Popular Science Monthly/Volume 62/November 1902/Scientific Literature

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Scientific Literature.


'The Varieties of Religious Experience' is the interesting title of Professor William James's most recent volume, 'being the Gilford. Lectures on Natural Religion delivered at Edinburgh in 1901-1902.' It is 'a study in human nature,' a contribution to the empirical psychology of man's religious constitution, and as such marks an innovation in the course pursued by Gifford lecturers, who had previously concerned themselves with the philosophy of religion or its history objectively considered. It was a happy thought which set Professor James the difficult and delicate task of analyzing the subjective phenomena of the religious life—or, rather, of religious lives.

In the attempt to classify types of religious experience, the author has laid under extensive contribution autobiographical documents which represent all manner of sects in and out of Christendom. The chapters abound in quotations from the extravagant deliverances of these souls, selected to emphasize the several tendencies in an extreme form.

The scope of the book may be suggested by the titles of some of the chapters: 'Religion and Neurology,' 'The Reality of the Unseen,' 'The Religion of Healthy Mindedness,' 'The Sick Soul,' 'The Divided Self and the Process of its Unification,' 'Conversion,' 'Saintliness,' 'Mysticism,' 'Philosophy,' etc.

While this book is principally occupied with a descriptive account of religious experiences, and a sharp line is drawn between description and valuation, a critical estimate of each type is attempted. Herein the author's wide sympathies come into play, with a capacity for appreciation extreme almost to a fault. Not by its origin, but by its 'fruits for life,' shall a religion be judged, says Professor James, in accordance with his philosophical pragmatism. And the complexity of life provides for the utility of diverse types. The very 'variety' is esteemed significant of possible ranges of unexplored experience. This falls into line with Professor James's individualistic or pluralistic attitude toward the universe, and brings us to the characteristic philosophical considerations which are merely hinted at toward the end of the volume, but which it is intended to marshal systematically in a later work.

Professor James confesses to a leaning toward a vague supernaturalism which he himself characterizes as 'crass,' and which is queer to say the least. It may be said to rest upon the conception of a 'subliminal' region of consciousness, not yet generally admitted into scientific psychology, but which is regarded by Professor James as the more significant part of our human nature, whereby we come into deepest relation with the universe.

No thoughtful reader, least of all a psychologist, can fail to profit by the immense suggestiveness of these lectures, which reveal afresh that psychological insight long since recognized as genius, while they are written in that no less brilliant style so familiar to Professor James's readers for a felicity of phrase unequaled in scientific literature. If one misses something of the scientific vigor of the 'Principles of Psychology,' one finds in compensation much of the mellow wisdom which has marked all of Professor James's later writings. One of the most remarkable religious movements of the nineteenth century was that inaugurated by Joseph Smith, Jr., from 1820 to 1830. The announcement of the finding of a set of golden plates hidden in a hill in New York state and revealed to the prophet of the Almighty; said plates when interpreted by the prophet proving to be the history of the lost ten tribes of Israel, their journeying to America, their identification with the Indians, their further trials and tribulations, and their ultimate salvation and reconstruction in the Church of the Latter Day Saints,—this is indeed a sufficiently fantastic story. Mr. I. W. Riley devotes a volume (Dodd, Mead & Co.) to an analysis of the character of the founder of this sect. His interest is not in what the man did and the ultimate consequences of his establishment of a peculiar sect, but in the motives and impulses that led to the doing of it and to its successful propagandum. The study is psychological; and in the abnormal mentality of the founder Mr. Riley finds the clue to his actions. The tale is by no means complete, but the author has been most diligent in his search; and circumstantial evidence and arguments by analogy reach a high degree of probability. As a young man, Smith gave evidence of epileptic attacks; he was given to visions and was absorbed in crass forms of religious devotion; the 'Book of Mormons' was dictated while the author was in a semi-hypnotic condition sel-finduced, and directing his thoughts to the conviction of his own inspiration; his first converts were themselves credulous and suggestible, and the testimony of the witnesses to the vision of the plates was probably the result of a hypnotic suggestion. In brief, a study of abnormal psychological states convinces the author that Joseph Smith was a neurotic degenerate, with an ancestry of like temperament, and that his revelations were the riotous imaginings of his automatic imagination, exhibiting the kind of shrewdness and adaptation to existing conditions often to be found in mental products of such origin. The cumulative evidence for this view can be appreciated only by a direct reading of the book; it forms an interesting example of the application of modern psychological conceptions to the comprehension of a most unusual factor in the religious history of this country.