The Varieties of Religious Experience


Paving the way for all modern spiritual thought, The Varieties of Religious Experience was revolutionary in its view of religious life as centered not within the Church, but solely within the person. James, a vivid, subtle stylist writing for the skeptical, nonspecialist reader, was the first to define spirituality as "the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude." In this edition, scholars Taylor and Carrette bring a new understanding to James's life and his determination, in the cold,...
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The Varieties of Religious Experience

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Paving the way for all modern spiritual thought, The Varieties of Religious Experience was revolutionary in its view of religious life as centered not within the Church, but solely within the person. James, a vivid, subtle stylist writing for the skeptical, nonspecialist reader, was the first to define spirituality as "the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude." In this edition, scholars Taylor and Carrette bring a new understanding to James's life and his determination, in the cold, scientific face of the Industrial Revolution, to reaffirm the power of individual belief.

One hundred years after its publication James's work remains even more vital than before. Beyond its influence on the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous, beyond its influence on launching the American pastoral counseling movement, and beyond its role in spawning the psychology of religion, it remains a book that empowers individuals and inspires readers with erudition, insight, and kindness. No discussion of current religion - from the fundamentalist revival to the New Age movement - is complete without an appreciation of this groundbreaking work.

Explores "the very inner citadel of human life" by focusing on intensley religious individuals from different cultures and eras.

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Editorial Reviews

Jaroslav Pelikan
The old cliche that Henry James wrote novels as though they were philosophical treatises whereas William James wrote philosophic treatises as thogh they were novels, while unfair to Henry, describes...the William James of The Varieties of Religious Experience very well. Believers and unbelievers (and semibelievers) will continue to find it both a resource and a challenge.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743257879
  • Publisher: Touchstone
  • Publication date: 4/6/2004
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 791,459
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

American psychologist and philosopher William James (1842–1910), was a groundbreaking researcher at Harvard University and the author of Principles of Psychology and Human Immortality.

John Pruden is a professional voice actor who records audiobooks, corporate and online training narrations, animation and video game characters, and radio and TV commercials. His audiobooks include The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt, which was chosen by the Washington Post as the best audiobook of 2011.

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A popular edition of William James' justly renowned Varieties of Religious Experience is very useful because the attitude and method of the study, which made it a milestone in religious thought when James first delivered the substance of the volume as the famous "Gifford Lectures" at the University of Edinburgh at the turn of the century, represent as rare a combination in our day as sixty years ago. The combination is not only rare but creative. For James combines a positive approach to religion with a non-dogmatic and thoroughly empirical approach to the religious life and various types of religious experience.

James inherited his life-long interest in religion from his Swedenborgian father. In terms of basic conviction his affirmative attitude rests upon a thoroughly empirical but very valid approach to religious faith. He defines faith as "the sense of life by virtue of which man does not destroy himself, but lives on. It is the force by which he lives." This definition of faith as an affirmation of the meaning of existence is drawn from and not negated by his anti-metaphysical philosophy, his empirical bent. He did not believe that it would be possible to give rational coherence to the many systems of structures which are manifested in life. But it would be possible to assert their ultimate meaning, despite incongruities, by religious faith.

James was a rigorous opponent of the impressive and pretentious rational idealistic system of the German philosopher Hegel. In his volume "A Pluralistic Universe" he inveighed against a "Bloc Universe" and against any philosophy which identified the real with the actual. His anti-Hegelian bias establishes his affinity with such diverse anti-Hegelians as Karl Marx on the one hand, and Søren Kierkegaard, the Christian existentialist, on the other hand.

His empirical attitude and his aversion to metaphysical systems, erected on the foundation of logic, whose abstractions have little relation to the life we live and the world we experience, place him in a stream of thought which began in the modern era, with David Hume, and which expresses itself in contemporary philosophy with the school of "philosophical analysis." The school consistently examines philosophical and religious statements with the criterion of the question, whether they have meaning. James was probably more ready to ascribe meaning and significance to religious statements than contemporary empiricists.

James' empirical bent and scientific interest are partly explained by his rather unique academic career. He took a degree in physiology at Harvard, then turned to psychology and wrote a textbook on the subject before transferring to philosophy, to become America's most influential philosopher of his day. The largeness of his heart, transcending all philosophical polemics, may be revealed by the fact that his colleague and life-long friend at Harvard was Josiah Royce, the American exponent of the school of absolute idealism, or Hegelianism, which James so resolutely opposed. Royce, incidentally, was the second American to be invited to give the Gifford Lectures as James was the first. Royce's lectures were published under the title "The World and the Individual." The debate between these two giants in philosophy made the philosophy department of Harvard the most exciting center of philosophical learning in the nation.

James' Varieties of Religious Experience proved exciting reading to his generation, and should prove equally exciting to ours not only because of the virtue of his affirmative, though critical, view of religion, but because of the catholic breadth of his sympathies and the width of his erudition in religious and non-religious literature. The examples of religious thought and life which he subjects to analysis are chosen from the widest variety of theological and religious viewpoints.

He draws on the thought of Voltaire, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson and James Russell Lowell when these serve to illumine a point. Among the specifically religious writers and thinkers he skips over the centuries and over the theological fences to draw some illumination from such diverse religious leaders as Cardinal Newman, Martin Luther, John Bunyan, Jonathan Edwards, the Spanish Jesuit Molina, his Jesuit master Ignatius Loyala, François de Sales, and of course George Fox and Leo Tolstoi. He brings order out of the wide variety of religious experiences by categories suggested by his interests and empirical standards rather than by the traditional historical categories.

He probably shocked his Edinburgh audience by delivering the first lecture on the subject of "Religion and Neurology" and under the topic examining the psychopathic aspects of many religious experiences. While he disavows sympathy for some of the varieties he examines because he thinks them to be significant, he has an obvious sympathy for those in one of his categories, "The Religion of Healthy-mindedness." Here his sympathies betray the understandable reaction to all forms of religious morbidity, particularly those of Calvinist and Evangelical sects, and the characteristic optimism of the late nineteenth century, which knew nothing of, and did not anticipate, the anxieties of two world wars and of a nuclear dilemma.

When an example does not quite fit his categories he cheerfully admits the fact. Thus Luther's deep sense of sin obviously does not fit into the category of religious "healthy-mindedness." But James glories in the affirmative attitude of Luther's "Commentary on Galatians" because the sense of forgiveness and release from the burden of guilt is essentially affirmative and healthy-minded.

Sometimes his categories are too non-historical to illumine the sweep of thought on a particular issue of the religious life. Thus he has a sympathetic chapter on "Saintliness" in which he does full justice to the quest for perfection in both the medieval ascetic movement and modern sectarian Protestantism. But he does not come to terms with the charge of Reformation thought, that the quest for perfection is bound to be abortive, since even the most rigorous human virtue cannot escape the ambiguity of good and evil, with which all human striving is infected. His chapter on mysticism reveals in what way mystic disciplines release from anxieties and contribute to a joyful nonchalance of life. But he does not come to terms with one defect in the mystic tradition: its tendency to flee the responsibilities of history and engage in premature adventures into eternity.

An appreciation of any classic of philosophical, scientific or religious thought (and James' volume is a classic in all three categories) cannot obscure the dated quality of the thought. No degree of genius can lift even the profoundest mind completely above the characteristic mood of his age. Thus James' optimism is an obvious reflection of the mood of the late nineteenth century, a mood which he expressed succinctly in a little essay, now little known but given wide publicity by the peace societies. The title of the essay was "A Moral Equivalent for War." One need not examine the thesis of the essay carefully in this context, but merely observe that he found a rather too simple road to a warless world.

Perhaps the chief effect of examining religious life in an untroubled era, and reexamining it in a more troubled era, is to reveal that even a rigorous analysis of the relation of religion to life neglects to survey the problems of man's collective and historical destiny. Living after two world wars and in the midst of a nuclear dilemma, we are bound to take the problem of the meaning of history more seriously than James did. It is perhaps a tautology to suggest that James' lack of interest in the problem of meaning and meaninglessness in the human drama is akin to his lack of interest in the collective experiences of men. For history is always collective destiny. James surveys the effect of religious faith upon the health and wholesomeness of the individual, upon the capacity or incapacity to withstand the strains of life; upon the ability to give up old ways for new, and upon the ability to accept the perplexities of life not with sullen patience but with a certain amount of cheerfulness.

All these criteria of religious vitality and relevance have been surrounded by collective problems and perplexities. Our generation is bound to be anxious, not so much about the brevity of our individual life (though that anxiety can never be suppressed) but about the chance of the whole world escaping a nuclear catastrophe. We must worry not only about establishing wholesome relations in the intimate communities of family and friends. We must be concerned about establishing just relations in the increasing intricacies of a technical civilization.

Even a genius like James, bound by the limits of his age, cannot help us with these problems of community and the meaning of human history. But the fact that his analysis of religious life is defective in these realms of current interest must not obscure the virtue of his creative approach to both life and religion on the level of personal existence.

Reinhold Niebuhr

March 1961

Copyright © 1997 by Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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Table of Contents



Author's Preface

1 Religion and Neurology

Introduction: the course is not anthropological, but deals with personal documents — Questions of fact and questions of value — In point of fact, the religious are often neurotic — Criticism of medical materialism, which condemns religion on that account — Theory that religion has a sexual origin refuted — All states of mind are neurally conditioned — Their significance must be tested not by their origin but by the value of their fruits — Three criteria of value; origin useless as a criterion — Advantages of the psychopathic temperament when a superior intellect goes with it — especially for the religious life.

2 Circumscription of the Topic

Futility of simple definitions of religion — No one specific "religious sentiment" — Institutional and personal religion — We confine ourselves to the personal branch — Definition of religion for the purpose of these lectures — Meaning of the term "divine" — The divine is what prompts solemn reactions — Impossible to make our definitions sharp — We must study the more extreme cases — Two ways of accepting the universe — Religion is more enthusiastic than philosophy — Its characteristic is enthusiasm in solemn emotion — Its ability to overcome unhappiness — Need of such a faculty from the biological point of view.

3 The Reality of the Unseen

Percepts versus abstract concepts — Influence of the latter on belief — Kant's theological Ideas — We have a sense of reality other than that given by the special senses — Examples of "sense of presence" — The feeling of unreality — Sense of a divine presence: examples — Mystical experiences: examples — Other cases of sense of God's presence — Convincingness of unreasoned experience — Inferiority of rationalism in establishing belief — Either enthusiasm or solemnity may preponderate in the religious attitude of individuals.

4 and 5 The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness

Happiness is man's chief concern — "Once-born" and "twice-born" characters — Walt Whitman — Mixed nature of Greek feeling — Systematic healthy-mindedness — Its reasonableness — Liberal Christianity shows it — Optimism as encouraged by Popular Science — The "Mind-cure" movement — Its creed — Cases — Its doctrine of evil — Its analogy to Lutheran theology — Salvation by relaxation — Its methods: suggestion — meditation — "recollection" — verification — Diversity of possible schemes of adaptation to the universe — Appendix: Two mind-cure cases.

6 and 7 The Sick Soul

Healthy-mindedness and repentance — Essential pluralism of the healthy-minded philosophy — Morbid-mindedness: its two degrees — The pain-threshold varies in individuals — Insecurity of natural goods — Failure, or vain success of every life — Pessimism of all pure naturalism — Hopelessness of Greek and Roman view — Pathological unhappiness — "Anhedonia" — Querulous melancholy — Vital zest is a pure gift — Loss of it makes physical world look different — Tolstoy — Bunyan — Alline — Morbid fear — Such cases need a supernatural religion for relief — Antagonism of healthy-mindedness and morbidness — The problem of evil cannot be escaped.

8 The Divided Self, and the Process of Its Unification

Heterogeneous personality — Character gradually attains unity — Examples of divided self — The unity attained need not be religious — "Counter conversion" cases — Other cases — Gradual and sudden unification — Tolstoy's recovery — Bunyan's.

9 Conversion

Case of Stephen Bradley — The psychology of character-changes — Emotional excitements make new centres of personal energy — Schematic ways of representing this — Starbuck likens conversion to normal moral ripening — Leuba's ideas — Seemingly unconvertible persons — Two types of conversion — Subconscious incubation of motives — Self-surrender — Its importance in religious history — Cases.

10 Conversion — Concluded

Cases of sudden conversion — Is suddenness essential? — No, it depends on psychological idiosyncrasy — Proved existence of transmarginal, or subliminal, consciousness — "Automatisms" — Instantaneous conversions seem due to the possession of an active subconscious self by the subject — The value of conversion depends not on the process, but on the fruits — These are not superior in sudden conversion — Professor Coe's views — Sanctification as a result — Our psychological account does not exclude direct presence of the Deity — Sense of higher control — Relations of the emotional "faith-state" to intellectual beliefs — Leuba quoted — Characteristics of the faith-state: sense of truth; the world appears new — Sensory and motor automatisms — Permanency of conversions.

11, 12, and 13 Saintliness

Sainte-Beuve on the State of Grace — Types of character as due to the balance of impulses and inhibitions — Sovereign excitements — Irascibility — Effects of higher excitement in general — The saintly life is ruled by spiritual excitement — This may annul sensual impulses permanently — Probable subconscious influences involved — Mechanical scheme for representing permanent alteration in character — Characteristics of saintliness — Sense of reality of a higher power — Peace of mind, charity — Equanimity, fortitude, etc. — Connection of this with relaxation — Purity of life — Asceticism — Obedience — Poverty — The sentiments of democracy and of humanity — General effects of higher excitements.

14 and 15 The Value of Saintliness

It must be tested by the human value of its fruits — The reality of the God must, however, also be judged — "Unfit" religions get eliminated by "experience" — Empiricism is not skepticism — Individual and tribal religion — Loneliness of religious originators — Corruption follows success — Extravagances — Excessive devoutness, as fanaticism — As theopathic absorption — Excessive purity — Excessive charity — The perfect man is adapted only to the perfect environment — Saints are leavens — Excesses of asceticism — Asceticism symbolically stands for the heroic life — Militarism and voluntary poverty as possible equivalents — Pros and cons of the saintly character — Saints versus "strong" men — Their social function must be considered — Abstractly the saint is the highest type, but in the present environment it may fail, so we make ourselves saints at our peril — The question of theological truth.

16 and 17 Mysticism

Mysticism defined — Four marks of mystic states — They form a distinct region of consciousness — Examples of their lower grades — Mysticism and alcohol — "The anæsthetic revelation" — Religious mysticism — Aspects of Nature — Consciousness of God — "Cosmic consciousness" — Yoga — Buddhistic mysticism — Sufism — Christian mystics — Their sense of revelation — Tonic effects of mystic states — They describe by negatives — Sense of union with the Absolute — Mysticism and music — Three conclusions — (1) Mystical states carry authority for him who has them — (2) But for no one else — (3) Nevertheless, they break down the exclusive authority of rationalistic states — They strengthen monistic and optimistic hypotheses.

18 Philosophy

Primacy of feeling in religion, philosophy being a secondary function — Intellectualism professes to escape subjective standards in her theological constructions — "Dogmatic theology" — Criticism of its account of God's attributes — "Pragmatism" as a test of the value of conceptions — God's metaphysical attributes have no practical significance — His moral attributes are proved by bad arguments; collapse of systematic theology — Does transcendental idealism fare better? Its principles — Quotations from John Caird — They are good as restatements of religious experience, but uncoercive as reasoned proof — What philosophy can do for religion by transforming herself into "science of religions."

19 Other Characteristics

Aesthetic elements in religion — Contrast of Catholicism and Protestantism — Sacrifice and Confession — Prayer — Religion holds that spiritual work is really effected in prayer — Three degrees of opinion as to what is effected — First degree — Second degree — Third degree — Automatisms, their frequency among religious leaders — Jewish cases — Mohammed — Joseph Smith — Religion and the subconscious region in general.

20 Conclusions

Summary of religious characteristics — Men's religions need not be identical — "The science of religions" can only suggest, not proclaim, a religious creed — Is religion a "survival" of primitive thought? — Modern science rules out the concept of personality — Anthropomorphism and belief in the personal characterized pre-scientific thought — Personal forces are real, in spite of this — Scientific objects are abstractions, only individualized experiences are concrete — Religion holds by the concrete — Primarily religion is a biological reaction — Its simplest terms are an uneasiness and a deliverance; description of the deliverance — Question of the reality of the higher power — The author's hypotheses: 1. The subconscious self as intermediating between nature and the higher region — 2. The higher region, or "God" — 3. He produces real effects in nature.


Philosophic position of the present work defined as piece-meal supernaturalism — Criticism of universalistic supernaturalism — Different principles must occasion differences in fact — What differences in fact can God's existence occasion? — The question of immortality — Question of God's uniqueness and infinity: religious experience does not settle this question in the affirmative — The pluralistic hypothesis is more conformed to common sense.


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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 11, 2006


    One of the most respect psychologists, William James points out so many of religious attitudes and discusses them in rational terms by his use of psychology, philosophy and even pathology at times. He uses essays from everyone ranging from respected people in the same field as he is in (or sometimes in the religious field) to some of his closest friends. This shows how determined he was to consider ever type of religious belief in order to construct a way to explain all of the wild phenomena that goes on to corrupt people's minds and belief. Anyone who holds on to their religion and considers it very dear to them should read this book to see if it their faith can really stand up to the theories of James.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 12, 2009

    A classic with relevance today.

    "Varieties of Religious Expreience" is not only the classic book that chronicles the historic lectures given by author William James, but also offers insight into one of the the Spiritual paths that Bill Wilson followed in devising the Spiritual aspect of his classic book "Alcoholics Anonymous". It should prove of great interest to followers of both William James AND Bill Wilson, and those itnerested in a deeper, historic look into various religious practices. This Barnes and Noble edition offers a good introduction and a price tag that isn't hard to believe in!

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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