The Variety Show of Religious Experience

At least since Gilgamesh went on a quest for immortality in the ancient Babylonian epic that bears his name, road novels have often doubled as flights of spiritual fancy. In “Dharma Bums,” for example, Jack Kerouac read the pilgrimages of his Beat Generation friends through the lens of “A Buddhist Bible,” an anthology of Zen and other Buddhist scriptures edited by the Christian-minister-turned-Buddhist-advocate Dwight Goddard.

The Devil Is a Gentleman,” by J. C. Hallman, is nonfiction, but it too is a tale of the sort of spirituality that can be found on the American road. Like Kerouac, Hallman reads the characters that animate his story through the lens of another book — in this case, “The Varieties of Religious Experience” (1902), by the Harvard philosopher William James.

James’s classic in the psychology of religion defines religion as “the feelings, acts and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.” Into this definition are packed many of the idiosyncrasies of James’s approach to religion — his preference for feelings over ideas, his preoccupation with individual experience, his mistrust of religious institutions and his determination to sidestep the sticky matter of the reality of God.

Given James’s interest in spiritual experiences, it should not be surprising that he celebrates religious diversity. And that is precisely what Hallman does, too. “The Devil Is a Gentleman” devotes a series of bridge chapters providing workmanlike summaries of James’s life and thought, but its heart is given over to eight chapters dedicated to U.F.O. believers, druids, Christian wrestlers, Satanists, Scientologists, atheists, Wiccans and Orthodox monks.

Conservative Christians often criticize others for practicing “cafeteria spirituality,” picking and choosing this appetizer from one religion and that dessert from another. Hallman’s approach is more fast food. He attends a convention of atheists at a down-at-the-heels resort, cheers for a he-man named “Jesus Freak” at a Christian wrestling match in rural Pennsylvania and embraces his inner Lucifer with Satanists in Manhattan. He prefers the famous monks of New Skete who raise German shepherds in Cambridge, N.Y., to Scientologists who raise money in Hollywood. But he never settles for long into any one community; his car seems perpetually to be running.

This book offers some good writing and insightful observations. For example, Hallman, a writer in residence at Sweet Briar College, calls Scientology “a library of one author” and describes Wicca as “less a religion that emerged from nature than one attempting to reconnect with it.” He also provides the best summary of the persons of the Trinity I have ever encountered: “triplets perched on the fence between polytheism and monotheism.” But Hallman’s drive-by approach gives readers only a vague sense of each of these communities, and a vaguer sense of what Hallman thinks of them.

The author never clearly expresses any intention beyond making a study of traveling to “America’s more unusual forms of religious expression.” One might assume, however, that, like James, Hallman hopes to tell us something about religion in general or American religion in particular. But no such analysis is forthcoming. Readers will learn that U.F.O. believers are happy and that Satanists are actually quite nice — as a rule, Hallman is generous to his subjects — but they will learn nothing about how America’s religious fringe is both sewn into and tugging against the garment of American Christianity.

Another problem is that Hallman approaches America’s exotic religious blooms not with Jamesian awe but with a blithe “whatever.” He tells us that the president of American Atheists is a looker and that some of the witches he met were fat, but his biographical sketches rarely penetrate beyond mere appearances. Whereas James was intensely curious about the spiritual virtuosi who populate “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” Hallman — an ex-Catholic and former altar boy — just seems bemused. He is not a pilgrim on a spiritual journey. He’s an aimless wanderer whose ultimate concern seems to amount to projecting an aura of insouciance, a coolness toward his subjects it is hard for his readers not to catch.

Journalism on religion today often seems stuck in two endlessly recurring loops. The first, which sees religion as a danger, seeks to expose the preacher as a hypocrite, the fundamentalist as a bigot, the priest as a pedophile. The second, which sees religion as folly, settles for profiling the freak. This book plays the freak loop over and over again, regaling its readers with tales of (among other things) a Satanist with prosthetic horns surgically implanted into his head and a spiritual healer who has visions of cats and thinks of herself as a tree.

This approach may be intermittently entertaining, but it tells us little about religion in general or about religion in America. As a result, the book betrays William James more than it honors him. It has been widely observed that few Americans are truly represented by the ultraconservatives and ultraliberals who, thanks to gerrymandering and the media’s tendency to equate “fairness” with giving voice to both extremes, now clog the House of Representatives and the Sunday talk shows. In American religion the silent majority are centrists too — evangelicals who oppose not only abortion but also global warming, Jews who go to synagogue but doubt Moses ever existed, and Catholics who aren’t sure what to think about either contraceptives or the Virgin Birth. In other words, many Americans are like James himself, whom Hallman rightly describes as “neither a strict believer nor a complete skeptic.”

Much data-gathering on religion in the United States fails to account for this key demographic. Sociologists herd Americans into religions and then denominations, but they do not inquire into how our spiritual lives measure out certainty and confusion. James famously divided believers into pessimistic “sick souls” and “healthy-minded” optimists. Hallman never sneers at his subjects, but he seems to divide Americans into freaks who greet each day with Jesus or Satan or Nature, and normal folks who, thank God (or whatever), have the sense to stand aloof from such foolishness. This approach may massage the prejudices of blue-state secularists, but it does little to explain to the rest of us a country that — like James himself — somehow manages to be both resolutely religious and staunchly secular at the same time.

Stephen Prothero is the chairman of the religion department at Boston University and the author of “American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon.”

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The New York Times, USA
July 2, 2006
Stephen Prothero

Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday July 8, 2006.
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