The Varieties of Religious Experience

I’m currently reading William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience. William James, for those who don’t know him, was an early psychologist and an early pragmatist. He’s also the brother of Henry James. The book concerns the nature of religion and the neglect of science, in James’ view, in the academic study of religion. I’m only 1/3 of the way through, but I started reading up on it on the internet, and came upon a neat commentary that I thought I’d share.

[note: I also want to point out how similar William James and (the late) Christopher Hitchens are: while they had very different professions, they were both academics, highly literate, very eloquent, and are famous in part for their interest in religion (although they share opposite views). Finally, although they’re both very academic and argue from an objective standpoint, they both seem to have their personal reasons for taking the views they have: James may have put off insanity with biblical passages (see below), and Chris’s mother killed herself in a suicide pact with a former Anglican minister (and embraced the teachings of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the same guru who had earlier bewitched the Beatles. *)]

The following comes from here (50 Spiritual Classics: 50 Great Books of Inner Discovery, Enlightenment and Purpose, Tom Butler-Bowdon, 2005 (London & Boston: Nicholas Brealey):

To prepare for the talks, Harvard psychologist William James had read widely in the religious classics, including the personal accounts of various saints and mystics.

His decision to look at spiritual experience from a psychological point of view seemed very new at the time, even blasphemous. Mountains of books were still being churned out on the finer points of dogma and theology, but James was more interested in individual experience. His purpose in writing the book was to convince the reader that although religion itself often seemed absurd, the spiritual impulse was what made us human. James wanted to know why man was a religious animal, and what practical benefits spirituality brought us, assuming that we would not engage in it if it did not do us some good.

The book’s insights are wrapped in prose as elegant and forceful as anything written by his novelist brother Henry James, and it was recognized as a classic virtually from the day of publication. The book’s great service was to make the religious reader see spiritual matters from a more rational, objective perspective, and to persuade the scientifically-minded that religious experience had its value and was a ‘fact’.

James wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience at the end of a century of scientific advance that reacted against the unthinking faith of earlier times. In this milieu, the Bible was newly appreciated as just a collection of stories, and in the new science of psychology, religious experience could be explained away as a creation of the mind. Yet James was skeptical of the idea that all religious experience could be reduced to states of the brain, what he calls the ‘Nothing-but’ view of spirituality.

James wrote that spiritual ideas should be judged on three criteria: 1) Immediate luminousness; 2) Philosophical reasonableness; and 3) Moral helpfulness. Put simply, do they enlighten us, do they make sense, are they a good guide to living?

He quotes a passage from St Teresa of Avila’s autobiography, in which she talks about her visions. At the time some suspected she was seeing the devil, not God, but she protested that what she saw could not be just the work of the imagination, since it had made her a much better person (“uprooting my vices, and filling me with a masculine courage”) – and her confessors confirmed it. Teresa also made a distinction between imaginings and spiritual reality, pointing out that while pure imagination weakens the mind and soul, ‘genuine heavenly vision’ revitalizes and strengthens the subject. In Teresa’s case, she felt that her visitations guided her towards the reform of the Carmelite order, of which she was a member.

This was the practical effect of religious experience that James was so fascinated by. These ‘visitations’ may have come from inside a saint’s own mind, or they may indeed have been from God. But as the cases such as St Paul’s, St Augustine’s or Teresa’s demonstrated, what was sure was that they could transform a life.

James offered the idea that religion does not have to be worship of a God. It can be simply the belief in an unseen order, to which our task was to ‘harmoniously adjust ourselves’. He notes that, “Religion, whatever it is, is a man’s total reaction upon life, so why not say that any total reaction upon life is a religion?” Under this appreciation, atheism could be a religion. The fervor with which some atheists attack Christianity, he noted, is religious in nature. People take on religion for personal reasons, James argues – it must serve them in some way. He quotes J H Leuba, an early psychologist of religion: “God is not known, he is not understood; he is used.”

The religious attitude, though, is normally associated with a willingness to leave the self behind in the cause of something greater e.g. God, country. This denial of the self is what makes the religious impulse different from all other types of happiness, and so uniquely uplifting. A religious feeling can be distinguished from other feelings because it ennobles the feeler, giving them the sense that they live according to larger forces, laws or designs.

We all want to connect with something ‘more’, whether that is something great inside us or an external Higher Power, and religion provides a framework for people to experience the better things which come from living by faith instead of our more natural state of fear. “Not God”, James states, “but life, more life, a larger, richer, more satisfying life, is, in the last analysis, the end of religion.”

Inserted into the text of The Varieties of Religious Experience is the mention of a man who managed to save himself from insanity by anchoring his mind to powerful statements from the Bible. It so happens that this person, referred to as a ‘French correspondent’, was the author himself.

James’ conclusion was that a state of faith could transform a life utterly, even though what is believed strictly speaking may not exist. Religion can genuinely heal a person, integrating what before was fragmented. For the author, who fell in and out of depression and endured a sense of alienation for many of his years, this alone justified religious activity. While he admitted to being far from spiritually advanced himself, it was clear to him that belief in the Unseen had unleashed in many the great forces of individuality and purpose.

James acknowledged that science would be forever trying to blow away the obscuring mists of religion, but in doing so it would totally miss the point. Science could only ever talk in the abstract, but personal spiritual experience was the more powerful precisely because it is subjective. Spirituality is about the emotions and the imagination and the soul – and to a human being these are everything.

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About dontdontoperate

28 year old originally from Barrie, Ontario, Canada. H.B.Sc. from UofT with a major in chemistry and a double minor in philosophy and math. M.Sc. from UofT in physiology and neuroscience. Finished my Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at McMaster in the fall of 2013.
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3 Responses to The Varieties of Religious Experience

  1. anyachaika says:

    Your post on Errol Morris was great. Thin Blue Line is generally thought to be his best film. Morris states that he simply presents the evidence and asks us to become the investigator. With this in mind, I wonder if you would be interested in working out the questions posed at -http://invisibleengland2.wordpress.com/

  2. anyachaika says:

    Not on Holding Therapy in general. I would just be grateful if you could take the time to look at the 9 posts on the blog (and the links) and use your critical evaluation skills to piece together what I believe to be a major crime that is taking place in the UK today. All the evidence is there, it just needs putting together

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