The Varieties of Religious Experience | Study Guide

William James

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The Varieties of Religious Experience | Author's Preface | Summary



James mentions that this volume was an outgrowth of two courses of 10 lectures he delivered as a Gifford Lecturer on Natural Religion at the University of Edinburgh. He originally hoped to cover man's religious appetites and their satisfaction, but since the psychological material on the first topic grew, he decided to postpone the second topic and concentrate on describing "man's religious constitution." He notes that he has "loaded" the lectures with concrete examples, mostly among "the extremer expressions of religious temperament." While the reader may initially see this as a caricature of the subject, they will come to understand why the author made these choices. He then thanks a number of people who provided information and gave advice.


William James was a professor of philosophy when he wrote the text for The Varieties of Religious Experience, although his first area of expertise was psychology. Thus, his approach to the subject matter is primarily psychological. The purpose of the Gifford Lectures, established in 1885, was to create a forum to discuss "natural theology" as a science—or to discuss the existence of God and divine purpose by observing nature and using reason. Natural theology also considers religious thought and feeling in human beings apart from any institutionalized religion. The lectures are indeed heavily loaded with excerpts describing religious experience, appearing both in running text and in footnotes. The reader will soon learn that James has chosen the "extremer" accounts to more clearly demonstrate religious thoughts and feelings that may appear in milder forms in people who are more "normal" (James sometimes refers to those who have these experiences as psychopathic, by which he means outside of the norm with regard to intrusions from the subconscious mind).

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