illustrated person kneeling in prayer surrounded by symbols, a rainbow, and a half moon

The Varieties of Religious Experience

by William James

Start Free Trial

Christian Themes

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

In order to talk about religious experience, James must first define the term religion. He quickly points out that the main theme of his lectures is not the institution of religion but rather the personal experience of it. His focus is on the psychological aspects of religion, and to do this, he must deal with the individual. Following the same premise, he also states that it is not the rules and rituals of religious experience in which he is interested but the religious feelings and the emotions of the individual. To this end, he relies on stories about people he has known and works of literature and autobiography he has read. He writes that he does not want to use examples from religious people who follow ‘‘the conventional observances’’ of their country. In other words, he does not want to use examples of people who comply with the dictates of their church. Rather, he wants to use only people who have what he calls original experiences. The religion he refers to is that which ‘‘exists not as a dull habit, but as an acute fever.’’ Having established this definition, James then tackles all aspects of the personal religious experiences.

There is a sense of an unknown reality or power that exists in religious experiences. This sense is the basis of belief. Whatever this feeling is, it cannot be seen and yet it gives the believer the idea that there is some mystical order in life. As James writes, religious experience imparts the desire to align oneself with this power, as it is the source of supreme good in which all things are harmonious. This belief, James states, is the ‘‘religious attitude of the soul.’’ Belief in general, James writes, is like stating ‘‘as if.’’ Taking the concept from philosopher Immanuel Kant, James offers the conclusion that belief consists of accepting various concepts as if they exist, even though they...

(This entire section contains 1188 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

cannot be proven. It is this belief that underlies all religious experience.

In all the examples that James offers in this book, his subjects believe that they have had religious or spiritual experiences that make little rational sense, and each the occurrence is very real for the person who has it. Without belief, there would be no religion.

Happiness and Depression
Having suffered through several years of depression and having come out of this with what he describes as a spiritual experience, James writes about this devastating state of mind as well as its contrasting emotion, happiness. He uses the poet Walt Whitman as the perfect example of healthymindedness, a state of acceptance of life that can lead to happiness. James believes that this state does not just mean the ability to laugh or to indulge oneself in pleasures but to maintain a persistent, enjoyable existence. It is more an inner happiness than an outer one, the kind of happiness that Whitman was able to portray in his poetry—a love of life. According to James, Whitman was able to write his poems in such a way that ‘‘a passionate and mystic ontological emotion suffuses’’ it and in the end persuades ‘‘the reader that men and women, life and death, and all things are divinely good.’’

However, there is a problem, according to James, if that healthy-minded person refuses to accept the existence of evil. In this case, the positive attitude has taken that person too far, refusing to accept reality. People who are so optimistic as to ignore the evil in life decline to even think about evil as that thinking, in and of itself, is also evil.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is what James refers to as the sick soul, an individual who maximizes evil. James writes that the question of evil and the resultant unhappiness that it brings is hard to ignore, for even in the life of a most purely happy individual, death still awaits. Then there is also the question of the source of evil. Is God, the all-good creator, also responsible for evil and unhappiness? Does evil exist as part of the whole, never to be destroyed? Or is it a separate entity that humankind can work toward erasing from reality? A healthy-minded person, James reports, would have to believe in the latter, that is, that evil can be rid from the system, that it is not part of the whole.

For people who believe that evil is a part of the whole, there are different degrees to how it affects them. ‘‘There are people for whom evil means only a mal-adjustment with things,’’ James writes, ‘‘a wrong correspondence of one’s life with the environment.’’ This is a more curable type of evil. However, for other individuals, the problem goes much deeper. There is ‘‘a wrongness or vice in his essential nature, which no alteration of the environment, or any superficial rearrangement of the inner self, can cure, and which requires a supernatural remedy.’’

Spiritual Enthusiasm
There is a sense of happiness or excitement, James declares, in religious experiences. This excitement empowers the individual. It makes depression and melancholy fall away. Meaning is restored to life. There is created a deeper piety and desire to be charitable. Confidence and compassion for fellow beings is high. One becomes focused and earnest about one’s goals, ridding one of inhibitions. Temptations that might formerly have deterred one from the path of saintliness are extinguished, and feelings of great happiness and freedom are immense. It is through the feelings, or rather through the observation of the one who experiences these feelings, that James measures religious experience. According to James, it is not the words of the individual claiming to have found religion, but rather through his or her being, empowered by strong emotions, that qualifies it as a truly religious experience.

The term pragmatism in everyday use implies practicality and common sense. However, the pragmatism to which James refers is actually a word he himself coined in regards to a particular element in the study of philosophy. It was through pragmatism that James attempted to apply scientific inquiry to the process of thinking. In an article for American Heritage, Louis Menand states that James suggested that all one had to do ‘‘was to ask what practical effects our choosing one view rather than another might have.’’ James’s intention in pragmatism, according to Menand, ‘‘was to open a window, in what he regarded as an excessively materialistic and scientific age, for faith in God.’’

In The Varieties of Religious Experience, James applies pragmatism to the concept of God, relating his own comfort in doing so because he can eliminate many of the philosophical attributes of the concept of God and maintain only those that have an effect on him. For example, James could not fathom any reason for God to have attributes of indivisibility, simplicity, superiority, and self-felicity in Himself, as these had no practical applications for James. He states that since they have no connections to an individual’s life, ‘‘what vital difference can it possibly make to a man’s religion whether they be true or false?’’