On William James, conversion, and spiritual openness

Today I happened upon a fascinating article on The Guardian’s website which engaged the understanding that William James had regarding what happens during conversion, psychologically speaking.

From the article I have below included verbatim the bit that I was so much in agreement with that I was literally shouting “Yes! Yes! YESSSS!”

A bit of the story of the complex relationship between mental health and spirituality:                                                                                                                                         Since Freud charged that all of those who are faithful or religious are clearly disturbed (nevermind the obvious problems in the “reasearch” which led to such an assertion), psychology and religion had their former very much linked relationship*** severed, with it only recovering in the past decade or so with the onslaught of integrative health providers who recognize that spirituality is key to overall good mental health.

Lest you think that integrative medicine is but one sector of psychology at large and that they are the only ones recognizing the importance of spirituality, here are a few of the recent milestones in the recognition of spirituality in one’s overall mental fitness:

*In 2001 -“Culture, Race, & Ethnicity Supplement” to the Surgeon General’s Report on Mental Health identifies spirituality and also religion as key protective/resiliency factors in minority communities (racial and ethnic).

*In 2005 – The American Psychiatric Association Assembly and their Board of Trustees approves a position statement on “Use of the Concept of Recovery.” Within this statement it was said that “the APA endorses and strongly affirms the application of the concept of recovery … best results come when patients feel that treatment decisions are made in ways that suit their cultural, spiritual, and personal ideals.

*In 2009 –  The USPRA issues a revision of the Core Principles and Values for Psychiatric Rehabilitation, which provides what they feel are the key domains/factors for an individual’s quality of life. Of these domains/factors, spirituality is named.

James was clearly ahead of the curve, because his seminal work The Variety of Religious Experience reached some similar conclusions and was first published in 1902.

What the work of William James pointed to is something that all of us in theology or ministry already know – religiosity is simply not “provable” nor is it “disprovable.” Furthermore, you are more likely to be affected if you are open to being affected. Clearly I am open to being affected. My whole life I have been someone that lives not only on the basis of the facts which I know but on the “feeling that I get.” I don’t know that I could do otherwise – I think that this is somewhat hardwired in my personality. I also believe that one’s religiosity is actually their willingness to interpret signs as signposts on life’s way – it is for this reason that we need to look to the field of semiotics (the study of signs and symbols, which began formally with none other than St. Augustine, a fact that is very often overlooked). If you are open to seeing the signs they are there. If you are not then you see nothing to interpret. Of course it’s much more complicated than that, but I would argue that fact first and foremost.

To read another argument advocating the same thing I am in its conclusions, here is an excerpt from the actual article:

“But, strictly as a psychologist, what sense can be made of it? James resorts to what he believes to have been the greatest discovery of modern psychology, namely that subconscious forces play a defining role in the life of an individual, even when they have no conscious awareness of them.

It’s an insight that stems from the work of Sigmund Freud, whom James met. However, whereas Freud regarded the unconscious as generally disruptive within the psychic life of the individual, James sided more with Carl Gustav Jung. Jung thought that the unconscious could play a redemptive role in life. Hence, conversion can be thought of as a precipitation from the unconscious and is, generally, for the good. It reorientates the individual around a new centre of previously submerged energy.

Conversion matters to James for reasons other than that it is a common religious experience. He recognises that the strongest evidence for the existence of God is found in such personal, inner experience. This is not to say that there is no publicly available data that can be studied and discussed. The testimonies he assembles in the Varieties do just that. Rather, he’s suggesting that in studying religious experience, it’s important to bear in mind that belief in the reality of God is more like belief in the genius of Shakespeare than belief in the veracity of string theory.

This means it will always be contested, though to reduce extraneous argument and focus on the evidence that is mostly likely to be illuminating, James examines what he takes to be the most valuable material: the best articulated and most profound records of conversion. For him, to do otherwise would be like declaring you were going to study music by excluding the work of Bach in favour of nursery rhymes, on the grounds that more people sing Three blind mice than the St Matthew Passion.

This does leave him open to the charge of elitism and, indeed, the study of religion since James has tended to be more democratic. But James has a point. If religion is more like the appreciation of Shakespeare, then there are going to be individuals who have a better eye for the divine, and whom it is, therefore, more valuable to study. Statistical methods will tell you something about the broad mass of religious phenomena, though on this account, they will also exclude the most important individual experiences.

This is not to say that conversions are possibly deluded. They may all be hallucinatory. But what James succeeds in doing is presenting his accounts without forcing them into a frame that pre-judges the significance of the experiences, one way or the other. He ensures that methodological agnosticism can be distinguished from metaphysical commitments.


I’m glad that the work of James is still being read and furthermore, is still a topic of discussion by media outlets such as The Guardian. It serves as a nice counterbalance to the misunderstandings and outright problematic interpretation of those like Dawkins (who, ironically, is flawed in his conclusions necessarily because he is so very flawed in his metrics, not unlike Freud).


***It was the church, both Catholic and Protestant, you’ll remember, who took over from the State on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean the care and feeding of the mentally ill. Before this movement they were treated as little more than prisoners, yet often not nearly as well. It is sincerely disheartening that here in my own state of NC and in many other states as well we are seeing retroactivity on this front — as we choose to close down our mental health facilities due to “budgetary concerns” we are seeing a spike in the numbers of those in prison who are guilty of nothing but mental illness.


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