James appreciates the dilemma of the intellectual confronting religion and he makes several clarifying distinctions throughout this work which speak to this problem. The most fundamental of these addresses his method of inquiry. He states at the outset that his inquiry is psychological, therefore it is concerned not with religious institutions, but with religious feelings. Such an inquiry, he says, poses two basic questions. The first concerns the nature of the phenomenon itself (existential facts); the second, its importance or meaning (proposition of value). Fact alone is insufficient to determine the value of religious experience; it makes more sense to evaluate it instead on the basis of its utility. The question of truth is more complex. But James admonishes his audience not to explain away religious experience on the basis of origin – and here he seems to be addressing Freud personally – for it is not its origin, but the process by which it works that is the final test of truth.
James differentiates the fields of religion and science. Our world consists of two parts: the objective and the subjective. But, he advises, it is incorrect to think that religion belongs to the realm of the subjective, while science alone reigns in the objective world. Both contain innumerable objects, seen and unseen. And both are influenced by the subjective. We understand and communicate our knowledge of the objective world through symbols: language, mathematics, or images. There is a remoteness to this experience, however, and we must be aware that knowledge of the object, is not the object itself. On the other hand, the inner subjective state is our very experience itself; its reality and our experience are one. In this sense, says James, it is a more complete way of comprehending reality. It is to this inner subjective state in the religious experience that James addresses himself.
James defines religion as the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude and the way they understand themselves in relation to whatever they consider to be the divine. He makes no attempt to characterize the divine other than to say it is the individual’s sense of the world’s presence, be it intimate or alien, terrible or amusing, loving or odious.
The individual’s sense of this primal reality gives rise to an emotional response which falls into one of two broad categories. The first category, the healthy-minded, describes a temperament that is happy and childlike in nature. The healthy-minded individual is optimistic and lives in a harmonious world. Akin to Newman’s ‘once-born,’ his capacity for self-reflection is limited. He therefore experiences no inner disturbances and no morbid compunction or crisis.
The second category, the sick soul, describes a morbid-minded individual. The sick soul lives in a pathological depression which may take the form of intense fear, horrible dread, or insecurity. He experiences the world as if through a fog.
The mood of the sick soul is one of despair and self deprecation. This individual is agitated, restless, neurotic – a state of crisis which compels him to question and to search for some kind of solution. To be happy, he must be ‘twice-born.’ The difference between these two religious temperaments, according to James, rests mainly on the way they handle the problem of evil in the world. The healthy-minded refuses to acknowledge the reality of evil; the sick soul cannot help but struggle with it. In this sense, morbid-mindedness encompasses a wider and more complete experience of reality. Given the human predicament, the agitation of the sick soul is the more appropriate response. James explores the experience of the twice-born.
The psychological basis for the twice-born temperament is a discordancy between an individual’s moral and intellectual constitution. This disturbance stimulates in the individual a need to seek relief through a process James calls unification. The unifiication proceess may be gradual or sudden and may come about through altered feelings, intellectual insights, or mystical experiences. It is a kind of conversion experience; its value lies in its renewal of the individual’s willingness to live in a world where evil exists. This process may be conscious and volitional; or it may arise from an unconscious process that comes about through self-surrender. Following this conversion experience, the individual lives in a ‘faith state’ characterized by a cessation of worry and a certainty of God’s grace. New truths are perceived, but are ineffable. The individual feels a sense of cosmic unity.
James concludes that the truth of religious experience cannot be ascertained by purely intellectual processes. A judgment can only be reached on the basis of its spiritual value. The saving power of religious experience is objectively and literally true. God is real because he produces real effects. It is not possible to separate the objective from the subjective, the cosmic from the personal. The truth of religion can only really be gleaned from an appreciation of the subjective experience. He notes that among religions, beliefs vary widely. Theories, therefore, are secondary. To really grasp the essence of religion, one must look to feelings and the conduct they inspire, for they are what is constant among religious traditions.