William James: “Varieties of Religious Experiences” (1902): Part One

Even a sick man, unable to be militant outwardly, can carry on the moral warfare. He can willfully turn his attention away from his own future, whether in this world or the next. He can train himself to indifference to his present drawbacks and immerse himself in whatever objective interests still remain accessible. He can follow public news, and sympathize with other people’s affairs. He can cultivate cheerful manners, and be silent about his miseries. He can contemplate whatever ideal aspects of existence his philosophy is able to present to him, and practice whatever duties, such as patience, resignation, trust, his ethical system requires. Such a man lives on his loftiest, largest plane. He is a high-hearted freeman and no pining slave. (48—49)

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Psychologist and philosopher William James delivered the lectures that became The Varieties of Religious Experience in 1899 and 1900.  As I am working on a book on Philip K. Dick, I read this book with great interest. Dick’s religious experiences have become the center of scholarship and have been offered up as the key to understanding his work. I explored Dick’s works earlier in this blog from a more political and sociological point of view. But with James, I can appreciate the attraction that those religious experiences have for readers. James’ central argument in The Varieties of Religious Experience is that religious experiences are historically real in that they seem to happen. What matters is the result of belief, not their origins. This is his pragmatism. James worked on this idea in some of his earlier writings as well (I looked at them before in this blog). For him, what matters in psychology is action when precedes thought and habits. (To be simple, one learns to play the piano by playing the piano, not by thinking about how to play the piano.) In the same way, it may be true that George Fox was crazy, but this does not make Quakerism theologically wrong or even factually untrue. It certainly does not make the good feelings and actions that Quakerism inspires delusional. In short: “Religious happiness is happiness.” (30)

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I was raised Lutheran and I recall having religious experiences as defined by James (both the positive and negative aspects he mentions). I no longer have such experiences and am an atheist. But I accept James’ point that there are numerous experiences that I am not having, many feelings I may be missing out on, because of that choice. Is this not true of any lifestyle or intellectual choice one makes?

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One important point James makes is that if what really matters is the religious experience rather than truth, religious can be studied scientifically through the regular tools of psychological, biological, and social scientific research. Since James day many—including many atheists—have embraced this approach. The controversial point is here. “To plead the organic causation of a religious state of mind, then, in refutation of its claim to possess superior spiritual value, is quite illogical and arbitrary, unless one have already worked out in advance some psycho-physical theory connection spiritual values in general with determinante sorts of physiological change. Otherwise none of our thoughts and feelings, not even our scientific doctrines, not even out disbeliefs, could retain any values as revelations of the truth, for every one of them without exception flows from the state of their possessor’s body at the time.” (22)

The first three lectures map out his general thesis about the nature of religious experiences, the definition of religion (which he defined quite broadly), its role in creating states of mind that are not “logically deducible from anything else,” and creating positive action in the world. This final point James summarizes under “The Reality of the Unseen.” He borrows from Kant the following idea. “We can act as if there were a God; feel as if we were free; consider Nature as if she were full of special designs; lay plans as if we were to be immortal; and we find then that these words do make a genuine difference in our life.” (56) One thing that is noticeable in leftist Internet culture is the willingness to attack thought (because what else can one discuss when we exchange ideas instead of actions) rather than action. I think something that we can learn from American pragmatism is that we should focus less on the thought that leads to good actions than we should focus on actions. In this sense, imagining prefigurative politics is less important than actually tearing down the institutions of power. There is some value when prefiguarative politics is acted out (as in Occupy Wall Street), but it is objectively a failure if it cannot undermine power. This is a bit off of James’ point, but seems to flow from his perspective on religion.

The next two lectures examine “The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness,” which is general are religious belief that seem to creative positive emotions and healthy living in human beings. At this point in the lectures, James moves to giving quite a few case studies of various religious experiences documented in psychological practice and in history. If is of this type. “It is to be hoped that we all have some friend, perhaps more often feminine than masculine, and young than old, whose soul is of this sky-blue tint, whose affinities are rather with flowers and birds and all enchanting innocencies than the dark human passions, who can think no ill of man or God, and in whom religious gladness, being in possession from the outset, needs no deliverance from any antecedent burden.” (79) Well, I can agree that the more religious thought promotes happiness, self-sacrifice, solidarity, and beauty the better. I am less certain it always does so, which brings us to the next set of lectures.

Lectures six and seven are titled “The Sick Soul.” Bad thoughts and bad actions can be as easily derived from religion as the positive “healthy-mindedness.” To the degree religion promotes obsessions on sin, guilt, death, and punishment they promote what James is calling the “sick soul.” Religious melancholy is very real in the world, James points out with several case studies. Significantly, James likens materialism and atheism to promoting the “sick soul.” I am not sure that can be empiraclly sustained now.

In the next three lectures, James looks at the experience of religious conversion. Conversion is yet another religious experience like the positive expressions of religious joy and the religious melancholy. Conversion allows a rapid and dramatic change in a person’s values and perspective on life. The actual role of some spiritual agent is irrelevant to the truthfulness of those experiences and emotions. “It is natural that those who personally have traversed such an experience should carry away a feeling of its being a miracle rather than a natural process. Voices are often heard, lights seen, or visions witnessed; automatic motor phenomenon occur; and it always seems, after the surrender of the personal will, as if an extraneous higher power had flooded in and taken possession.” (211)

I will look at the rest of this book and try to reach some more conclusions in my next post.

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2 responses to “William James: “Varieties of Religious Experiences” (1902): Part One

    • Draft is done this week. Around 200,000 words. I plan a re-read in June and revisions in July-August when I am back in the US for “holiday.” (I am a precarious worker so I am not sure that is the right term.)

      I have a micro-press interested in publishing it. I figure small is what Dick would have liked.

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