Study Guide

The Varieties of Religious Experience

by William James

The Varieties of Religious Experience Themes

Christian Themes (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

In his attempt to identify the psychological basis for the variety of religious experience, James delineates the following principles, which reflected a growing need to explain spirituality in general, and Christian spiritual life in particular, in the context of a growing secularism at the beginning of the twentieth century:Neurological and physiological conditions are as irrelevant in evaluating a person’s religious experiences as they are in evaluating a scientist’s physical hypothesis. Religious experiences should be evaluated in terms of their philosophical reasonableness and moral helpfulness. A person’s psychological makeup contributes to the more specific characteristics of a person’s religious experiences, and this accounts for the variety among religious experiences. An examination of the reports of religious experience discloses three general beliefs and two psychological characteristics. The beliefs are: (1) the visible world is part of a more spiritual universe from which it draws its significance; (2) that union or harmonious relations with that higher universe is our true end; and (3) that prayer or communion with the spirit thereof is a process in which spirit energy produces effects within the phenomenal world. The two psychological characteristics are: (1) a new zest that adds itself like a gift to life; and (2) an assurance of safety and a temper of peace, and in relation to others, a preponderance of loving affection. The differences between religious beliefs are differences in over-beliefs, the way in which the vaguer and more general beliefs are made specific and the spiritual is related to the cosmos. Religious experiences are primarily concerned with individual feelings and destinies, but this is not to be deplored; such experiences deal with realities in the completest sense of that term.

The Varieties of Religious Experience Themes

Religion
In order to talk about religious experience, James must first define the term religion. He quickly points out...

(The entire section is 1188 words.)