The Varieties of Religious Experience Summary

William James


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

William James was the son of Henry James, an American Swedenborgian, and the brother of Henry James, Jr., the American novelist. James was trained as a physician, but he turned to psychology and later to philosophy. His contribution to psychology, The Principles of Psychology (1890), has become a classic in the field. James early became the most popular spokesman of the American philosophical movement pragmatism. Among his other important philosophical works are: The Will to Believe, and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (1897), Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (1907), The Meaning of Truth: A Sequel to “Pragmatism” (1909), and Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912). The present work was compiled from his Gifford lectures.

James begins his series of lectures by characterizing the kind of study and the subject matter with which he is concerned. His concern is a psychological study of religious experiences, but he is not concerned with the physiological and neurological conditions that may underlie religious experiences. Such conditions, he argues, underlie all mental states, and consequently, are irrelevant in describing and evaluating religious experience. In fact, they are as irrelevant in evaluating religious opinions as they are in evaluating opinions in the natural sciences and in the industrial arts. No one accepts or rejects an opinion in the sciences on the basis of the author’s neurological type, and the same should be the case with religious opinions. James readily admits that many striking religious personalities are eccentric, even pathological; but such personalities, for this kind of study, function as microscopes and enlarge, for easier viewing, the subject matter of religious experience. The criteria for the evaluation of the experiences, however, must be kept distinct from these pathological considerations. Immediate luminousness, or philosophical reasonableness, and moral helpfulness James takes to be the only two relevant criteria for evaluating the religious phenomena with which he is concerned.

As for delimiting the subject matter as such, that is, deciding which experiences are to be called religious, James eschews an attempt to define the term “religion” as such. He is not concerned with “the essence of religion,” but with describing and evaluating those experiences usually classified as religious. He is, likewise, not concerned with the institutional aspects of religion, but with the personal aspects. He ignores the ecclesiastical organization with its rituals and creeds, its systematic theologies, and its ideas about the gods, and confines himself to examining “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.”

The term “the divine” is here taken to refer to what one considers the most primal, enveloping, and real, and religion is the person’s attitudes and reactions to it. James wishes “the divine” to be interpreted broadly enough to include the godless, or quasi-godless, religion of an Emersonian optimism and a Buddhistic pessimism. On the other hand, James does not wish to include, as religious, all attitudes concerned with a total reaction to life, for this would make the subject matter too broad and strain the ordinary use of language. After all, there are trifling and sneering attitudes toward the whole of life, attitudes that would hardly qualify as religious. “There is something solemn, serious, and tender,” he tells us, “about any attitude which we denominate religious. If glad, it must not grin nor snicker; if sad, it must not scream or curse.” As a consequence, James limits “the divine” to “the most primal, enveloping and real which an individual feels impelled to respond to solemnly and gravely, and neither by a curse nor a jest.”

James is still not quite satisfied, however, with his characterization of the religious attitude, for it does not clearly distinguish the religious attitude from what might be called the purely moral, such as the stoic attitude. The solemn and serious reaction and attitude of the religious person is distinguished by an element of joy or happiness. It is not a simple joy that results from a person’s being liberated from oppressive moods; it is a solemn joy, or happiness, that embraces within it the negative, or tragic, side of life and holds it in check. The religious reaction and attitude, which is the subject of these lectures, as a consequence, has a depth and strength that is lacking in the purely moral.

After delimiting the kind of experiences with which he is concerned in his study, James turns to the testimony concerning concrete religious experiences, and this occupies the bulk of his lectures. The amount, as well as the variety, of the testimony that he has collected is phenomenal and any summary will appear a lifeless skeleton compared to the richness of his concrete cases and his own colorful commentary. In this main section, however, James is primarily concerned with reporting what religious persons concretely describe, not with an evaluation of the experiences. These experiences by and large involve a sense of an unseen reality—that is, a reality that is not present to the special and particular senses—yet these experiences are as convincing to the person who has them as any direct sensible experience can be. In fact, one could say, James tells us,...

(The entire section is 2249 words.)