Gertrude Himmelfarb applies the insights and categories of the Victorian great William James to today’s religious scene  in an interesting weekend piece for the Wall Street Journal . As she reports, in one widely reprinted 1896 lecture, James intended to respond to Harvard students’ “freethinking and indifference”:

He warned his audience that he would not offer either logical or theological arguments supporting the existence of God or any particular religion, ritual or dogma. His “justification of faith” derived instead entirely from the “will” or the “right” to believe, to “adopt a believing attitude in religious matters, despite the fact that our merely logical intellect may not have been coerced.”

A few years later, in The Varieties of Religious Experience , James (following Francis Newman) divides religious believers into two groups, the once-born and twice-born:
The once-born, in James’s words, “see God, not as a strict Judge, not as a Glorious Potentate, but as the animating Spirit of a beautiful harmonious world, Beneficent and Kind, Merciful as well as Pure.” They are not self-righteous, but they are romantic and complacent, because they make little of sin and suffering, of human imperfection and the “disordered world of man.” . . . Far from dwelling on the sinfulness and depravity of man, the once-born belittle sin, deny eternal punishment and insist upon the dignity rather than the depravity of man . . . .

The twice-born, by contrast—the “sick souls” and “morbid-minded”—are all too aware of the existence of evil, indeed, of the “experience of evil as something essential.” Where the once-born look upon the “children of wrath” as “unmanly and diseased,” the twice-born look upon the “healthy-minded” as “unspeakably blind and shallow.”


Notwithstanding the apparent favor for the once-born expressed in his choice of vocabulary, Himmelfarb writes, James “intervenes in the quarrel unequivocally on the side of the twice-born: ‘It seems to me that we are bound to say that morbid-mindedness ranges over the wider scale of experience.’”

She then applies that template to today’s nonbelievers:

The varieties of irreligion reflect the same once-born/twice-born dichotomy as the varieties of religion. The “New Atheists” easily fall into the category of the once-born, being as monolithic in their devotion to science as religious fundamentalists are in their monotheism. “Neo-Atheists” [such as Alain de Botton], on the other hand, are aware of the psychological and spiritual deficiencies of atheism and eager to import into secular society some of the enduring “goods” of traditional religions. Thus, they exhibit more of the character of the twice-born.

For more, including her analysis of religious believers through the same lens, read the whole article .

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