Read The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature by William James Online


Selected by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best nonfiction books of all timeThe Varieties of Religious Experience was an immediate bestseller upon its publication in June 1902. Reflecting the pluralistic views of psychologist turned philosopher William James, it posits that individual religious experiences, rather than the tenets of organized religions, form the backSelected by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best nonfiction books of all timeThe Varieties of Religious Experience was an immediate bestseller upon its publication in June 1902. Reflecting the pluralistic views of psychologist turned philosopher William James, it posits that individual religious experiences, rather than the tenets of organized religions, form the backbone of religious life. James’s discussion of conversion, repentance, mysticism, and hope of reward and fears of punishment in the hereafter—as well as his observations on the religious experiences of such diverse thinkers as Voltaire, Emerson, Luther, and others—all support his thesis. Walter Houston Clark in Psychology Today deemed it “the most notable of all books in the field of the psychology of religion.”...

Title : The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature
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ISBN : 9780679640110
Format Type : Paperback
Number of Pages : 640 Pages
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The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature Reviews

  • Manny
    2019-03-30 00:02

    I wanted to like this classic book, but I can't do it: too many things are wrong. A shame, because I completely approve of the idea. William James, writing around the end of the 19th century, sets out to take a cool look at how people experience religious feeling, basing his investigation on state-of-the-art psychological theory. What do we discover, and what do the findings tell us about the nature of religion? For the first two or three chapters, I enjoyed it and thought it was going in a good direction. James is evidently intelligent and well-read, and he's capable of writing excellent prose. Unfortunately, it rapidly started going off the rails in several ways.First, the style. Yes, James is able to write wonderfully, but a lot of the time he seems to have lost all sense of self-criticism. Above all, he just won't cut anything: the book could comfortably have been shortened to half its length. Looking around, I see many editions which have far fewer pages, so I'm guessing that some editors have done just that. In the original version, which I read, he has endless, repetitious quotations, often stuffed into footnotes which can go on (literally) for two or three pages. It's worse than Infinite Jest, where at least the footnotes are intentionally annoying and often funny. These are anything but.Next, the science. All well and good to say you'll use up-to-date psychological theory: but psychology at that time was barely a science at all, and it shows. The "scientific" explanations are in most cases not much more than hand-waving and fanciful ideas with Latin names. There are no experiments, no statistics, no falsifiable claims. It's just a mass of case studies, selected and reported according to criteria that are never in any way made clear. Just: oh, this is interesting, let's stick it in. When you cherry-pick your data this way, you can prove anything. To be fair, James does have an informal plan for selecting his examples, but it's one that I feel very dubious about. He says he will focus on the most extreme examples of religious feeling, since it is in such cases that we will see it in its purest form. We are thus treated to hundreds of pages of quotations from born-again converts, saints and mystics. The greater part of these passages are tedious in the extreme: few of the people in question write well. And, more important, I am not at all sure I agree that religious feeling is best studied in these extreme cases. There's an analogy which suggested itself to me more than once. Imagine that most people never experienced sexual desire, and you wanted to investigate the minority who claimed that they knew it from their own experience. I would definitely not start by reading accounts of people who were into extreme BDSM; The Story of O is interesting in its perverse way, but it would probably give you all sorts of odd ideas about what sex was like. I hate to say this, but some of the saints James discusses rather reminded me of O. At the end, I was surprised to see James unequivocally claiming that he thought religious feeling was a good thing, and that its object was some definite spiritual reality. I do wonder if he truly believed this. If he did, why pick such bizarre and unconvincing examples? I am quite capable of being moved by religious authors: for example, I love The Divine Comedy, Ash Wednesday, Jan Kjærstad's Jonas Wergeland trilogy, Flaubert's La tentation de saint Antoine and Selma Lagerlöf's Jerusalem, to name just a few. If James had actually wanted to convince his readers, I think he could have done better. He says himself that he was a person who never experienced religious feeling much at first hand; you often get the impression that he was rather sceptical about it. He is certainly quite willing to poke fun at many of the subjects he quotes.All in all, then, an annoying and frustrating book. If you're interested in these matters, I'd instead recommend reading Gide's La porte étroite and L'immoraliste, and Smullyan's Planet Without Laughter. They're shorter, better written, and, in my humble opinion, considerably more insightful.

  • Paul Bryant
    2019-04-11 03:51

    I had an unusually long conversation with my daughter Georgia (also now a Goodreader) once when she was seven years old (she's now 16 going on 17, just like in the song) and the matter of eschatology came up, so I asked her directly - well, what does happen when you die? So she laid out what she thinks happens, and I was so taken by the stuff she came out with that I wrote it down. As it's a variety of religious experience I thought it appropriate to include here. WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU DIE Heaven has different parts to it. In one part there are monsters, but they're good. In another part they're like orcs but they're good. In the third part there are dinosaurs, and they're bad.Jesus is not in heaven. He is above heaven. He was a normal man but he went on the cross and died and he became magic. He was alive again and turned into an angel. Now he can listen to anyone on the earth just by thinking of their name. When people die they all go to heaven. It could be the good part or the bad part. When you die you turn into a zombie, but then quite quickly you turn into a skeleton and that's when you go to heaven. Theskeletons in heaven can't see the Earth at all, but to the good orcs Earth appears like the brightest star in the sky. But they have to look down to see it, because they are all upside down. If you are cremated your ashes float up and turn into your soul. It goes up into a purple porthole. It meets a sorter who asks you what age you want to be and that's what you stay at from then on. In this world everything is slightly see-through. You only spend 1000 years here and then you go to the graveyard and sleep. But one day in each 10 years you come alive again. But this world is not heaven so jesus is not there. The bad people who die become good. For five years out of 1000 they are punished in a house sized prison cell by having to eat all the food they really hate and listen to all the music they really hate.There is a feather of truth and a catch up course, but I can't remember what they are for. People have gone into space in rockets but they haven't seen heaven because it is very small.When animals die, if it's on concrete they fade away and become invisible. If it's on soil, they sink bit by bit into the earth and they become animal zombies. Our hamster Lucy became an animal zombie, but all animal zombies are good, not bad. Note : don't blame me for any of this, I never allowed her to watch any zombie films intil she was 12! I don't know where she's got any of this stuff apart from orcs.

  • Darwin8u
    2019-04-16 04:53

    “There are two lives, the natural and the spiritual, and we must lose the one before we can participate in the other.” ― William James, The Varieties of Religious ExperienceThe amazing thing about James is he can write with precision and humility about something so completely intrinsic and fraught with pit falls. Most writers run at the subject with some large bias of the mystical, the absolute. You have thousand of books written every year proclaiming their strain of Christianity, Judaism, Vegetarianism, Atheism, Mormonism, Buddhism, as being the only true and living way to view the divine AND the only mirror to view and judge ourselves. James is different. He artfully and carefully presents a measured approach to religion. He picks it apart with affection. He looks at it normatively and then he tries to look at each speck and piece through a value lens. I think the magic is James isn't selling a belief. He isn't pimping a lifestyle. He is just curious and very very smart. And it isn't a clinical curiosity either (although his precision could be called clinical). It is a joyful curiosity. A drive to discover how we work and what really makes us tick. He wants to know and explain his hypothesis. God **ahem** bless William James. He wasn't just describing the transcendental condition of mankind, he was establishing and building a framework for others to follow for over 100 years.

  • Trevor
    2019-04-21 06:12

    I have heard of this book for years and have meant to look into it for about as long – but earlier this year I read a book called Ghost Hunters William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death and that made me more curious about James and his philosophy. I had read some of his philosophy at University, but not really a lot.I had no idea this would be quite so long. I also had no idea this was based on a series of twenty lectures he gave at the University of Edinburgh between 1901-02.This isn’t quite what we would today expect from a book entitled Varieties of Religious Experience. This is a book that even finds Catholic systems of belief a bit ‘out-there’. The treatment of any non-Christian belief systems is, to be incredibly generous, cursory. However, my limited knowledge of these other belief systems is not much more extensive than James’ so, in taking this book for what it is, it was an interesting discussion.Let’s cut to the chaise – after twenty lectures that must have lasted for at least an hour or so each I think the point he comes to is that prayer is the key religious activity and the main reason anyone would be religious. This is an interesting notion given the long route taken in getting here. Earlier he has said that rationalism is only able to account for a small part of our lives, (“Nevertheless, if we look on man's whole mental life as it exists, on the life of men that lies in them apart from their learning and science, and that they inwardly and privately follow, we have to confess that the part of it of which rationalism can give an account is relatively superficial.” And “This inferiority of the rationalistic level in founding belief is just as manifest when rationalism argues for religion as when it argues against it.”)In confirmation of the second quote above he says, “proofs of God's existence drawn from the order of nature, which a century ago seemed so overwhelmingly convincing, to-day does little more than gather dust in libraries, for the simple reason that our generation has ceased to believe in the kind of God it argued for.” This is terribly interesting, particularly given that in a later lecture he makes a point of going over the things that must be true about God if God exists and one of the essentials is that God must be unchanging. Naturally, this says nothing about our notions of God – they can change with the wind and have no affect on the unchanging nature of God. It quickly becomes clear that James is not going to fall into the trap of seeking to provide a proof for the existence of God that would satisfy his mostly scientific audience. James seems content to make religion of practical relevance to humanity and for this to be its main justification. The echoes of Kant are everywhere as are echoes of Aristotle, ‘If we were to ask the question: "What is human life's chief concern?" one of the answers we should receive would be: "It is happiness."’Part of what he is doing here is to present the extremes of religious experience and then to see if these can be shown to have an ability to make our lives better. He constantly acknowledges that he will not please everyone with this method – that some will see the people he has chosen to display excessive religious feeling as being freaks and that other religious people will object that their more moderate religion is grotesquely exaggerated in the examples presented, but in the main I can see where he is coming from. He is wanting to show that religious experience is different from more secular experiences and to do that looking at the extreme examples of these experiences ought to show in greater relief the essence of these experiences.He spends quite a lot of time discussing ‘mind-curers’ – people like the followers of Baker-Eddy of Christian Science fame. He also divides much of religion into those who are once born and those who are twice born. Those who have been born again do tend to pay for the compliment Bush gave in his belief and in his being an adherent. The mind-curers tend to have been twice born too and even likely to believe they have been resurrected in the flesh (something I might have believed to be a heresy and that the only one truly resurrected being Jesus). Anyway, there are many interesting bits along the way here – particularly about Methodism, which I knew virtually nothing. The idea that one must have a conversion experience, and therefore that these experiences are much more frequent among believers of Methodism than other Christian sects, was particularly interesting. You find what you are seeking after, seems to be a rather common 'religious' experience.Some of the twice born see all evil as a lie and therefore reject its existence outright and pretend it simply isn’t there. This really corresponds to my view of the New Age movement and is presented here as being just as naïve as one would expect a psychologist of religion to approach such beliefs. The long and far too detailed descriptions of sufferings for God’s sake were the sorts of things you might expect the Marquis De Sade to get off on. I mean, honestly. The tales of one of these loonies sleeping effectively on a bed of nails and making up increasingly horrible ways to torture himself even while asleep made that guy in The Da Vinci Code look like a complete wimp.He does say some daft things – like “Mind-cure uses experiment of sorts and so is similar to science - uses science against science.” – oh yeah, right. There are also sad reflections on what it is to be human, like “But take the happiest man, the one most envied by the world, and in nine cases out of ten his inmost consciousness is one of failure.”There are some amusing stories of people being able to quit smoking by their belief in God (as someone who has quit smoking I can see how this might fit into the 'miraculous cure' category) – what I found most interesting in this was that in both cases he quoted the person who gave up smoking (or drinking) was due mostly to social pressure (in one case a sister burst into tears on seeing him drunk) applied after a conversion event and the quitting was therefore almost incidental to their belief in God. There was also a long section on cleanliness and dyeing cloth to hide dirt and how some religious people find that something quite repugnant. I found all of this utterly fascinating and amongst the most interesting parts of the book.But then comes a long section on giving everything over to God and I found this section particularly distressing - the idea that to love God you must keep nothing for yourself is clearly appealing and I can see how, to a religious temperament, this idea would make lots of sense, but I also think the guiding maxim here should be 'moderation in all things'. There is an example given (and this book is virtually an endless series of examples) where a husband is at his wife’s death-bed holding her hand in his hand and knowing she does not have long to live, so he offers her hand to God and promises never to touch her again. Oh humanity – what sicknesses we are capable of. I had Nietzsche ringing in my ears at these parts about Christianity's rejection of life. This was even referred to as 'mortification' so the link to Nietzsche wasn't exactly a difficult leap to make.Around the corner from where I live there is a school for the Our Lady of the Sacred Heart – I’m not totally sure if this is the same as the Sacred Heart Order, but if it is then it is no wonder such schools have always been associated with child abuse. As James quotes: “Of the founder of the Sacred Heart order, for example, we read that "Her love of pain and suffering was insatiable. . . . She said that she could cheerfully live till the day of judgment, provided she might always have matter for suffering for God; but that to live a single day without suffering would be intolerable.”There are many interesting examples given of people choosing the life of true poverty and literally following Christ. The interesting thing here is that when they seek to reserve something for themselves – a penny in case they need to buy bread, for example - a voice comes to them saying, ‘Don’t you trust that I will provide?’ The point being that even if He doesn’t provide – there is a lesson in that too that He clearly wants you to learn, although, obviously, not the lesson an atheist might draw.There are also fascinating discussions of comparisons of religious experiences and drug induced states of altered consciousness. The entire section on mysticism was very interesting.But I need to end soon and haven’t spoken about his main conclusion that prayer is the key religious experience. “The religious phenomenon … has shown itself to consist everywhere, and at all its stages, in the consciousness which individuals have of an intercourse between themselves and higher powers with which they feel themselves to be related. This intercourse is realized at the time as being both active and mutual. If it be not effective; if it be not a give and take relation; if nothing be really transacted while it lasts; if the world is in no whit different for its having taken place; then prayer, taken in this wide meaning of a sense that SOMETHING IS TRANSACTING, is of course a feeling of what is illusory, and religion must on the whole be classed, not simply as containing elements of delusion.”His point becomes, I think, that whether or not religion is a delusion is ultimately not the right question, but rather, does this standing in communion with the absolute (a position that only religion can offer) allow us something otherwise missing and unobtainable by any other means of what it means to be human? His answer is an emphatic yes and this is his apology for religion. My problem with prayer would be, if God existed, my infinite unworthiness to chat with Him and my complete unworthiness to ask Him to do something for me. There is a wonderful scene in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where Marvin (the paranoid android) says, “Brain the size of a planet and they ask me to open a door.” There was one guy discussed in this book who spent lots of his life asking God to help him do the most incredibly mundane things, to find his door keys for him or to hurry along friends who appeared to be running a bit late. That the infinite creator of everything could really give a stuff about where you left your door keys simply makes my head spin. And given most religious people would probably see asking such petty questions of God a bit stupid, it does beg the question of what question we could ask that wouldn't seem so to God? The problem is that all of our prayers must sound equally absurd to Him. This was an interesting book and the first I’ve read on my new Kindle – all praise be to the Kindle…

  • Abailart
    2019-04-07 01:48

    A classic of course, still potent and assured. I return to it for its look at the realism of the 'sick soul'. It comforts me.It is not religion that is the concern here. Human emotions and feelings are the focus. How these influence a personality could as equally underlay their political orientation, their philosophical orientation, and they do in fact represent how a person actually is in the world: how they relate, how they feel, in short their character. There is an existential edge, of course: how do we go on, make meaning, find stable identities of ourselves and the world? To ignore religion and mysticism is not a problem, for anybody with a little knowledge will know that in all traditions the mystics have warned against confusing psychological states with religious insights or mystical openings, although that is not my interest here.The main emphasis, and what concerns us all in our individual lives, is whether we feel good or bad. Let’s follow James and refer to the healthy minded against the ‘sick soul’, or just happy people and sad people. Rather than fleeting moods, these refer to long term characteristics of being in the world. All I propose to do is mainly quote from James, with minimal observation.One interesting point to start involves the summary James gives of the contrast between happy and unhappy people’s reactions to the idea of evil. I’d point out that there is a huge problem with James’ writing in that he never considers the syntactical role of language in categorisation, in the way that our language itself is at the root of our emotional experience:Arrived at this point, we can see how great an antagonism may naturally arise between the healthy-minded way of viewing life and the way that takes all this experience of evil as something essential. To this latter way, the morbid-minded way, as we might call it, healthy-mindedness pure and simple seems unspeakably blind and shallow. To the healthy-minded way, on the other hand, the way of the sick soul seems unmanly and diseased. With their grubbing in rat-holes instead of living in the light; with their manufacture of fears, and preoccupation with every unwholesome kind of misery, there is something almost obscene about these children of wrath and cravers of a second birth. If religious intolerance and hanging and burning could again become the order of the day, there is little doubt that, however it may have been in the past, the healthy-minded would at present show themselves the least indulgent party of the two.Happy people can be very stupid. His brother, William, in his novella, The Europeans, portrays in the character Felix a young fool who cannot imagine that anyone may judge the world differently from the parameters of his own sweet outlook. . .happiness, like every other emotional state, has blindness and insensibility to opposing facts given it as its instinctive weapon for self-protection against disturbance. When happiness is actually in possession, the thought of evil can no more acquire the feeling of reality than the thought of good can gain reality when melancholy rules. To the man actively happy, from whatever cause, evil simply cannot then and there be believed in. He must ignore it; and to the bystander he may then seem perversely to shut his eyes to it and hush it up.…The deliberate adoption of an optimistic turn of mind thus makes its entrance into philosophy. And once in, it is hard to trace its lawful bounds. Not only does the human instinct for happiness, bent on self-protection by ignoring, keep working in its favor, but higher inner ideals have weighty words to say. The attitude of unhappiness is not only painful, it is mean and ugly. What can be more base and unworthy than the pining, puling, mumping mood, no matter by what outward ills it may have been engendered? What is more injurious to others? What less helpful as a way out of the difficulty? It but fastens and perpetuates the trouble which occasioned it, and increases the total evil of the situation. At all costs, then, we ought to reduce the sway of that mood; we ought to scout it in ourselves and others, and never show it tolerance. But it is impossible to carry on this discipline in the subjective sphere without zealously emphasizing the brighter and minimizing the darker aspects of the objective sphere of things at the same time. And thus our resolution not to indulge in misery, beginning at a comparatively small point within ourselves, may not stop until it has brought the entire frame of reality under a systematic conception optimistic enough to be congenial with its needs.There is a problem for the rest of us in the company of stridently happy people. Their good fortune and contentment can feel like a form of bullying or contempt for those less happy. There’s a problem for the happy chappy too:Take the happiest man, the one most envied by the world, and in nine cases out of ten his inmost consciousness is one of failure. Either his ideals in the line of his achievements are pitched far higher than the achievements themselves, or else he has secret ideals of which the world knows nothing, and in regard to which he inwardly knows himself to be found wanting.…A chain is no stronger than its weakest link, and life is after all a chain. In the healthiest and most prosperous existence, how many links of illness, danger, and disaster are always interposed? Unsuspectedly from the bottom of every fountain of pleasure, as the old poet said, something bitter rises up: a touch of nausea, a falling dead of the delight, a whiff of melancholy, things that sound a knell, for fugitive as they may be, they bring a feeling of coming from a deeper region and often have an appalling convincingness. The buzz of life ceases at their touch as a piano-string stops sounding when the damper falls upon it.Of course the music can commence again;- and again and again,- at intervals. But with this the healthy-minded consciousness is left with an irremediable sense of precariousness. It is a bell with a crack; it draws its breath on sufferance and by an accident. *This sadness lies at the heart of every merely positivistic, agnostic, or naturalistic scheme of philosophy. Let sanguine healthy-mindedness do its best with its strange power of living in the moment and ignoring and forgetting, still the evil background is really there to be thought of, and the skull will grin in at the banquet. In the practical life of the individual, we know how his whole gloom or glee about any present fact depends on the remoter schemes and hopes with which it stands related. Its significance and framing give it the chief part of its value. Let it be known to lead nowhere, and however agreeable it may be in its immediacy, its glow and gilding vanish. The old man, sick with an insidious internal disease, may laugh and quaff his wine at first as well as ever, but he knows his fate now, for the doctors have revealed it; and the knowledge knocks the satisfaction out of all these functions. They are partners of death and the worm is their brother, and they turn to a mere flatness.*Stoic insensibility and Epicurean resignation were the farthest advance which the Greek mind made in that direction. The Epicurean said: "Seek not to be happy, but rather to escape unhappiness; strong happiness is always linked with pain; therefore hug the safe shore, and do not tempt the deeper raptures. Avoid disappointment by expecting little, and by aiming low; and above all do not fret." The Stoic said: "The only genuine good that life can yield a man is the free possession of his own soul; all other goods are lies." Each of these philosophies is in its degree a philosophy of despair in nature's boons. Trustful self-abandonment to the joys that freely offer has entirely departed from both Epicurean and Stoic; and what each proposes is a way of rescue from the resultant dust-and-ashes state of mind. The Epicurean still awaits results from economy of indulgence and damping of desire. The Stoic hopes for no results, and gives up natural good altogether. There is dignity in both these forms of resignation. They represent distinct stages in the sobering process which man's primitive intoxication with sense-happiness is sure to undergo. In the one the hot blood has grown cool, in the other it has become quite cold; and although I have spoken of them in the past tense, as if they were merely historic, yet Stoicism and Epicureanism will probably be to all time typical attitudes, marking a certain definite stage accomplished in the evolution of the world-sick soul James outlines several distinct forms of unhappiness, melancholy or depression. There’s what we’d now call ahedonia, the relative incapacity to enjoy, feel pleasure; the sort of low spirit captured by a poet such as Cowper. There is (and this is fascinating in its similarity to the criteria used in determining modern day clinical depression), a “much worse form of it is positive and active anguish, a sort of psychical neuralgia wholly unknown to healthy life. Such anguish may partake of various characters, having sometimes more the quality of loathing; sometimes that of irritation and exasperation; or again of self-mistrust and self-despair; or of suspicion, anxiety, trepidation, fear. The patient may rebel or submit; may accuse himself, or accuse outside powers; and he may or he may not be tormented by the theoretical mystery of why he should so have to suffer.”James gives several accounts of depressives near the edge of or just over the edge of sanity. I’ll quote in full his comments and extract from Tolstoy’s suicidal thoughts in My Confessions:"I felt," says Tolstoy, "that something had broken within me on which my life had always rested, that I had nothing left to hold on to, and that morally my life had stopped. An invincible force impelled me to get rid of my existence, in one way or another. It cannot be said exactly that I wished to kill myself, for the force which drew me away from life was fuller, more powerful, more general than any mere desire. It was a force like my old aspiration to live, only it impelled me in the opposite direction. It was an aspiration of my whole being to get out of life. "Behold me then, a man happy and in good health, hiding the rope in order not to hang myself to the rafters of the room where every night I went to sleep alone; behold me no longer going shooting, lest I should yield to the too easy temptation of putting an end to myself with my gun. "I did not know what I wanted. I was afraid of life; I was driven to leave it; and in spite of that I still hoped something from it. "All this took place at a time when so far as all my outer circumstances went, I ought to have been completely happy. I had a good wife who loved me and whom I loved; good children and a large property which was increasing with no pains taken on my part. I was more respected by my kinsfolk and acquaintance than I had ever been; I was loaded with praise by strangers; and without exaggeration I could believe my name already famous. Moreover I was neither insane nor ill. On the contrary, I possessed a physical and mental strength which I have rarely met in persons of my age. I could mow as well as the peasants, I could work with my brain eight hours uninterruptedly and feel no bad effects. "And yet I could give no reasonable meaning to any actions of my life. And I was surprised that I had not understood this from the very beginning. My state of mind was as if some wicked and stupid jest was being played upon me by some one. One can live only so long as one is intoxicated, drunk with life; but when one grows sober one cannot fail to see that it is all a stupid cheat. What is truest about it is that there is nothing even funny or silly in it; it is cruel and stupid, purely and simply. "The oriental fable of the traveler surprised in the desert by a wild beast is very old. "Seeking to save himself from the fierce animal, the traveler jumps into a well with no water in it; but at the bottom of this well he sees a dragon waiting with open mouth to devour him. And the unhappy man, not daring to go out lest he should be the prey of the beast, not daring to jump to the bottom lest he should be devoured by the dragon, clings to the branches of a wild bush which grows out of one of the cracks of the well. His hands weaken, and he feels that he must soon give way to certain fate; but still he clings, and see two mice, one white, the other black, evenly moving round the bush to which he hangs, and gnawing off its roots "The traveler sees this and knows that he must inevitably perish; but while thus hanging he looks about him and finds on the leaves of the bush some drops of honey. These he reaches with his tongue and licks them off with rapture. "Thus I hang upon the boughs of life, knowing that the inevitable dragon of death is waiting ready to tear me, and I cannot comprehend why I am thus made a martyr. I try to suck the honey which formerly consoled me; but the honey pleases me no longer, and day and night the white mouse and the black mouse gnaw the branch to which I cling. I can see but one thing: the inevitable dragon and the mice -- I cannot turn my gaze away from them."This is no fable, but the literal incontestable truth which every one may understand. What will be the outcome of what I do to-day? Of what I shall do to-morrow? What will be the outcome of all my life? Why should I live? Why should I do anything? Is there in life any purpose which the inevitable death which awaits me does not undo and destroy? "These questions are the simplest in the world. From the stupid child to the wisest old man, they are in the soul of every human being. Without an answer to them, it is impossible, as I experienced, for life to go on. " 'But perhaps,' I often said to myself, 'there may be something I have failed to notice or to comprehend. It is not possible that this condition of despair should be natural to mankind.' And I sought for an explanation in all the branches of knowledge acquired by men. I questioned painfully and protractedly and with no idle curiosity. I sought, not with indolence, but laboriously and obstinately for days and nights together. I sought like a man who is lost and seeks to save himself -- and I found nothing. I became convinced, moreover, that all those who before me had sought for an answer in the sciences have also found nothing. And not only this, but that they have recognized that the very thing which was leading me to despair -- the meaningless absurdity of life -- is the only incontestable knowledge accessible to man." To prove this point, Tolstoy quotes the Buddha, Solomon, and Schopenhauer. And he finds only four ways in which men of his own class and society are accustomed to meet the situation. Either mere animal blindness, sucking the honey without seeing the dragon or the mice -- "and from such a way," he says, "I can learn nothing, after what I now know;" or reflective epicureanism, snatching what it can while the day lasts -- which is only a more deliberate sort of stupefaction than the first; or manly suicide; or seeing the mice and dragon and yet weakly and plaintively clinging to the bush of life.Suicide was naturally the consistent course dictated by the logical intellect. ….. Yet," says Tolstoy, "whilst my intellect was working, something else in me was working too, and kept me from the deed -- a consciousness of life, as I may call it, which was like a force that obliged my mind to fix itself in another direction and draw me out of my situation of despair. . . . During the whole course of this year, when I almost unceasingly kept asking myself how to end the business, whether by the rope or by the bullet, during all that time, alongside of all those movements of my ideas and observations, my heart kept languishing with another pining emotion. I can call this by no other name than that of a thirst for God. This craving for God had nothing to do with the movement of my ideas -- in fact, it was the direct contrary of that movement -- but it came from my heart. It was like a feeling of dread that made me seem like an orphan and isolated in the midst of all these things that were so foreign. And this feeling of dread was mitigated by the hope of finding the assistance of some one.Of this, James comments, “The only thing that need interest us now is the phenomenon of his absolute disenchantment with ordinary life, and the fact that the whole range of habitual values may, to a man as powerful and full of faculty as he was, come to appear so ghastly a mockery.” Such a state seems much more to fall into the discourses of existential reflection rather than narrower forms of psychology (and, of course, there exists today the notion of ‘existential psychology’). Sartre, Camus, of course, but also the Christian mystics, and the Buddhist outlook. With or without God or appeal to soul, for all of us, this is as near as you can get to a nineteenth century description of 21st century depression.Lugubrious and depressive himself, James seems to me to conclude that the sick soul, the gloomy, is the ‘better’. It is more realistic, has a wider span, and this span includes happiness. I think that if one were to swallow distilled the wisdom from religious traditions, from the Greeks and Romans one would see a similar cultural transmission in our art and philosophy. Traditions from outside immediate influence show the same opportunity to outline not surface vehicles, myths and narratives as so much important but as representing deeper strains of the human condition. I’ll end with something so easily missed. James, and perhaps he was a depressive himself, spontaneously found his experiences from the deeply human, as honest and authentic a grasp of what it means to be as possible (including his fallibility and inability to do more than try to address why and wherefore, who and what). He had an almost visceral distatste for systematisers, abstract philosophy and theology that trills its febrile flutters in a nugatory neurotic manner that may indeed be the sign of a deeper but different sickness of soul.What is their deduction of metaphysical attributes but a shuffling and matching of pedantic dictionary-adjectives, aloof from morals, aloof from human needs, something that might be worked out from the mere word "God" by one of those logical machines of wood and brass which recent ingenuity has contrived as well as by a man of flesh and blood. They have the trail of the serpent over them. One feels that in the theologians' hands, they are only a set of titles obtained by a mechanical manipulation of synonyms; verbality has stepped into the place of vision, professionalism into that of life. Instead of bread we have a stone; instead of a fish, a serpent. Did such a conglomeration of abstract terms give really the gist of our knowledge of the deity, schools of theology might indeed continue to flourish, but religion, vital religion, would have taken its flight from this world. What keeps religion going is something else than abstract definitions and systems of concatenated adjectives, and something different from faculties of theology and their professors. All these things are after-effects, secondary accretions upon those phenomena of vital conversation with the unseen divine, of which I have shown you so many instances, renewing themselves in saelig;cula saelig;culorum in the lives of humble private men.

  • Edward
    2019-04-11 04:54

    Foreword to the Centenary Edition, by Micky JamesEditors' PrefaceIntroduction: The Spiritual Roots of James's 'Varieties of Religious Experience'Introduction: The Return to James: Psychology, Religion and the Amnesia of NeurosciencePreface from the 1902 Edition--The Varieties of Religious ExperienceIndex

  • Paul Cockeram
    2019-04-21 06:57

    Most people seem to think this book is important for the light it sheds on religion, or perhaps as an advancement in the field of religious studies. However, I would argue that this book's real significance lies in James' respect for our conscious experiences of things as the origin of real truth, insight, and significance. James is one of those rare thinkers who values the subjective more highly than the objective: "The world of our experience consists at all times of two parts, an objective and a subjective part, of which the former may be incalculably more extensive than the latter, and yet the latter can never be omitted or suppressed." James' emphasis on conscious experience is a radical departure from the orthodoxy of our age, which is one reason that James' arguments in this book will challenge at least one fundamental belief of nearly every reader. Only those readers who are ready to think and to learn need apply here.These days, most people have adopted a rationalist mindset that values definite facts above all things, that uplifts truths derived strictly from material phenomena. In The Varieties of Religious Experience, James declares his allegiance to the truth as it is experienced, and he argues persuasively that the truth as it is experienced by singular, subjective human beings like you and I ends up being more significant, and having a greater impact on life as it is actually lived, than "universal" scientific truths. He investigates religious experiences as they were felt and encountered by the individuals who had them. His primary method for this is to review many, many first-hand accounts of religious experiences, looking for commonalities and patterns between the accounts. A consummate analyst, James identifies several of these commonalities and patterns, and he organizes a series of lectures around them. Each lecture investigates a different aspect of religious experience, such as "The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness," "Conversion," "Saintliness," and "Mysticism." Each lecture takes readers through the various first-hand accounts of the religious experience being focused upon, and James goes on to make observations and quite persuasive arguments about what can be concluded from these experiences about the value, significance, and role of religion in human life. The whole time, James honors the feelings experienced by these people. He analyzes and discusses these feelings with a probing intellect and a sympathetic sensibility. James understands fully that "Feeling is private and dumb, and unable to give an account of itself. It allows that its results are mysteries and enigmas, declines to justify them rationally, and on occasion is willing that they should even pass for paradoxical and absurd." Despite these hazards, James explores the world of private, individualized feelings because he knows that is the world where most of us actually reside, day by day, and that is the world where religion is actually experienced. James happily tours where science fears to tread. It helps that James is a good writer and an insightful psychoanalyst. While reading this book, I repeatedly had the feeling that James was discussing experiences I'd had privately, without ever reporting to anyone, and that James understood those experiences better than I who had lived them. Like all great literature, this book opens us to the shared experiences that unite so many human beings across time and space. James treats even the most extreme emotional states with an even-handed finesse, a literary grace that honors the furor of the moment while laying bare what sense the intellect can make of it. Consider his description of anger: "Nothing annihilates an inhibition as irresistably as anger does it. [...] The sweetest delights are trampled on with a ferocious pleasure the moment they offer themselves. [...] Rather do we take a stern joy in the astringency and desolation, and what is called weakness of character seems in most cases to consist in the aptitude for these sacrificial moods, of which one's own inferior self and its pet softness must often be the targets and the victims." Who among us, at one time or another, hasn't destroyed something valuable or important in a fit of rage?Those looking to understand religion generally will learn plenty about why so many religions tend toward strictness, or withdrawing from pleasure, or asceticism; why the newly converted behave that way; why some people seem to walk through life intoxicated by Jesus, smiling their way from sunrise to sunset, and frowning only when someone dwells upon sickness or uses bad language; why saints behave that way, and what it takes to be a saint; why mystical experiences mean everything to the mystic and almost nothing to anyone else, and what that has to do with a good, stiff drink. Lest potential readers fear that James is trying to convert atheists into the faithful, let me be clear that James is studying how people experience religion, not arguing that we need to experience it. His attitude seems to be that, for anyone who feels, who travels an ongoing interior emotional landscape, sooner or later an experience will arise that human culture has traditionally named "religious," whether we prefer to use that label or not. The experience, not the label, is what's important. And I would bet that every reader will identify with many of the experiences James discusses. To varying degrees, every reader will find himself or herself reflected in James' pages. And every reader stands to learn how these experiences, which so often feel remote and isolated from the other humans surrounding us, actually connect to the vaster experience, to the infinite. James gives us reassurance that we're not alone in these experiences; he gives us a vocabulary to discuss them; he gives us insights into how we can better understand and contextualize these experiences.A recent Pew poll asked people to name their religious faith or affiliation. The results showed that the fastest-growing segment of the faithful in the USA are "nones," or people who don't adhere to any of the major religious faiths. However, the same polling data show that the majority of people refer to themselves as "spiritual" if not religious. We have not stopped needing a spiritual ground on which to experience our lives. Furthermore, some people will drift from the "none" category to a major religion, and then back to "none." Our culture appears to be entering an age of flux, or perhaps crisis, when it comes to religion. That makes James' project valuable to our age, for James takes the trouble to explain what is valuable in religion without giving us the feeling that he's selling something, or trying to force a moral code upon us. James only wants to give us insights into religion itself, and how religion has been experienced on a private, emotional level at various times throughout history. He wants us to understand why religion has been with humans throughout history and will in all likelihood be with us throughout time.

  • Erik Graff
    2019-04-19 04:58

    Being derived from public lectures, The Varieties of Religious Experience is neither a particularly deep nor demanding book. It is, however, both beautifully written and clearly expressed--hallmarks of James' style. Informally unsystematic, the painless effort of going through it will likely present the reader with useful insights, apt examples and challenging arguments.I was particularly challenged by the idea that some people, what he calls healthy souls, are constitutionally happy. Being to that point habituated to thinking of myself as unhappy, James' simple observations caused me to think more deeply of the reasons for my habit of unhappiness without prejudgement and helped me begin to break the habit.

  • Stephen
    2019-04-07 06:01

    "I fear that my general philosophic position received so scant a statement as to hardly be intelligible"That about sums up this text for me. Although the language is beautiful, I never really got a understanding of what the author was trying to prove. A more apt title for this book is probably "The Varieties of Anglo-American Protestant Religious Experience". There was slight mention of other belief systems (Islam, Sufi-ism, and Hinduism, had small cameos). Even the more interesting Protestant sects like the Quakers, Anabaptists, Christian Scientists, and Mormons did not get much ink. So, if you are looking for a survey of different religious beliefs like the title implies, you should look elsewhere. Instead you get kind of a description of different emotional elements that the author supposes are common to all religious experience. He speaks of Healthy-mindedness, which sort of relates to modern new age and heuristic practices, but he is speaking in the 1890's so his examples are of New England style transcendentalism like Emerson or Whitman. "The Sick Soul" deals with excessive negative dwelling on sin or hell-fire. He talks about the quest to find yourself and the powerful conversion experiences that can happen when you do. Then Asceticism (or "Saintliness") and Mysticism are explored. Remember, all of these things are covered with very old-fashioned terms and references making the modern reader wince, so the book sounds better than it actually is. Finally he comes to his conclusions and his suggestion for a science of religion that will find the truths that exist in religiosity in all of its forms and discard the introduced falsehoods. A fine sentiment it is, too bad he didn't spend more time elaborating on that and less time on excessive quotations from questionable sources like letters from an anonymous friend. This is the second straight non-fiction clunker I have read that was published in the 1890's or early 1900's. I got to thinking that all old non-fiction must be bad. It is all filled with overly flowering prose, bad references, excessive quotations of bad references, and a lack of any strong point or theory behind the writing (good narrative, but for what?) Then I thought about how much I enjoyed "A History of the English Speaking People", or "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire", or "A Study of History" and I banished those thoughts from my head. Bad non-fiction is just bad non-fiction regardless of the date of publication. Now that is not to say that William James is a poor writer, because there are beautiful passages here. It is just that modern readers kind of expect a strong statement of a hypothesis and then a gallant effort at backing it up with credible sources and not the meandering (beautiful meandering) and weak sources you get.

  • Barnaby Thieme
    2019-04-04 06:09

    It's impressive how well this book has withstood the passage of time. More than a century after its publication, it continues, on the whole, to feel extremely fresh and insightful, compared with the works of some other psychologists whom I could name. Like ... people whose name rhymes with "Kroid." But I digress. Unlike the dogmatic theoretic architectonics that would increasingly dominate the field of psychology in the twentieth century, James subscribed to an empirical pragmatism that is quite current. On the basis of his minimal overt theoretical commitments, he uses this book as an opportunity to reflect systematically on the nature and import of religious experience in its various expressions, in the service of beginning to lay the foundation for a theoretical science of religion, by which we may empirically examine the roll religion plays in people's lives. He has thus unapologetically advanced his model of religion as primarily a matter of individual experience, and these two words, of course, carry an enormous amount of baggage. Religion is for James, first and foremost, a system of sentiments and beliefs operating in counterplay with various kinds of experience, including prayer, conversion, and, most importantly, rare mystical experiences of ineffable union with the absolute, howsoever that may be conceived. It is without a doubt the book's primary limitation that he sticks to that model, which works very well with the liberal Protestant theology and Transcendentalist philosophy which saturated his zeitgeist, but the farther we travel out from that center, the less universal his model of religion may seem. There's a case to made that it is applicable to many forms of Buddhism and some Hindu philosophies such as Advaita Vedanta, but by the time we get to Confucianism, his focus on the individual relationship with the divine starts to lose touch. And when we leave the high civilizations behind and apply his model to the Tlingit, the Navajo, the Mayans, or the Hawaiians, we're on very shaky ground indeed. What endures is a thorough and thoughtful of examination of the religious traditions that were nearest to hand, and a still-valuable analysis of their basic patterns of expression. That may form the basis, at least, of more diverse comparative work. Some modern readers may be put off at times by its grand style and the sometimes-homilistic tone of the book, but they may do so at their peril, as it's easy to mistakenly infer a certain intellectual complacency that is regularly contradicted by the sophistication of his analysis. James's book remains a classic in the field of the psychology of religion, and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in the topic.

  • Andrew
    2019-04-21 05:06

    Soooooo ridiculously ahead of his time. He manages to anticipate more or less the entirety of 20th Century philosophy, both analytic and continental. In fact, he's one of the few thinkers I've encountered (Freud, Marx, Beauvoir, Deleuze, Spinoza, and Said being a few others) whose intellect is strikingly original enough to pierce through the reader's own perspective. Also, in the present American popular-intellectual climate of religious/spiritual pabulum versus asshole scientism, it's hella refreshing to find a cogent viewpoint that manages to negate both of those.

  • the gift
    2019-04-12 23:58

    later later addition: reading chapter on james in evasion of philosophy, on american pragmatism, certainly inspires more reading of his work. does not directly mention much of this text, but reveals his and others, pierce, emerson, dewey, all influenced by, all noted, christianity as baseline to their attitudes, their ideas, of idealism embodied in empirical and abstract ideologies of truth, effect, value- so maybe should pay attention to this book...later addition: note to readers of this review, reason you might discount my judgement- i am not religious in any manner. friend just recently felt urge to correct my interpretation, say it is all about faith, of the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, but i could not follow the argument. i do not start, nor end, from any religious experience. so maybe my reading of this book is always already without grounds...first review: this is of its time, 1902, in that religious experiences in all varieties are christian, and designed, mostly, to confirm such usual monotheistic, modern, forms- not entirely avoiding catholicism but most revealing protestantism as generally practiced in the america of his time- including evangelical movements... this book reminds me not of religious texts, read or unread, but of durant's 'story of philosophy' which is almost as old (also a three)... and the strategies j begins with are to 1) define terms, subject, 2) insist on reality of the unseen, and to do this, from the beginning j appeals to quotes, often long, of this and that person who undergoes these varied religious experiences. for me this does not convince more than any testimonials, but does offer actuality of these moments, conviction, efficacy, on those people. after these early chapters, he does use this technique less but never stops. at first, reading these claims is something to lightly read, later to skim, later yet to skip... but with 1) assured to himself, 2) is also vouchsafed...i do not know what i expected- this follows the title: 'religious experiences', not philosophy, not theistic arguments, not coherence of this or that faith, not attempts to ground faith in logic but in affect, not what interests me much. so moving on, having established his subject is not to be confused with neurology, he does allow other 'altered states' (such as intoxication) as possible routes to the divine, j contrasts the healthy soul, the optimism of 'mind science', versus the sick soul, the pessimism of romans, greeks, a contrast of attitudes which will both lead to religion, the first of which reminds me too much of self-help and pop psychology texts, the next, in some examples of how life-changing conversions rescue this or that soul from destroying himself or herself, mentioning the 'twice-born' concept favoured by some ...this 'conversion', which is given a few testimonials, seems to be a combination of uniting oneself body and soul, then uniting with some greater soul- the world, the fellows, the enemies even- and this is where j is clearest as psychologist: he lets his 'patients' speak, he reflects on the extremity some people go to, some beyond what seems 'objectively' healthy, but it is all on a spectrum of human behaviour, human qualities, from too much intellect and too little emotion to too much emotion and too little intellect... not surprisingly, j finds protestant expressions of faith most healthy, most socially beneficial, as he will decide the worth of religious experiences pragmatically, for individuals, for groups, though he does argue eventually there is an 'aesthetic' value in faith best shown by those colourful catholics...j then tries to qualify saintliness, as first a sort of ideal behaviour, then as evidenced in certain saints- which in this case starts to sound almost how-to become a saint, rather than a naturally 'strong man', insisting mortification etc. is more diseased that devout, as the saint should be seen as a desired religious state, an aspiration, though not necessarily right for everyone. again j offers testimonials, offers pity at those unfortunates who never have such moments of faith, of clarity, of absolute belief... almost we are less than human...j comes to mysticism, which foregrounds the most immediate problem with religious experience is the fact it is 'mystical' experience, it is of incommunicable nature- for me a general problem with religion as a whole. but not j, who is confident in naming essential qualities of all mystics, asceticism, absolutism, asocial, transcendental etc., and here he wanders afield to buddhism and hinduism, though he knows little of either, and these thoughts lead to a short chapter on philosophy. which i hoped to better grasp, but after dismissing kant, valourizing scot and english empiricists- j believes the only thing is to admit philosophy of religion by which we would come to understand all world religions... and while i can agree that the 'scientific' picture of the universe is not the personal, 'human' way of the world, i tend more towards phenomenology as a 'first science' of the self, rather than deciding science should work with pre-given religious testimony, cosmology, ontology...this is the greatest problem i have with this historical document by j: i am not convinced that it is by human 'virtue' we have similar religious experiences that are thereby true, rather i believe it is by human 'vice' we have similar experiences that some call religious that are thereby false... or, as i am not committed against the the facts but the interpretations: simply mistaken... this book is of its era, perhaps in a philosophical way 'preaching to the choir', but i guess i will just continue not being religious in any way... this is a three. of its thought time, of its thought space, it is at the least an energetic, closely argued, example of an intellectual sort of faith...note: if you do decide to read this text, i would suggest another edition, as this print is small, crowded, and not clearly different in text, footnotes, or quotes.

  • Bryn Hammond
    2019-03-31 01:14

    I still haven't read this cover to cover but it's a work of art. As a student I targeted the section on drunkenness -- a lyrical description I haven't seen bettered. But don't trust my memory. I was a drunken student.

  • Feliks
    2019-04-16 07:05

    Lame Goodreads tells me I'm "reading this for the 2nd time". Nope. My 'to read' shelf is simply part of my 'read' shelves because I don't want Amazon monitoring my upcoming reading choices. Goodreads has really gone to the dogs with all these newfangled tracking options. Leave things alone! Stop adding bells-and-whistles to everything!Anyway so, this is my first time reading William James (or any of the James family) and it's a superb book. Falling aptly in line with my recursive taste for cerebral topics and elegant, belle Époque non-fiction prose. Refreshing, as always. James' peers--his fellow-scholars--the male readers--contemporary to William James in his own era--my goodness, what a world that must have been. Imagine living in a culture where writing of this high calibre was a commonplace. Studious and humble; is James in this work; earnest but at the same time, measured.He launches himself at a formidable topic in this survey of the religious mindset and what I admire about his style most (besides the blazing erudition on display) is his extreme politeness in the treatment of subject matter which to some, might be inflammatory.But James will have none of it. He goes out of his way to prevent such sensitivity, in advance. He is gentle and tender at every turn; giving each possible point-of-view fair consideration in succession, as he isolates the target of his wonderful scrutiny.Nevertheless, this is not easy reading; I would not guess that most will find it so. It is rife with quoted passages from clerics, cardinals, saints; theologians; doctors of the church. The book deals in exhaustive fashion with the history of Christian thought, but James also treats spirituality in general down throughout the ages as found throughout global culture. Primitive peoples; the various pantheons of the Sumerians, Egyptians, Greeks, & Romans.Imans, ju-ju-men, Talmudists, prophets, seers, ascetics, mystics, and shamans all have their say in James' compenduium, as dictated by the various points he wishes to make. Even adverse philosophers and atheists have their appearance on his stage.Overall, James has a wonderfully crisp, lucid and clarifying power of thought. A towering achievement of intellectualism. Highly recommended if beautiful language and rational methodology makes you marvel. This is the kind of book which shows up clumsy moderns like Richard Dawkins for the piddlers they are.

  • Michael
    2019-04-03 04:10

    A classic from a very important thinker, as fresh today as when it was written. Although the book has some limitations, such as emphasis on Christianity relative to other religions, one could echo the Bible in saying the world could not contain all the books that might be written on the subject. James examines a wide range of particulars and boils them down to general facts and some hypotheses, concluding that at the very least, conversion experiences "even for a short time show a human being what the high-water mark of his spiritual capacity is" (p. 257). Religion tells us that "there is something wrong about us as we naturally stand," a humility of the spirit as Richard Feynman called it, and that "we are saved from the wrongness by making proper connection with the higher powers," whatever they be (p. 499). He believes science is mistaken in discounting the subjective in favor of the objective in human experience. That approach leaves us (my words, not his) feeling empty: when a hungry man dreams,And look—he eats;But he awakes, and his soul is still empty;Or as when a thirsty man dreams,And look—he drinks;But he awakes, and indeed he is faint,And his soul still craves...(Isa. 29:8. See p. 491 in James's conclusion for the original thought.)Lectures XIV and XV are as satisfying as anything I've ever read, and that's the part I'd recommend before deciding to digest the whole enchilada. Four stars because it's not for the casual reader, but still indispensable, one of the nonfiction greats.

  • Jon Boorstin
    2019-04-12 07:10

    This from one of the inventors of modern psychology. Looking at religious experience not in a proscriptive way, but descriptively -- how great religious thinkers think. It embraces the breadth of our experience, and encourages us to follow our own peculiar combination of quests and impulses.

  • Bob Nichols
    2019-04-26 05:05

    Given his reputation as a thinker and writer, this is a disappointing book on substance and style.James delves into the wide variety of transcendent (the "Reality of the Unseen") experiences and provides many anecdotal accounts to illustrate them. Given James' background in psychology, and the likely influence of Darwinian theory on philosophical pragmatism ("Truth" is what best works), it is surprising that James accepts these accounts at face value without questioning whether other underlying factors may be at work. Does the transcendent exist, or do we create it because of internal need? Is it the transcendent that is experienced, or is it the product of our extended, ontological imagination? Is religious devotion an allegiance to an alpha archetype figure that is an extension of our allegiance to our earth-based leaders? Why is self-sacrifice and asceticism anything other than displaying one's extreme devotion to the alpha (protective, all-powerful) leader and thus, an assurance of one's place in eternity? James doesn't ask these questions. In fact, he goes the other way and argues that those who do not have transcendent experiences have some version of a "world sick soul." In that camp he puts the Stoics and Epicureans. While he has a point with the Stoics, the Epicureans perhaps figured out how to enjoy this life, healthily, without the transcendent, saintly, mystical trappings that James argues constitute a healthy soul. James does not budge on this point. Secular man in his view does not touch the experiences of the twice born. The twice born have certain, higher-level characteristics, including a feeling of compassion and love for life that the earth-bound do not have. Yet, given the problems on this earth, it is valid to question whether the single minded, meditative, cloistered devotion to the "one" is selfishness (e.g., "I am o.k. for I am with the Father."). Compassion for or with God may very well be a different species than compassion for our species, or all species, on this earth. James appears (to be fair, it's not so clear) to put himself in the twice-born enlightened category. He believes in "refined and universalistic supernaturalism" and here he covers all the bases. "Refined" means some sort of transcendent presence without any divine intervention in daily life. "Universalistic naturalism" means he remains true to his scientific roots and natural law, and this concept also allows his pragmatic theology to remain grounded in practical utility. "Super" means that there's more than naturalism and he stays in touch with that part of (super) reality through "prayerful communion." While it could be that James is communing with himself, nowhere in this very long book does he raise that as a possibility.On the style issue, a better book would have been to focus on these types of questions and issues rather than his many well-turned sentences. While we know from this book that James knows German, Latin, Greek and French, more than a few key points were lost because there was no translation. Over and over again, James apologizes for having to be so brief, yet more brevity may have offered more focus and clarity.

  • Jana Light
    2019-04-26 05:47

    I go back and forth on giving this book 4 stars or 5. I thought it was excellent considering where the field of psychology was at the time, but I was disappointed in how James's analysis stayed in the realm of the subjective and anechdotal. Of course, religious experience is radically individual and subjective, so it makes sense that much of his work would discuss individual experiences as such. However, I felt that in the first half he relied too strongly on autobiographical passages to prove his points, and most of those points seemed to be simply "people experience religion in many different ways." Well. Duh.The second half was much more interesting, as James started to analyze the value of different kinds of religious experience. I thought his insight into saintliness and the mystical temperament were the most thought-provoking. It was there that I could see glimmers of the future science of psychology. The book felt mostly like an introduction to the psychology of religious experience, and I finished it both having thoroughly enjoyed reading it and wishing there were a sequel. I'd love to learn about how the brain and body operate when people are having religious feelings or experiences, so I'm keeping an eye out. Or perhaps it's a book someone still has to write. (Me me me!!!)

  • Lily
    2019-04-13 04:02

    Okay, I shall claim having read this in 2016. But it was a first pass for me, and this is one of those books I don't think I should really claim as having read until at least a second read, and maybe a third.At this distance from August (now December), when I set James aside, never to really return to it, what stands out to me are a) while mystical experiences are a "real" part of human life, they in and of themselves are not adequate to empirically demonstrate the existence of divinity existing outside and beyond the "natural" world perceivable by humankind, and 2) faith can be a valuable, supportive tool in weathering the vicissitudes of human life. But I could probably have made those two statements without reading VRE. So....the value of the pedantic slough? Or of revisiting it? What can I say, besides the attempt to understand how a great mind and his audience have wrestled with selected aspects of religious experience -- and a sense of what aspects were chosen here.

  • RK-ique
    2019-03-29 00:46

    I tried reading this book about 35 years ago and gave up in despair. The lack of distinct between philosophy and psychology at the time James wrote the book led to bad philosophy and unsubstantiated psychology. ( There's still a great deal of both around. ) This time around, I decided to read the book for what it is, an historical document which looks back on an interesting period of changing concepts in psychology. Once again, I am giving up in despair. There are simply too many words that take the reader nowhere. The book is based on a series of lectures given by James to university students in Scotland. The lectures must have been painful to sit through. I simply have run out of patience, classic or no classic. Life's too short. I shall have to accept this gap in my education.

  • Robert
    2019-04-02 07:00

    Having just read Oliver Sacks's Hallucinations, I decided to plow through a book that has been on my shelf for a long time: The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James. My reasoning was as follows: Sacks's book offers a neurologist's explanation for almost any imaginable religious phenomenon. In effect, where God is concerned, the human brain can do it all: hear voices, see angels, receive instructions, imagine the unimaginable. Sacks did not set out to prove that God doesn't exist, but it's difficult not to draw that conclusion from his survey of humankind's hallucinatory gifts and brilliance. James's book, by contrast, is a famous analysis of religious experience from the psychological--and, I would add, humanistic--viewpoint. He, too, was an eminent scientist, but I suspected, correctly, that he would offer a "beyond-neurological" account of religion. The Varieties of Religious Experience began as a set of twenty lectures given in Scotland (James was a professor at Harvard at the time). It's clear that if the audience followed him as he worked his way through the various dimensions of religiousity, it was because in the early 1900s there were no movies, no Internet, no Netflix, no MP3 players, etc., to offer alternative modes of entertainment. And then, of course, you had the tough Scots ready to put up with almost any test of their patience and intellect. Taking all these factors into account, it's possible…but only possible…that James offered his listeners twenty good nights out on the town. This is a strenuous book, a demanding book, but a rewarding one. I would think it could be used as a fundamental text in a college course on religion. The subject is approached from the point of view of faith, conversion, philosophy, saintliness, mysticism…and yes, even neurology. Keeping in mind when James wrote this book helps when we ponder his fundamental conclusions: --Faith in a divine entity emerges out of a relocation of an individual's energy from his/her conscious mind to his/her subconcious mind. --The acquisition of faith can come from being born into a family of faith or, just as likely, a realization that one's little self (conscious mind) is inadequate to live a good, healthy life. --It's impossible to "prove" that a divinity exists or does not exist, but we can assess a divinity's reality by the utility that divinity offers the faithful. --Excitability, or a passionate nature, disposes one to the extremes of purity, self-sacrifice, and asceticism found in the saintly…and the mystical. --"Healthy-mindedness" was the term James used to describe religions that served as precursors to what we now broadly term "I'm Okay, You're Okay." --Protestantism will never be able to compete with the aesthetic glories of Roman Catholicism or offer solace equal to that provided by weekly confessions. --Many great religious figures--St. Augustine, Luther, Tolstoy--came to their faith out of self-disgust…and never quite surrendered that self-disgust. I could go on in this vein since it's a longish book, but there are a few more general points I'd like to make about it. Consistent with his scientific mind, James made constant use of testimonials, statements, confessions, etc., describing aspects of religious experience. In other words, he felt that given the subjectivity of religous experience, private, personal commentaries were indispensible in really understanding what religion was all about. James also was modest in his philosophical and intellectual pretentions, although he surely was one of the most erudite scholars of his time. He looked at experience inductively, case by case, wherever possible, and he did not force unities where they could not be discovered. This, of course, put him somewhat at odds with the fundamental quality of faith in that faith pretends to, or expresses, a sense of cosmic unity. Two major issues confronting Americans in terms of religion in today's world occur to me: --First, religions of subjective happiness and well-being and a sense of permanent contact with permanent love must be severely challenged by what we see around the globe, through jet travel or in the media. Setting wars aside, consider the fact that there are hundreds of million people who live on about a dollar a day. A God who doesn't push the well-off to work harder at relieving misery is a God who isn't pushing the well-off very hard. Our subjective experience and consciousness has changed since James's time, after all. We see everything, we hear everything, we need to pay attention to everything. --Second, James was quite prescient in noting how religions can lead to extremist views, dogmatism, discrimination and persecution. He uses the old-fashioned word "excitable" in a way that seems inadequate to describe the furies of jihadism or anti-semitism or Hindu rejection of Islam. Nonetheless, he's very good in highlighting the dangers of certainty. Again, James was a scientist and a pragmatist. He was suspicious of universals, but he was incredibly eloquent in offering a comprehensive account of what it feels like--and feeling is so critical to religion--to believe in a connection between an individual soul and the cosmic soul…if such a thing exists. For more of my comments on literature, see Tuppence Reviews (Kindle).

  • Gary
    2019-03-31 04:58

    Testimonials belong inside a comic book and offer nothing but anecdotal curiosities for those who already believe without sufficient reason or for those who like to pretend to know things they don’t really know. This is clearly one of the worst books I’ve ever read and I can’t believe that I had such high esteem for the author before having read this. The book is an incredibly dangerous approach to understanding a topic. Over a hundred different case studies of personal experiences are mentioned in detail with all of them dealing with an individual’s devotional, sacramental, or mortification relationship to the divine. All of the stories are about the individuals feelings arising from intense sensations from within the individual. Feelings are not things (I don’t usually shout, but I’m going to for the sake of emphasis: FEELINGS ARE NOT THINGS!). All of the various testimonials concerning people's feelings excruciatingly detailed in this book add nothing to my understanding about the divine. Sufficient reasons for our beliefs proportional to the credulity of the statement under consideration are the only standard I’m currently aware of for determining my beliefs. Because something makes me feel good or helps me deal with the world or accept my live on this blue dot I inhabit is not a reason for believing in it. I do everything in my power to not believe in false things and to limit my beliefs to justified true beliefs. James does not understand Hegel to a first approximation when he characterizes him as a mystic. Hegel is not a mystic. There are two things that he could have learned from Hegel but clearly did not. The great hidden joke within Hegel is that he knows what Peter O’Toole in the ‘Ruling Class’ knew when asked by the reporter why did he think he was God, he responded ‘because I finally realized that when I was praying to the divine, I only heard myself’. All of the testimonials presented in this book suffer from not accepting that realization. Hegel also knows that humans differ from all other creatures because we have second order volition and only children and narcissist lack that capability.That segues into why this book is so flawed. Imagine, if I were to write a book on narcissists and their special abilities for their intuitive truths they possess, and I used James’ approach. I would have hundreds of testimonials from various people testifying to such statements as ‘I grab women inappropriately and they love it’, ‘only I can solve that problem for you’, ‘we need to torture people way more than we have in the past’, ‘I know how to fix that problem and I’m the world’s greatest negotiator and I have a big brain’, ‘you can’t trust brown people to act as judges because they aren’t like me’, ‘anything that disagrees with me comes from fake media’, ‘and ‘there is such a thing as alternative facts’, and so on. Every single one of those statements are true within the world view of at least one narcissist and helps him reaffirm his self centered egocentric world view and works for him in a ‘pragmatic’ framework, but does not comport to reality that exist outside of his mind. This book used the same approach for religion as I did for narcissism. Yes, it’s possible that world view can work for the narcissist and maybe even one day he can become president of the US, but that doesn’t mean they possess intuitive truths worth possessing or that their world view is a sane one or I should give special consideration for their world view because it works for them. In the end, the narcissist is not capable of seeing the other as a human being and therefore cannot see himself in relationship to others as a human and lacks the basic characteristic of being human. My imaginary book on narcissism would add nothing but anecdotal curiosities on an interesting topic and with testimonials from narcissists on how it works for them pragmatically, but the untold story is that narcissism belongs in the DSM V as a behavioral problem without an exception for belonging to a large group of other people having that same narcissistic belief. My overall point and distaste for this author’s book is that his methodology is flawed (and tedious), and one should not generalize anecdotal evidence outside of the framework under consideration and make conclusions based on people’s feelings as ones sole criterion. If I used the author’s methodology, I would conclude narcissism was a good thing, and it gives special insights into intuitive truths about the world and is defendable because it works for the narcissist who provided the testimonials. (The narcissist’s world view is skewed by their inability to have second order volitions and to be quite frank, I don’t want to be living such a lie even if it buys me that ‘pragmatic’ happiness but the price of not seeing the other as a human being is too high for me to pay).

  • Wendel
    2019-04-25 06:13

    A well written book, accessible to a relatively broad public, but not likely to convince anyone not already responsive to James’ intuitions. His cautious claim on truth is bound to bother non-believers as well as those who are sure their faith has a firm basis in reason or revelation. To the last mentioned any view of religion as primarily (though not ultimately) a psychological phenomenon must be both wrong and dangerous. And the chance that James’ anecdotal empiricism will convince any critic is very slim indeed.James is counted among the founders of scientific psychology, but in his days psychology’s claim on science was still more a matter of intention than of discipline. So it is to be expected that his case studies, the actual varieties, rather illustrate than prove the accompanying theories. More surprising really is that most varieties represent quite extreme experiences. But that is not just for the sake of clarity: James felt that only ’religious geniuses' (not seldom disturbed people) were able to approach the transcendental 'reality of the unseen'.We are dealing here with an elitist who has little interest in the experience of the common believer. Nor was James very keen on churches, religious traditions or theology. Dogma was for him - at best - a rationalization of the original emotional experience of the geniuses. If religion needed a theoretical defense it would be better served with a pragmatic approach. As a tree is judged by its fruit, so the value of religion must be judged by its (potential) effects on believers. Here, however, James is extremely selective. We may be sure that all our doubts about the supposed benevolence of faith are discounted as not attributable to 'true' religion. Faith may be a struggle, but James acknowledges only winners. Where saints provide the norm, the fruit of 'true' religion can hardly be anything less than saintliness (without favoring the Mother Church). And when even saints fail - and James leaves little doubt they often do - religion at least provides a moral ideal. This reasoning appears to build the assumed benevolence of religion on shaky grounds, but James’ self-confident reaffirmation of faith apparently came as a relief for a generation that was not so sure anymore of traditional dogma. Religious pragmatism may have little appeal to atheists or the orthodox, but there is plenty in between. Yoked with his rejection of dogma, his distrust of institutions and his plea for tolerance, it is not difficult to understand the appeal James had for a large segment of western believers, then and now.And yet, this book might never have become the landmark it is, if there would not have been another side. For all his liberalism, James did not despair of getting a grip on the transcendental. His pragmatism was in fact only a temporary expedient: while the saints were holding his pragmatic line of defense, the mystics were called upon to secure a final victory. Speculative reason was not able to reveal ultimate truth, but the mystics’ extra sense might just do that. James proposes therefore a new "Science of Religion" to study the greatest common divisor of mystic experience. A new science based on subjective data (and presumably replacing explanation by 'spiritual judgement'): it does not seem very promising. But it may just as well please all those who feel that if science does not answer every question here and now, any shortcut to truth is just as valid. Biographical sources report that James was fascinated by such shortcuts: Swedenborg, theosophy, telepathy, spiritualism. Varieties that are not mentioned in the book, except for the 'mind-curers' (whose dubious health claims James readily accepts), but their presence in the background is unmistakable.So we have two Jameses: a liberal, 'scientific' James and a James of superstition and shortcuts. The latter may be a bit embarrassing to some, but I assume that many readers would have found the Varieties much less inspiring without him. Moreover, both aspects of this Janus-James tell us something about the contradictions in 20st century Western culture, which counters the triumph of science with growing self-doubt and a longing to return to both the wildness and the certainty of imagined pasts.But let's end on a positive note, with James the writer. Here is someone with fascinating stories to tell and with thoughts reaching far and wide enough to produce a few gems for every one. Outstanding for me was the suggestion that religious choices are to a considerable degree a function of aesthetic preferences. Now that is an intuition to which I am responsive: what about the unexplored relations with art and literature, surely there are layers of subjective meaning out there now hidden by outdated claims on truth, maybe a 21st century James will find ways to open this treasure house?

  • Charles Puskas
    2019-04-16 05:13

    I was an intrigued by this often-quoted book by the learned physician and pyschologist brother of the novelist Henry James. Bill Wilson of Alcoholics Anonymous derived the concept of higher power, letting go of your anxiety, and diverse spiritual experiences from the book. His descriptive analysis of the diverse religious experiences of Madame Guyon, Emerson, John Wesley, George Fox, Jonathan Edwards, Martin Luther, Teresa of Alvila, Transcendentalists, Ignatius of Loyola, Philo, certain Buddhists and Hindus, found commonality in the experience of unease or divided self leading to a solution in connection/communon with something greater than oneself (God, the greater good, the Ideal). His categories of "sick soul, tough minded, tender minded" are used by many (even utilized subtly in the fiction of his brother Henry). According to William James: "To the psychologist the religious propensities of man must be at least as interesting as any other of the facts pertaining to his mental constitution. It would seem, therefore, as a psychologist, the natural thing for me would be to invite you to a descriptive survey of those religious propensities." When Harvard professor, William James went to the University of Edinburgh in 1901 to deliver a series of lectures on "natural religion," he defined religion as "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." Considering religion, then, not as it is defined by--or takes place in--the churches, but as it is felt in everyday life, he undertook a project that, upon completion, stands not only as one of the most important texts on psychology ever written, not only as a vitally serious contemplation of spirituality, but for many critics one of the best works of nonfiction written in the 20th century. Reading The Varieties of Religious Experience, it is easy to see why. Applying his analytic clarity to religious accounts from a variety of sources, James elaborates a pluralistic framework in which "the divine can mean no single quality, it must mean a group of qualities, by being champions of which in alternation, different men may all find worthy missions." It's an intellectual call for serious religious tolerance--indeed, respect--the vitality of which has not diminished through the subsequent decades.

  • Jay
    2019-04-11 01:46

    I can understand why this has so many 5 star reviews and why it is considered a classic. This is a collection of lectures James gave, and you get some of the feel of the current “Modern Scholar” or “Great Courses” series. He is engaging with the audience. There are a boatload of examples. And the path he takes to get to his conclusion isn’t what you’d expect (I didn’t expect major detours through saintliness and mysticism, but those topics were about a third of the book). I found the examples to be interesting, but they really overwhelmed the book – probably more than half the ink was for written examples of religious experiences that James had gathered. This was certainly more than needed, but it seemed James was also trying to make his lectures one hour each – some must have been more for time fillers than to make his case, and he admits as much throughout. And James never met a footnote he couldn’t expand on – there were many, many footnotes with additional examples of the behavior he was considering at the time. Thorough, but perhaps too. I listened to this on Librivox audio. I read along during a few lectures in the Library of America version of the book. I found reading along did help with comprehension. Otherwise, I had some difficulties with following along. Part of the issue was the verbosity of the language, part was the substantial footnotes that are read along with the text. Were I to read it again to revist James’ thinking, I believe I’d ignore the footnotes and be happier and better served. Interesting for the examples (what it takes to be a saint!), and for the thought along the way, but I didn’t get what I was expecting with the conclusions of the book. He went far for the time, but not farther than I’d been taught in some college classes I’d taken.

  • Karen Hanson
    2019-03-28 03:57

    To be honest I didn't finish this whole book. I began reading this while on my own religious journey and found it to be a great resource to understand the different feelings and experiences I had along the way. I sort of stopped and started this book as my journey progressed because it helped me to relate to the continuing evolving ideas that were put forth. I actually recommend reading the book this way as it's hard to relate to things like the "dark night of the soul" if you've never been through it. I believe I made it about 3/4 of the way through this book and I have a goal of eventually finishing it. I just haven't been as interested in the topic of religion as of late so I don't have the drive I once did to read it. I also think that I may not relate as closely to William James on his later writings as I've turned onto a slightly different path than he chose. This is a good, although somewhat dry & arduous resource for those wanting to learn about the common path of humans through religion.

  • Odile
    2019-03-30 00:16

    A true classic of religious scholarship and psychology that is both relevant and readable. James explores many psychological and philosophical characteristics of the religious experience, and shows at least some of its variety in terms of its extreme and benign forms.This leaves us with an essential account of what religion truly means and the way in which it is or can be intertwined with social, political and other factors. It lets us unravel such threads in an effective way, and shows us that religion in its essence is not the cause behind all the world's evil and/or good. Rather, religion is a fundamental dimension of consciousness that is relevant to many people, of various backgrounds.It's difficult to give a good impression of a book like this in a bite-size review. Let me just say that it is one I would recommend to anyone who is willing to take a serious look at religion as a human phenomenon, without passing judgement beforehand.

  • Behdad Khoshnava
    2019-03-27 04:11

    شاهکار ویلیام جیمز من رو با انواع تجربه های دینی آشنا کرد. بعد از خوندن این کتاب به امور دینی نگاهی چند بعدی و عاری از قضاوت خواهید داشت

  • Aussiescribbler Aussiescribbler
    2019-04-06 00:06

    Religion is a contentious topic. It is normal that each of us should look on our own form of belief or lack there of as truthful and the other options as various forms of eccentricity. So I feel that the best way to start a review of a classic book which surveys the field of varying forms of religious experience, is to give an overview of my views on the topic so that my own bias can be accounted for.I identify as a pantheist. Wikipedia gives this definition : “Pantheism is the belief that the Universe (or nature as the totality of everything) is identical with divinity, or that everything composes an all-encompassing, immanent god.” So perhaps it is not surprising that I view the world’s religions (and also atheism) as deviations from an original state of pantheism.To me, God is a mythological figure representing the creative principle of the universe in the same kind of way that Mother Nature is a mythological figure representing the natural ecosystem and Father Time is a mythological figure representing time. That there is a creative principle at work in the universe is self-evident. Once there was nothing on earth but inorganic matter, now there are complex living systems of which we ourselves are one of the most complex and capable manifestations. Thus creation takes place in the universe by the medium of the laws of nature. If we term this “an act of God” then we are talking not of an extrinsic God (a human-like creator sitting outside of “his” creation forming it though conscious decisions) but of an intrinsic self-creating “God” the face of which is the laws which favour such complexity when circumstances allow.This creative principle is not just expressed by our form, but we give conscious or unconscious expression to it when we create or when we cooperate with others in creative ways. The creative principle at work in ourselves is what we call “love”. Love is a form of communication characterised by openness, honesty, spontaneity and generosity. It is through this process that we become more than our individual selves. We become part of a whole which is more than the sum of its parts.I believe that there was a time when our ape-like ancestors (maybe Ardipithecus over 4 million years ago) lived every moment of their existence within the experience of being life itself in all its creativity. They knew they were what we would later come to label “God”. The individual ego of each male or female being an essential tool for exploration and self-management but existing always within the context of loving communion with the other members of the group.So what went wrong? Our questing minds arrived at the concepts of “good” and “evil” and from there we developed morality. “Evil” may initially have been something outside of ourselves, e.g. the predatory behaviour of some animals. But once we had “knowledge of good and evil” it opened us up to the social phenomenon of criticism of behaviour and thus a system of morality based on the discouragement of some forms of behaviour and encouragement of others. Initially, in such a loving community this would have caused little disruption, but it was a slow poison. We would come, by an act of will, to try to avoid certain forms of behaviour and pursue others. What started as an external social phenomenon would eventually have become internalised when we began to second-guess what behaviour might lead to criticism and thus developed our conscience, i.e. a part of our ego in which we store our expectations about ourselves.To be secure in our life as “God” we need to practice unconditional self-acceptance. Otherwise we become internally split between the acceptable and the unacceptable. Morality and the conscience would increasingly have led us to practice repression and also experience guilt. It gave us a dark side to battle with and to feel ashamed of.Of course all of this is symbolically represented in the Old Testament story of Adam and Eve eating from the tree of knowledge and being expelled from the Garden of Eden. The more we experienced feelings of guilt or felt the need to battle against repressed anti-social tendencies within us the more selfish we became. Selfishness is the natural self-directedness of the suffering individual. But selfishness was something of which our morality was critical. Thus we became caught in a negative feedback loop - guilt about being selfish made us feel more guilty which made us more selfish.It was this state of alienation from the creative principle of the universe which gave birth to our various conceptions of God. (I’ll stick to the mono-theistic variety here. The varied gods in polytheistic religions seem to represent different elements of nature and/or human qualities, and thus provide a somewhat different function.)Personifying the creative principle as “God” was a way to provide focus to our condition. Our relationship to this principle had become difficult, and it is easier to deal with a difficult relationship with a human-like being than with an impersonal principle. Again, this is the reason we came up with the concept of “Mother Nature”. The earliest personification of the creative principle probably was female. A Goddess who gave birth to us, but might also be critical of us. Later, as society became patriarchal, this would have been supplanted by “God the Father”.In our embattled state we would tend to create our God in our own image. If you “hate fags” your “God hates fags”.To the pantheist, the universe is the most magnificent of cathedrals, but to those who have become alienated, exiled from their home in that reality, there may be a need to create their own magnificent cathedrals or mosques and ceremonies full of pomp and circumstance so that they can feel a part of something big and wonderful, but it is always a pale shadow of what they have lost. This is similar to the way that material wealth becomes more important to us as “evidence of our worth” the further we become removed from our capacity for loving relationships with others.While it was the idealism thought virus (“knowledge of good and evil”) which generated the original double bind which gave birth to our capacity for selfishness and aggression, religion can sometimes turn into an even more destructive form of double-bind. If someone believes that the God or saviour they worship is perfect and that they have to struggle to be worthy of them, this is going to undermine their self-acceptance quite quickly, and yet they must strive to love this deity or saviour as the only way out of their dilemma. The more they are drained of the capacity for love, which requires unconditional self-acceptance, the more resentment towards this figure will build on a subconscious level. This can lead to a paranoid state in which they see “Satanic” forces in the world around them which are really just a projection of their own repressed hatred of that God or saviour.I think this double bind is the source of religion’s dark side. The Catholic Church, for instance, worships innocence (placing a particular emphasis on the infant Jesus and the Virgin Mary). The value of Mary is seen as residing in her having been “sexually pure”. Such worship may create a double-bind in which the worshipper becomes progressively less accepting of those characteristics within themselves which make them, in their own eyes, unworthy of that which is worshipped. Intense (possibly subconscious) resentment may build up towards the object of worship along with a fixation on the sexual feelings which are not accepted. Is it then so surprising that the Catholic Church should have such a massive problem with priests sexually molesting children? Authoritarian power structures obsessed with secrecy and self-protection are also a natural outgrowth of the rigid character armour which is bound to be the outer shell around such a cancer of the soul.A double-bind pushes us right back into a desperate psychological corner. It is when someone is in that corner that their beliefs may take a very “magical” form or they may feel the need to reject reason and cling to literal interpretations of religious texts, which I don’t believe were ever intended to be taken that way in the first place. (As we can see with the story of Adam and Eve, these mythological stories were symbolic ways to express our psychological situation. We have no reason to believe that they were viewed as factual histories when first expressed.) The atrophying of the imagination and the inability to appreciate symbolism are both symptoms of alienation. To interpret myths as literal realities or to dismiss them as meaningless because they are not literally real are both symptoms of such alienation.On the other hand, not all forms of religious belief malfunction in this way. While the kind of naturalistic explanation for and resolution of our psychological dilemma which we can now give with the benefit of science may do the job more effectively, it has been possible for some individuals to find their way to a more effective and meaningful life via religion. And it should be kept in mind that, in many parts of the world and throughout much of our history, it has been difficult if not impossible to find any assistance in dealing with our state of psychological alienation outside the medium of some kind of religious organisation. Some brave individuals might strike out on their own, but for those who felt the need of companionship in negotiating life in this state, a church of some kind, with all of its flaws, was probably the only help on offer.Many view religion almost entirely as a social evil. There is no doubt that many of the worst acts our species have carried out have been carried out in the name of religion. But where exactly does the problem lie? Not with someone having a mystical experience in which they “see God” or having a conversion experience and devoting their life to helping the poor. The problem lies with dogma, rigid adherence to that dogma and oppression of others based on that dogma. Dogma is a defence system against free thought, based on the fear that such thought might lead to a scary place. Dogmatism of any kind is, at base, fear-driven insecurity. If the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages felt the need to torture heretics it was because they were afraid of the threat that such heresy posed to their insecure belief system. If an Imam insists that women cover themselves from head-to-toe it is because he is afraid of the boiling stew of lust that his repressive belief system has caused to build up in his psyche. But insecure dogmatism is not peculiar to religious institutions. Great crimes have been committed in the name of insecure political dogmas like Communism and fascism. And what is “political correctness” but an attempt to restrict others freedoms in order to protect one’s own (or someone else’s) state of insecurity.Some mistake religious dogmatism for faith. Actually it is lack of faith. Faith is trust. Religious faith is trust in God. To feel the need to torture or kill those who do not agree with our religious beliefs is evidence both of a lack of trust in the veracity of those beliefs and also a lack of trust that God is able to handle his own affairs. When we cling to dogma and ritual, we do so because we are afraid. Faith would make us fearless. To open oneself up to the possibility of having a mystical experience requires faith. To venture beyond conventional modes of thought requires faith. We know so much more about our world than we once did, because we have had faith in the scientific method. We went to the moon because we had faith in our own abilities and faith in the process we envisioned to get us there. This is what we mean when we say that “faith moves mountains”.For me the value of studying the field of religious belief is because it has the capacity to lay bare our deeper psychology. An atheist may not tell you what keeps them awake at night or what makes them feel depressed. They are under no obligation to do so. But the guilts, fears and insecurities of the religious individual are exposed, at least to some degree, through their belief system. Often I can identify, even if I do not share their way of addressing those problems. For me personal liberation through self-knowledge is the highest goal. (For that I find a non-supernatural interpretation of the philosophy of Jesus very useful.)The Varieties of Religious Experience : A Study in Human Nature is an edited collection of lectures which William James gave at Edinburgh in 1901-1902. Throughout the lectures covering topics such as the despair preceding conversion, conversion, positive-thinking-based religion, saintliness and mysticism, he presents extensive personal accounts from the literature of the day and of the past. There is a wit and generosity of spirit to his handling of the subject which made it a great pleasure for me to spend time in his company. He has been criticised, fairly, for deemphasising the negative aspects of religion (beyond some harrowing accounts of ascetic self-torture). He does advise that religions be judged on the basis of whether or not they produce good results, but he doesn’t go out of his way to give negative examples.It is easy to look at the religious beliefs of others from the outside. This book gives us a chance to walk with those who have experienced the agony and the ecstasy and share intimately in what it means to them. There is also plenty to amuse as we marvel at the wild varieties of human eccentricity. James’ philosophy is to seek out the most extreme experiences, as he feels that, in them, we see a kind of enlarged version of the more commonplace, much as a microscope’s process of enlargement enables us to get a better understanding of a microbe.And, as with the classic psychoanalytic case studies, this is important raw material for anyone wishing to come to a deeper understanding of the human psyche. We needn’t accept the interpretations the experiencers put upon their own experiences, but if we want to know ourselves better we may learn much from the snapshots of the interior world that they have brought back, blurry and badly-lit as they may be.In his summing up James says : “Individuality is founded in feeling; and the recesses of feeling, the darker, blinder strata of character, are the only places in the world in which we catch real fact in the making, and directly perceive how events happen, and how work is actually done.”The aim of science is to be objective. This is what makes psychology such a tricky field of study. The observer is the observed. And yet, as James’ points out, the psychological experience is the only one in which we actually experience facts taking place. We are dependent on the input of our senses for the gathering of data in all other areas. If we turn out to be disembodied brains sitting in tanks having false sensory information fed to us, the one incontrovertible fact for us will be that we are having those experiences, illusory of not. René Descartes may have said “I think therefore I am” but he could have generalised a little more and said “I experience therefore I am”. Of course we are not ourselves having the religious experiences the accounts of which James’ shares with us. We may not trust that some or all of the writers are telling the truth. But the the inner world of the psyche is too important not take an interest in what evidence we have, uncertain as it may sometimes be.James expresses his own belief in the existence of God in the following way :“If asked just where the differences in fact which are due to God’s existence come in, I should have to say that in general I have no hypothesis to offer beyond what the phenomenon of ‘prayerful communion,’ especially when certain kinds of incursion from the subconscious region take part in it, immediately suggests. The appearance is that in this phenomenon something ideal, which in one sense is part of ourselves and in another sense is not ourselves, actually exerts an influence, raises our centre of personal energy, and produces regenerative effects unattainable in other ways. If, then, there be a wider world of being than that of our every-day consciousness, if in it there be forces whose effects on us are intermittent, if one facilitating condition of the effects be the openness of the ‘subliminal’ door, we have the elements of a theory to which the phenomena of religious life lend plausibility. I am so impressed by the importance of these phenomena that I adopt the hypothesis which they so naturally suggest. At these places at least, I say, it would seem as though transmundane energies, God, if you will, produced immediate effects within the natural world of which the rest of our experience belongs.”I’m sure that the kinds of religious experiences he has discussed in this book are evidence of a source of great transformative power, but I don’t find his conclusion that this supports belief in the supernatural convincing. I believe the power involved is wholly natural. The psychological burden imposed by the battle between “good” and “evil” within us - that thought virus eating away at our peace of mind - has been such that it may seem miraculous to us if a mystical experience or religious conversion brings some relief from this situation and with it dramatic positive change. But far greater positive change, without any dogmatic framework, will occur for all of us if we learn the practice of unconditional self-acceptance. By so doing we release ourselves from the poison of humanity’s historic curse. I believe that this is what was at the heart of the philosophy espoused poetically by Jesus. Give up worrying about being “sinful” (i.e. selfish), because that self-criticism is the main thing making you selfish and thus standing between you and your true unconditionally-loving nature. And to love and be loved unconditionally is “the Kingdom of Heaven”.A major advantage we have over James is the ability to study the chemistry and electrical functioning of the brain. Today we know that participating in group singing, such as many individuals do in church, tends to cause the body to produce oxytocin, a chemical which promotes feelings of affection and bonding. The feeling of love is an experiential fact of the kind to which James’ is referring. Now we have achieved a greater objective understanding of it through discovering its chemistry. The church-goers may explain it to themselves as “the infilling of the Holy Spirit”. Would they be wrong? If they think that something supernatural is happening perhaps so. But I see nothing wrong with their terminology. The word “holy” means “whole” or “of the whole”. Oxytocin enables us to bond with others, to experience ourselves as part of a larger whole. The “spirit” of something is its essence, that which motivates it. Why should we not see oxytocin as a “holy spirit” or as a medium for “the holy spirit” (i.e. the creative principle of the universe)? A poetic vision need not run counter to science.This is an edited version of this review. Trying to say everything I wanted to say about religion proved way too much for the space limitations. You can read the whole thing on my blog".

  • Josh Friedlander
    2019-04-26 05:55

    For obvious reasons, I've been trying to avoid news and politics for the last while, but I am fascinated by the anthropology of it - how people are capable of disagreeing so virulently on such fundamental issues. Take Mencius Moldbug, a brilliant scientist who happens to think that everything went downhill from the Glorious Revolution; or the fact that all the best historians of the 20th century were doctrinaire Marxists. When I was younger I naïvely thought that rational, intelligent actors would converge on a broad consensus, but it doesn't seem that way. I'm continually struck by the variety, even among similarly intelligent and educated people, of political beliefs.A parallel discussion is the topic of William James' bookThe Varieties of Religious Experience, a transcript of his Gifford Lectures from the beginning of the last century. (He expresses a touching degree of pride at being an American lecturing to an audience of Europeans, a sentiment readers of his brother will understand...) James comes from the liberal, unitarian Boston that spawned Deists like Emerson and Thoreau - but also with Puritan roots, sporadically burned over by religious revival movements during the 1800s, and in which religion still plays an outsized role in public life when compared to Europe.Dr James intends to analyze the different existing forms of belief in a detached, scientific way, and much of the book (maybe too much) is given over to testimonies of extreme religious experiences, from which he thinks we can deduce the more moderate types. Unfortunately, here the book suffers from a heavy bias toward Western Christianity. Occasional mention is made of non-Christian worship, but little is made of it.James is wary of drawing fixed conclusions, committed to a certain relativism that takes into account the variety of human nature, culture and personality. But he is adamant that the religious instinct plays an important role in the human psyche, one that Enlightenment rationalism has not made redundant. In the most powerful moments of hope, fear, ecstasy, altruism or temptation, people are drawn to express some belief in a higher power.Although secularism is more prevalent today than when these lectures were given, various forms of religious belief show no sign of waning, and some are stronger than ever. If these are positive and valuable, then, is there some specific belief or experience that we should aim towards? Here, James the psychologist is wary of prescribing any doctrinal positions that ought to apply to every person in every situation. He has little interest in the "science" of religion, the learned scholasticism of the Middle Ages. But he does very briefly formulate some of his own ideas, a sort of natural religion that requires belief in, and communion with, some power greater than oneself. The infinite varieties of which such being and such communion might be composed, is left to the individual to conceive, in accordance with her own nature.