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The History of Alcoholics Anonymous

William James and the Varieties of Religious Experience

When Bill W., a co-founder of A.A. was struggling for sobriety, he was introduced to a copy of William James' Varieties of Religious Experience. James was a much-respected professor of psychology at Harvard University who cited evidence for religious experiences as a unique phenomenon. He was impressed by James' grasp and understanding of the subject. This understanding helped Wilson surrender to a spiritual transformation, which later influenced the formulation of some of A.A.'s most basic principles.

Varieties of Religious Experience, which James published in 1902, was intended to enable contemporary man to find God. In it, James examined many varieties of religious experience seeking evidence for the existence of God.

He published Pragmatism in 1907, which is a pseudo autobiography of a scientist’s search for God. He explored how one could be both a man of science and religious. It was in his attempt to answer this question that he developed his philosophy of pragmatism. In the spirit of the scientific age, he proposed pragmatism, as an empirical method of arriving at truth, and in his own mind he was convinced that if it was properly used it would lead to knowledge of the existence of God.

For James, the most convincing evidence of God's existence "lies primarily in inner personal experience," which begins with a sense of emptiness. As a young man, he was in very poor health and experienced periods of severe depression and discouragement. During this period he had a spiritual crisis, (dark night of the soul) which manifested itself as a sense of longing and lack of purpose. Slowly he began to realize that he needed a unifying philosophy of life in order to go on.

In his scientific work, he was searching for a solution to the mysteries of nature. As a scientist, he was convinced that the answers were there; otherwise the world would be irrational. In light of this conviction, he could not believe that man was destined only to live in anguish while searching for answers to all his hopes and aspirations. He himself was a living paradox. He upheld the integrity of the scientist in weighing and judging every piece of evidence available, while a spiritual conviction resided in the core of his being which motivated his work.

Though a scientist, he stood before the world as one who knew human suffering and anguish, as one whose “spirit was open to the call from the divine.” James believed in a God who was "cosmic and tragic;" a God in contact with the needs and the deeply human problems of mankind. For James, human existence, even at its best, has an "irremediable sense of precariousness"; it is a "bell with a crack."

Like many others struggling with alcoholism, Bill W. felt the anguish and misery commiserate with the human experience. He found hope in James' observation that truly transforming spiritual experiences are nearly always the result of calamitous circumstances and psychic collapse. As a result of Bill W’s ability to relate this through his own experience, he confirmed this understanding when he wrote: "complete hopelessness and deflation at depth were almost always required to make the recipient of spiritual experiences ready. The significance of all this burst upon me. Deflation at depth, yes that was it. Exactly that had happened to me."

For Bill W., and others like him, alcoholism was the start to developing a new understanding and relationship to God and to sobriety. Their affliction was not so much the cause of their turning to God, but an opportunity to revisit it. The possibility that the divine existed had occurred to them before, but now they felt they could no longer postpone or evade the question. Bill stated: "We had to fearlessly face the proposition that either God is everything or else He is nothing. God either is, or He isn't. What was our choice to be?”

According to Bill: "We can laugh at those who think spirituality the way of weakness. Paradoxically, it is the way of strength. The verdict of the ages is that faith means courage. And men of faith have courage. They trust their God. We never apologize for God. Instead we let Him demonstrate, through us, what He can do."


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