The Varieties of Religious Experience | Study Guide

William James

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The Varieties of Religious Experience | Lecture 20 : Conclusions | Summary



James sums up the beliefs of the religious as follows:

  1. The visible world belongs to a larger spiritual world from which it derives its significance.
  2. The purpose of human life is union or "harmonious relation" with the "higher universe."
  3. Prayer or "inner communion" with the spirit is the "work" through which spiritual energy "flows in and produces effects ... within the phenomenal world."
  4. Religious experience adds zest to life, either in the form of "lyrical enchantment" or through "earnestness and heroism."
  5. Religious experience brings "an assurance of safety," "a temper of peace," and feelings of love.

James addresses the question of whether the proliferation of so many different "religious types and sects and creeds is regrettable," answering with an emphatic "no." Since people have different difficulties and personalities, it makes sense that they would work out different solutions to the problem of life. Furthermore, a "science of religion" cannot take the place of religion itself, since "knowledge about a thing is not the thing itself." A science might provide answers to "causes and elements of religion, and might even decide which elements were qualified, by their general harmony with other branches of knowledge, to be considered true," but such a person would not necessarily be religious.

James addresses the issue of whether religion is an anachronism from an earlier time in human history that will eventually disappear as science continues to evolve. No doubt, religion is "a monumental chapter in the history of human egotism," since it revolves around a person's private destiny. Science, on the other hand, has "ended by utterly repudiating the personal point of view." The god recognized by science must be one "of universal laws exclusively, a God who does a wholesale, not a retail business." From the scientific point of view religion is a form of "primeval thought," in which human beings attempted to get the natural world to cooperate with them. Still, "the terror and beauty of phenomena, the 'promise' of the dawn and of the rainbow, the 'voice' of the thunder, the 'gentleness' of the summer rain, the 'sublimity' of the stars, and not the physical laws which these things follow" continue to impress the religious mind.

James claims that the world of experience has an objective part and a subjective part: the objective (external) world of experience is the larger, and includes a person and their surroundings (the environment or exterior facts of the world). But the subjective (internal) world is the one that feels most real. "A conscious field plus its object as felt or thought of plus an attitude towards the object plus the sense of self to whom the attitude belongs—such a concrete bit of personal experience ... is a full fact, even though it may be insignificant," James further explains. Since people feel their subjective experience as more real than scientific facts, they will continue to be interested in the private states of mind religion is so concerned with.

James next considers whether religion reveals anything "distinct enough to be considered a general message to mankind." More specifically, are there, underneath the varieties of beliefs, "a common nucleus to which [all religions] bear their testimony unanimously? And second, ought we to consider the testimony true?" He answers yes to the first question. All religions find "an uneasiness" in existence and come up with a "solution" to it. All religions acknowledge something "more" than concrete reality, which in James's view is a "subconscious continuation of our conscious life." Putting aside specific beliefs, James and his readers "have in the fact that the conscious person is continuous with a wider self through which saving experiences come, a positive content of religious experience which ... is literally and objectively true as far as it goes." James finds agreement with mankind's "instinctive belief": God must be considered real since God produces real effects. James confesses to an "over-belief" that ordinary consciousness is "only one out of many worlds of consciousness that exist," and these other realms of consciousness deliver meaningful experiences. Further, while the experiences of conscious and subconscious states generally remain discrete, sometimes they become continuous, and "higher energies filter in." Finally, James says: "By being faithful in my poor measure to this over-belief, I seem to myself to keep more sane and true."


In his summing up of the beliefs of the religious, James notes that for the devout the meaning of life derives from a higher power or consciousness animating the visible world; the purpose of existence is to gain knowledge of that realm of transcendent (immaterial) existence. He notes that prayer or inner communion is the conduit through which a human being can make contact with God or superconsciousness or, in the case of some Buddhists, emptiness. James's use of the word "prayer" needs to be understood as broadly defined, since it can include the conventional idea of prayer as well as contemplation and meditation, which have different meanings in the Eastern and Western religions. Moreover, prayer can include certain kinds of philosophical thinking that leads to spiritual realization. The devout also believe that religion makes life worth living, since it adds magic—James calls it "lyrical enchantment"—and an arena in which people can act out heroism. James says religion provides people with a feeling of safety because those who are religious feel as if they are under the protection of a higher power. If they have had direct experience of God, their feelings of security may be so strong that they remove most or all of the existential fear most people carry around on an everyday basis, especially if such people have had repeated experiences of union with God.

For James it is natural that people have a variety of religious experiences. Given that individuals differ and come from a wide range of cultures, it makes sense that they would experience divinity differently, and no doubt their cultural beliefs about God or transcendence or superconsciousness are sure to determine the kinds of experiences they do have, since it is not possible to separate these two phenomena.

Not surprisingly, James cannot picture a time when science will have ascended to such a place of eminence that it will eclipse religion entirely. James says religion is related to human egotism, which means that it grows out of a very personal need for transcendence that seems to be universal. Even professed atheists and agnostics have a need for transcendence, meaning they too wish to find a method of going beyond their self-boundaries. Connected with the need for transcendence is the desire to feel that one's life has some enduring meaning. Those who do not choose a religious path will find that meaning in the material realm—perhaps in altruism or in the accumulation of wealth and power. But understanding the world through the lens of impersonal science will not be enough for most people to satisfy their deepest existential longings.

When James speaks about subjective and objective experience, he means that people live both in the objective or external world, which is much larger than themselves, and the internal subjective world, which actually includes themselves and their immediate surroundings—those objects of the external world within their frame of reference, along with their own consciousness and how they feel about both themselves and the objects their senses are contacting. This subjective experience also includes the memory carried by each individual. All of these things are much more immediately factual than the facts of science, and for that reason people will continue to be interested in what speaks to their compelling private world of fact.

In finally considering whether all religious experience has a common factor in its testimony, James must, after all he has considered, answer with an emphatic yes. The religiously minded begin with an uneasiness that must be put right, or what a philosopher might call existential angst, which comes from knowledge of one's own mortality. Religion provides an "immortality project," a term coined by anthropologist Ernest Becker to indicate whatever people create to soften the harshness of their ultimate fate. For some an immortality project might be art; for others their children; for the religious it is religious transcendence.

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