William James and a Science of Religions: Reexperiencing the Varieties of Religious Experience

By Wayne Proudfoot | Go to book overview

2
Pragmatism and “an Unseen Order”
in Varieties

WAYNE PROUDFOOT

Religious thinkers considering the relation between science and religion often stress the autonomy of the latter. Religion is not in the business of explaining the world; it provides an interpretation of a different sort: meaning, not causal explanation. If complete, this separation would preclude any conflict between the two realms. Claims in one would have nothing to do with those in the other. But it is not easy to keep them apart. The meanings that inform people's lives can't be sharply distinguished from the ways in which they make sense of what is happening to them in light of their best explanations of themselves and their world.

James addresses this issue in Varieties. He distinguishes at the outset between explaining religious experience on one hand and evaluating it or judging its significance on the other, and works throughout the book to keep these tasks separate. But his particular conception of religion and his worry about what he takes to be the implications of a scientific naturalism make that separation very difficult to sustain. I will first describe what

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