It's strange that religiosity is so often associated with humility, selflessness, and lack of ego. Actually, the religious impulse is highly egotistical, as William James makes clear in his classic book, "The Varieties of Religious Experience."
The pivot round which the religious life, as we have traced it, revolves, is the interest of the individual in his private personal destiny. Religion, in short, is a monumental chapter in the history of human egotism.
There's nothing wrong with this.
We just need to remember that human nature is part and parcel of religious belief. People turn to religion in much the same way as they learned to turn toward a parent when something scared them as a child.
The warring gods and formulas of the various religions do indeed cancel each other, but there is a certain uniform deliverance in which religions all appear to meet. It consists of two parts: --
1. An uneasiness; and
2. Its solution.
1. The uneasiness, reduced to its simplest terms, is a sense that there is something wrong about us as we naturally stand.
2. The solution is a sense that we are saved from the wrongness by making proper connection with the higher powers.
Pretty darn brilliant.
I got my copy of "The Varieties of Religious Experience" back in my college days (1967 edition, which cost me 95 cents). I haven't picked it up for a long time, so had forgotten how what James said in 1902 still rings true today.
Reading a few concluding chapters this morning, I admired James' crisp, clear, honest style. He admits in a postscript that he favors a "crasser" variety of supernaturalism which is piecemeal rather than universalistic.
Meaning, a universalistic view doesn't see the ideal world bursting into the world of phenomena -- answering prayers, guiding individual actions, performing miracles, and so on.
But even though James says he doesn't accept popular Christianity, he still believes that a higher power introduces itself into particular worldly facts/events/happenings.
I suppose that my belief that in communion with the Ideal new force comes into the world, and new departures are made here below, subjects me to being classed among the supernaturalists of the piecemeal or crasser type. Universalistic supernaturalism surrenders, it seems to me, too easily to naturalism.
Well, what's wrong with that?
Why can't we be content with the the big wide world as it is, rather than as how our little narrow egos wish it were? Can't we accept being an integral part of the natural world along with everything else in existence, not getting any special favors from a supernatural Big Man/Woman/Thing upstairs?
That said, I agree with James that generalized egotism of the subjective "I" variety is an inescapable aspect of human experience. We can't get away from our subjectivity. Even the objective facts of science are known through subjective personal consciousness.
The world of our experience consists at all times of two parts, an objective and a subjective part, of which the former may be incalculably more extensive than the latter, and yet the latter can never be omitted or suppressed. The objective part is the sum total of whatsoever at any given time we may be thinking of, the subjective part is the inner "state" in which the thinking comes to pass.
What we think of may be enormous -- the cosmic times and spaces, for example -- whereas the inner state may be the most fugitive and paltry activity of mind. Yet the cosmic objects, so far as the experience yields them, are but ideal pictures of something whose existence we do not inwardly possess but only point at outwardly, while the inner state is our very experience itself; its reality and that of our experience are one.
...it is absurd of science to say that the egotistic elements of experience should be suppressed. The axis of reality runs solely through the egotistic places -- they are strung upon it like so many beads.
Religions, though, enlarge our egotism.
They encourage us to believe that our "fugitive and paltry" inner state of mind can be connected with a vastly grander metaphysical presence which -- great news! -- takes an active interest in us.
James describes what happens when the better part of a man, the non-wrong part that isn't responsible for the uneasiness in (1) above, embraces religiosity.
He becomes conscious that this higher part is conterminous and continuous with a MORE of the same quality, which is operative in the universe outside of him, and which he can keep in working touch with, and in a fashion get on board and save himself when all his lower being has gone to pieces in the wreck.
So supposedly the higher subjective part of a human being somehow is able to merge or meld with a supernatural "more" that is an objective reality. Here's the problem, though.
There's no demonstrable evidence of that supernatural "more." It has to be taken on faith. Many people claim to have experienced a transcendental power of some sort, but there's no consistency in their descriptions of it.
As noted above, William James believed in an unseen, yet objectively real, higher power. However, he also recognized that the human mind contains a vast unknown realm: the subconscious self.
Since everything we experience is strung on the above-mentioned cord of subjective egotism, so are our religious, mystical, and spiritual awarenesses. These can be viewed as an expanded vision of our own subjective consciousness that manifests as an external objective reality.
Let me then propose, as an hypothesis, that whatever it may be on its farther side, the "more" with which in religious experience we feel ourselves connected is on its hither side the subconscious continuation of our conscious life.
Starting thus with a recognized psychological fact as our basis, we seem to preserve a contact with "science" which the ordinary theologian lacks. At the same time the theologian's contention that the religious man is moved by an external power is vindicated, for it is one of the peculiarities of invasions from the subconscious region to take on objective appearances, and to suggest to the Subject an external control.
In the religious life the control is felt as "higher"; but since on our hypothesis it is primarily the higher faculties of our own hidden mind which are controlling, the sense of union with the power beyond us is a sense of something, not merely apparently, but literally true.
That sense of union, literally true as it may be, is with our own self -- "the higher faculties of our own hidden mind." Such is the scientific, or quasi-scientific, hypothesis proposed by James.
Over a hundred years later, it is still a viable hypothesis. Modern neuroscience has confirmed that each of us does indeed have a hidden mind that underlies conscious experience without being accessible to it.
How would religious belief be affected if it was known that our sensations of being connected with, of under the care of, a higher power were entirely contained within our own personal mind/brain?
The mystical and spiritual experiences would feel the same. But no longer would we believe that we were contacting a transcendent divinity. We couldn't claim a special relationship with some supernatural being, because that "higher power" would be us.
An expanded us, to be sure. An us that encompassed normally untapped areas of the mind/brain. An us that wasn't as split, searching, anxious, uncertain, and self-doubting as we are now.
This would eliminate a lot of unnecessary religious egotism. No one would be a member of a chosen people, or a special beloved of God. We'd all just be human beings, having human experiences, making the best use possible of our human psyches.
In James' postscript to his book, he admitted that the "more" which is felt in the many varieties of religious experience doesn't have to be infinite. It just has to be bigger than we are now, which certainly could be an expanded sense of self.
Nevertheless, in the interests of intellectual clearness, I feel bound to say that religious experience, as we have studied it, cannot be cited as unequivocally supporting the infinitist belief.
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.