The Varieties of Religious Experience | Study Guide

William James

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The Varieties of Religious Experience | Lecture 19 : Other Characteristics | Summary



James returns to empirical philosophy to determine the truth of religion. "The true is what works well, even though the qualification 'on the whole' may always have to be added," he says. James opines that religion has aesthetic value. For imaginations that require "richness," institutional religion that is "complex, majestic, and hierarchical," satisfy that need. In James's view Protestantism has more "spiritual profundity than Catholicism" but cannot compete with it in the realm of aesthetics.

In most books about religion, sacrifice, confession, and prayer are named as essential elements. James now comments on each of these. Sacrifices to God can be found in all types of worship, although current-day Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism forego ritual sacrifice, and Christianity preserves it "in transfigured form in the mystery of Christ's atonement." In place of "vain oblations," religions offer the heart and the inner self as a sacrifice. The second element, confession, is a system for "purgation and cleansing" and puts people in "right relations" with the deity. Confession allows people to "exteriorize their rottenness" and make a fresh start.

James spends the next section commenting on the value of prayer, the essence of religion. The soul in distress enters into relations with the power it depends on and on which it feels its fate depends. Genuine religion is inextricably linked with "prayerful consciousness." Religion insists that through prayer certain things that "cannot be realized in any other manner come about." James then shares the remarkable case of evangelist George Müller who during his ministry of 68 years never owned any property and had few possessions. Yet he distributed millions of religious texts in different languages; built orphanages and established schools; administered large sums of money; and traveled over 200,000 miles. He prayed to God for what he needed and apparently received it. James provides additional examples of people in a less frankly material relationship with God but rather who rely on the Divinity "for support and guidance," receiving subtler proofs of his providence and presence in their lives.

Finally, James comments on how the manifestations of religious life are connected to the subconscious mind. He mentions visions, ecstasies, and the like, in those who have "exalted sensibility." He argues that "incursions from beyond the trans-marginal region have a peculiar power to increase conviction." The author provides additional examples of such incursions, and at the end of the lecture concludes, "In religion we have a department of human nature with unusually close relations to the trans-marginal or subliminal region." This subconscious region harbors dimly lit passions and prejudices, as well as all other "non-rational operations." In this realm mystical experiences arise, including "automatisms, sensory or motor; our life in hypnotic and 'hypoid' conditions ... our delusions, fixed ideas, and hysterical accidents [and] our supra-normal cognitions." In people with a substantial religious life, the door to the subconscious is "unusually wide open."


While James says he will return to empirical philosophy to determine the truth of religion, what he means is that he will once again look at the usefulness of religion. Although before he looked at the fruits of religion to determine whether it added to the general stock of humanity's good things, he now considers whether religion serves one or more purposes in meeting the needs of human beings. It is interesting that James doesn't discuss here the obvious need human beings feel to assign a greater meaning to their lives beyond the quotidian purpose of simply surviving and obtaining ordinary happiness. Neither does he discuss the powerful need for transcendence. But this probably makes sense because throughout the work he has both directly and indirectly alluded to how religion provides meaning in people's lives, and he clearly links asceticism to the need to rise to the level of heroism. So in this lecture he turns his attention to the way in which religion serves people's aesthetic needs, citing institutional religion as serving this purpose more so than personal religion. A need for "richness," such as is found in the rich iconography of the Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches, serves people's hunger for what is complex, hierarchical, majestic, and perhaps magical.

James also sees sacrifice, confession, and prayer as serving the needs of humanity and pays particular attention to prayer since prayer is "religion in act" and "real religion" in James's view. Prayer is the conduit by which people communicate with the Divinity, and he notes that it provides assurances to people of God's influence and presence in their lives. Prayerful people generally believe their prayers are answered, since God's communications are in the eye of the beholder, and just about anything that happens can be construed as a response from God. James includes the testimony of one person who says: "One finds ... that each thing comes duly, one thing after the other, so that one gains time to make one's footing sure before advancing farther. And then everything occurs to us at the right moment." Clearly, such people feel loved and guided by God through the power of prayer.

Finally, James returns to his belief that manifestations of God are connected to the subliminal or unconscious mind, what he calls "incursions" from these "trans-marginal" regions that serve to reinforce what people already believe. James notes again that manifestations of automatisms, such as automatic writing or other types of seeming clairvoyant activity—which were common experiences for people involved in the "spiritism" of the New Thought movement of the period—also occur in the trans-marginal regions.

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