Interview with J.C. Hallman

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  January 19, 2007 — 2 Comments

Truly sympathetic outsider accounts of modern Paganism are often few and far between. So it was a pleasant surprise to read J.C. Hallman’s new book “The Devil is a Gentleman: Exploring America’s Religious Fringe”. Hallman, the Banister Writer-in-Residence at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, has written an impressive book on the importance of a pragmatic religious pluralism in our modern world while exploring several new religious movements (including modern Pagans) with respect and an open mind. I recently had the opportunity to conduct an e-mail interview with Hallman to discuss his new work, his interactions with modern Pagans, and the legacy of William James.

J.C. Hallman
J.C. Hallman

Your book “The Devil Is a Gentleman” is both a biography of William James, and an update of his most famous work “The Varieties of Religious Experience”. For the uninitiated, can you quickly tell us who William James was, and why he is so important in the here and now?

James (who is the brother of Henry James, the novelist) is notable because he made significant contributions in a number of fields–psychology, philosophy, comparative religions, education, literature. It’s hard to think of another American thinker who is more influential than James, though it’s also true that many people are not familiar with him. This may be because he touched so many fields. It’s hard to pigeonhole him into one category and identify him strictly with that. I was most interested in his contribution to comparative religions, a field he helped to kickstart with The Varieties of Religious Experience. Varieties attempted to defend religious experience in an era that was far more secular than are own, but as the United States now struggles with its religious identity I found that James’s thinking applied just as well now as well as it ever had.

In a recent issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine, one former student claimed that the decline of their Divinity School and the Mainline Churches in the 1980s was partially due to ignoring William James’ celebration of “the varieties of religious experience”. Do you think this is true? Has mainline/mainstream religion lost its power by ignoring the fringe elements and new religious movements?

Certainly, the United States was founded on the strength inherent in diversity. Religious diversity in particular. Yet as the country has grown both more secular (with academic/scientific secularism ultimately amounting to a religion of its own) and fundamental (with the Christian right assuming power in government), it’s precisely variety that we’ve forgotten how to celebrate. So it’s not specifically that fringe elements or new religious movement’s have answers that others can use, but that trying to convert everyone to way of thinking is the wrong way to bring about the basic promises on which the country is founded. James wrote: “the notion of the ‘one’ breeds foreignness and that of the ‘many’ intimacy.” The Varieties of Religious Experience was as much about variety as it was about religious experience, and what this student may be referring to is the fact that a failure to celebrate variety hurts us all, in the end.

You list yourself as a adherent of the philosophy of Pragmatism. A school of thought partially pioneered by James that places a great emphasis on the practical results of theoretical ideas. How do the tenants of Pragmatism lead one to a greater tolerance and understanding of new religious movements?

Pragmatism, for James, was really a method. It’s hard to call it a philosophy because there’s nothing in it to really believe in. It’s a way of approaching ideas. James argued that certain questions can’t be approached with logic or reason, and we should approach those kinds of questions differently from how we approach questions which are susceptible to logic. There’s a funny story behind this. James and a bunch of his pals were out camping one day, and they had an argument about squirrels. Squirrels, they noticed, when they climbed trees to get away from you, ran around to the other side of the tree, and kept moving around the tree if you tried to get a look at them. The question that started the argument was this: if you walked around the tree, could you be said to have walked around the squirrel? The squirrel would scurry away from you, and you wouldn’t ever see its back. Indeed, from the squirrel’s point of view, you were always in front of it. The argument raged for some time before James decided on an answer. Who cares? It doesn’t matter. And that’s the beginning of the Pragmatic method. Some questions cannot be resolved with logic, so the way to approach them is to assess what practical value they have–does the answer make a measurable, observable difference? When you ratchet up the question to something like is there a God, then the answer can make a measurable, observable difference. In this way, James approached religion scientifically.

Pragmatism asserts–again, strictly for questions not susceptible to logic–that we ought to embrace a kind of flexible truth. Variety in truth. An idea that produces a measurable result for one person may fail another entirely. So that idea is true for the first person, but not the second. If you embrace that, it’s a much easier step to empathize with others whose beliefs are different from your own. Religious pluralism, then, is a natural by-product of the Pragmatic method. You don’t have to legislate it.

When you set out to write this book, how did you pick and choose what went in and where you went? Were there chapters written that didn’t make the final cut? Missed opportunities? Any places or groups you wish you could have covered?

You can’t be comprehensive in a book about religion–it’s just too vast. You can only be representative. So I tried to pick a set of religions that I felt were representative of something that was important. Ephemeral and inexpressible, perhaps, but important. James argued that by studying the fringe you got a sense of what was in the center, and I was emulating that, so I shot for a collection of groups that, after a little mental triangulation, gave one a sense of the United States’ particular spiritual climate.

In the book you lament the lack of attention and coverage of new religious movements (NRMs), do you feel that the situation has improved since you started writing the book?

Not dramatically. Even within NRM’s, even the ones I looked at, you have what James called the right side of religion’s account, and the wrong side of its account. That is, there are religions which fall into a corporate sentiment and lose what’s precious about them, and there are religions which celebrate individuality and earnest experience. For every Wicca-style movement that’s on the right side of religion’s account, there’s a whole lot of media coverage, say, for Scientology, which is on the other side of the account. Overall, right now, I’d argue that a lot of us are caught in a battle between opposing fundamentalisms, and there’s not much chance that the situation will improve until it’s all over and the dust settles.

As a Pagan, I’m obviously the most interested in your coverage of the modern Pagans in your books. Two different sections are devoted to modern Pagans, one a Druid priestess in Northern California and the second the annual meeting of COG (the Covenant Of the Goddess). What made you decide on these two e
xperiences? Do you have friends who are Pagan?

I wanted to undermine some of the stereotypes of both of these groups, so I executed a kind of reversal. With modern Druids, what non-Pagans tend to envision, I’d say, is groups of old men with long white beards and white robes. So I went to a female Druid who lived by herself in the woods. It’s not by accident that a woman living by herself in the woods is the stereotype of the solitary witch–sort of Hansel and Gretel style. By way of contrast, for Wicca, I adopted a male solitary as my guide, and went to gatherings of many people. So the basic idea of these chapters, I hope, will challenge readers to think about Witches and Druids both with a new set of eyes.

During the COG meeting you had what you felt to be a “magical” experience at one of the main rituals. How do you feel about that experience now? Do you believe in “magic”, or at least the reality of the Pagan magical experience?

The best part about Paganism, as I experienced it, was that it celebrated variety in exactly the way James would have prescribed. There’s a whole range of thought in Paganism, and a huge variety, I found, in definitions of magic. The one I liked best was the idea that magic was not about the supernatural. There was no supernatural, really–there was just a variety of the natural world that science and logic could not approach. (You can probably already hear the hints of Pragmatism creeping in…) So magic is the attempt to manipulate, through ritual and belief, that aspect of nature we cannot manipulate in any other way. And I believe in that. I think this same basic idea explains, say, why doctors always wear white coats. Modern medicine relies more than it likes to admit on the placebo effect, and they recognize that a doctor’s authority may trigger it. They’re more than willing to take credit (and get paid) for someone getting better as a result of their care, even if it’s just the white coat that did it. This, ultimately, puts them just a hitch step from shamanism.

One interesting thing I got from your coverage of the COG meeting was the disorganization, and a general lack of fiscal commitment that would take the organization to the “next level” in terms of size and influence. Most groups as you pointed out were opposed to even paying a regular membership due. Do you think this is a natural result of our religious autonomy and lack of hierarchy, or simply a failure to properly organize? Is the idea of a national Pagan organization (whether it is for advocacy or mutual support) a viable one?

I think it would be fair to criticize my ability to generalize on this point–I went to one CoG meeting, and one CoG meeting only. Yet I would make one observation, again relating to James. James’s “wrong side of religion’s account” boils down, basically, to organized religion. It’s organization itself that leads to the corporate spirit. Certainly those who are drawn to religions based on a decentralized structure–decentralized precisely so it doesn’t fall prey to that corporate spirit–will resist, and should resist, that corporatization. That said, I thought the CoG meeting was working. There were the benefits of organization, with little of the downside. Variety was celebrated. Maybe it wasn’t an efficient process, but maybe it was as efficient as it can be.

Another dominant theme in the book that may be of interest to my audience is your dealings with the Church of Satan. You participate in a Satanic ritual, you meet Satan Xerxes, the son of Anton LaVey, and you even attend a Satanic wedding after your principal work on the book was finished. What are your attitudes now towards the Satanic movement? You seem to have a genuine affection for the people you met there, and you even seem to have been genuinely sympathetic to some of their views.

Modern Satanism demonstrated the basic idea of Pragmatism, but outside the context of belief. They found ritual to be empowering, but they did not literally believe in the figure toward which the ritual was directed. Church of Satan members are atheistic–yet they value rituals. (Incidentally, I think this probably describes a lot of Jews and Catholics as well.) As to sympathizing with them, I hope I found a way to sympathize with everyone in the book. I hoped to demonstrate the kind of pluralistic spirit that I thought I was writing about.

You cover the Church of Scientology. Of all the groups you cover in the book, from the flying saucer cult to the evangelical Christian wrestlers you seem the least comfortable with their methods and beliefs. Do you think the Church of Scientology is harmful, and has the Church responded to your book in any way?

The Church has not responded directly–though I probably couldn’t tell you about it if they had. That said, Scientology did serve as kind of the “villain” of the book. Not because anyone in the Church seemed like a bad person–indeed, everyone I met seemed entirely earnest. Yet I would say that the basic structure of Scientology, its basic culture, is well down the road to the corporate spirit, and has long since slipped into the wrong side of religion’s account.

Finally, how would you describe yourself religiously now, a few years after your initial visits and research? How has the book changed (or not changed) your belief structure?

I think I’m generally more open-minded and forgiving of views antithetical to my own. That’s, again, a by-product of entertaining Pragmatic truth.

Jason Pitzl-Waters