In his lecture on “The Reality of the Unseen,” William James describes how some people perceive gods or spirits just as vividly as they perceive objects directly in front of them. He quotes a fellow professor on his experiences with a mysterious, spirit-like presence.
For several nights, the colleague writes, he felt the presence steal into his rooms, and in one case even grip his arm. “I knew its presence far more surely than I have ever known the presence of any fleshly living creature…[T]he certainty that there in outward space there stood something was indescribably stronger than the ordinary certainty of companionship when we are in the close presence of ordinary living people. The something seemed close to me, and intensely more real than any ordinary perception.”
James is asking us to understand something elemental to the study of religion. Put aside for a moment your intellectual qualms about the existence of gods and spirits, he seems to be saying. Recognize that some people simply cannot not believe in them, for that is the nature of their experience.
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I can relate. I have experiences of a very similar kind, albeit perhaps from a different source.
I have OCD, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. OCD is characterized by intrusive thoughts that trigger intense fears. (In my case, these thoughts tend to have to do with physical risk – I’m shaving the wrong way, and I’m going to cut my eyes. It’ll be intensely painful, and I’ll go blind. I won’t be able to see or write, and my life will be miserable.) These fears tempt sufferers to engage in rituals to try to make the thoughts go away. (Put the blade down. Look in the mirror and decide exactly where you’re going to place the blade on your cheek. Now pick it up and trace that pattern precisely.)
Sometimes, the intrusive thoughts are so strong that I can’t actually determine whether they’re fears or memories. And sometimes, I become convinced that they are memories. In other words, I think that the things I’m afraid of happening have already happened. And I don’t just think that way; I have memories (or what feel exactly like memories) – complete with vivid visuals and physical sensations.
There is something undeniable about these thoughts and feelings, which is why denying them doesn’t work. (Thankfully, there are other ways of dealing with them.) In these moments, I ‘know’ that what I’m afraid of is true, just like you know you’re reading this blog post right now.
This is what James is getting at, I think. My experiences with OCD – shot through with magical thinking as they may be – are in some sense exactly parallel to certain kinds of religious experience. You can’t talk me out of them, just like I could never talk an evangelical out of her conviction that she has a personal relationship with Jesus. And it’s not because either of us is right or wrong. It’s because we can’t help believing what we believe.