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Acclaimed as one of the greatest works of nonfiction published in the twentieth century, William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience was revolutionary in its view of religious life as centered not within the Church but solely within “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude.”
Using the language of psychology, James tries to explain religious phenomenasuch as conversion, repentance, mysticism, and saintlinessas psychic energy that arises from the unconscious mind in times of trouble. To support his theories, James turns to the autobiographical writings of a wide variety of mystics and writers, including Walt Whitman, Martin Luther, Voltaire, Emerson, and Tolstoy. The result is a colorful and wide-ranging collection of recorded experiences that James compares, categorizes, and analyzes. Many of his categoriesincluding the sick soul, the divided self, and healthy-mindednesshave become standard in the study of religions.
Exquisitely written, The Varieties of Religious Experience has had a profound influence on modern spiritual thought, including the psychology of religion and recovery programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous.
Wayne Proudfoot is Professor of Religion at Columbia University, specializing in the philosophy of religion. He has published Religious Experience, as well as articles on William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and American Protestant thought.
Read an Excerpt
From Wayne Proudfoot's Introduction to The Varieties of Religious Experience
James was dissatisfied with the current state of philosophy of religion and liberal theology, and he thought that a new approach was needed. Contemporary British and American philosophy of religion was dominated by a rationalist tradition that James viewed as empty and unrelated to the actual place of religion in people's lives. His Harvard colleague Josiah Royce, a former student and close friend whom he greatly respected, was a logician and a leading representative of philosophical idealism, and had published a clever argument for the existence of God. James thought this too facile. If the question of God is a real question, it calls for real inquiry, an inquiry that examines experience rather than circumventing it by appeal to logic. It can't be settled by some abstract argument. While working on Varieties James wrote to Royce that he was composing it with the design of overthrowing his system. According to James, a proper study of religion should begin with actual religious life, its effects on those who live it, and its implications for philosophy.
James called for a new approach to the study of religion in two pieces written while he was preparing for the Gifford Lectures. The first is the preface to The Will to Believe (1897), a collection of his articles on religion and morality, and the second a lecture, delivered at Berkeley in the fall of 1898, that he viewed as a rehearsal for the lectures at Edinburgh.
The Berkeley lecture, "Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results," is well known for the first public use of the term "pragmatism" to refer to a method of doing philosophy. James credits his friend Charles Sanders Peirce with both the term and the method. Peirce claimed that the meaning of a concept is to be found in the practical consequences we are to expect from it, and in its implications for future conduct. James uses Peirce's criterion to try to clarify what is at stake in the debate over whether or not there is a God. The abstract conceptions of theologians, he says, are aftereffects of concrete religious experiences. Those experiences—voices and visions, responses to prayer, changes of heart, deliverances from fear, and assurances of support—are the primary constituents of religious life. The meaning of the term "God" is those experiences. James says that the theistic controversy appears trivial if taken academically and theologically, but is of tremendous significance for actual life.
In the preface to The Will to Believe, a volume dedicated to Peirce, James says that the only way to evaluate religious beliefs is to test them empirically. When people actively live out their faiths, he writes, some of those beliefs will survive advances in knowledge and others will prove inadequate. No rationalist argument can determine which faiths will work best. The history of religions shows, he says, that many hypotheses have crumbled with widening knowledge of the world, and others have endured and possess vitality for today. A "science of religions" can tell us which faiths have worked best, in a way that no rationalist analysis can. In Varieties James proposes that philosophy of religion be replaced by such a science of religions, and he hopes that the book will make a contribution to it. The phrase "science of religions" had recently been developed by European scholars to refer to a new comparative and empirical approach to the subject, though in fact it often continued to serve theological interests.
Conception of Religion and of Religious Types
Were he asked to characterize the life of religion in the broadest possible terms, James writes, he would say that "it consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto. This belief and this adjustment are the religious attitude in the soul." James writes well and chooses his terms carefully. When he uses terms that seem vague, it is because he thinks they capture the proper level of generality for his purpose. He intends the phrase "unseen order" to encompass not only the New England Transcendentalism of Emerson and the "natural supernaturalism" of Wordsworth and the romantic poets, but also the objects of traditional religious doctrines in a variety of cultures. With this broad characterization of religion, and with the typology that follows it, James hopes to offer an approach to the subject that cuts across doctrinal divisions and debates both within Christianity and beyond. While his idea of religion and his judgments about the value of particular beliefs and practices are strongly shaped by New England Protestantism, he aims to say something more general about the religious life.