International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

The Varieties of Religious Experience

by William James

Introductory Essay by Sangeetha Menon

The Varieties of Religious Experiences is one of the classics in psychology and perhaps the best work of William James. The book is a collection of the twenty Gifford Lectures that James gave at Edinburgh University on the theme of natural religion. A psychological theorist turned philosopher, James uses a style that is imbued with humor, lucid writing, and a curiosity that engages the reader to ask fundamental questions about her spiritual experience.

James, in his lectures on Religion and Neurology and Circumscription of the Topic, says that what interests him is not religious institutions but religious feelings and impulses. Religious emotions are no more than ordinary human emotions explained in religious contexts. For James, "religious awe is the same organic thrill which we feel in a forest at twilight, or in a mountain gorge; only this time it comes over us at the thought of our supernatural relations" [27]. Referring to ‘religious geniuses’, James dismisses ‘medical materialism’. What is important is to view the quality of the fruit and not the source of religious experience. The idea of religion comprises "the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine" [31].

James argues for the power of "psychological peculiarities ... of belief in an object we cannot see” [53] in his lecture on The Reality of the Unseen. For instance we cannot conceive of truth, beauty and goodness by themselves, yet they are central to the way we conceive concrete objects. Abstract ideas exert more power in our minds than concrete realities. We perceive a ‘something there’, and have an undifferentiated sense of reality. Mystical experiences also relate to such an overwhelming sense.

Another concept central to James’ thinking spans ‘healthy-mindedness’, happiness, and saintliness which he develops in his lectures on The Religion of Healthy-mindedness, The Sick Soul and Saintliness. Mind cure is possible by “… relaxing, letting go, … giving your little private convulsive self a rest, and finding that a greater Self is there" [111]. Such a cure might not follow scientific methods but its successes can be verified experimentally. Such letting go helps one to be in a world wider than that of  worldly, selfish interest. “The saintly character is the character for which spiritual emotions are the habitual centre of the personal energy” [271]. James goes on to detail several characteristics of saintliness and mysticism.

In his lecture on Philosophy, James explores the relation between philosophy and religious experience, between reason and feeling. James does not make a sure case for the existence of God. What is certain is “… that we can experience union with something larger than ourselves and in that union find our greatest peace" [525].

James endorses a critical science of religion to replace philosophical theology, seeking practical value and religious diversity [488]. The value of spiritual experience cannot be verified by science. At the same time, appreciating religion is to see ‘something more’ than ourselves.

That he takes an open but critical and empathetic view towards religious experiences makes James a philosopher and psychologist relevant in contemporary times. The Varieties of Religious Experiences is a work whose reading is not to be missed by a philosopher or a psychologist or anyone who is just interested in critically examining the nature of religious experiences and science’s approach to it.