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.)

The Varieties of Religious Experience Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Philosopher William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience is based on a series of twenty Gifford lectures he delivered at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, beginning in May, 1901. James was asked to discuss natural religion, which traditionally had been conceived as a discipline on the border between philosophy and theology. As such, natural religion was thought to exclude both the notion of divine revelation and any claim of tangible religious experience. James’s own concept differed in looking not at God as an object of devotion but at human attitudes toward God, including belief, supplication, direct experience, and doubt and disbelief. The word “varieties” in the book’s title indicates James’s intention to catalog and evaluate the range of religious experiences accessible to different human faculties. Indeed, James denies that there is only one “religious sentiment.”

The invitation to lecture in Edinburgh left James both exultant and humbled, as he admitted in his first address: “It is with no small amount of trepidation that I take my place behind this desk, and face this learned audience.” James’s characteristic modesty aside, the magnitude of the subject, even in a twenty-lecture format, was daunting. His initial plan was to devote ten lectures to descriptive, or psychological, examination and the remaining ten lectures to metaphysical considerations based on his philosophical studies. Though a professor of philosophy at Harvard University, James had studied psychology and had also earned a medical degree. He had spent so much time on the psychological aspects of religious experience that he had little time left for the metaphysical, aside from his brief conclusions about the distinctive qualities of the religious life.

James begins his study by examining testimony about religious experience. He thinks his investigation would be most fruitful if confined to religious pioneers rather than to those who have followed their teachings. James identifies two different questions one must ask about the articulation of religious experience: What is its origin, and what is its significance or value? For example, while affirming that the Bible has great spiritual value, one might ask under what “biographic conditions” and states of mind its authors contributed to it. James attacks the common failure to make this distinction, a failure that can lead some to dismiss the value of religious thinking because of a thinker’s flaws. Similarly, he notes that Quakerism is a highly admirable faith, but quotes at length from the journal of its founder, George Fox, to show “pathological aspects” in Fox’s thinking. However, declares James, Fox’s mental instability should not negate the significance of the Quaker faith, which, indeed, “is impossible to overpraise.” James also points out that one can just as readily find mental and physical defects among atheists and agnostics, for example.

James then questions the meaning of the divine, as conceived by human beings, and asks what constitutes a religious experience. He wishes to avoid an excessively narrow definition, for “There are systems of thought which the world usually calls religious, and yet which do not positively assume a God.” Buddhism, for example, has been called a “hopeless” or “atheistic” religion; and the Transcendental philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson “seems to let God evaporate into abstract Ideality.” For James, the divine is “the first and last thing in the way of power and truth. Whatever then were most primal and enveloping and deeply true.”

On the question of what makes a religious experience, James asserts that the religious attitude is a “solemn and serious reaction” to the divine as he defines it. The religious attitude can engender a...

(The entire section is 1561 words.)

The Varieties of Religious Experience Summary

Lectures 1–3
In the first two lectures, James sets the ground rules or parameters of the topic he will be discussing. He...

(The entire section is 1566 words.)