The Varieties of Religious Experience (VRE) by William James had an important influence on Bill W. and Alcoholics Anonymous. There is a free edition of VRE available here. Within VRE are several notions common to the A.A. sense of spiritual, not religious, experience. The first is the distinction between spiritual and religious. William James distinguished between institutional and personal within the broader field of religion. Worship, sacrifice, ritual, theology, ceremony, and ecclesiastical organization were the essentials of what he referred to as institutional religion. Limited to such a view, he said religion could be viewed as an external art of winning the favor of the gods.
James said that within the personal dimension of religion, the inner dispositions of human conscience, helplessness and incompleteness were of central importance. Here the external structures for winning divine favor took a secondary place to a heart-to-heart encounter between the individual and his maker. He proposed to confine himself, as much as possible within VRE, to discuss pure and simple personal religion.
If someone felt that the term religion should be reserved for the fully organized system of feeling, thought, and institution typically called the church, then James was willing to accept almost any name for what he called personal religion. He suggested two: conscience or morality. Alcoholics Anonymous and Twelve Step recovery have called it spirituality.
Personal religion/spirituality for his purposes was defined as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of [the] individual . . . in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.” In the broadest sense possible, this spirituality consisted of the belief that there was an unseen order to existence, and supreme good lay in harmoniously adjusting to that order.
A second notion from VRE important to A.A. was that a higher power could be anything that was other than and larger than the person’s conscious self. Towards that end, James said that spiritual experience could only testify unequivocally to two things: the possible union with something larger than oneself and the great peace that was found within that union. Spiritual encounters could not unconditionally confirm a traditional belief in the one and only infinite God. James suggested that the practical needs and occasions of religion were sufficiently met by the belief that beyond each person, a larger power existed that was friendly to him and his ideals. All that was required was that the power should be both other than and larger than a personal conscious self.
“Anything larger will do, if only it be large enough to trust for the next step. It need not be infinite; it need not be solitary. It might conceivably be only a larger and more godlike self.” There was something—a sense of reality or perhaps a feeling of objective presence—that was a deeper and more general perception of actuality than science supposed was possible with any of the particular human senses. This supreme reality was what Christianity called God.
According to James, humanity had an instinctive belief regarding this supreme reality of the universe that could be stated simply as: “God is real since he produces real effects.” Yet most religious/spiritual people spontaneously embraced a wider sphere than this immediate subjective religious episode. Based upon the perception of godly order in existence and the supreme good found in adjusting to that order, they took a further step of faith concerning God. James said religious people formulated a hypothesis that the existence of God was a guarantee that an ideal order would be permanently preserved, even beyond the probable destruction of this world. Only with this further step of faith, in which remote objective consequences were predicted, did religion become free of its immediate subjective experience.
The third place where James influenced AA’s understanding of spiritual experience was in his view of conversion. In VRE, James stated that in general terms, conversion signified the gradual or sudden process by which a person became unified and consciously right, superior, and happy as a result of a firmer hold upon religious/spiritual realities. To be converted, to be regenerated, to receive grace, to experience religion, to gain assurance, all referred to the same process.
Taken at face value, James equated religious or spiritual experience with conversion. Before this “conversion” process, the person was initially divided, consciously wrong, inferior, and unhappy. This was true whether or not the person believed that a direct divine operation was needed to bring about such a moral transformation. After an extensive discussion of the psychology of conversion, James noted that as long as the religious life was spiritual, and not a consequence of outer works, ritual, or sacraments, the self-surrender element of conversion was always the vital turning point of the religious life. The Jamesean conversion and surrender process became formalized in the first three Steps of AA.
In 1949, Bill Wilson said that conversion, as broadly described by James, was the basic process of AA. Everything else was but the foundation to this process. He declared that by 1949, AA spoke little of its recovery process as a conversion because so many people were afraid of being God-bitten. Nonetheless, it was the basic process of AA. One alcoholic working with another could only consolidate that process of conversion, built upon a foundational faith in God as we understand Him. (William Wilson, “The Society of Alcoholics Anonymous,” American Journal of Psychiatry, 106 [Nov. 1949], 370-375)
This is the second of three related articles (What Does Religious Mean?, Spiritual not Religious Experience, The God of the Preachers) that will more fully describe some of the influences I believe helped to shape the spiritual, but not religious distinction of 12 Step recovery.