The Varieties of Religious Experience

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Page author: Luke Burns

This page created on: 13/11/2020

Last modified: 13/11/2020

Source Details

Author(s): William James

Editor(s): Martin E. Marty

Edition published in: 1985

Original published in: 1902

Published by: Penguin Classics

Location: London


Published at the beginning of the twentieth century, The Varieties of Religious Experience is a far-ranging exploration of the psychology and philosophy behind different kinds of religious experiences.

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Published at the beginning of the twentieth century, The Varieties of Religious Experience is a far-ranging exploration of the psychology and philosophy behind different kinds of religious experiences.

This edition features an introduction by Martin E. Marty.

In the sections below the book’s contents will be outlined and reviewed.

A copy of the text (albeit in a different edition) is available via Project Gutenberg here:


Lecture I - Religion and Neurology

Pages 1-25

James opens his work by acknowledging the novelty of an American lecturing Scottish and European scholars, when it is so often the reverse, and though he is flattered to be placed in the situation of addressing an audience he considers to be filled with his superiors, he hopes the trend continues. Arguably, the entirety of this opening lecture is aimed at establishing a favourable relationship between James and his audience.

He then admits that he is not a theologian, historian of religion, or anthropologist - he is a psychologist, and as such he will not focus on religious institutions, but on religious feelings and impulses (in other words, the experiences of the individual).

He also notes that he will be confining himself to ‘those more developed subjective phenomena recorded in literature produced by articulate and fully self-conscious men, in works of piety and autobiography’ (p. 3). In this he admits a number of limitations - notably the experiences must be ‘more developed’, written down, and presumably from male sources. At least these limitations are stated front and centre!

He also points out that he’s not interested in early developments, interesting though these might be, he’s looking for later ‘more completely evolved and perfect forms’ (p. 3).

The remainder of the lecture is then dedicated to drawing out the distinction between what he calls existential judgments and spiritual judgments.

Existential judgments relate to what something is and how it came to be.

Spiritual judgments relate to something’s meaning, value, or purpose.

In his lectures, James notes, he will be using an existential lens, treating the phenomena as though they were ‘mere curious facts of individual history’ (p. 6). He anticipates that this might upset up his audience (who might well be religious and take the subject matter very seriously), but asks that they bear in mind the distinction and his purpose. He isn’t trying to undermine the legitimacy of the experiences, although he notes that attacking something by targeting its origins is a common tactic (for example saying that the visions of Saint Paul are due to his epilispy).

In further clarifying the types of experiences he’s interested in, James refers to the religion of ‘ordinary religious believers’ as ‘second-hand’ (p. 6), and says that instead he needs to look for the original experiences which were the ‘pattern-setters’.

The individuals who have these more powerful experiences are typically unusual ‘geniuses’, who might be considered abnormal or eccentric in many ways - he provides a journal entry by George Fox (founder of the Quakers) as an example (Fox is compelled to walk barefoot into a city he has never visited, shouting ‘wo to the bloody city of Lichfield!').

James goes on to further develop the distinction between existential judgments and spiritual judgments, trying to drive home the message that just because a mental state or psychological experience can be tied to a person’s physiology (e.g. epilepsy in the case of Saint Paul), that doesn’t have any impact on the spiritual value of those experiences - or if it does, then the same criticism could be levelled against every experience - from belief to disbelief, from scientific insights to spiritual revelations. Just because something has a preceding cause that we might discover, that doesn’t mean the meaning or value is diminished.

In the closing passages, he notes that the criteria for spiritual judgments have been debated and discussed, but people seem to eventually come back to the same basic tests:

Immediate luminousness, in short, philosophical reasonableness, and moral helpfulness are the only available criteria.

Since these have nothing to do with James’s investigations and comparisons, he hopes his audience will not be prejudiced against listening to what he has to say.

Lecture II - Circumscription of the Topic

There is no one, single definition of religion - and so the definition being used here to isolate ‘religious’ experiences is by its very nature provisional. Yet without such a definition, it would be difficult to proceed, so its limitations and precise definition in this context will need to be borne in mind throughout.

Highlights the distinction between institutional religion and personal religion (a theme picked up decades later by Ninian Smart in his Seven Dimensions of Religion).

Lecture III - The Reality of the Unseen

Lectures IV and V - The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness

Lectures VI and VII - The Sick Soul

Lecture VIII - The Divided Self, and the Process of its Unification

Lecture IX - Conversion

Lecture X - Conversion (concluded)

Lectures XI, XII, and XIII - Saintliness

Lectures XIV and XV - The Value of Saintliness

Lectures XVI and XVII - Mysticism

Lecture XVIII - Philosophy

Lecture XIX - Other Characteristics

Lecture XX - Conclusions


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Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay


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