The Varieties of Religious Experience | Study Guide

William James

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The Varieties of Religious Experience | Lecture 18 : Philosophy | Summary



James now turns to the question of whether philosophy can "stamp a warrant of veracity upon the religious man's sense of the divine." For James, religious experience is a private affair, and philosophy and theology about it are "secondary products, like translations of a text in another tongue." Nonetheless, it is his intention to "extract from the privacies of religious experience some general facts which can be defined in formulas upon which everybody may agree"—a "science of religions."

James wishes to "discredit" the "intellectualism of religion," which reaches theoretical conclusions and then "warrants their veracities." A theology based on "pure reason" would have to provide universal convictions, but it would fail to be "'objectively' convincing." Rather a philosophy of divinity is based on "our passions or our mystical intuitions" in which we "fix our beliefs beforehand" and find "arguments for our conviction." He then goes through some of the ideas in "older systematic theology" in Protestant and Catholic manuals, which attempt to establish God's existence and the attributes of his nature, asking how such "propositions" make any difference to people in their everyday lives. Using a pragmatic approach, originated by the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, James argues that the metaphysical attributes of God (for example, immateriality, self-sufficiency, and so forth) have no practical effect in everyday life. On the other hand, the moral aspects of God "positively determine fear and hope and expectation, and are foundations for the saintly life." But dogmatic theology about the moral attributes of God does not prove God exists, and such arguments, James claims, have never convinced nonbelievers.

James now looks at modern idealism to see if it can provide a better warrant for God's existence. Modern idealism is based on the philosopher Immanuel Kant's doctrine of the Transcendental Ego of Apperception, which presupposes a universal self that precedes all experiences and makes experience possible through the unity of consciousness. Idealists who followed Kant transformed this transcendental ego into "the soul of the world," in which each individual consciousness has being, but such a philosophy cannot warrant the truth of faith in God, any more than dogmatic theology could.

James calls on philosophy to "abandon metaphysics and deduction for criticism and induction, and frankly transform herself from theology into science of religions." Philosophy can compare religious ideas and eliminate what is "local and accidental" and remove the "historic incrustations" from dogma and worship. By applying the results of natural science to "spontaneous religious constructions," philosophy can eliminate doctrines that are "scientifically absurd or incongruous." Philosophy can reduce the number of hypotheses, test them, offer mediation between believers, and help bring about consensus. James imagines a day in which such a science of religion might have as much respect among people as physical science.


In this lecture James attempts to establish criteria for a science of religion. He begins by saying he wishes to discredit an intellectually dishonest attempt to make theoretical conclusions about religion but then tries to prove those very conclusions. Religion cannot be based on reason because it would not be possible to come up with a universal set of propositions or dogmatic principles that would convince everybody. Generally speaking, people decide what they believe ahead of time and then come up with arguments and proofs to prop up their convictions. When he turns his attention to the old Christian manuals that attempt to establish the existence of God or to give God definitive attributes, it becomes clear how useless are such attempts at a taxonomy of divine attributes. The attributes of God have no practical purpose or influence on people's lives. Moreover, giving God moral attributes does nothing to convince people that God exists. Similarly, modern idealism can't prove God exists.

James's solution to this problem is to establish a science of religion. But when the reader looks at his suggestions for doing so—such as comparing ideas and eliminating those that seem to lack universality—his model breaks down. A science of religion would eliminate doctrines that seem scientifically absurd, which would be a tall order, since many doctrines do not fall in the realm of science. What science can do, however, and is doing, is examine altered states from a physical perspective. A large-scale study, for example, looked at the brain scans of Buddhist monks over a period of time. Neuroscientists have recently associated temporal lobe epilepsy with religious visions, another example of such studies. As science learns more about how the brain works, it might also be able to answer more questions about what James dubbed—over 100 years ago—trans-marginal regions where religious experiences take place.

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