The Varieties Of Religious Experience: A Study In Human Nature by William James (PDF)



Ebook Info

  • Published: 2009
  • Number of pages: 284 pages
  • Format: PDF
  • File Size: 1.70 MB
  • Authors: William James


The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature is a book by the Harvard psychologist and philosopher William James comprising 20 lectures given at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. These lectures concerned the nature of religion and the neglect of science, in James’ view, in the academic study of religion. Soon after its publication, the book found its way into the canon of psychology and philosophy, and has remained in print for over a century.

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⭐A Philosophical Psychologist’s Plea for Spirituality in a Scientific Age”The Varieties of Religious Experience” is a justly famous classic that has inspired and delighted generations of readers with its charm, wisdom, and open-mindedness since its original publication in 1902. So, why should it still need a review now, over a century later? William James pioneered a now familiar approach to religion that was still quite novel a century ago. Until then, the literature of religion consisted either of the theologies of particular religions, evangelistic arguments for one religion against others, or “freethinking” attacks on religion by atheists, materialists, or skeptics. James’ “Varieties,” however, did not argue either for or against religion, for Protestantism against Catholicism (or vice versa), or for Christianity against Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism (or vice versa). He equally avoided the late-Victorian and turn-of-the-century irreligious inverse dogmatism of Freud forecasting “The Future of an Illusion,” James Frazer’s “Golden Bough” anthropologizing religion into barbaric rituals and pre-scientific myths, Emile Durkheim reducing religion to a reflection of the social structure, or the “medical materialism” of psychologists and psychiatrists explaining religion as a product of nervous disorder or sexual, digestive, or glandular disturbance. Indeed, his opening lecture, “Religion and Neurology,” was a critique of such “medical materialism.” Instead, James’ Varieties staked out a new third position, distinct both from the supporters of particular religions and from typical Victorian and fin de siècle skeptics and materialists. Its very sub-title, “A Study in Human Nature,” expressed James’ view of religion as a fundamental human trait, not easily to be explained away and unlikely to vanish with improved education, scientific knowledge, or control of Nature. It “cannot be a mere anachronism and survival” of a primitive past, he concluded, but “must exert a permanent function, whether she be with or without intellectual content…true or false.” James was thus an early precursor of later impartially sympathetic investigators of religion like Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Ninian Smart, Huston Smith, Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, Harvey Cox, Karen Armstrong, and Tanya Marie Luhrmann, all equally critical like him of the twin dogmatisms of fundamentalist sectarian exclusivity and of “freethinking” positivistic “Enlightenment.” Called “that adorable genius” by Alfred North Whitehead, noted for his kindness and courtesy, James had a small-c catholic sympathy for all sincere religious expressions with fruits of spiritual peace. He rarely condemned or ridiculed, always preferring to gently, politely disagree, to emphasize the positive aspects of every belief or experience. Still, he sometimes did betray his inherited 19th century New England WASP “Brahmin” prejudices in criticizing of what he considered the ascetic and devotional excesses of some Catholic saints–e.g., the obsessive super-chastity (“Purity…is NOT the only thing needful”) and extreme penances of Aloysius Gonzaga (whose “intellect” was “no larger than a pin’s head”), Teresa of Ávila’s “shrewish bustle” and supposed view of religious devotion as an “amatory flirtation” with God, or Catherine of Siena’s advocacy of a crusade against the Turks to unify Christendom (though he equally condemned Luther’s and Cromwell’s bloodthirsty bellicosity). His Brahmin prejudices may have also led him to deplore 16th century Catholicism’s supposed neglect of “social righteousness” and “helpfulness in general human affairs,” though he also admired early Jesuit missionaries like Francis Xavier, Jean de Brébeuf , and Isaac Jogues as “objective minds” who “fought in their way for the world’s welfare,” so that “their lives to-day inspire us.” However, I also suspect many liberal contemporary Catholics would sympathize with some of James’ criticisms. James himself felt that to “educated Catholics,” many of the Church’s “antiquated beliefs and practices, if taken literally,” seem “as childish as they are to Protestants–but childish in the pleasing sense of ‘childlike’–innocent, amiable, and worthy to be smiled upon–but ‘idiotic falsehoods’ to Protestants.” This was QUITE generous for an upper-crust WASP of James’ day! He was just as critical of the vagaries of some evangelical Protestants, as in a censorious woman he interviewed who self-righteously withdrew from her “worldly” and “hypocritical” church and from society to live alone in a boarding-house solipsistically writing pamphlets of endless “dreamy rhapsody” on “crucifixion” as the ultimate step in salvation beyond conversion and sanctification. James’ focus throughout the “Varieties” is always on the ways individuals have personally experienced God, the spiritual, or the supernatural, in prayer, conversion, or mysticism–rarely on organized religion or on theology. The book abounds in countless individual case histories of profound personal experiences, largely in the form of excerpts from memoirs and autobiographies, from men and women both within and outside organized religion (e.g., “unchurched” mystics like Whitman, Tolstoy, and R.M. Bucke). His most justly celebrated lectures describe “The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness,” “The Sick Soul,” “The Divided Self, and the Process of Its Unification,” and “Conversion,” but he also presents very interesting discussions of “Mysticism,” “Saintliness,” “The Value of Saintliness,” and prayer. Without the “nothing more than” reductivism of the “medical materialism” he decried, James compared the process of religious conversion, as an experience of spiritual crisis followed by release, peace, and certainty, to the natural process of adolescence. James gave much emphasis on the “unconscious,” popularized at the time by investigators like Freud, describing it as the source of profound religious experiences and not merely a sub-basement of anarchical sexual and aggressive impulses as Freud did. With his stress on their subconscious source, James did not deny the divine origin of religious experiences, but allowed our subconscious selves to be our connection to God. He left it an open question as to whether such experiences simply connected us to a wider self than our usual mundane everyday waking selves, or to an actual supernatural reality outside ourselves, neither dogmatically asserting nor denying the existence of such a reality. In his lecture on “Mysticism,” James cited the “extremer examples” of his “theopathic” characters as yielding the most interesting and suggestive insights on the nature of the phenomenon, but drew an open-mindedly, sympathetically cautious lesson. “Mystical states,” he argued, “usually are, and have the right to be, absolutely authoritative over the individuals to whom they come.” Still, he then added, “No authority emanates from them which should make it a duty for those who stand outside them to accept their revelations uncritically.” Mystics, James continued, have “no right to claim that we ought to accept the deliverance of their peculiar experiences, if we are ourselves outsiders and feel no private call thereto.” Rather, the “utmost they can ask of us” is “to admit that they establish a presumption” of the strong but not absolutely certain possibility of wider or higher orders of reality than those normally accessible to our ordinary everyday non-mystical consciousness. In other words, a mystic’s experiences cannot be taken as an infallible guarantee of the absolute truth of his theology, metaphysics, or moral code, of her beliefs on Heaven, Hell, the Last Judgment, angelic hierarchies. evolution and creation, abortion, gay marriage, or women clergy. At best, we can “combine what they tell us with the rest of our wisdom, and form our final judgment independently.” James ardently defended the value of a wide variety of types of religious devotion and experience, suitable to individual temperaments and social circumstances, emphatically rejecting a “one size fits all” insistence on uniformity. “If an Emerson were forced to be a Wesley, or a Moody forced to be a Whitman,” he declared in his concluding lecture, “the total human consciousness of the divine would suffer.” In his lecture on “The Value of Saintliness,” he compared saints, mystics, earnest social reformers, and dedicated patriots to artists and differing artistic schools, observing that “We accept a John Howard, a Mazzini, Botticelli, a Michael Angelo, with a kind of indulgence.” We are “glad they existed to show us that way but we are glad there are also other ways of seeing and taking life.” So, too, with regard to saints and mystics, we are “proud of a human nature that could be so passionately extreme, but we shrink from advising others to follow the example.” Rather, “the conduct we blame ourselves for not following lies nearer to the middle line of human effort.” It is “less dependent on particular beliefs and doctrines,” and “wears well in different ages.” We who have “no vocation for the extremer ranges of sanctity,” he felt, “will surely be let off at the last day if our humility, asceticism, and devoutness prove of a less convulsive sort,” as “much that it is legitimate to admire in this field need nevertheless not be imitated,” and “religious phenomena, like all other human phenomena, are subject to the law of the golden mean.” James’ section on “The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness” included an overview of the “Mind-cure movement,” his preferred name for “New Thought,” the late 19th and early 20th century forerunner of today’s New Age and positive thinking. He listed its sources as the Gospels, New England Transcendentalism, Berkeleyan Idealism, Spiritualism, and popular-science optimistic evolutionism. James cautiously commended what he saw as its wholesome effects in encouraging a healthy optimism and discouraging querulous complaining and self-pity. However, he criticized it for ignoring the inevitability of failure and tragedy in human life. He also found the “verbiage” of some of the “mind-cure” literature “so moonstruck with optimism and so vaguely expressed that an academically trained intellect finds it almost impossible to read it all.” Here James anticipated today’s “academically trained” late 20th and early 21st century “cultural elites” who still find contemporary positive thinking and popular self-help (“psychobabble”) literature so “moonstruck with optimism” and willfully blind to the very real physical and socio-economic obstacles to human personal fulfillment as to be almost unreadable! James saw religion as ultimately resting not on theology, philosophy, or formal creeds but on feeling–on the yearning for deliverance from suffering, and on mystical experience. Feeling was the “deeper source” of religion, while “philosophic and theological formulas” were “secondary products.” Religious experience “spontaneously and inevitably engenders myths, superstitions, dogmas, creeds, and metaphysical theologies, and criticisms of one set of those by the adherents of another.” In “a world in which no religious feeling had ever existed,” he doubted “whether any philosophic theology could ever have been framed.” A “dispassionate intellectual contemplation of the universe” apart from religious feeling would have led to “animistic explanations of natural fact,” and “criticized these away into scientific ones” as in our own world, as well as “a certain amount of ‘psychical research,'” just as our own scientists “now will probably have to re-admit a certain amount.” Here James obliquely alluded to his own active interest in investigating the paranormal, as a founder of the American Society for Psychical Research. The ultimate core of all religion for James was the sense of release, salvation, or redemption from a sense of fundamental lack or wrongness in one’s life through the self’s identification with or surrender to a higher, wider self in turn felt to be “continuous with a More of the same quality…operative in the universe outside of him, and which he can keep in working touch with,” leading to “feelings of security and joy” in our union or communication with it. James did not absolutely “know,” but was willing to “venture,” that there was an “actual inflow of energy in the faith state and the prayer state.” He believed that “the world of our present consciousness is only one out of many worlds of consciousness is only one out of many worlds of consciousness that exist,” as against the “sectarian scientist’s” denial of anything outside “the world of sensations and of scientific laws and objects”–thus anticipating the later 20th century interest in “altered states of consciousness.” His studies of religious experience convinced James that “we can experience union with SOMETHING larger than ourselves and in that union find peace,” that “beyond each man and in a fashion continuous with him there exists a larger power which is friendly to him and to his ideals.” This might well be the one unique infinite God of monotheist religion and philosophy, the Judaeo-Christian Jehovah or metaphysical Absolute. However, he added, it might also be “only a larger and more godlike self, of which the present self would then be but the mutilated expression.” The “universe” might then be “a collection of such selves, of different degrees of inclusiveness, with no absolute unity,” in a return to “polytheism” which James did not necessarily defend, but only mentioned as a possibility. In any case, the phenomenon of “prayerful communion” did strongly suggest that in “certain kinds of incursions from the subconscious region” of our personalities “something ideal, which in one sense is part of ourselves and in another sense is not ourselves,” from “a wider world of being than our every-day consciousness,” “actually exerts an influence, raises our centre of personal energy, and produces regenerative effects unattainable in other ways.” Years later, by the way, Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson cited this section of James’ “Varieties” as his inspiration for the AA “Higher Power,” which the individual recovering alcoholic is free to identify either with God, with his or her own higher self, or with the AA fellowship itself.

⭐Book Review: The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James (for more book reviews, please see […])In The Varieties of Religious Experience, a work based on his delivery of the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh, William James sought to examine from the perspective of psychology the subject of religious experiences, seeking to understand man and his consciousness concerning religion. Varieties has become a classic work in a number of fields, but especially so in the study of religious experiences and psychology of religion, a fact to which The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church attests. In this work, James examines an enormous amount of data concerning religious experiences and concludes that religious experience constitutes a positive saving experience that appears to be literal and objective insofar as he can determine. In this paper, we will review and examine James’ book, paying particular attention to facets that may need rethinking or revision in the current 21st Century religious and academic contexts. It should be noted that James provides in this work an astounding amount of evidence and that the scope and depth of his work remains such that we cannot consider every nuance of his presentation. Thus only major points, both for James and for our current consideration, will be examined. Upon reviewing this work, we will find that James has a great deal of insight and evidence to offer concerning religious experiences, but that his perspective needs revision and expansion before it can be considered normative for argumentation today.James begins by discussing his goals for the lectures, namely, that he considers what religious experience is and how it occurs, as well as determining its meaning and significance in human life. The lectures generally focus on the practices of religion and the visible and written accounts of religious experiences, for James writes that “The roots of a man’s virtue are inaccessible to us. No appearances whatever are infallible proofs of grace. Our practice, is our only sure evidence, even to ourselves, that we are genuinely Christian.” James writes as one particularly interested in personal religious experiences and does so by looking primarily at extreme forms of religious experience. Here we must ask whether the use of such materials constitutes an adequate method by which to survey religious experience. James pays little attention to the claims of those who have a `mild’ religious experience and thus the evidence that he mounts for his claims seems to be biased in favor of religious experiences that are generally both formative and transformative, as opposed to those that instigate mild or short-lived change.As a result of the experiences that he considers, James concludes that those who have religious experiences understand that certain unseen realities exist and that for such people, the religion (which James ascribes here to the subconscious) holds psychological primacy in those individuals. Thus most people who have had a religious experience find that experience to be highly formative for their lives. Concluding that this affect remains highly positive, James writes that, “Religion thus makes easy and felicitous that which is in any case necessary.” Such experiences can be externally focused or can result from such healthy mindedness practices as those who are `once-born’ (whom James characterizes as thinking little of themselves, generally happy and pleased with life, and focusing on God) or those patterns of thought associated with New Thought or transcendental thinking. At this point, a modern reader must consider the current implications of James’ position on this point. Transcendental thought has not been a monolithic entity in the century since James researched the religious experiences of New Thought, and thus we must reconsider the applicability of James’ criterion and conclusions concerning 21st Century New Age thinking.After considering those whose religious experiences involve a certain “Luther-an” tone of melancholy and guilt, James turns to the topic of religious conversions and the meaning and value of saintliness. In considering a plethora of experiential datum regarding conversion experiences, James outlines several different theories of conversion, as well as implications of and for the instantaneous and dramatic form of conversion that was growing in popularity in his day. Moving to saintliness, James dwells for some time on the characteristics of `universal saintliness,’ namely asceticism, strength of soul, purity, and charity, as well as the overall human value of saintly behavior and example. Ultimately however, regarding both conversion and saintliness, while James presents a great deal of evidence, it remains too highly Christian-centric. While he includes examples of saints and saintliness from historical and Buddhist sources, the conceptions presented by James of both conversion experiences as well as the meaning and value of saints remains firmly embedded within the Christian tradition. However skewed his results, in these sections James does come to some conclusions concerning religious experiences, as he turns the focus away from hyper-individualism, writing that “only those who have no private interests can follow an ideal straight away.” Additionally, he concludes that religious experience has had a largely positive function in the grand scheme of history, saying that, “our testing of religion by practical common sense and the empirical method, leave it in possession of its towering place in history.”A final topic that we shall briefly look at concerns the use of philosophy in discussing and defining religious experience. In this portion of Varieties, James argues that philosophical inquiry should abandon metaphysical constructions and turn to criticism, hoping that such a method will lead to a strong philosophy of religion. Fortunately for James, a good deal of religious scholarship in his time and for the duration of the 20th century has been directed towards forming a strong science of religion. Unfortunately, the very assumptions at the foundation of this scientific enterprise have been waylaid and are under sharp criticism in recent decades, leading the modern reader of Varieties to find James’ critique of philosophical considerations generally lacking in scholastically applicable substance for the modern context.James summarizes his work with five characteristics of the religious life, writing that religious experience consists of, “the invisible world is part of a more spiritual universe from which it draws its chief significance; That union or harmonious relation with that higher universe is our true end; That prayer or inner communion with the spirit thereof–be that spirit `God’ or `law’–is a process wherein work is really done, and spiritual energy flows in and produces effects, psychological or material, within the phenomenal world… [Psychologically] A new zest which adds itself like a gift of life, and takes the form either of lyrical enchantment or of appeal to earnestness and heroism. [And] An assurance of safety and a temper of peace, and, in relation to others, a preponderance of loving affections.” Such conclusions speak well to those concerned with the veracity of religious experience and an answering of the primary concerns presented at the outset of the lectures. However, upon reading these conclusions, there seems some indication that James drifted slightly from the thrust of the evidence that he presented. This is not to say that the conclusions presented could not follow from his evidence, only that they seem somewhat forced in this conclusion. Additionally, James proposes that the reality of religious experiences finds itself manifested in the human subconscious, allowing him to posit a `scientific’ explanation that intersects with the metaphysical claims of religious experience as interaction (in some form) with the `Other,’ a claim that continues to be investigated by modern scientists and scholars. Finally, James concludes concerning the varieties of religious experience that his research demonstrates that “we have in the fact that the conscious person is continuous with a wider self through which saving experiences come, a positive content of religious experience which, it seems to me, is literally and objectively true as far as it goes.”Before entering any final conclusions concerning this work, we must note several broad areas of critique. First, it should be noted that the vastness of materials that James employs may present readers with a general feeling of being inundated instead of using the evidence to support an overarching conclusion, as the section above concerning his five concluding points demonstrates. Second, the evidences presented are far too Christian, and more specifically far too often American Protestant in nature for the work to be holistically applicable to religious experience. In his postscript, James admits that his understanding and use of Buddhist experience was misinformed. In light of a century of study concerning the various traditions of world religions that include facets of religious experience, one can only conclude that the evidence presented in Varieties remains in need of considerable updating and inter-religious expansion. One wonders how different James’ understandings of religious experience and his interpretations of evidence would look in today’s pluralistic and multilayered religious context. Third, by focusing on extreme forms of religious experience, James has allowed his conclusion (that religious experiences are real at least in some manner) to focus on those experiences that are truly transformative without adequately considering those claimed experiences that have short-lived effects. Thus we must consider if those experiences are similarly real or if they differ from `real’ experiences in some quantifiable way aside from their impactful duration.Here we can finally say that the general tone of James’ work towards religion and religious experience can only be summarized as descriptive and positive, both in terms of the depth of his evidence as well as his conclusions concerning the personal veracity of religious experience. Overall, James does an excellent job recognizing that studying religious experience must entail a highly individual-based study, as speaking in overly broad strokes of religion or religious experience would both minimize and obfuscate the personal integrity and psychological reality of a religious experience. As noted above, James concluded that religious experience is in some form a real experience of the human being and that, “Religion, occupying herself with personal destinies, and keeping thus in contact with the only absolute realities which we know, must necessarily play an eternal part in human history.” However, as also noted above, it must be concluded that a number of James’ materials and perspectives, especially the reliance on Protestant Christian evidences and extreme forms of religious experience, designate Varieties of Religious Experience as a wealth of knowledge and evidence that must be updated for its conclusions to be agreeable to the general academic community. Thus upon reviewing this work, we can commend the further reading of The Varieties of Religious Experience for its insights and evidences concerning religious experiences, but urge that before its conclusions be taken as normative and authoritative in today’s scholarly climate that the perspective of William James found herein may be revised and updated in light of a broader evidential scope of religious experiences.

⭐If you are at all interested in psychology, religion, or both, you’ll need to read this. A classic, James was a genius.

⭐This is a great read. Wish more people were intellectually curious to be attracted to books like this. Not written like a textbook so was a good read.

⭐A masterpiece of oratorical theological philosophy. Now say that five times fast!

⭐The language maybe a little obscure to modern readers but even without a full understanding of his arguments, the extracts he cites throughout the lectures provide access to hidden worlds of mystical experiences that will surprise even the most sceptical amongst us.

⭐Yet another one who mistook ‘religion’ for ‘God’ when in fact they are 2 totally different things. The first one is man-made, the second is pure, almighty and eternal.

⭐A classic if you’re lit reviewing for your research

⭐Unfortunately I have been unable to read this book as the typeface is extremely small so I cannot comment on the content.


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