The Varieties of Religious Experience | Study Guide

William James

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The Varieties of Religious Experience | Lectures 4 and 5 : The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness | Summary



Most people believe that happiness is the chief purpose of human life, and religion can be a source of joy. James wishes to first pursue the simplest form of religious happiness in Lectures 4 and 5: the kind that refuses to feel unhappiness. Such religious practitioners fling themselves "upon their sense of the goodness of life, in spite of the hardships of their own condition and ... the sinister theologies into which they may be born." James quotes English scholar Francis W. Newman, who refers to two families of God's children—"the once-born and the twice-born." Lectures 4 and 5 discuss the once-born.

The once-born see God as an "animating spirit of a beautiful harmonious world," and read his character in nature. James claims Catholics are more likely to ascribe to this view, while the more pessimistic Protestants are more likely to fall into the second category. Among the contemporary transcendentalists, James cites the poet Walt Whitman, whom he both praises and scourges throughout The Varieties. Whitman's seeming "inability to feel evil" is an optimism that some might label "quasi-pathological." James quotes extensively from Cosmic Consciousness, by R.M. (Richard Maurice) Bucke, an avid disciple of Whitman, who claims the poet was completely free of anger and other negative feelings. James asserts that Whitman attained his important position in literature by banishing "all contractile elements" from his writing and expressing his emotional expansiveness in the first person, convincing readers that all things were "divinely good." While Whitman is sometimes called a pagan, this label does not suit him because the pagans (Greeks and Romans of ancient times) fully acknowledged sadness and mortality.

James gives Whitman's view the name of "healthy-mindedness" but divides those with this attitude that all things are good into involuntary and voluntary types. Involuntary healthy-mindedness is one in which a person immediately feels happy about whatever is in front of them. The voluntary or systematic method looks at the aspect or aspects of a thing that can be conceived of as good. They believe good is "the essential and universal aspect of being" and "deliberately [exclude] evil from [their] field of vision." The most honest practitioners change their inner attitude toward what is bad, deciding to either fight against it (and viewing it as a tonic) or facing it cheerfully. James cites the growth of healthy-mindedness in the "advance of liberalism" within Christianity, which has put aside the old "hell-fire theology" and focuses on the dignity rather than the depravity of human beings. Science, particularly new ideas about evolution, is also being embraced as an optimistic substitute for the old religion.

More interesting, in James's view, however, is the "mind-cure movement" and similar sects of "New Thought," with doctrinal sources in the Christian Gospels, New England transcendentalism, Berkeleyan idealism, spiritism, evolutionism, and Hinduism. Those in this movement believe they can be saved or cured of disease of all kinds with the right attitude that includes hope, trust, and courage. They avoid speaking about "disagreeable sensations ... ordinary inconveniences ... and ailments of life." They believe that people are already one with the divine in the subconscious mind. Moreover, the cause of sickness, weakness, depression, and the like is a sense of separateness from this divine energy. The author then extensively quotes people who claim to have been cured of illness through the application of mind-cure, sometimes with accompanying spiritual visitations or visions.

Christian Science, founded by Mary Baker Eddy, is "the most radical branch of mind-cure in its dealings with evil," James says, since it views evil as simply a lie: totally nonexistent. In James's view the mind-cure movement has a lot in common with the early Lutheran and Wesleyan movements, which claimed people were already saved if only they would believe it. The mind-cure counsels surrender and letting go, which has a regenerative potential, and James opines that the suggestion, or the "power of ideas," is at work in mind-cure. Mind-cure makes use of the subconscious mind, through the exercise of "passive relaxation, concentration, and meditation," and even uses hypnotism, he says. Moreover, James points out that these practices are similar to the practice of "recollection" or the "practice of the presence of God" in Catholicism—although mind-cure practitioners do not take that view. Nonetheless, some accounts of the mind-cure sound suspiciously like mysticism.

Certain scientific types—sometimes called "positivists"—argue that religion is a primitive form of thought related to survival and that humanity has outgrown it. Science has shown that personality is merely a by-product of elementary and impersonal material forces. This view is the exact opposite of mind-cure philosophy, which sees "the controlling energies of nature [as] personal" and believes the universe will respond to "individual appeals and needs." And in the age of scientific authority, it wages war against science and appears to be winning many minds and hearts. James concludes that "the universe ... [is] a more many-sided affair than any sect, even the scientific sect, allows for." Both science and religion offer "keys for unlocking the world's treasure-house," and they don't have to be mutually exclusive.


In these two lectures, James introduces the idea of the once-born and the twice-born. He will use this construct to organize his discussion of religious types and religious experience. James's position is that the once-born, or healthy-minded, are more psychologically healthy than the twice-born, who are essentially pessimists. An old cliché may serve to simply explain the difference: the once-born see a glass that is half-full, while the twice-born see a glass that is half-empty.

Everyone can think of examples of people in their lives who are once-born versus twice-born. For example, the once-born nowadays may turn off the television so they don't have to listen to bad news. They may not believe in climate change, or if they do, that it will create cataclysmic environmental disasters. When people's behavior indicates less-than-stellar motives, the healthy-minded may make excuses for them, and they are generally unable to own up to their own bad motives. Such people focus on remaining happy and keeping their equilibrium to ward off fear and anxiety, so they ignore things that are evil or wrong, both in the world and in themselves.

For people of a more pessimistic cast, the healthy-minded attitude may seem naïve, and James indirectly disparages Walt Whitman for banishing all the bad elements from his writing and perhaps sarcastically notes that Whitman is not a pagan, since the pagans acknowledged sadness and mortality. But James is not being fair to Whitman, since his information about Whitman's character comes through a third party and a disciple of Whitman's, R.M. Bucke, whose view is no doubt highly biased. Whitman certainly was willing to face up the evil in the world and served as a nurse during the Civil War. Furthermore, his poetry does not universally praise creation. While his most famous poem, Song of Myself, may show an "inability to feel evil," this is certainly not the case in his poetry about the Civil War nor in his meditations on old age. Thus, as critic John Tessitore points out, James sets Whitman up as a straw man to represent the extreme version of healthy-minded religion, which James feels some disdain for. Thus, Walt Whitman is not a good example of what James labels as the "involuntary" healthy-minded type, who feels happiness only about whatever he encounters in the world. Such a person would seem to be simple-minded rather than religious, and James's assertions that such religious people exist seems doubtful.

James spends much more time on the "voluntary" healthy-minded religious types, and for good reason, since healthy-mindedness is something that people must work at. The remainder of the chapter is devoted to a discussion about the mind-cure movement because James sees it, correctly, as religious. This movement shares similarities with the so-called "New Age" movement of modern times. Both the mind-cure movement and some types of New Age philosophies share the idea that sickness comes from the mind and can be cured with the mind. While science has now confirmed the "placebo effect," which shows that people's belief they will be cured often works a cure, the efficacy of such mind cures is limited. For example, a person with stage four metastatic cancer will not be cured with a placebo. Similarly, science is finding more and more evidence of the mind-body connection. For example, stress is a factor in many types of diseases, but the effects of stress go only so far. The need to believe that the mind can cure the body is a way in which people can feel they have control over their fate, even if, in the case of the mind-cure movement, they give the credit to the intervention of a divine force.

James presents an array of cases and has not vetted them in any way to determine how much evidence exists for people having worked their own miraculous cures. While his failure to do so makes sense from one perspective, since he is examining what people believe, from another vantage point it does not, since James is also examining the validity of religious experience and intends to a make a judgment about it. Thus, it seems surprising that James would simply take people at their word about their mind cures simply by reading the written accounts. He allows that such cures make use of the subconscious mind, for example, by using techniques that reduce stress and by making hypnotic suggestions, but he covers up a lot of questions in a hasty and peremptory manner by saying that the universe is "a many-sided affair" and religion is one of the "keys for unlocking the world's treasure-house." James is deliberately conflating these accounts of miraculous cures with the benefits of religious practices. Therefore, it is difficult for a modern reader to seriously consider these accounts of miraculous cures as religious experience. Certainly, people's apprehensions of being worked on by a divine force can be legitimately classed as religious experience—but not their actual cures without additional verification.

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