A Study in Human Nature
Science and religion haven’t been exactly on speaking terms for most of history.
America’s great philosopher and first psychology teacher William James attempted to mend that.
And he did it best in one of the earliest books exploring the psychological nature of religion:
Who Should Read “The Varieties of Religious Experience”? And Why?
Regardless of whether you’re a religious person or not, one thing that should be more than clear to you is the fact that religious experiences exist.
It helps nobody if we shelf all of them under the same category – say, meetings with the divine or acts of manipulations.
That’s why James’ Verities of Religious Experiences is such an essential work in the history of science. The American philosopher is almost utterly disinterested in the legitimacy of religious experiences.
What he is interested in, however, is much more important: whether religious experiences can tell us more about the human condition here, on earth.
That’s why we warmly recommend this book to both believers and non-believers: it takes into account both positions, and it analyzes religious experiences in an objective, descriptive manner.
About William James
William James was one of the most influential American philosophers and psychologists, justly considered “The Originator of Pragmatism” (with Charles Saunders Pierce) and “The Father of American Psychology.”
Born into a wealthy intellectual family – his brother was the novelist Henry James – William James trained as a physician and even taught anatomy at Harvard; however, he was never interested in practicing medicine, and he quickly reoriented toward the field of psychology and then philosophy.
James’ writings have influenced a number of prominent 20th-century intellectuals, from Husserl and Du Bois to Russell and Wittgenstein.
His books, Essays in Radical Empiricism, The Principles of Psychology, and the Varieties of Religious Experience, are considered not only groundbreaking texts in each of their respective fields but also indelible parts of the Western Canon.
“The Varieties of Religious Experience PDF Summary”
The Varieties of Religious Experience consists of William James’ Gifford Lectures on natural theology, which he delivered at the University of Edinburgh during the first three years of the 20th century.
There were originally twenty of them, but the book has a few chapters less than that number since it groups those which explored similar topics.
Lecture I. Religion and Neurology
“Religion and Neurology” describes the methodology of James’ study.
Just so that no one should make a mistake, he states straight from the outset:
I am neither a theologian, nor a scholar learned in the history of religions, nor an anthropologist. Psychology is the only branch of learning in which I am particularly versed. To the psychologist the religious propensities of man must be at least as interesting as any other of the facts pertaining to his mental constitution. It would seem, therefore, as a psychologist, the natural thing for me would be to invite you to a descriptive survey of those religious propensities.
And then he proceeds to explain that it seems much more interesting to him to explore the world of the “religious geniuses,” i.e., those people who have experienced religious visions dissimilar to those passed on through orthodox traditions.
In other words, the Einsteins of religious experiences.
Lecture II. Circumscription of the Topic
“Circumscription” is a rather archaic word which means “restriction” or “limit.”
And that’s what James tries to set in the second lecture.
Mostly, he says, he is interested in personal religious experiences, since corporate ones are usually – if not always – the product of personal ideas and conversions.
Put simply, Christianity exists because of Jesus, Islam because of Muhammed; so, the only religious experiences worth analyzing are those of Jesus and Muhammed.
And even more interesting than Jesus and Muhammed may be the creators of sects within these religions – say, George Fox who founded the Quaker religion.
What drove them to do it?
Lecture III. The Reality of the Unseen
“Vague impressions of something indefinable have no place in the rationalistic system,” writes William James in this chapter.
“Nevertheless,” he immediately adds giving an apology for his interest in religious experiences, “if we look on man’s whole mental life as it exists, on the life of men that lies in them apart from their learning and science, and that they inwardly and privately follow, we have to confess that the part of it of which rationalism can give an account is relatively superficial.”
It is the part that has the prestige undoubtedly, for it has the loquacity, it can challenge you for proofs, and chop logic, and put you down with words… Your whole subconscious life, your impulses, your faiths, your needs, your divinations, have prepared the premises, of which your consciousness now feels the weight of the result; and something in you absolutely knows that that result must be truer than any logic-chopping rationalistic talk, however clever, that may contradict it.
Lectures IV and V. The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness
The fourth and fifth James’ Gifford lecture are grouped under the same title: “The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness.”
Interestingly enough, in retrospect, what James is talking about in this chapter – terming it America’s principal contribution to religion – is actually what we should nowadays call it positive thinking.
Finding its origins in Emerson, Whitman and Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science, James calls this “the religion of healthy-mindedness,” or “the religion of the mind-cure.”
In the case of these people, James thinks, the religious experience is the product of happiness and an optimistic outlook; they don’t believe in evil and bad things since both of them can be neutralized through a positive attitude.
These are the once-born, the people who can live a life of sustained happiness; they don’t need a religion different than optimism.
Lectures VI and VII. The Sick Soul
However, there’s also another group, a group of people whose souls are sick from birth, since, unlike the once-born, they believe that the world is fundamentally evil.
These are the morbid-minded people.
Unfortunately, in the eyes of James, “morbid-mindedness ranges over the wider scale of experience,” since many people suffer on a daily basis and the healthy-minded are all but incapable for prolonged suffering.
So that these morbid-minded people can experience happiness, they need to be born a second time; this is why James calls their religious experiences, the religious experiences of the twice-born.
To these people, finding religion means finally finding a cure for unhappiness.
Lecture VIII. The Divided Self, and the Process of Its Unification
So, in a way, religion is a way for the morbid-minded individual to restore the condition of his healthy-mindedness.
This can be done through some sort of a “conversion experience” – see below – which can happen either abruptly (as in the case of St Paul) or through a gradual process of discovery (as in the case of Leo Tolstoy and John Bunyan).
“But neither Bunyan nor Tolstoy,” notes James beautifully, “could become what we have called healthy-minded. They had drunk too deeply of the cup of bitterness ever to forget its taste, and their redemption is into a universe two stories deep.”
In both of them, “the sadness was preserved as a minor ingredient in the heart of the faith by which it was overcome.”
However, what interests James “is that as a matter of fact they could and did find something welling up in the inner reaches of their consciousness, by which such extreme sadness could be overcome.”
Lecture IX and X. Conversion
In lectures nine and ten, James spends some time discussing the nature and the effects of religious conversion.
For some reason, he says, religion gives people the power and the impetus to change their habits and even their character.
In some cases, religious conversions result in a profound change affecting the core being of an individual.
“There are persons in whom,” writes James, “quite independently of any exhaustion in the Subject’s capacity for feeling, or even in the absence of any acute previous feeling, the higher condition, having reached the due degree of energy, bursts through all barriers and sweeps in like a sudden flood.”
He notes that “these are the most striking and memorable cases, the cases of instantaneous conversion to which the conception of divine grace has been most peculiarly attached.”
Lectures XI to XV. Saintliness and the Value of Saintliness
Then James moves on to the topic of saintliness which he explores in the next five chapters.
He uses the first two to define saintly people as those whose “spiritual emotions are the habitual center of the personal energy.”
According to James, saintliness includes four traits which lead to four practical consequences.
The four traits of saintliness are these:
#1. “A feeling of being in a wider life than that of this world’s selfish little interests; and a conviction … of the existence of an Ideal Power.”
#2. “A sense of the friendly continuity of the ideal power with our own life, and a willing self-surrender to its control.”
#3. “An immense elation and freedom, as the outlines of the confining selfhood melt down.”
#4. “A shifting of the emotional center towards loving and harmonious affections, towards ‘yes, yes’ and away from ‘no,’ where the claims of the non-ego are concerned.”
And the practical consequences of these four traits are the following:
#1. Asceticism: experiencing pleasure in self-sacrifice;
#2. Strength of soul: since fear and anxieties make room for “blissful equanimity,” a saintly person can endure everything and become a martyr. “Come heaven, come hell, it makes no difference now!”
#3. Purity: being sensitive to your own purity means trying willingly to stay away from the impurities of the world, which is often its material nature;
#4. Charity: tenderness for fellow-creatures; “the saint loves his enemies, and treats loathsome beggars as his brothers.”
Lectures XVI And XVII. Mysticism
In the next two lectures – and, in a way, the final two proper lectures of this series – William James explores the concept of mysticism. And he extrapolates “four marks which, when an experience has them, may justify us in calling it mystical”:
#1. Ineffability: no mystical experience can be adequately put into words; it defies expression;
#2. Noetic quality: all mystical experiences are “states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect;” even though inarticulate, they give the mind power of a kind which the person who goes through a mystical experience considers it revelatory;
#3. Transiency: most mystical experiences are transient and can’t be sustained for long;
#4. Passivity: the mystic often feels “as if he were grasped and held by a superior power;” he is being overcome by something else.
The first two of these four qualities of the mystical experiences are general: all mystical experiences have them; however, the second two are subsidiary features found often, but not always, in cases such as these.
Lecture XVIII. Philosophy
In this lecture, William James tries to explain why it is so difficult to talk about religious experiences in philosophical language.
Of course, the answer is simple: the former is illogical, and the latter follows the laws of logic by definition.
However, there’s a catch!
“I do believe,” writes James, “that feeling is the deeper source of religion, and that philosophic and theological formulas are secondary products, like translations of a text into another tongue.”
This whole lecture is an explanation of that sentence.
Lecture XIX. Other Characteristics
In the penultimate lecture, James skims through some “other characteristics” of the religious experiences.
The three topics covered here are institutional religion, prayers, and the relationship between religion and the subconscious.
James doesn’t hold organized religion in high regard since it doesn’t give enough room for personal religious experiences – which is what it was born out of.
Prayers are then analyzed both historically and pragmatically, as is the relationship between religion and the subconscious, leaving room for the interpretation of at least some religious experiences as products of psychopathological conditions.
Lecture XX. Conclusions
In his final lecture, William James continues this discussion of the subconscious, presenting it as a channel through which “the further limits of our being plunge… into an altogether other dimension of existence from the sensible and merely ‘understandable’ world.”
It is because of this that further studies in the realm of the subconscious are necessary.
They, in the eyes of James, should be able to reveal to us a sounder basis for scientific exploration of the religious experience.
For now, it is our duty to not dismiss it as something inherently unscientific because it has helped many people become both happier and smarter.
Key Lessons from “The Varieties of Religious Experience”
1. Healthy-Mindedness and Morbid-Mindedness
2. Saintliness: Traits and Effects
3. The Four Marks of a Mystical Experience
Healthy-Mindedness and Morbid-Mindedness
Some people are born healthy-minded, and others are born morbid-minded; the former are capable of sustaining happiness, the latter think that they are doomed to suffer through life.
Positive thinking is, more or less, the only religion the first group of people needs; however, the second can only become healthy-minded trough some sort of religious conversion.
That’s why William James calls the former “the once-born” and the latter “the twice-born.”
Saintliness: Traits and Effects
There are four traits which describe a saintly person and which lead to four different practical effects.
The traits in question are: a feeling that the world is more than what we can see; a sense that there is an Ideal Power which exists in you as well; an immense elation and freedom; and a shifting from a no-state to a yes-state of being.
These four traits lead to four practical consequences: asceticism, strength of soul, purity, and charity.
The Four Marks of a Mystical Experience
Just like saintliness, mysticism can also be defined within the limits of four qualities.
These are: ineffability, noetic quality, transiency, and passivity.
The first two are general and describe all mystical experiences; the latter two can often be found in them, but are sometimes absent and are subsidiary.
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“The Varieties of Religious Experience Quotes”Good-humor is a philosophic state of mind; it seems to say to Nature that we take her no more seriously than she takes us. I maintain that one should always talk of philosophy with a smile. Click To Tweet Knowledge about life is one thing; effective occupation of a place in life, with its dynamic currents passing through your being, is another. Click To Tweet I am no lover of disorder and doubt as such. Rather I fear to lose truth by the pretension to possess it already wholly. Click To Tweet There are two lives, the natural and the spiritual, and we must lose the one before we can participate in the other. Click To Tweet The lunatic's visions of horror are all drawn from the material of daily fact. Our civilization is founded on the shambles, and every individual existence goes out in a lonely spasm of helpless agony. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
The Varieties of Religious Experience may be a bit outdated, and some of its ideas may seem somewhat dangerous; after all, Mussolini said that it was this book which taught him that “an action should be judged by its result rather than by its doctrinal basis.”
Even so, it is a book which – as James’ fellow pragmatist Pierce said – penetrates deep into the hearts of people; and it will undoubtedly be debated for many years to come. Just as it has been for over a century now.
Learn more and more, in the speed that the world demands.