The Aims and Main Conclusions Drawn by William James in ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’

Here are some resources for William James:

A BBC radio discussion with Melvyn Bragg about The Varieties of Religious Experience:

A link to an excellent online ‘Cliff’s notes’ style summary of Varieties of Religious Experience

The entire book online free:

My own summary of his main aims and conclusions:

James begins by distinguishing between two types of inquiry about a subject – first – how did it come about? and second what is its importance now that it is here? He says that the answer to the first will be an existential judgement – a judgement of being – and to the second a proposition of value, and that neither of these can be deduced immediately from the other.

What he is saying is that just because you have an explanation for the origin of a thing does not mean you can derive from that a judgement about its value. This is key to his project.

It is a direct answer to those like Freud and Marx who believed that because they could determine the psychological or sociological origin of religious belief, it followed that they had explained away its importance and it had become ‘nothing but’ a delusion and so on. He called this ‘medical materialism’ and deals very firmly with it in Lecture One .

James says the major flaw with explanations of religious experience which reduce them to medical or biological causes (St Theresa is a hysteric, St. Paul just an epileptic and so on) is that they are self-defeating as explanations (the same argument can apply to any reductionist or eliminative materialist explanation in other topics too – eg. free will or Life and Death) – in other words – all our beliefs, religious or non-religious, would be subject to the same material origin, and therefore the belief that religious experience has a material cause is itself the result of a material cause, unless it can be shown that religious beliefs are the only types of belief that this applies to. But James says medical materialism can point to no reason why it thinks the argument only applies to religious beliefs – he says “It is sure, just as every simple man is sure, that some states of mind are superior to others, and reveal to us more truth, and in this it simply makes use of an ordinary spiritual judgement.”

He goes on to conclude that the only way of making the second kind of judgement about religious experiences (value-judgements or statements of importance) is by looking at their “immediate luminousness”, which he unpacks as:

1. Philosophical reasonableness

2. Moral helpfulness

He says: “The degree in which our experience is productive of practice shows the degree in which our experience is spiritual and divine.”

This is explored fully in the book. James considers seriously all sorts of first hand accounts of experiences and examines different theories of their origin – he is careful to show the cases where religious experience seems to be a type of pathological behaviour (we might think here of the Toronto Blessing!), but he always looks at the question ‘what effect did the experience have on the life of the believer?’ in order to judge its value.

One thing that students commonly do when a question on religious experience or William James comes up is to simply state his 4 characteristics of mystical experience, then go on to say perhaps how Marx or Freud have shown that they could be delusions. What students don’t commonly realise is that James is already well aware of the Freudian critique of religious experience before he gives his lectures, and deals with it in the very first lecture. In doing so, he shows a nuanced and balanced approach to the topic.

Coming up in part two – the conclusions drawn by James.

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