The Varieties of Religious Experience

varieties

The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature is a book by Harvard University psychologist and philosopher William James (1842 – 1910). James was an American philosopher and psychologist, and the first educator to offer a psychology course in the United States. He was one of the leading thinkers of the late nineteenth century and is believed by many to be one of the most influential philosophers the United States has ever produced, while others have labelled him the “Father of American psychology”.

Varieties comprises his edited Gifford Lectures on natural theology, which were delivered at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland in 1901 and 1902. The lectures concerned the nature of religion and the neglect of science in the academic study of religion.

Soon after its publication, Varieties entered the Western canon of psychology and philosophy and has remained in print for over a century.

James later developed his philosophy of pragmatism. There are many overlapping ideas in Varieties and his 1907 book, Pragmatism.

Religion, therefore, as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us 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. Since the relation may be either moral, physical, or ritual, it is evident that out of religion in the sense in which we take it, theologies, philosophies, and ecclesiastical organizations may secondarily grow. Religion is a man’s total reaction upon life.

James was most interested in direct religious experiences. Theology and the organizational aspects of religion were of secondary interest. He believed that religious experiences were simply human experiences: “Religious happiness is happiness. Religious trance is trance.”

He believed that religious experiences can have “morbid origins” in brain pathology and can be irrational but nevertheless are largely positive. Unlike the bad ideas that people have under the influence of a high fever, after a religious experience, the ideas and insights usually remain and are often valued for the rest of the person’s life.

Under James’ pragmatism, the effectiveness of religious experiences proves their truth, whether they stem from religious practices or from drugs: “Nitrous oxide … stimulate[s] the mystical consciousness in an extraordinary degree.”

James had relatively little interest in the legitimacy or illegitimacy of religious experiences. Further, despite James’ examples being almost exclusively drawn from Christianity, he did not mean to limit his ideas to any single religion. Religious experiences are something that people sometimes have under certain conditions. In James’ description, these conditions are likely to be psychological or pharmaceutical rather than cultural.

Religion thus makes easy and felicitous what in any case is necessary; and if it be the only agency that can accomplish this result, its vital importance as a human faculty stands vindicated beyond dispute. It becomes an essential organ of our life, performing a function which no other portion of our nature can so successfully fulfill.

James believed that the origins of a religion shed little light upon its value. There is a distinction between an existential judgment (a judgment on “constitution, origin, and history”) and a proposition of value (a judgment on “importance, meaning, or significance”).

For example, if the founder of the Quaker religion, George Fox, had been a hereditary degenerate, the Quaker religion could yet be “a religion of veracity rooted in spiritual inwardness, and a return to something more like the original gospel truth than men had ever known in England.”

Furthermore, the potentially dubious psychological origins of religious beliefs apply just as well to non-religious beliefs:

Scientific theories are organically conditioned just as much as religious emotions are; and if we only knew the facts intimately enough, we should doubtless see “the liver” determining the dicta of the sturdy atheist as decisively as it does those of the Methodist under conviction anxious about his soul. Science… has ended by utterly repudiating the personal point of view.

James criticized scientists for ignoring unseen aspects of the universe. Science studies some of reality, but not all of it:

Vague impressions of something indefinable have no place in the rationalistic system…. Nevertheless, if we look on man’s whole mental life as it exists … we have to confess that the part of it of which rationalism can give an account of is relatively superficial. It is the part that has the prestige undoubtedly, for it has the loquacity, it can challenge you for proofs, and chop logic, and put you down with words … Your whole subconscious life, your impulses, your faiths, your needs, your divinations, have prepared the premises, of which your consciousness now feels the weight of the result; and something in you absolutely knows that that result must be truer than any logic-chopping rationalistic talk, however clever, that may contradict it.

James saw “healthy-mindedness” as America’s main contribution to religion. This is the religious experience of optimism and positive thinking which James sees running from the transcendentalists Emerson and Whitman to Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science. At the extreme, the “healthy-minded” see sickness and evil as an illusion. James considered belief in the “mind cure” to be reasonable when compared to medicine as practiced at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The “sick souls” (“morbid-mindedness” / the “twice-born”) are merely those who hit bottom before their religious experience; those whose redemption gives relief from the pains they suffered beforehand. By contrast, the “healthy-minded” deny the need for such preparatory pain or suffering. James believes that “morbid-mindedness ranges over the wider scale of experience” and that while healthy-mindedness is a surprisingly effective “religious solution”,

healthy-mindedness is inadequate as a philosophical doctrine, because the evil facts which it refuses positively to account for are a genuine portion of reality; and they may after all be the best key to life’s significance, and possibly the only openers of our eyes to the deepest levels of truth.

James sees the two types as being a mere matter of temperament: the healthy minded having a “constitutional incapacity for prolonged suffering”; the morbid-minded being those prone to “religious melancholia”.

The basenesses so commonly charged to religion’s account are thus, almost all of them, not chargeable at all to religion proper, but rather to religion’s wicked practical partner, the spirit of corporate dominion. And the bigotries are most of them in their turn chargeable to religion’s wicked intellectual partner, the spirit of dogmatic dominion, the passion for laying down the law in the form of an absolutely closed-in theoretic system.

For James, a saintly character is one where “spiritual emotions are the habitual centre of the personal energy.” James states that saintliness includes:

1. A feeling of being in a wider life than that of this world’s selfish little interests; and a conviction … of the existence of an Ideal Power.

2. A sense of the friendly continuity of the ideal power with our own life, and a willing self-surrender to its control.

3. An immense elation and freedom, as the outlines of the confining selfhood melt down.

4. A shifting of the emotional Centre towards loving and harmonious affections, towards “yes, yes” and away from “no,” where the claims of the non-ego are concerned.

For James, the practical consequences of saintliness are asceticism (pleasure in sacrifice), strength of soul (a “blissful equanimity” free from anxieties), purity (a withdrawal from the material world), and charity (tenderness to those most would naturally disdain).

James identified two main features to a mystical experience:

Ineffability —”No adequate report of its contents can be given in words. … its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others. … mystical states are more like states of feeling than like states of intellect. No one can make clear to another who has never had a certain feeling, in what the quality or worth of it consists.”

Noetic quality —”Although so similar to states of feeling, mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge. They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for after-time.”

He also identified two subsidiary features that are often, but not always, found with mystical experiences:

Transiency —”Mystical states cannot be sustained for long.”

Passivity —”The mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he were grasped and held by a superior power.”


The only thing that religious experience, as we have studied it, unequivocally testifies to is that we can experience union with something larger than ourselves and in that union find our greatest peace.

Read Now: The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James (PDF)

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