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My Interview with William James on the New Atheists

     Ok, I begin with a disclaimer. This is not an actual interview in the technical sense. Since William James passed from this world in 1910, many decades before I was even born, it is not possible that I interviewed him. However, here is what really did happen. After spending the last few months pouring over key books by Professor James, it caught up with my unconscious mind and I did indeed dream that I met him and we talked. The following is an imagined conversation based on significant engagement with some of his writings and an unusual dream. 

Robert Woods: This is a most unexpected honor to meet you Dr. James and be able to ask you some questions about some things you have written.

William James: My pleasure. I am glad to discover that some are still reading my writings.

Woods: I think what most impresses me about your education is that you are a philosopher and psychologist, but were trained as a physician which gives you an extraordinary advantage over some who only have more limited education or training.

James: I do think that I have acted to allow various truths and insights from philosophy, psychology, and medicine to shed light on the fullness of what it means to be a human being.

Woods: I wanted to discuss something with you that has occurred within the past few decades- a group of academic Philosophers, Scientists, Cultural Critics who have been labeled the new atheists.

James: I suspect that there is very little new in their thinking.

Woods: That is certainly true, what is new about them is that they lack the general humane spirit of previous atheists. 

James: With the new atheists being 'fundamentally,' (pun intended), scientists in the most modern sense of the term scientists we need to reorient ourseleves on this matter. It should be remembered that "science... has ended by utterly repudiating the personal point of view. She catalogs her elements and records her laws indifferent as to what purpose may be shown forth by them, and constructs her theories quite careless of their bearing on human anxieties and fates. Though the scientist may individually nourish a religion, and be a theist in his irresponsible hours, the days are over when it could be said that for Science herself the heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth his handiwork. Our solar system, with its harmonies, is seen now as but one passing case of a certain sort of moving equilibrium in the heavens, realized by a local accident in an appalling wilderness of worlds where no life can exist. In a span of time which as a cosmic interval will count but as an hour, it will have ceased to be. The Darwinian notion of chance production, and subsequent destruction, speedy or deferred, applies to the largest as well as to the smallest facts. It is impossible, in the present temper of the scientific imagination, to find in the driftings of the cosmic atoms, whether they work on the universal or on the particular scale, anything but a kind of aimless weather, doing and undoing, achieving no proper history, and leaving no result. Nature has no one distinguishable ultimate tendency with which it is possible to feel a sympathy. In the vast rhythm of her processes...she appears to cancel herself. The books of natural theology which satisfied the intellects of our grandfathers seem to us quite grotesque, representing, as they did, a God who conformed the largest things of nature to the paltriest of our private wants. The God whom science recognizes must be a God of universal laws exclusively, a God who does a wholesale, not a retail business. He cannot accommodate his processes to the convenience of individuals. The bubbles on the foam which coats a stormy sea are floating episodes, made and unmade by the forces of the wind and water. Our private selves are like those bubbles—epiphenomena, as (W.K.) Clifford, I believe, ingeniously called them; their destinies weigh nothing and determine nothing in the world's irremediable currents of events."

Woods: I think one quality of your writings on religion is occasional whimsy, but always a gracious tone. Much of modern philosophical reflection on religion is both mean and arrogant, and generally humorless.

James: That is an intellectual shame. I think that “good-humor is a philosophic state of mind; it seems to say to Nature that we take her no more seriously than she takes us. I maintain that one should always talk of philosophy with a smile.” 

Woods: Some philosophers, many professors of religion, and most scientists who address religion and philosophy have reduced all such endeavors to glitches in the human genetic make-up. I have been struck that your writings often move in the opposite direction from reduction. 

James: “Were one asked to characterize the life of religion in the broadest and most general terms possible, one might say that it consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.” 

Woods: Ok, here is another major difference between you as a philosopher, psychologist and explorer of religious truth--you place yourself in the place of yielding to reality and not imposing yourself onto that reality.

James: Yes, indeed. You should keep in mind that the person doing the reflecting on reality, including religious reality is only part, but nonetheless a part of the process. I have long held that “Whenever two people meet, there are really six people present. There is each man as he sees himself, each man as the other person sees him, and each man as he really is.” 

Woods: So, are you saying that humans are more complex than we normally think.

James: Not just humans, but human relationships and all human musings.

Woods: I do wish that the new atheists would read your books or at least those who read the new atheists would also read your writings.

James: If your portrayal of these new atheists is correct, one key difference between me and them is that personally, "I fear to lose truth by the pretension to possess it already wholly.”

Woods: What error or errors are the new atheists making?

James: Likely an error of one of the "isms." Essentially, "reduced to their most pregnant difference, empiricism means the habit of explaining wholes by parts, and rationalism means the habit of explaining parts by wholes. Rationalism thus preserves affinities with monism, since wholeness goes with union, while empiricism inclines to pluralistic views. No philosophy can ever be anything but a summary sketch, a picture of the world in abridgment, a foreshortened bird's-eye view of the perspective of events. And the first thing to notice is this, that the only material we have at our disposal for making a picture of the whole world is supplied by the various portions of that world of which we have already had experience. We can invent no new forms of conception, applicable to the whole exclusively, and not suggested originally by the parts. All philosophers, accordingly, have conceived of the whole world after the analogy of some particular feature of it which has particularly captivated their attention." So, my suspicion is that they are committing the error of either empiricism or of rationalism. Possibly scientism also.

Woods: This is most helpful in considering that some of the new atheists only see from one view and have eliminated other views entirely.

James: “There are two lives, the natural and the spiritual, and we must lose the one before we can participate in the other.” 

Woods: What might be an example of what you are describing?

James: Let's take prayer for example. “Through prayer, religion insists, things which cannot be realized in any other manner come about: energy which but for prayer would be bound is by prayer set free and operates in some part, be it objective or subjective, of the world of facts.” 

Woods: In other words, there is more to reality than our natural world and that this unseen realm generates practical effects in this world.

James: It seems from your description that these new atheists do not realize it but, "all our scientific and philosophic ideals are altars to unknown gods."

Woods: In their writings and debates the new atheists rail against the subjective nature of faith and speak fervently about the objective nature of their scientific studies.

James: "Objective evidence and certitude are doubtless very fine ideals to play with, but where on this moonlit and dream-visited planet are they found?"

Woods: That is a great question. So are you saying that a key problem with the new atheists, beyond saying nothing new, is that they seem to be profoundly ignorant of religion and the very nature of how we know in general and understand religion specifically?

James: Indeed. Again, if you have correctly characterized them. They seem to me woefully unaware of religion as a human reality and the strong evidence through human history that religious beliefs hint at and point to transcendent reality. They seem to be unaware that for the truly religious person, " a man's total reaction upon life." 

Woods: Most of the new atheists argue for an evolutionary explanation of religion. Actually, everything has an evolutionary explanation. In essence religion is a bio-electrical, chemical, evolutionary oops.

James. Well, I have dealt with this before. It is not a new idea. Simply, "to plead the organic causation of a religious state of mind, then, in refutation of its claim to possess superior spiritual value, is quite illogical and arbitrary, unless one havs already worked out in advance some psycho-physical theory connecting spiritual values in general with determinate sorts of physiological change. Otherwise none of our thoughts and feelings, not even our scientific doctrines, not even our dis-beliefs, could retain any value as revelations of the truth, for every one of them without exception flows from the state of their possessor's body at the time."

Woods: So if they are right about religious knowledge, then the same argument could be made against all knowledge, including much of scientific knowledge?

James: Correct. We all really should spend more time on the matter of epistemology.

Woods: Based merely on our conversation, what might you say to the new atheists to help them.

James: I experienced this and this truth is key. “Our view of the world is truly shaped by what we decide to hear.” The new atheists should listen more to the religious world.

Woods: Do you have any final words, as I feel I have imposed too much upon your time.

James: No imposition at all. I would only add that, "when all is said and done, we are in the end absolutely dependent on the universe; and into sacrifices and surrenders of some sort, deliberately looked at and accepted, we are drawn and pressed as into our only permanent positions of repose. Now in those states of mind which fall short of religion, the surrender is submitted to as an imposition of necessity, and the sacrifice is undergone at the very best without complaint. In the religious life, on the contrary, surrender and sacrifice are positively espoused: even unnecessary givings-up are added in order that the happiness may increase. Religion thus makes easy and felicitous what in any case is necessary; and if it be the only agency that can accomplish this result, its vital importance as a human faculty stands vindicated beyond dispute."

Woods: Thank you again for your time and your ideas. I do hope that the new atheists or any atheists, and all believers can read more of your ideas and find your books on their reading lists.

James: Me too.

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