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

Those of us who are not personally favored with such specific revelations must stand outside of them altogether and, for the present at least, decide that, since they corroborate incompatible theological doctrines, they neutralize one another and leave no fixed result. If we follow any one of them, or if we follow philosophical theory and embrace monistic pantheism on non-mystical grounds, we do so in the exercise of our individual freedom, and built out our religion in the way most congruous with our personal susceptibilities. (459)


The second half of William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experiences builds on the argument that religion creates experiences that have real results that cannot be so easily discarded as crazy or irrational. This is not so much an argument for the truth of various religious claims. James’ appears to be rather indifferent to this question, focusing more on what can be studied and measures: the religious experiences themselves as their ramifications in the world.

Throughout the second half of the book, which consists of a series of lectures James gave in 1899 and 1900, the focus is on the good acts that religion inspires in people (“saintliness”), the sometimes excessive behavior it inspires, mystical experiences, and religious philosophy. He ends the book with a proposal for a scientific approach to religion.

Starting with “saintliness,” James argues that religion seems to promote clearly positive behavior in people that cannot be accounted for from other sources. (At the very least, individuals claim religions origins for some of these behaviors.) There is something deeply individualistic about James’ approach that I find compelling. Maybe this is something now lacking in some of the discourse on religion. “Every individual soul, in short, like every individual machine or organism, has its own best conditions of efficiency.” (274) I am not a big fan of comparing humans to machines as he does, but I am going to choose to be open-minded that religious experiences can be one of the ways that people can reach “saintliness.”

James confesses in one of the lectures on “saintliness” that there are also a host of negative habits that a religious life and religious devotion can bring, although he seemed to think these are in the minority. However, these need to be looked at as part of the entire package of the mind. Here is another pitfall anti-religious types like me fall into. We assume that some negative characteristic, some hypocrisy, or some bad thought has its origin in what we do not like about another person’s mental universe. James seems to think that these components of someone’s mental universe is just as likely something else. “The baiting of Jews, the hunting of Albigenses and Waldenses, the stoning of Quakers and ducking of Methodsits, the murdering of Mormons and the massacring of Armenians, express much rather that aboriginal human neophobia, that pugnacity of which we all share the vestiges, and that inborn hatred of the alien and the eccentric and non-conforming men as aliens, than they express the positive piety of the various perpetrators.” (308) Well, I do not know about the Hobbessian stuff in there, but I take his point.

To give much more summary may be pointless and I skimmed a fair deal. Toward the end of the book his focus is on religious mysticism and philosophical idealism rooted in religious experiences. The argument seems to me to be the same in both cases. From the individualistic perspective, these experiences are real (“absolutely authoritative”). They also should be taken seriously by outsiders because they are possible paths to truth.

What I think we should take from William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience is an argument for religious individualism. In this it can be very powerful. It can also be applied more broadly. I just got into a debate on Facebook with some scientists over whether the humanities have anything to teach science and the innovators of technology. Clearly I think people in the humanities do, but they were less certain and took what I was saying as a bit preachy. However, I think there is a value in coming out of our own skin and at least taking the perspective of outsiders seriously enough. At times these opposing ideas really do have little to add to our discussion, or are in the end reactionary or disgusting. But they are products of a mind, and therefore real. For good or for ill, they must be taken seriously.



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