, day-to-day. But at the end of the day, for someone seeking to understand the way the world really works, James’s pluralism and pragmatism constitute elaborate cop-outs, evasions of the question. Many, if not most, of the people who have religious or conversion experiences become dogmatists themselves – what of those fruits of conversion? Unfortunately, James does not say.

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