Assessing William James’ Definition of Religion

Religion, therefore, as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.

-William James, The Variety of Religious Experiences

Is this a good definition of religion? In some respects: a mark of a good definition is to limit the class of things as much as possible. In classic logic, the definition uses a genus and specific difference. The genus is the broad class of things an item belongs to (a banana, for example, is a fruit) and the specific difference is what separates the item from the genus (i.e. being long, yellow, with a soft, sweet pulp). “Feelings, acts, and experiences” seems to be the genus; “of solitary men insofar as they relate to the divine” seems to be the specific difference. As a definition, pure and simple, it is well constructed. It describes a distinctive kind of feeling and act. But as a definition of religion? It seems insufficient and a distinctly individualistic view (I’m inclined to say “distinctly American”).

As Christians know, we are called to be part of a “body”. Insofar as we are not a part, we are not part of Christendom. Islam, too, exists in the context. With the exception of the rare mystics, it is practiced corporately: pray together, worship together, etc. And yet individuals tend to be called to repentance, not church bodies. Our language in service is of individualism and we live and breathe as if the church is unnecessary. In America, there are a shocking number of people who consider themselves Christian but are not regular attendees

I don’t know whether it is the influence of James that has led us to understand religion as radically individualist or whether radical individualism has led us to accept James’ definition. Certainly, the claim that “Christianity isn’t a religion — it’s a relationship” fits William James’ definition by excluding ritual, community, and doctrine and making it about a solitary person’s experience in relationship to the divine.

If we have accepted James’ definition as the definition of religion, however, it is because we are poor readers: James’ book was called the Varieties of Religious Experiences; he was interested in what can be loosely called “mystical” experiences. He was not interested in formal religion and used this “arbitrary” definition for his book. We’d do well to make sure our definitions are clear, precise – and understood.

What do you think? Is his definition a good one?

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