A Philosophical Look Into Religion And Freewill In The Light Of James William

Project and Seminar Material for Philosophy

Project and Seminar Material for Philosophy

Chapter One


1.1 Background Of The Study

There are two good things in life: freedom of thought and freedom of action[1]. In the whole world man is the only being that is condemned by its nature to be free as well as to be religious. So by nature man is endowed with the power of the will just as he is equally endowed with religious tendency.

Freewill in the simplest term means the freedom to make choice. Moreover, man in his own very nature cannot extricate himself from the bondage of making choice. In the same vein man is equally held bound by religious tie, so man cannot but be religious. For man to choose otherwise, is already a choice of its own and a religion of its own. That is why I maintain that man is condemned to be free and equally religious. No wonder Jean Paul Sartre asserts.

I am condemned to be free. This means no limit to my freedom can be found except freedom itself, or if you prefer, that we are not free to cease being free. 2

It seems unthinkable to imagine a world without freewill, that type of world should be devoid of punishment and reward. This is because in such a deterministic world, what ought to be will come to be, at the time it was destined to be, and through the agent it was destined to come through.

However this freedom man enjoys is not unconnected to the very fact that man is the only being endowed with a conscious thinking faculty. Ekwutosi has this to say: “that human act is the result of a complex process in which the decisive point is the will after a deliberation of the intellect…….. Specifically human action possesses the following constitutive qualities knowledge, voluntary/freedom. 3

This question of freewill is ontological to man. To talk of man without freewill, is to create a different kind of being which cannot occupy the “status quo” of man. So it is a contradictio in terminis to talk of man without freewill. No wonder the issue of freedom was given a prime position in the constitution of United States of America. In the first ten amendments known together as the bill of rights, it clearly stipulates such basic rights as the freedom of speech, of religion and of press. Deleuze said that: The doom of Europe is predicted because with the death of God and religion from their life and culture, a period of instability, aimlessness, emptiness and darkness sets in4.This goes to underscore the importance and inevitable role of religion in human life. No wonder Omoregbe asserts that:

religion is such a sticking and interesting phenomena to human life that it cannot be ignored even by sceptics, agnostics or the atheists. There is no phenomenon which moulds and controls man’s life as much as religion does. Men have given up not only their life but even their possessions for their religious beliefs- — — thus religion has such a powerful grip on man that it cannot be ignored in human society5

Here we are not going to give a detailed account of freewill and religion, but will do so in subsequent chapters. So let us have an insight into William James view.

William James was a New York born pragmatic philosopher. He started from physiology to psychology and finally to philosophy. However, just like other philosophers did not philosophize in isolation; his contemporaries include: Charles Sanders Pierce and John Dewey. They are known as classical pragmatists. Moreover, we may not be able to understand William James unless we are at home with his pragmatic theory, which serves as a gate way to all other of his philosophy.

This word pragmatism has a rich evolution; Pierce derived the word from Kant’s usage of German word “pragmatisch”. He then applied it to an empirical condition which was founded by three American philosophers Charles Sanders Pierce, William James and John Dewey. Three of them fought to save philosophy from metaphysical idealism, and equally save religious and moral ideals from empiricist, positivist scepticism. However, the three classical pragmatists had very different philosophical concerns, though they still share one foundation, and that is pragmatism. This their pragmatic theory manifested in every of their philosophical endeavour, that is why James who was more interested in religion said that a belief in God is at least practically verified if it provides comfort to the believer, the satisfactory consequence of holding the belief as well as of the proposition believed are to constitute verification6

Pragmatism concerns itself with purposeful action and the interplay of theory and practice. It stresses on what James called cash value of beliefs. In all, pragmatism can be defined as: a philosophy that attempts to apply the methods of science to philosophy, its central idea is that the meaning and truth of an idea are determined by the idea’s effect in practice and conduct.7

Having gathered some indebt knowledge to what I am going to examine, let me then stipulate the pattern the long essay will take. This work is composed of four major chapters. The chapter one includes the following; Introduction, statement of problem, purpose of studies, scope of study and methodology. Chapter two will be applied in exposing the nature and notion of religion and freewill, their origin, their characteristic features and their functions. The third chapter will be a critical analysis of the religious experience, Mystical experience as a base for belief about God, problem of religious experience, William James pragmatic religious experience, and William James pragmatic verdict. Having gone thus far, the chapter four will be a critical evaluation and conclusion.

1.2 Statement Of Problem

I have come to find out through history that almost all the wars and rancor that ravage the world have either economic or religious motive. Casting a look back to the Roman Empire, we will observe that most of the wars they fought had a religious motive. The last straw that broke the Camel’s back was;

The fall of Roman Empire in 476 ushered in a period of intellectual darkness. The barbarians who destroyed the political might of Rome also shattered the institutions of culture in Western Europe. Learning came almost to a halt.8

The Romans’ and the Barbarians were of different antagonistic religious background. So In the medieval period the Barbarians ravaged Rome and made away with almost the whole body of ancient literature. The Barbarians signifies the Muslim world while Europe signifies the Christian world. Even the September, 11th 2001 suicide bombing that destroyed the world Trade Centre has evidences of religious bigotry. Thus Bush in his speech after the attack said that the enemy tries to hide behind a peaceful faith.9

Narrowing it down to Nigerian experience, Nigeria has Muslim and Christian religions. The country has experienced series of rancours, some times it is described as tribal wars. But a critical observer will understand that it has a lot of religious sentiments attached to it. This is because churches will always be burnt at each squabble. This tussle is not just among different religions but it is equally present among different denominations of one religion. As a result of this many families are put asunder. It seems absurd that it is in the name of this same religion, which is meant to be an avenue of peace that human beings kill one another. One race bracing up to wipe another from the face of earth.

Having said this, the problematic and perplexing question remains: how free is one to practice his religious beliefs without undue molestations from other religious sects? Is there any need for religious tolerance? The onerous task of this research is to proffer a lasting panacea to the problems raised above. In the course of this analysis we shall have recourse to the thought of William James as a guide.

1.3 Purpose Of Studies

What beats my imagination is that man is a being that enjoys freedom of choice, yet this same man will like to coerce his fellow man to do something contrary to his own will . This particular problem rears its head most in the religious circle. This problem amounts to some of the religions regarding others as different warring camp, so they are opponents and not brothers thus they relate to them as such. In this long essay there is equally a complete x-ray on that which motivates people to glory in turning religion which suppose to be an avenue of family, nation and even world peace to a channel of war and turmoil. However I am not trying to advocate that people should adopt a private and diverse believing attitude, within and in the same religious matter and of the same religious sect. Rather I am trying to justify the right and freedom of different religious sects to adopt a private believing attitude in their religious matters. Not withstanding that our merely logical intellect may not have been coerced.

At the end, I hope I will be able to stipulate the code that will help people of different religions to understand each other better. Thereby eliminating all the unnecessary antagonism operating among people of different religions. In order for them to see each other as children of the same father heading towards a particular destiny. Though William James theory on freewill and religion will serve as a guide as I make this analysis.

1.4 Scope Of Study

There is no doubt that the field of religion and freewill is a very vast one. However I am concerned with the exposition of the contribution of William James on the issue of religion and freewill. But I will borrow relevant ideas from philosophers whose works are within the confines of religion and freewill. After which I will make my analysis by a way of evaluation and conclusion.

1.5 Methodology

The approach I am employing in this long essay is that of critical exposition, and evaluation. Moreover, the deep attitude of thinking and rational scrutiny employed in carrying out this task, will make itself evident in the assessment of religion and freewill. Equally the intellectual exercise will be proved by how far, I am able to reconcile the two concepts. Consequently offering practical solutions that will help get rid of religious rancour.

Chapter Four

4.0 Critical Evaluation And Conclusion

4.1 Evaluation

James on his quest to offer a practical remedy to the long elaborated problem on freewill and religion finalized with certain conclusions that are not corresponded. The problems are not unconnected to his effort to bring the issues of divine within the domain of pragmatism. No wonder he opined that “A belief is “true” when its effects are good”.1

Due to James’ belief that cash value [practical result of things] supposed to be the standard of justification, he overstressed it to the extent that he confirmed that “unless we are able to infer things from experienced, we shall have difficulty in finding grounds for belief in the existence of anything except our self.2

However, James offered a sort of formula for making choice of belief even religious belief. He said that individual should understand:

  1. What is good
  2. What are the effects of this or that belief, we must know those things before we can know that anything is true. 3

However, he does not claim to have given all the necessary answers to the question of belief. If we look into the belief about God, we will discover that he omitted the issue of existence of God completely. Rather he directed his attention to the effects of such a belief in God in omission of the being of God. Thus, he concluded that if such a belief works satisfactorily then it is true. But that is a wrong conclusion. Because he was just justifying an end, without having knowledge of the means. Moreover, James was more devoted to solitary individual religious experience. He kept the concept of divine vague and broad.

4.2 Conclusion

Having gone thus far, we have observed that James supports the idea of a person possessing the right to uphold religious belief even when the evidences of such religious beliefs are not conclusive. In actual sense the individual has no better alternative than to do so. This is because the human person has come to realize his finitude, limitedness, and inadequacy in the world in which he finds himself. It is from this background that the individual discovers that he is a mystery to himself. It then becomes obvious on the individual that:

He is a dependent being, that he is not self sustaining, and that he needs to find an object of supreme worth to which he devotes himself, if he is to achieve self realization44

It is this unquenchable desire in man; to make up for his limited nature that compels him to seek for a union with the divine powers that be. In this union man longs to have, as well as experience a relationship with a being greater and larger than his own being. In such union man finds tranquillity. Such union helps in solidifying man’s faith in the divine and equally serves as a “litmus test” to claims of some religious leaders who declare that they have received a special mission from the “MORE” to offer salvation to humanity, and salvage them from their inadequacies.

However, amidst all these varied religious denominations tolerance is the answer for peaceful co-existence. The world is in a generation of dialogue, so it will pay us better to listen to one another, and understand one another’s feelings, emotions and stories. It does not mean that there will be a total eradication of religious conflict, but it will be mitigated.

It is quite obvious that there is no way the whole world will begin to share one religion. Since we all reflect different backgrounds. So the freedom of the “will” plays an inevitable role in the choice of religion. The world does not regret the multiplicity of religions. This is because, it is just a manifestation of plurality of reality, as well as diversity operating among human beings. Thus James opined that

No two of us have identical difficulties nor should we be expected to work out identical solutions. Each from his own peculiar angle of observation takes in a certain sphere of fact and troubles, which each must deal with in a unique manner. One of us must soften himself, another must stand firm in order the better to defend the position assigned him5.

Hence the issue of choice of religion should be a personal issue. No one should choose for another. Muslims who are molesting Christians or Christians who cannot see meaning in what the Muslims believe, why not apply dialogue? Some Christians, who are tampering with the shrines of African traditional worshippers, why not use dialogue and get them convinced not coerced. The same with every other religion in relation with another. Bringing it down still, employers who are compelling employee to their own religion, it is not correct. Even some landlords are limiting their tenants to religions of their choice. Worst still, siblings forcing their parents to their own religion. All these are done in the name of religion, but they are not correct. Rather they are simply infringement on human right of which religion abjures.

However, the most proper panacea to all these problems enumerated is tolerance through dialogue and conviction. So that people will be convinced in whatever religion they freely and willingly adopt. One of the reasons why people go contrary to codes of their religion is because the religion is not a product of their own volition. The people having this type of problem are compelled not convinced. Then all through their life they will be struggling to rebel against such compulsion. Sometimes they manifest such revolution by going contrary to the religious commitment. So freewill is very necessary in every sphere of life not just religion alone. However the only solution to win one’s freewill is conviction through dialogue but if it does not work then apply tolerance so that the world will contain us all.

Another pragmatic solution to the issue of religious conflict is psychological theory of accommodation. This is a situation whereby one adjusts to the belief and the views of the other, even though it may be contrary to his’ or her own for the sole sake of restoration of perfect social equanimity and religious serenity. No wonder Okeke affirmed that:

“In accommodation, individuals change or modify their already existing schemas or ways of behaving and thinking according to the demands of the new situation or reality “6.

This equally boils down to both self-understanding and that of the other, which if found amongst every person will culminate to absolute realization, maintenance, and sustenance of world peace.

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