William James, “The Varieties of Religious Experience” (1902)

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)

Here’s a free pdf: http://www2.hn.psu.edu/faculty/jmanis/wjames/varieties-rel-exp.pdf

You may want to save reading this until you need a nap…

One of the world’s first champions of a self-consciously American academia, James places his study of religion in the budding scientific field of psychology. He breaks with the established European disciplines of church history and theology, insisting that institutions and traditions have little to do with the enduring power of religion. Writing against a tradition of “medical materialism,” by which he almost certainly means Freud, James declares that we cannot “explain away” religions based on the psychopathology of their founders. He also insists that religion is no mere “survival” of a more primitive evolutionary state, but forms an essential part of human nature. For James, the kernel of religion occurs in the powerful experiences of individuals: he defines “religion” for the purpose of his lectures as “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” (38). Religion brings individuals into union with something more (God, self, Buddha-mind, the subconscious), producing feelings of tenderness and solemnity toward the world (see 493).

James’s chapters on mysticism contain the meat of his psychological theory. It’s worth noting that James was one of the first scholars to offer a comparative basis for the study of mysticism. Namely, James’s radical innovation consisted of scientifically examining the mystic’s experiences themselves. He identifies four basic features of mystical experience: 1) ineffability, 2) noetic quality, by which he means that the mystic understands the experience to bring knowledge, 3) transiency, 4) passivity, by which he means that the mystic feels pulled into the experience by a power outside the self (365-367). According to James, mystical experiences are not outliers, but are actually closer to true essence of religion than, say, sitting through an Episcopalian church service. Adducing long citation after long citation, James connects the mystical experiences of al-Ghazali, Margaret Mary Alacoque, the Upanishads, Walt Whitman, and Madame Blavatsky: all drift toward “optimism” and “monism” (403). In short, mystical experiences prove prototypical of religious experiences because: a) they are authoritative experiences for those who have them, similar to conversion, b) they are not coercive, having no power for those who haven’t had similar experiences, c) they reveal that rational consciousness is only one kind of consciousness, adding supersensuous meanings to the ordinary “facts” of experience that science usually tries to examine (410).

As far as I’m concerned, Varieties reads as little more than a curiosity of a bygone age. James’s internalized, generalized “experiences” oppose almost my own interests in fundamentalist materiality. Though he calls himself a skeptical scientist, it’s hard to read James’s book as anything but a thinly veiled apology for liberal Protestantism. In these lectures, one’s experience counts as genuinely “religious” so long as it produces good feelings—it can be oriented toward “whatever [one] may consider the divine.” Needless to say, he offers scant attention to his prophecy-conferencing contemporaries, who were probably too preoccupied determining the “literal” meaning of Daniel 7 to have bona fide religious experiences (see 394).

I would only assign James to undergraduates as a punishment. But I may be slightly biased…

Review by A.T. Coates