On William James and the Religious Attitude of Addiction

Hello halated guests!


For this week’s theme of “expectation,” I’m going to try talk about the role of expectation in addiction. I’ll try think through William James’s words about “the religious attitude in the soul,” anticipation, and the capacity for imagination, which makes addiction and the “religious attitude” possible.


In “The Reality of the Unseen” in Varieties of Religious Experience, William James says:


“Were one asked to characterize the life of religion in the broadest and most general terms possible, one might say that it consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto. This belief and this adjustment are the religious attitude in the soul. I wish during this hour to call your attention to some of the psychological peculiarities of such an attitude as this, of belief in an object which we cannot see. All our attitudes, moral, practical, or emotional, as well as religious, are due to the ‘objects’ of our consciousness, the things which we believe to exist, whether really or ideally, along with ourselves




religion is full of abstract objects which prove to have an equal power. […] We shall see later that the absence of definite sensible images is positively insisted on by the mystical authorities in all religions as the sine qua non of a successful orison, or contemplation of the higher divine truths.”


Expectation is founded on “a belief in an object which we cannot see” (an “object” refers to both thoughts and things), as is the religious attitude. James says that the vagueness of the abstraction of god and the inability to clearly visualize an image helps the religious attitude.


Remember our bug Erdedy? He pushed himself to the limit and got rid of all of his bongs and pipes and everything else (more than once) and only then restarted his addiction. And Joelle: “No more throwing the Material [cocaine] away and then half an hour later rooting through the trash.” (222)


This anticipation affects what they expect of themselves.  I think it’s this very act of expectation that makes it harder to quit, and that the anticipation of this expectation is itself part of the process (“cravings”) of being addicted.


Expectation and anticipation here fuel another form of reverence.


Well, I just stated the obvious! But I do think that reading this part from James’s Varieties has deepened the parallels between the themes of worship, addiction, and something like that higher power of AA/NA.


Thanks y’all!

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