And in any case, religion for James was more a matter of subconscious experience than explicit doctrine. “Feeling is the deeper source of religion,” he wrote, and “philosophic and theological formulas are secondary products, like translations of a text into another tongue.” Philosophical theologians who tried to “construct religious objects out of the resources of logical reason” were missing the point, and chest-thumping atheists who tried to refute these intellectual constructions only compounded the error. James liked to define religion by contrast: it was the opposite, he suggested, of the smug facetiousness and cackling je m’en fichisme cultivated by 18th-century philosophes like Voltaire, who treated any display of tenderness or solemnity as a sign of weakness or folly. But most of us have a capacity for respectful attentiveness, and we can, on occasion, “close our mouths and be as nothing.” Anyone with the courage to say “hush” to “vain chatter and smart wit” – anyone who could prefer “gravity” to “pertness” – was, James thought, ready for religious experience. Becoming religious was like falling in love, he said: not a process of intellectual persuasion, but not a delusion either, and it lent new aspects to the world, “an enchantment which is not logically deducible from anything else.”
Sigh. Okay, let’s try a different approach. What if we agree to think of religion as a poetic experience? For example, and perhaps surprisingly to you, one of my most favorite books of all time is Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Book of Hours: Love Poems to God. Here’s a passage I love:
But when I lean over the chasm of myself—it seemsmy God is darkand like a web: a hundred rootssilently drinking.This is the ferment I grow out of.More I don’t know, because my branchesrest in deep silence, stirred only by the wind.
I love you, gentlest of Ways,who ripened us as we wrestled with you.You, the great homesickness we could never shakeoff,you, the forest that always surrounded us,you, the song we sang in every silence,you dark net threading through us,on the day you made us you created yourself,and we grew sturdy in your sunlight….Let your hand rest on the rim of Heaven nowand mutely bear the darkness we bring over you.
You are the future,the red sky before sunriseover the fields of time.You are the cock’s crow when night is done,you are the dew and the bells of matins,maiden, stranger, mother, death.You create yourself in ever-changing shapesthat rise from the stuff of our days—unsung, unmourned, undescribed,like a forest we never knew.You are the deep innerness of all things,the last word that can never be spoken.To each of us you reveal yourself differently:to the ship as a coastline, to the shore as a ship.
If this is all people mean when they speak of God – a surging sense of joy, a desire for a feeling of balance and harmony in one’s life, an ability to still be impressed by the odd twists and turns our lives take, despite our attempts to plan them out in detail – then even obstreperous atheists like me can smile and nod along. But that’s just the thing, isn’t it? To the ship as a coastline, to the shore as a ship — as much as the William Jameses of the world might wish it to be otherwise, for many people, religion, especially the monotheistic varieties, is very much about truth claims upon the world, not feelings about it. Even many of the more liberal kinds of believers who would agree that a poetic sensibility is an integral part of the religious experience would still likely find my suggestion demeaning that religion could be “reduced” to poetry.
An inexpressible experience of beauty and harmony isn’t threatened or nullified by scientific knowledge or rational thought. People who have a problem with vocal atheists should take the time to consider why they seem to think otherwise. I have an idea why that might be, but I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.