William James
Varieties of Religious Experience
Johann Maree
UCT Summer School
January 2012
William James: a very brief biography
William James (1842 – 1910) was a
pioneering American psychologist and
philosopher who was trained as a physician.
He was the brother of the novelist Henry
James and son of a wealthy and notoriously
eccentric theologian who was well acquainted
with the literary and intellectual elites of the
James’ Approach in Varieties of Religion
James emphasized that his enquiry into religion was
‘not (of) religious institutions, but rather religious
feelings and religious impulses’. (p.26) He explains:
‘It would profit us little to study … second-hand
religious life. We must make search rather for the
original experiences which were the pattern setters
to all this mass of suggested feeling and imitated
conduct. These experiences we can only find in
individuals for whom religions exists not as a dull
habit, but as an acute fever rather. But such
individuals are “geniuses” in the religious line.’ (p.29)
Religious “genuises”
These “geniuses”, are ‘superhuman’ people
like, Christ, the Buddha, Mohammed, who
became the founders of new religious
traditions and ‘owed their power originally to
the fact of their direct personal communion
with the divine.’
James’ starting point
James’s starting point is to sketch two extreme
types of humans, the ‘healthy-minded’ and the ‘sick
The healthy-minded person is one ‘whose soul is of
this sky-blue tint, whose affinities are rather with
flowers and birds and all enchanting innocencies
than with dark human passions, who can think no ill
of man or God…’ (p.94)
James refers to them as the once-born in contrast to
the twice-born who belong to the category of the
‘sick soul’. (p.94)
The ‘sick soul’
James becomes heavy when he deals with the sick soul.
Here is what one of them who was a patient in a French
asylum suffered:
‘I no longer sleep since I am shut up here, and the little
rest I get is broken by bad dreams, and I am waked with
a jump by nightmares, dreadful visions, lightning,
thunder … Fear, atrocious fear, presses me down, holds
me without respite, never lets me go. … But God knows
neither middle way nor limits. I say God, but why? All I
have known so far has been the devil. After all, I am
afraid of God as much as of the devil, so I drift along,
thinking of nothing but suicide, but with neither courage
nor means here to execute the act.’ (pp.155-56)
The divided self and unification
James describes the sick soul as a person with a
divided self and that the way out of the dilemma is
through a process of unification.
‘The process of unification, when it occurs, may
come gradually, or it may occur abruptly; it may
come through altered feelings, or through altered
powers of action; or it may come through new
intellectual insights, or through experiences which
we shall later have to designate as “mystical”.
However it come, it brings a characteristic sort of
relief; and never such extreme relief as when it is
cast into the religious mould. Happiness!’ (p.180)
Conversion: the ‘hot place’
When the unification process is religious in nature
James refers to it as conversion. Two aspects stand
out with regards to conversion: the ‘hot place’ (no,
not hell!) and self-surrender.
The ‘hot place’ refers to emotional excitement
created in a person’s consciousness. It changes a
person’s orientation and what she or he most wants
to do. James regards hot places as centres of
dynamic energy. Conversion then means that
religious ideas, previously peripheral in a person’s
consciousness, ‘take a central place, and that
religious aims form the habitual centre of his
energy’. (p.201)
The second aspect of conversion is selfsurrender. Drawing on Starbuck, James says
self-surrender is indispensable for
conversion. ‘The personal will must be given
up. In many cases relief persistently refuses
to come until the person ceases to resist, or
(ceases) to make an effort in the direction he
desires to go.’ (Starbuck quoted by James,
Fruits of conversion
James sees the fruits of conversion being a
spiritual tree with two main branches
The first is a conviction of the existence of an
‘Ideal Power’ that is perceived as God by
Jews, Christians and Muslims. (p.269)
Combined with this is a ‘friendly continuity’
with the Ideal Power and ‘a willing surrender
to its control’
Conviction of a Presence
‘It will be found that men of preeminent saintliness
agree very closely in what they tell us. They tell us
that they have arrived at an unshakeable conviction,
not based on inference but on immediate
experience, that God is a spirit with whom the
human spirit can hold intercourse; that in him meet
all that they can imagine of goodness, truth, and
beauty; they can see his footprints everywhere in
nature, and feel his presence within them as the
very life of their life, so that in proportion as they
come to themselves they come to him.’ (p.269 fn 2.)
Second main branch: love
The second main branch of the spiritual tree
constitutes ‘a shifting of the emotional centre
towards loving and harmonious affections’
that have ‘characteristic practical
consequences’. (p.270)
They are, according to James, devoutness,
asceticism, a strengthening of the soul,
attaining ‘new reaches of patience and
fortitude’, purity and charity.
Value of the fruits of conversion
James subjects the fruits of conversion to empirical
evaluation and comes to the conclusion that they
are not always beneficial. Sometimes they can be
highly destructive.
With regards to devoutness James points out that,
when carried to an extreme, it can give rise to
fanaticism. One particularly dangerous turn this
fanaticism can take is ‘jealousy for the deity’s
honour’. In ‘exceedingly narrow minds’ this can
become obsessively dangerous.
Dangers of fanatical devotion
‘crusades have been preached and
massacres instigated for no other reason
than to remove a fancied insult upon the God.
… It is a partisan temper, and that is cruel. …
A Catherine of Siena, panting to stop the
warfare among Christians which was the
scandal of her epoch, can think of no better
method of union among them than a crusade
to massacre the Turks.’ (p.334)
Tenderness and charity
But excesses of tenderness and charity make
the world a much better place.
‘were there no one prompt to help a brother
first, and find out afterwards whether he were
worthy; … no one glad to treat individuals
passionately and impulsively rather than by
general rules of prudence; the world would be
an infinitely worse place than it is now to live
in.’ (p.347)
Truthfulness of religion: Mysticism
James realizes that it is strange to consider
the value of religion by its utility as he did by
considering the fruits of conversion.
Instead, he decides to weigh up religion by its
truthfulness. He does so by examining one
special manner in which truth is manifested in
religion, namely mysticism.
James regarded the complete unification
between a person and God as the great
achievement of mysticism.
Mysticism opens new doors
Mystical states open the door to alternative forms of
knowledge. James says ‘It resembles the knowledge
given to us by sensations more than given by
conceptual thought.’ (p.391)
This paves the way to the existence of other forms
of consciousness: ‘they break down the authority of
the non-mystical or rationalistic consciousness,
based upon the understanding and the senses
alone. They show it to be only one kind of
consciousness. They open out the possibility of
other orders of truth…’ (p.407)
The Incommunicableness of
mystical experiences
Mystical experiences cannot be explained
in words. They remain an intensely private
experience. Hence the
‘incommunicableness of the transport is
the keynote of all mysticism’ (p.391)
As a result there is very little transference
of the revelations of mystical states to a
wider community of believers.
‘Systematic theology’ and God
Next James considers what metaphysical
philosophy, that he also refers to as ‘systematic
theology’, has to say about the attributes of God.
Metaphysics seeks to uncover what is ultimately
The attributes make up a long list: God is First
Cause, necessary, absolute, one, spiritual,
simple and non-physical, immutable, immense,
boundless, intelligent, self-sufficient, omniscient,
omnipotent, can make being, creates ex nihilo, is
holy, good and just. (pp.422-424)
James’ attack on ‘systematic theology’
James considers these metaphysical attributes
to be ‘absolutely worthless inventions and
launches a scathing attack on ‘systematic
theology’. The attributes of God merely
constitute ‘a shuffling and matching of pedantic
dictionary-adjectives, aloof from morals, aloof
from human needs… 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… (p.428)
Prayer the answer to religion
James reveals that prayer is how humans tap
into religion. It is the lifeblood of religion. If
there is no prayer involved in a system of
belief then it is not a religion. Once again
James says it in his own inimitable way.
Prayer the essence of religion
‘Prayer … is the very soul and essence of religion.
“Religion,” says a liberal French theologian, “is an
intercourse, a conscious and voluntary relation,
entered into by a soul in distress with the mysterious
power upon which it feels itself to depend, and upon
which its fate is contingent. This intercourse with
God is realized by prayer. Prayer is religion in act;
that is, prayer is real religion. … Wherever this
interior prayer is lacking, there is no religion; where,
on the other hand, this prayer rises and stirs the
soul, even in the absence of forms or of doctrines,
we have living religion.”’ (p.444)
Prayer releases energy
He proceeds to make a most serious claim about
religion and prayer by stating that religion insists that
by means of prayer alone energy is released which
brings about real change in the world which we live.
Through prayer, James insists, things which cannot
be realized in any other manner come about: energy
which but for prayers would be bound is by prayer
set free and operates in some part, be it objective or
subjective, on the world of facts.’ (pp.445-46)
Varieties’ conclusion
James makes two important points when
summing up the broad characteristics of
religious life. They are firstly, ‘that the visible
world is part of a more spiritual universe from
which it draws its chief significance’, and,
secondly, that prayer or ‘inner communion’
with God is ‘a process wherein work is really
done, and spiritual energy flows in and
produces effects, psychological or material,
with the phenomenal world.’ (p.464)
Criticisms of Varieties
There are three main criticisms that can be made of
Varieties of Religious Experience.
First, it is too limiting of James to focus on religion
as only based on experiences that create feelings or
emotions of one kind or another in the believer.
While it is understandable why he does so as a
psychologist, he omits important aspects of religion
by excluding believers who have not experienced
religious emotions or feelings even though they are
sincere believers and upholders of their faith.
Second, the bifurcation of human personality into
only two types, the healthy-minded and the sick
soul, is incomplete. These two types represent
opposite ends of a continuum of personality types
that lie from one end of the spectrum to the other.
There are people who are optimistic and cheerful by
nature, but who acknowledge the existence of
wrongdoing and can get downcast or even
depressed. Conversely, there are people who do
suffer from depression or guilt or a sense of failure,
but it is not their normal or permanent state.
Attack on ‘systematic theology’
Third, James’s vicious attack on ‘systematic
theology’ is not well grounded. By so doing he
rejects the insights of systematic theologians and is
in danger of throwing out the baby with the
bathwater. However, much theological writing may
be dry as dust in some cases, it can provide the
believer with a reasoned and insightful overview of
the whole framework of belief of the believer’s
religion. There are many theologians who have
broken new ground in helping believers understand
and practice their faith better and more sincerely.
Varieties and personal wholeness
Although James did not set out to address
the question of personal wholeness in his
book, it in fact contains a very good
exposition how the ‘sick soul’ is made whole.
It happens through religious conversion
which completely re-orientates the person
towards a new life.
The ‘hot place’ as a centre of dynamic
The ‘hot place’ is a centre of dynamic
energy and changes a person’s orientation
to what she or he most wants to do.
Conversion then means that religious
ideas, previously peripheral in a person’s
consciousness, ‘take a central place, and
that religious aims form the habitual centre
of his energy’.
Appreciation of Varieties
In addition to dealing with healing to attain
wholeness from a religious perspective, there
are other valuable insights by James. These
The central role of prayer in religion
The perception of two universes, the one
ours, the other spiritual, and that energy flows
from the spiritual to our universe by means of

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