The Varieties of Religious Experience | Study Guide

William James

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The Varieties of Religious Experience | Lecture 1 : Religion and Neurology | Summary



James begins by saying he is neither a theologian, scholar of the history of religions, nor an anthropologist. Since his expertise is in psychology, he intends to focus on the "subjective phenomena recorded in literature produced by articulate and fully self-conscious men, in works of piety and autobiography." In examining the varieties of religious experience, he will look at those "most accomplished in the religious life." James will take an existential point of view, looking at both the biography and psychology of religious subjects. Such persons for whom religion exists—not as a "dull habit" but as an "acute fever"—are exceptional and eccentric and are often "geniuses" in religious life. For example, James provides an excerpt from the writings of George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, in which Fox recalls how God urged him to cry out against a particular city. James calls Fox a "psychopath," asserting that it is important not to ignore religion's "pathological" aspects.

James now points out ways in which people attempt to invalidate religious experience. For example, they place its origin in temperament, overactive nerves, bad digestion, lack of exercise, and the like. A more modern view equates religious emotions with sexual dysfunction. He calls this attempt to discredit religious states of mind "medical materialism." James agrees that "not a single one of our states of mind, high or low, healthy or morbid," can claim independence from organic processes. But to discredit spiritual states based on their supposed origins in organic processes is "illogical and arbitrary," since the same could be used to devalue the truth of any thought, feeling, scientific doctrine, or even disbelief in religion. It is illogical to disparage a work of genius in art, for example, because it may have been the fruit of "disease." In a similar way religious apprehensions (realizations) should be judged by "immediate luminousness" (i.e., "philosophical reasonableness") and "moral helpfulness." Thus, James charges the medical materialists as "dogmatists" in using the "criterion of origin" to judge the truth of religious experience.

In James's view the judgment of religious experience should use an "empiricist criterion": "by their fruits ye shall know them, not by their roots." James argues that the roots of virtue are not accessible: religious writers such as the Protestant Jonathan Edwards as well as the Catholic Saint Teresa agree that grace can be evident only in a person's actions.

James then turns to explain why he has chosen to use extreme examples of religious experience and/or practice to study—those that could be labeled pathological or perverse. He states that the "psychopathic temperament" paired with a "superior intellect" often provide the best conditions for genius to flourish. With regard to religious experience the psychopathic temperament contains the "emotionality which is the sine qua non of moral perception ... the intensity and tendency to emphasis which are the essence of practical moral vigor ... [and] the love of metaphysics and mysticism which carries one's interests beyond the surface of the sensible world."


James immediately establishes his credentials as a social scientist by saying his field of expertise is psychology; therefore, he wishes to study religious experience as a subjective phenomenon. For that purpose he has to focus on those people for whom religion is a matter of life and death, at least in the spiritual sense. While he intends to take these extreme examples of religiosity seriously, at the same time he does not want to turn his back on the "pathological" aspects of religion. In this sense he is not judging the extremely religious but rather indicating that from a psychological perspective, they can potentially be judged as mentally ill. For example, he uses George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, as an example of a psychopath. For James this term does not have the same meaning as it does today—a term mostly used to describe an individual who lacks a moral compass and empathy for others. To James a psychopath is someone who is mentally ill. He says elsewhere the psychopathic temperament "often brings with it ardor and excitability of character." When James reproduces George Fox's journal, in which he relates how God told him to take off his shoes as he was walking in the middle of winter and go into a certain village and cry, "Woe to the bloody city of Lichfield!" it is easy to see why James classifies him as mentally ill. Yet at the same time, James allows in The Varieties that Fox had genuine religious experiences; thus, James forces readers to look at the facts he puts before them through this bifurcated view: certain types of extremely religious people may be geniuses in the realm of the spirit and at the same time may be eccentric or even mad.

James also answers those people who would like to reduce religion to the manifestation of a physical incapacity or illness or to sexual dysfunction, noting that the same sort of rationalization could be made about any human activity. Moreover, since art is not judged according to the artist's mental state, but rather solely on the work's merits, James asks for the same consideration for religious productions, which he calls "fruits." He quotes the Great Awakening evangelist, Jonathan Edwards, who said the roots of virtue are not accessible; only the actions of Christians can be judged. In the same way James will judge religious experience according to its fruits.

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