Varieties of Religious Experience by William James

The Varieties of Religious Experience

The Varieties of Religious Experience is a book based on a series of lectures given by William James in 1901 and 1902. James, a psychologist and philosopher, examines the enormous diversity of religious life exhibited by humankind.

He focuses on individual religious experiences, rather than the precepts of organized religions, which he believed were the backbone of the world’s religious life. James discusses conversion, repentance, mysticism, and saintliness, and his observations on actual, personal religious experiences support this thesis.

James presents a key distinction between healthy-minded religion and religion of the sick soul. The former is a religion of life’s goodness, while the latter cannot overcome the radical sense of evil in the world. Although James presents this as a value-neutral distinction between different kinds of religious attitude, he regarded the sick-souled religious experience as preferable.

James considered belief in the “mind cure” to be reasonable when compared to medicine as practiced at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The book is influenced by pragmatic philosophy, and James concludes that religion is overall beneficial to humankind, although acknowledges that this does not establish its truth. James had relatively little interest in the legitimacy or illegitimacy of religious experiences. In James’ description, these conditions are likely to be psychological or pharmaceutical rather than cultural.

What I Liked

I love the value-neutral approach that he proposes. It allows anyone to study religion from a neutral standpoint without getting into value judgements of your own or someone else’s religion.

What I Did Not Like

It’s a 100 year old academic text, so it’s a bit dense in parts.

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