The Varieties of Religious Experience – Lecture 1

Why am I blogging my chapter-by-chapter thoughts on William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience (hardcover, Kindle)? First, I’m correcting the slightly embarrassing fact that I have never read it, despite it’s being a classic of non-fiction and one of the most famous secular analyses of religion ever written. Second, because I’ve been lassoed into leading a discussion of it at a book club meeting a couple of months from now, and this will help me organize that task. Third…well, I’ve done this sort of thing before (see my chapter-by-chapter posts on Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth, Irshad Manji’s Allah, Liberty and Love, Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape, and Harris’s Waking Up), and I’ve generally had a good response.


What a badass. William James in 1866.

Since this is the first time I’ve blogged like this on a book that is not contemporary, a little background info is in order. William James (1842-1910) was an American philosopher and psychologist, a New York scion and a graduate of Harvard Medical School. He made his career as a professor at his alma mater, but in 1901-2 he delivered a series of lectures on religion at the University of Edinburgh (yes, in Scotland). These lectures were subsequently published as The Varieties of Religious Experience, James’ most famous and most influential work.

Lecture I – Religion and Neurology

In introducing himself James notes that he is “neither a theologian, nor a scholar learned in the history of religions, nor an anthropologist.” His interest is in approaching religion as a psychologist. We will also see that James is necessarily limited by the state of psychology and medicine at the turn of the 20th century. While the germ theory of disease (to pick an example) had long been accepted by the medical community of 1901, medical science as we think of it today was still in its infancy. James occasionally makes odd references to “overinstigated” nerves, torpid livers and disordered colons as among the physical conditions that might affect a person’s overall attitude or mental states. (It may be significant to note that, while James was an MD, he never actually practiced medicine.)

James also emphasizes that his focus is not on religion broadly, on the structures and orthodoxies of various religions, or even on whether or not any particular religious beliefs are true. As he admits, psychology is his forte, and besides, historical-critical analysis of the Bible, at least, was already well underway, spilling over from Germany into the rest of Europe as well as the United States. (Not to mention the challenges to religious veracity being raised by the burgeoning scientific fields of evolution, geology and astronomy. No, what interests James are two questions relating to religious experience: “First, what is the nature of it? how did it come about? what is its constitution, origin, and history? And second, What is its importance, meaning, or significance now that it is once here?” (Okay, that sounds like more than two questions, but you get the gist: What is “religious experience,” and of what use is it?)

James spares a moment for those who might be offended at dissecting religious experience in such a way, comparing and contrasting it to other things in an attempt to properly categorize it. He is obviously sensitive to such objections, but insists we should not allow such indignation to stop us from the investigation. “Probably a crab,” he says, “would be filled with a sense of personal outrage, if it could hear us class it without ado or apology, as a crustacean.”

Now, James cautions that we should not dismiss religious experience just because we can tag the origins of it to physical causes and bodily functions (presumably, and primarily, via the functioning of the brain). Scientific theories, he says, are also “organically conditioned,” and organic conditions can determine “the dicta of the sturdy atheist as decisively as it does those of the Methodist.” Of course, it is true that the reasons one person ends up an atheist while another ends up a devout evangelical can boil down to accidents of birth (geography, upbringing, mental capacity, emotional proclivities, etc.). Plenty of people arrive at atheism through emotional and illogical means rather than by the application of intelligence and logic.

James digresses into a discussion of whether or not there is a connection between genius and mental instability, and whether or not there is a connection between certain mental deficiencies or neurological defects and a tendency toward religious epiphany. This always seemed a little suspect to me (like in the movies where children and dogs can somehow sense danger or evil before adults), but since I am poorly read on such topics, I will leave this topic alone. I will note that James mentions the historical difficulty in “knowing” whether, for example, mystical visions sparked by epilepsy might be interpreted as a blessing from Heaven or the affiction of a demon. In any case, James seems to argue that the best way to judge such visions are in whether their effect leads to positive or negative results, and in the extent to which they spur the experiencer to action.

Finally, James returns to his idea of studying religious experience as simply a special kind of experience, but ultimately still a valid human experience. “Religious happiness is happiness. Religious trance is trance.” Neither the fact that the origin of such experiences are physical, nor that such experiences are religious, should invade them as human experiences worthy of study and respect.

On to Lecture 2!


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