The book of James

The book of James

The question of the importance of religion has been one that has been debated for centuries. The argument has been taken from the side of the empiricist, who desires quantitative proof and the pragmatist who fights that it is religions qualitative proofs that hold greater weight. In the Varieties of Religious Experience, William James sets forth that the argument of the pragmatist, stating that it is not the origin of religion that is of greatest importance but rather the results or fruits that have come from religious belief that are the true basis for the judgment of religion. In stark contrast, Sigmund Freud in his Civilization, Society and Religion, argues that the origins of religion are indeed of great importance due to the fact that they are infantile and provide for an illusionary existence if their beliefs are held as fact. However, Freud’s argument that religion is illusionary never truly makes its case for religion being harmful to humanity, but instead states what the necessity for a higher being fulfills in one’s psyche and not what the result of that influence is. James provides the stronger of the two arguments, as not only recognizes that there is an inherent need to understand the origins of religions, but most importantly that it is the fruits and not the roots of religion that are of greater importance to humanity in understanding the need for religion.

William James begins his work by setting aside the argument that by explaining the origins of something we have also provided an explanation for its origins. The value of something is be judged by its effects, not by its origin.

All questions of value, according to James, can be answered in knowledge gained through experience. James states that the term “religion” must deny any one experience, but states that the name is a collective term for a number of varying experiences. The qualitative differences seen in these experiences are dependent upon whether we recall them later and if they will bring us beneficial results or the fruits of life, as James puts it. One must now be willing to judge the religious life primarily by the results of that experience on the individual.

According to James, without religious ideas (whatever their origin) there is no proper reasoning for difficult moral choices, or hardships, and therefore, the quality of human life diminishes. For James the varieties of religious ideas that exist are important in that they lead humanity to perform moral and useful actions. He believes that without such encouragement these actions would not naturally take place. James emphasizes the individual experience, but states that the ideas that are shared and communal provide humanity with a means toward progress.

For those who question religious belief, James claims that those questions are of little importance to the practice of religion, or to the understanding and to the actions, which have very little value to humanity. Religious experience must be valued as an important contribution to human life; its truth manifests itself in the wonderful ways in which it enriches human conduct and feelings. However, the idea that humanity will ever be able to conclusively provide a rational argument for the presence of God must be set aside, and no attempt at such a proof should be made, as James believes it would serve no practical value.

James emphasizes that only a belief in God can give us sufficient justification for our natural desires for a morally strenuous life marked by concern for others. James clearly values this form of life more than others, and he believes that human beings will devote themselves to the heroic, the charitable and the morally demanding if religious ideas are made available. Without religious experience, James believes that the human potential for good would not occur. Without religious ideas, regardless of their origins, humanity would lack any proper justification for a morally exacting life and would fail to understand those for whom a morally exacting life is more important than a spacious living. Without religious ideas, therefore, the quality of human life would suffer greatly. There is a strong need for religion as part of the human psyche, it gives something to aim toward and find hope within.

James believes religion brings peace or mind and ease, and where it came from is of little consequence. Freud however, does not believe that there is necessity for religion, and that because of its origins religion is not justified. Freud begins the third section of his paper with the question “In what does the value of religion lie?” (195) He believes that its value lies in our need to have a defence against the forces of nature, to provide an answer for the terrors suffered by man and to give consolation for that pain. To gain that control we personalize nature and attempt to appease it through praise and bribery. (196) this personalization of nature offers us a way to understand what we are so powerless against and thus, to gain some sense of control over it.

Freud believes that the relationship of humanity and nature bears a great similarity to that of the relationship between the children to the parents. In that respect deities must put forward the following attributes; they must exorcise the terrors of nature, they must reconcile humanity to the cruelty of fate and they must compensate humanity of the sufferings and privations which a civilized life has condemned them.(197). Freud acknowledges that through time the roles of Gods and Goddesses have evolved but their tasks have remained generally the same; to protect humanity against the dangers of both nature and fate and to protect humanity against the injuries which threaten us from human society itself. In that way to protect us the way a parent protects and shields a child from the dangers of the world. Freud sees divinity as monotheistic, as the relationship between that of a parent and child and the intimacy that is shared there is the same as that of the divine and humanity.

Freud suggests that it is natural for humans to personify nature and the life as humans know from the beginning that the way to influence nature is through the establishment of relationships. The feelings of helplessness and weakness that humans feel does not argue against the notion of the exalted one but it also has a lot to do with the relationship between the child and the father. Freud’s notion of the mother is as the child’s first object choice, a relationship that is then replaced by the stronger father. This relationship is one of ambivalence and the child grows with the knowledge that he or she is forever to remain powerless and dependent upon others who are more powerful than he or she. This belief is continued in life as those powers are transmitted from the father to the divine. Freud states, “He creates for himself, the gods who he dreads, in whom he seeks to appropriate, and whom he nevertheless entrusts with his own protection.”

To Freud the physical origin of religious ideas is that they are the fulfilment of the oldest and strongest wished of humankind and for that reason they are illusions. They are illusions or wishes for the protection of humanity against the forces of nature. They are the moral justification and prolongation of earthly existence. As such wished Freud claims that they issue from the infant’s conflicts of the early father complex. “It is an enormous relief to the individual psyche if the conflicts of its childhood arising from the father-complex – conflicts which are never wholly overcome – are removed from it and brought to a solution which is universally accepted.” (212)

An illusion is an error made by humans in terms of wish fulfilment and borders on the line of psychotic delusions. The difference between the two being that a delusion is in complete contradiction with reality. Whereas illusions can be un-realizable or contradictory and not necessarily false in relation to reality. Therefore, according to Freud religious doctrines are illusions. Being that they cannot be refuted, proved or believed.

Freud’s inability to see the necessity of religion and the benefits that can be gained from it, seem to take away from the strength of his work. Although an interesting concept, Freud’s constant focus on the child and those first few years as well as his emphasis on the father, does not explain many religious experiences, for it is certain that not all people experience religion the same way. There is no fear of god in the Buddhism, but a necessity for inner peace. Freud dismisses religion simply because some of the characteristics that are held over from childhood are transferred to one’s feelings about God, a dismissal that is an unfair and unwarranted assessment.

James however, did provide for different religions and different experiences, which allows for a better argument and one that better stands the test of time. James believed that each individual had the right to affirm their religious belief solely on the basis of emotional predilection. James hope that Varieties would help to understand religion with the walls of personal experience as an important notion, James seems to understand religion at it’s very core. Although his conclusions seem modest and simple at times, that is the very essence of religion; to provide simplicity and promote modesty in one’s life.


Freud, Sigmund ([1927]1985). The Future of an Illusion. Vol. 12 of the Pelican Freud Library. Middlesex: Penguin Books.