The Varieties of Religious Experience | Study Guide

William James

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The Varieties of Religious Experience | Summary




William James introduces the volume by explaining it grew out of his Gifford Lectures on natural religion at the University of Edinburgh. He announces that he will be examining the "religious constitution" of human beings and will rely heavily on first-person accounts, mostly from people with "extreme" religious temperaments, since they most clearly demonstrate the religious nature.

Lecture 1: Religion and Neurology

Since James's expertise is psychology, he intends to use people's autobiographies describing religious experiences. He is interested in those religious subjects in whom religion is an "acute fever," since these extreme examples provide extensive information about the characteristics he wishes to study. He argues that it is wrong to invalidate religion on the basis that it has its roots in biology—for example, an effect of overactive nerves or bad digestion. More recently the psychologically minded have tied religious emotions to sexual dysfunction. This medical materialism used to discredit religion is invalid because any thought or feeling has an organic component. In James's view religious experience should be judged by its fruits.

Lecture 2: Circumscription of the Topic

James now defines what he means by religion. He is not interested in the institutional version but rather in the feelings and acts of men and women in solitude who commune with the Divine, which does not necessarily mean a personal god. James defines the Divine as a "primal reality" that an "individual feels impelled to respond to solemnly and gravely, and neither by a curse nor a jest." Unlike the classical Greek and Roman Stoics, the religious person doesn't agree to existence but agrees with existence. While both may exhibit detachment toward their own selfish desires, a mystic or saint feels the "excitement of a higher kind of emotion" and doesn't need to will themselves into detachment. Religion adds an enchantment to life, says James, "not rationally or logically deducible from anything else." Nonetheless, religion is not a free pass, and the religious person holds a sacrificial attitude toward the Divine, depending on its mercy, and practices some form of renunciation. While all human beings are beholden to the universe, whether they like it or not, the religious person has a positive attitude about the position of humanity.

Lecture 3: The Reality of the Unseen

James provides some accounts of those who have sensed an abstract presence, not always felt to be pleasant or benign. In the realm of religious experience, people possess their beliefs as objects, in the sense that they are "quasi-sensible realities directly apprehended." He provides additional accounts of direct perceptions of God's existence, naming them mystical experiences. These experiences shape the religious person's attitudes, and James compares their relationship with God to what a lover feels when out of the presence of his or her beloved. Although the person is not physically with their beloved, they feel the beloved's presence at all times. James calls these experiences "genuine perceptions of truth" for those who have them, and no amount of logic can contradict them.

Lectures 4 and 5: The Religion of Healthy Mindedness

James discusses the religion of the once-born in these lectures—those people who refuse to feel unhappiness. The once-born see the world as beautiful and harmonious and animated by God. The poet Walt Whitman is an example of such a person, who told his readers that all things were "divinely good." James calls Whitman's view "healthy-mindedness," but the healthy-minded are of two types. Involuntary healthy-mindedness is the state of feeling automatically happy and focused only on the good. The second type—more interesting, in James's view—is the "mind-cure movement" and similar sects of "New Thought," in which people cultivate hope, trust, and courage. James quotes extensively people who have undergone a mind-cure, sometimes with the help of spiritual visitations. Mind-cure makes use of the subconscious mind, according to James, using the powers of relaxation, concentration, meditation, and sometimes hypnotism.

Lectures 6 and 7: The Sick Soul

James turns to the opposite of healthy-mindedness. Some people have a morbid outlook and see the world as incurably wrong. He calls these people the twice-born, who take solace in "their several creeds of mysticism and renunciation." The twice-born commit themselves to radical pessimism, relieved only when natural evil is "swallowed up in supernatural good." James calls this redemption. The twice-born, with their sick souls, may see badness either in the outside world or inside themselves. James provides examples of two people—writers John Bunyan and Leo Tolstoy—whose melancholy was relieved by a spiritual transformation. The religious problem, says James, can be summed up as "Help! Help!" Healthy-mindedness doesn't work for everybody. Besides, it is less complete, since it doesn't account for the suffering in the world. A more complete religion makes room for pessimistic elements.

Lecture 8: The Divided Self, and the Process of Its Unification

Lecture 8 continues with a discussion of the twice-born, who must "lose" their natural life to gain their spiritual one. The souls of the twice-born are divided and experience inner conflict. Saint Augustine provides a classic case of religious melancholy in his Confessions, as he struggles with his sexual desires and his wish to be celibate. Through conversion, Augustine and others like him find unity and inner peace. Unification occurs after a period of crisis and establishes stability and equilibrium in the soul. Religious unification "often transforms the most intolerable misery into the profoundest and most enduring happiness." James then presents cases of conversion, the first being a "counter-conversion," in which the person sees as illusory everything he previously held dear. In the second, a man recklessly loses his wealth and spends the rest of his life recovering it, dying a rich miser. The third case is a man who is spontaneously converted to the Buddhist practice of letting go of anger and worry. Returning to Tolstoy and Bunyan, James notes that transformation sometimes occurs as a gradual process.

Lecture 9: Conversion

Conversion is the process by which a person receives assurance, either gradually or spontaneously, about the truth of religious feelings or understanding. James provides a psychological definition of religious transformation (conversion): the change by which religious aims become the center of a person's energy. James recognized two types of conversions: the volitional type and the type by self-surrender. In the first instance conversion is a gradual evolutionary process, but still involves a partial self-surrender, in which a person relaxes into the power of the Infinite. The second type of conversion is when pent-up psychic energy from the subconscious mind bursts through conscious barriers and floods an individual with "divine grace" in an instantaneous conversion.

Lecture 10: Conversion—Concluded

Lecture 10 continues to discuss the "conversion of self-surrender," using the Quaker evangelist Henry Alline as a case in point. Through conversion, Alline became a successful Christian minister and was able to give up worldly pleasures. James provides additional examples of conversion stories and asks whether the "phenomenon of regeneration" is "a natural process, divine in its fruits." He first presents his view that religious experiences involve subconscious activity that breaks into conscious life. But the notion of the subconscious mind does not exclude the idea that messages may come from a divine source that simply enters through "the subliminal door." He ends the lecture by raising the question of whether "backsliding" after a spiritual experience diminishes it and concludes that it does not.

Lectures 11, 12, and 13: Saintliness

James sets out in these lectures to describe the fruits of religious life, which he says are "the best things that history has to show" for the human species. "The collective name for the ripe fruits of religion in a character is Saintliness," James says. He outlines key features of the saint, universal in all religions: (1) a conviction that a Divine power exists; (2) a willingness to submit to Divinity's benign control; (3) a feeling of elation and freedom when self-boundaries dissolve; and (4) an increase in loving feelings toward others with less concern for self. These inner conditions create asceticism, in which the saint finds pleasure in sacrifice and experiences an increase in patience and fortitude. Fear and anxiety disappear, replaced by equanimity, and charity toward others increases. James illustrates "these fruits of the spiritual tree" with many examples taken from various sources.

Lectures 14 and 15: The Value of Saintliness

James now turns to the question of whether saintliness has absolute value and whether it adds something to human life. First he considers the negatives. For example, devoutness can become fanaticism, and James finds the personal spiritual consolations that saints received in direct contact with their chosen deity to be practically useless to humankind in general. He rules in a similar fashion on saintly purity. In the qualities of increased tenderness and charity and the saintly propensity to answer badness with goodness he finds great usefulness. Such behavior stimulates better behavior in others and increases the goodness in the world. Thus it is a genuine fruit of religion.

James considers the value of asceticism and warns against dismissing its usefulness out of hand. He points to the human need to have a "theater for heroism," which asceticism fulfills. He mentions secular channels for asceticism, such as sports or militarism, and opines that society needs to find in the social sphere a replacement for war that will speak to the need for heroics. He also recommends a reconsideration of the value of poverty, since it simplifies the inner life and gives saintly people freedom. In summary, saintliness produces "felicity, purity, charity, patience, and self-severity." On the other hand, saints may exhibit the excessive behaviors of "fanaticism, theopathic absorption, self-torment, prudery, scrupulosity, gullibility, and morbid inability to meet the world." He concludes that people must decide individually what kind of religion best suits them.

Lectures 16 and 17: Mysticism

James asserts that religious experience is rooted in mystical states of consciousness. He provides four marks of mysticism:

  • ineffability (the inability to adequately describe the experience);
  • a mental experience of insight into truth not available to normal consciousness;
  • transiency; and
  • passivity (suspension of individual will during the experience).

The rest of the lecture provides examples of mystic states, beginning with mental phenomena somewhat related to mystical experience and ending with classic examples from both famous saints and more ordinary people. James provides a definition of cosmic consciousness from Richard Maurice Bucke, a Canadian psychiatrist, which includes "a sense of immortality, a consciousness of eternal life," in the here and now.

James moves on to the methodological cultivation of mystical states found in Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity. He briefly discusses the practices of Yoga and meditation in the Eastern traditions, as well as the practice of contemplation and the "orison of union," which are Christian names for meditative states. From Christianity he mentions Saint Ignatius Loyola, Saint John of the Cross, and Saint Teresa of Ávila, the "expert of experts" in describing various mystical states, and he quotes Saint Teresa's description of the "orison of union." Next, he considers whether mysticism furnishes "any warrant for the truth of the twice-bornness and supernaturality and pantheism ... it favors." He concludes that these states are authoritative for the people who experience them but do not extend their authority to others; moreover, they demonstrate there is more than one type of consciousness that can deliver additional kinds of truths.

Lecture 18: Philosophy

James now turns to the question of whether philosophy can offer any aid in warranting the truth of religion. A theology based on "pure reason" would have to provide universal convictions, but would be unconvincing. He reviews 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, noting that most don't make a difference in people's lives; moreover, giving God moral attributes is no proof he exists. Neither can modern idealism provide proof of God's existence. Thus James calls on philosophy to "abandon metaphysics and deduction for criticism and induction, and frankly transform herself from theology into science of religions." He then gives some suggestions for how a science of religions might be formulated.

Lecture 19: Other Characteristics

James returns to empirical philosophy to determine the truth of religion, which is another way of asking whether it has value. James then explains how religion has aesthetic value. He comments on the value of prayer, the essence of religion, first sharing a remarkable case of a highly successful evangelist who consistently received material help from God when he asked for it. James provides additional examples of people with a less materialistic relationship with God and who receive subtle proof of his influence in their lives. Finally, James comments on how religious life is connected to the subconscious mind, arguing that for people with an active religious life, the door to the subconscious is "unusually wide open."

Lecture 20: Conclusions

James sums up the beliefs of the religious:

  • The visible world belongs to a larger spiritual world.
  • The purpose of human life is union with Divinity.
  • Prayer is the conduit of spiritual energy.
  • Religious experience adds zest to life.
  • Religious experience increases feelings of both security and love.

He sees the varieties of religious experience as natural to accommodate different temperaments and needs. Finally, he predicts people will continue to need religion, no matter how much science advances.


James writes a postscript to declare himself a "piecemeal supernaturalist," which is to say he believes there can be communion with Divinity, through which "new force" comes into the world. But he is a dualist who sees the ideal (supernatural) and real worlds as separate. While monism presupposes that all will be saved, for practical life, "the chance of salvation is enough."

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