The Varieties of Atheist Experience… which God don’t they believe in?

Paul Cliteur asks: if an atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in God, which God don’t they believe in?

What is atheism? Although much used in contemporary language, not many people specify what they mean by the word. ‘Atheism’ has this in common with ‘religion’, at least.

Everyone reading William James’ (1842-1910) seminal 1902 book The Varieties of Religious Experience will be impressed by the huge variety of religious ideas. Nevertheless, that variety is to a considerable extent caused by James’ very broad conception of religion. Jamesian ‘religion’ encompasses all the fundamental visions of life, including political, ideological and philosophical stances. Such a view is popular among those who approach religion from a psychological or sociological perspective, as James did. We clearly detect this view in James’s definition of religion as “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.” (The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, Penguin edition, p.31.)

What James called ‘Emersonian optimism’ or ‘Buddhist pessimism’ also betrays a relation to the divine, so these positions are ‘religions’, according to his definition:

“We must therefore, from the experiential point of view, call these godless or quasi-godless creeds ‘religions’; and accordingly when in our definition of religion we speak of the individual’s relation to ‘what he considers the divine,’ we must interpret the term ‘divine’ very broadly, as denoting any object that is godlike, whether it be a concrete deity or not.” (p.34.)

This brought James to a conception of religion as “man’s total reaction upon life.” (p.35.)


the monochrom blog - archive of everything