William James

The Varieties of Religious Experience

Review by Tim Knepper, 2001

James, William. Varieties of Religious Experience. Longmans, Green & Co., 1902.

William James’ groundbreaking Varieties of Religious Experience (or was the ground already broken by E. D. Starbuck’s Psychology of Religion, as James himself seems to indicate in his introduction to Starbuck’s work?) takes as its object of inquiry empirically observable, individualistically rooted, religious experiences.  For, according to James, religion (at least for the purposes of his 1901-1902 Gifford Lectures, upon which the Varieties of Religious Experience is based) is neither theological doctrine nor ecclesiastical ritual, but “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” (42).  Organized religion is not only secondary to, but also a “contamination” of, the original and pure individual religious experience.  Moreover, religious experience can only be judged by its “fruit” – the specification of biological or psychological causes of religious experience in no way discredits the validity of religious experience.  James’ three criteria of religious experience, therefore, read as follows: religious luminousness; philosophical reasonableness; and moral helpfulness.  With these three criteria James wards off criticisms of religious experience from three distinct domains – ecclesiastical authority, philosophical scrutiny, and scientific reductionism (or, as James calls the last of these three, “medical materialism”).

The vast majority of the Varieties of Religious Experience oscillates between data collection and analysis.  While one comes to the Varieties of Religious Experience expecting to find a preponderance of anecdotal accounts of personal religious experience (or at least this reviewer did!), one in fact finds equal attention paid not only to the classification of these accounts but also to the slow yet steady direction of these accounts towards the end of a general hypothesis about religion.  It should come as no surprise that this hypothesis looks much like liberal-romantic Protestant Christianity.  Religion’s “nucleus” is (1) feeling (not thought) characterized as (2) “zest for life,” while the intellectual content of religion can be reduced to (1) an “uneasiness” or “sense that there is something wrong about us where we naturally stand” that requires (2) a “solution whereby we are saved from such wrongness by making proper connection with the higher powers.”  Suffice it to say that the Varieties of Religious Experience contains a paucity of non-Christian anecdotal accounts of religious experience.

While James’ hypothesis continues on into the realm of causation (religious experience is produced by an inflow of energy from the subconscious region of the mind), it is perhaps more important with what little space is left to consider that which precedes James’ conclusion; for it is this constitutes both the bulk and lasting significance of the Varieties of Religious Experience.  In lectures 4-8 James characterizes two types of religious psyches – the healthy-minded or once-born who are not burdened with a sense of sin, and the sick-soul or twice-born who are burdened with a sense of sin.  (It should be noted here that James calls systematic healthy-mindedness “less formally complete” than sick-soul worldviews that account for the real presence of sorrow, pain and death – perhaps another indication of James Protestant bias.)  James then turns to the phenomena of conversion (lectures 9-10), a process whereby the divided and unhappy self becomes unified and happy.  Although such experiences of conversion may be of one of two types, viz. instantaneous or gradual, James privileges the instantaneous type since it is more affectively intense than the gradual type.  Moreover, James is of the opinion that those who experience the instantaneous type of conversion are in possession of a larger and more active subconscious region (from which such experiences enter the consciousness) than those who experience conversion gradually.  Next James explores saintliness (lectures 11-15), the fruits of the religious life, fruits that he characterizes as strength of soul, purity, charity, devoutness, etc.  According to James, such irreducibly religious fruits are not only indispensable to the welfare of the world but also constitute an important criteria of religious experience.  Finally James turns to mysticism (lectures 16-17), calling it the “root and center” of religious experience.  Religious experience is epitomized in the monistic, optimistic and radically individualistic mystical experience.  James lectures on mysticism are best remembered for their fourfold characterization of mystical experience as ineffable, noetic, transient and passive.

Criticisms of James’ treatment of religious experience include the aforementioned strongly liberal-Protestant nature of James’ anecdotes, categories and conclusions, as well as both his oversight of the role that institutional religion (or cultural-linguistic contexts) play in shaping religious experience, and his almost exclusive emphasis on the affective and cognitive dimensions of religious experience (for James religious experience = religious feeling) to the neglect of visual, auditory and other dimensions.