What are William James main aims in the Varieties of Religious Experience?

This post is for my Year 13 Philosophers! If you go to the online text of William James found here you will see the first lecture in which he presents his main aims and methodology. I would like you to find out a bit more about this by reading one of the sections of this first lecture (set out below), and commenting in the comments box on this post what you think James is trying to do. Some possible things to look at might be: What is the method that James uses to examine religious experience? What does he present in the lectures? Why does James think it is important to distinguish questions of fact from questions of value? What are his criticisms of materialism, and freudian psychological explanations of religion? Why is the origin of a religious experience useless to assess its value? If you are stuck I recommend taking a look at my summaries of the aims and conclusions elsewhere on this site.

Lecture 1 – Religion and Neurology

Introduction: the course is not anthropological, but deals with personal documents;

Questions of fact and questions of value;

In point of fact, the religious are often neurotic;

Criticism of medical materialism, which condemns religion on that account;

Theory that religion has a sexual origin refuted;

All states of mind are neurally conditioned;

Their significance must be tested not by their origin but by the value of their fruits;

Three criteria of value; origin useless as a criterion;

Advantages of the psychopathic temperament when a superior intellect goes with it; especially for the religious life

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34 thoughts on “What are William James main aims in the Varieties of Religious Experience?

  1. Really? No-one has even written a comment yet, and the lesson is tomorrow? Let me try and get the ball rolling. What do you think about James’ comment that the religious are often neurotic? Does that ring true? Why does he make this link and is it completely negative?

  2. I read the section ‘In point of fact, the religious are often neurotic;’
    I think William James is trying to present the flaws in religion, he states religion is made by man, communicated by religion and retained by habit, suggesting there is no real fact behind it (although i believe that this only strengthens the power of belief behind it). To present this argument James states that many religious leaders (he gives the example of George Fox)suffer from psychological problems and this may be a reason for their extreme beliefs or ideals. It is clear why he make this link, as there are many relgious people who go to extravagent lengths to show their love of God(s), for example terrorists, which many would argue to be neaurotic and unstable. In addition the fact that people are willing to follow such eccentric leaders, although their mental health issues may not be clear, suggests a deep internal need to believe in ‘something’ suggesting the followers themselves are also ‘neurotic’. I can understand James’ need to discuss this, as a neurotic tendency would lead many religious experiences to be discounted as a result of a psycological issue, however I personally do not agree with the view. There are many examples of sane, ordinary religious leaders, for example our current Pope Francis, who overall seems relatively normal and have no exhibted no exteme,eccentric or neurotic behaviour. In addition to this, even if someone did suffer from a pyscological issue this does not mean what they say in relation to religion should be discounted. The lack of rationality may lead to an enhanced ability to see/hear/feel ‘God’ or experience greater mystical things we usually are unable to because of the make up of our brains.
    I hope this one actually posts!

    • Thank you Sophie. You are on the right track with the connection you can see between psychological issues and religious experience. James was not so negative about this though, as he believed that there actually was a reality behind religious experiences. He says elsewhere : “God is real because he produces real effects.” He also didn’t think that it was necessarily bad to link r. Exps with neuroses, as he draws a distinction between knowing the origin of a thing, and knowing its value. Just because we know where it came from, doesn’t mean we can make a negative value judgement about it.

  3. Whilst I was reading the first lecture it took me several attempts to understand the ideas James was trying to explain. I now understand that he evaluates religion and beliefs as he deals with the facts of religion, its history and its origins. The second part of the lecture, James attempts to explain the worth and the value of religion and weighs the pros and cons of religious beliefs. I think James is quite negative in some respects when it comes to religion as he clarifies his lecture even further by declaring that he will be excluding the “ordinary religious believer, who follows the conventional observances of his country” (As it would be unnecessary to study the second hand religion of such a person.) Otherwise, James makes it clear that his attention will be on “religious geniuses”. However as I continued reading the rest of what he had to say about religious experiences, I realised that he only wishes to understand the experiences of true, passionate religious as he said “religious geniuses have often shown symptoms of nervous instability” on which he then goes on to make a prime example of the case of George Fox who was also a “unstable religious genius”. In this example James explains that Fox has been called by the lord to go to the city of Lichfield, and he has a vision of a river of blood flowing through the city, but realises that there was a roman massacre. In addition James comments “bent as we are on studying religion’s existential conditions, we cannot ignore these pathological aspects of the subject”. In the middle part of the lecture, I believe that James was trying to separate spiritual value and beliefs because the value of a belief is somehow not depended upon it’s being true. Whilst I read this I came to a better understanding of what James was trying to explain, and I agree that beliefs are a product of material processing such as culture, roots and family (?) I consider the point he was trying to make overall towards the end of the lecture which is, religious communities have thought in such a way for several decades that religious experiences do exist however it is the practise of faith that enforces these thoughts. I’m not sure this is correct but this is how I interpret it anyway. 

    • An excellent analysis Gabriella. You are right to point out the dismissive way in which James excludes the ordinary religious believer who ‘follows the conventional practices of his country’. This shows his underlying Protestantism in its emphasis on individual contact with God unmediated by sacraments etc. What he sees as the ordinary religious believer, may actually have much to show us about religious experience, but there you go.
      You are also nearly right to say that James was trying to separate the value of an experience from its being true. He was in fact a pragmatist , which is someone who believes that the truth of something is related to the effect it has on the life of the person who believes it. For the pragmatist, the test of a things truth was whether believing it produced real effects in your life.

  4. I think James’ comment that the religious are often neurotic may ring true because it may result of some kind of oppression which the religious person is under. James uses the example of biblical text which infers the perversion of respiratory. “Hide not thine ear at my breathing; my groaning is not hid from thee; my heart panteth, my strength faileth me; my bones are hot with my roaring all the night long; as the hart panteth after the water-brooks, so my soul panteth after thee, O my God.” He also gives the example of a nun who wants the love of Christ because she does not have any earthly love. Therefore, religion may be taken up by the neurotic who are oppressed by religion and scripture originally. (Freud speaks of neurosis and religion and links it to patriarchal society and his Oedipus complex.)
    For the original task I looked at James’ criticism of medical materialism which is a way that one may belittle someone else’s state of mind just because they themselves have no experienced it. James seems to think that religious experiences cannot be described or explained in biological terms alone- an experience is made in part, by the way it is interpreted by the person experiencing it. The interpretation makes it a religious experience; biology does not determine a religious experience. Two people could have identical biological factors, eg, heart rate, tempterature, but experience them very differently. Just like one many experience religion very differently. William James was trying to identify a common core in religious experience that would be universal.

    • I am replying to myself… is this allowed? my comment is rather plain and insignificant compared to Sophie’s and Gabs’. how embarrassing :)

      • Lianne: not at all, your comment was interesting and clearly explained. You make the important point that much of religious experience is in the interpretation.

    • Indeed, James was very much writing from within the domain of psychology, but was critical of Freud, who he accused of ‘medical materialism’, in reducing a highly complex phenomena like religious experience, to the working out of an infant’s early experiences with its parents.

  5. Another comment to add is, perhaps if James was to take a liberal approach on this subject then it would be more appropriate, as Sophie said, there are several sane, relatively normal people in the world who are also religious, and to make a universal point would be deemed as unfair to some extent. I haven’t read the rest of his lectures, but maybe it would be interesting to see his stance on people who have not been introduced into religion since birth, but perhaps have taken an interest halfway through their life and decided to become religious, then later on experiencing a religious vision of some sort. I’m not sure if this is neurotic or oppression. Also we also have to note that it’s prejudicial to denounce all religious experiences just because one has not experienced the same thing, which is what he did when he took on the idea of medical materialism. But I think James did a good attempt of trying to explain religious experiences and neurology in some areas.

  6. This is a great start, and I’m really impressed with the quality of the comments on here so far, I actually hadn’t expected them to be so good! To keep the ball rolling, does anyone else agree with Lianne that religious experiences in part are created by the interpretation of the person experiencing them?

  7. I would agree with Lianne on that point that religous experience in part are created by interpretation. If I had a moving experience in a Chrurch then I may deem that a Religous experience whereas someone else may believe that is just a feeling the Church gives and is a feeling of inner peace but that does not initially mean that it was not a Religous experience because it is true to the individual. James does seem to dismiss Religion as ‘neurotic’, although Religion may become habbit we can not discreddit belief in itself, James is seeming to indicate that Religion in itself is product of the masses, however people have individual Religious experiences and therfore it cannot be just a product of habbit. James staes religous leaders claim to have “abnormal psychical visitations” although I belive he is trying to point out that this may be something that is expected of leaders in those posititions to use the phrase “abnormal” seems to be already condemming something that may be possible. Religious experiences can be created by interpretation and cannot just be discounted as something that Religion is is trying to manipulate.

    • The question I would ask would be – if religious experiences are partly created by the interpretation of the experiencer, then to what extent is it just a fantasy, a mixture of daydream and subconscious impulses? And if that is all it is, then why not call it just a fantasy, rather than pretend it comes from God? James clearly believed the real test to separate fantasy from r exp is the pragmatic test. What effect does it have on the moral behaviour of the believer?

  8. In Lecture 1: “In point of fact, the religious are often neurotic” I believe William James argues that those who possess extraordinary religious belief often display mental instability and characteristics synonymous with neurosis. He believes people of this nature e.g. Saints, often show signs of melancholy, loneliness etc. He would argue that this loneliness is a primary cause of the religious experience, as loneliness often leads to mental instability and when one is on their own it is as if they live in their own individual bubble of reality. I believe that William James does not discard religious experience, but argues that it is possible that mental instability is what initiates a religious experience and allows the alternate reality of God to come forth. George Fox is a prime example of this, as he displays the characteristics of an exceptional and eccentric religious figure. However, as there is evidence of a purpose behind Fox’s religious experience i.e. to condemn the people of Lichfield: “Wo to the bloody city of Lichfield!”, and that Fox was unaware of what was going on, only becoming aware of the meaning behind the city of Lichfield after the event took place, it can be argued that Fox cannot be considered a reliable example of this argument.

    • Nicely put Esme. James is trying to pinpoint the psychological factors which might be prevalent in religious experiences. Also good point about George Fox. Probable alternative explanations for religious experiences are definitely worth considering.

  9. James claims that science is detached from reality because he believes science is just an indicator for our own objective realm. He was critical of science to an extent because he claims people do have some scientific tendency to ignore the unseen aspects of life. It makes us too rational and can dismiss a religious experience. Things may happen with no actual physiological cause. For example he gave the idea of a lemon. The notion of a lemon causes a build-up of saliva in the mouth for the individual even though there is no lemon. Clearly he is claiming that religious experiences may happen often not in accordance with any scientific explanation or cause. Overall James is arguing that we cannot dismiss a religious experience by claiming an individual has some kind of mental illness. Instead we should embrace the experience and not seek to question a scientific cause. In general James claims that physiological abnormality and religious experiences are linked because it gives a greater understanding of our actual reality. We should appreciate and consider both and not be totally dependent on only speculating a scientific reason.

    • Interesting Ann-Marie. So the idea of a lemon produces real saliva. Therefore we cannot dismiss it as only an idea, because it has had a real effect. To what extent are James’ pragmatic assumptions influencing this argument? In other words, someone who was not a pragmatist, but had a realist notion of truth might dismiss this, because they would say that the truth of a claim depends on its correspondence to an actual state of affairs independent of the person making the claim. For a pragmatist, the truth of a claim is more dependent on what the practical consequences of it are. If the idea of God produces an experience in me then that idea is true. But many would still want to ask – is that idea an idea of something real? Is it veridical?

      • After reading all the awesome comments I think this area is where James’ argument gets the most confusing; I think this is probably because James seems to contradict himself here.

        After stating that ‘everything real must be experienceable somewhere, and every kind of thing experienced must be somewhere real’ he goes on to criticize a purely scientific and empirical approach- as stated by Anne-Marie . He seems to be stating religious experiences create real effects inferring the existence of a ‘real’ God. Yet as Mr Livermore has said the idea of God experienced may be no more real than the idea of the lemon. It seems James has created a circular argument akin to the purely scientific approach he is criticizing. Nowhere in his argument does James seem to give reasons as to why real effects infer the existence of ‘real’ ideas. James seems to have presupposed the most important premise in his argument.
        However, perhaps the ‘somewhere’ in which ‘real’ things can be experienced is some kind of transcendent world that James views as just as experiential as the physical world; hence his criticism of a purely scientific approach. I think this emphasizes the importance of the characteristics of religious experiences that he puts forth; the ineffable experience of God may be compared to the experience of the idea of the lemon. The fact they are ineffable makes them hard to view as experiences in the realm of empiricism, yet the fact they are both experienceable, as James suggests, infers the fact they must exist ‘somewhere’.
        Overall I think James argument weakens as he fails to define the ‘somewhere’ in which things must be experienced in order to be defined as real. Although he states religious experiences are transcendent and ineffable he gives no reason to explain why/how they then create ‘real’ effects.

        Sorry if this was a bit vague and off topic; James’ treatment of empirical evidence seemed to be at the crux of his argument to me- I could, however, have just completely missed the point.

  10. Wow, people were really on it with these comments!

    I find it really interesting reading these comments about how James is less dependent on science as his contemporaries. We have to remember the period in which James was writing; he was immersed in a society obsessed with the taboo of the supernatural (as seen by his brother’s 1898 novella, The Turn of the Screw.) Atypically to others, such as Freud, who try to explain away this phenomena with pure empirical evidence, James uses reason to embrace the supernatural.

    As for the actual lecture, it is his definition, or rather, what I think he looks for in a religious experience that stood out to me. He starts by disregarding the mundane, claiming that as an individual’s experience is created for him, “retained by habit” and “It would profit us little to study this second-hand religious life”. Although he supports this by saying that the original experiences were root cause and led to the mass suggested feeling, maybe this is making too quick an assumption. As a pragmatist, I believe he should regard the everyday convention of religion in addition to the individual experience, as purely following a religion is in itself a religious experience, and can have a profound effect on one’s life. Not everyone has to have a direct feeling of contact with God to have a ‘religious experience’ and I think James should have looked more into the ordinary. But then again, he might have done and I just may not have understood his argument!

    I’m at an interview for this lesson, but have fun guys :)

    • Thanks Sophia. Indeed, only in the modern age has the attempt been made to build belief on religious experience. Before then Christian belief would have been based on scripture and intellectual assent to the articles of the faith given by tradition.

  11. I think I didn’t do the right assignment originally as I analysed a different lecture, but I’ll summarise what I read, which was on Mysticism. Mysticism is a vague or ill-defined religious of spiritual belief, James thinks that a personal religious experience has it’s root and centre in mystical states of consciousness and identified four characteristics of mystical experience. These four characteristics are as follows:
    effabillity- subject of mystical experience can’t describe the religious experience
    Noetic- the subject claims that they have experienced revelations and insights into vital truths
    Transiency- where the experience rarely lasts more than an hour or two at most
    Passivity- when the subject feels a loss of control, because of being in the grasp of a ‘superior power’

    This sections was more an analysis of what James believes happens when someone is experiencing a religious experience and for his understanding he has broken up the mystical experience into four characteristics for explanation.

    From reading the previous comments I think I agree with Lianne and Harriet in the fact that different people have different expectations and interpretations of what they want to feel when they experience something significant. To me I understand James’ idea of using psychology to understand these religious experiences and I don’t think he’s being particularly negative about his ideas, I think he is just being realistic. The main reason I think this is most definitely as Sophia said, from reading Henry James’ ‘The turn of the screw’, where I mainly agreed with the Freudian interpretations of the strange experiences being caused by opression.

    • Thanks Sophie. Do you think there is something more to the experience than simply suppression and other psychological events? If the experiences could be shown to have their origin in such things as repressed sexuality, to what extent would that discredit them as rel. exps?

  12. Untypically of 20th century philosophers, William begins his lecture with a very modest tone as he states how he is merely an American psychologist and scientist, and so, is barely qualified to speak of theology or the existence of God. He examined the psychology of religion in order to understand the nature of religious experience. I appreciate the methodology he used whereby he reviewed numerous accounts of religious experience from saints and mystics (qualitative data) and from this, he concluded a theory. This, I feel, is a less-biased approach than proposing a theory and then finding evidence to support it. James recognised a pattern in conversion experiences. It tended to be that they would occur to those who were feeling vulnerable and uncapable. It is the fearlessness and sense of absolute security from a religious experience that gives the convert their breathtaking motivation. Interestingly, he claimed that religion does not have to be worship of a God, or obedience to a higher authority, but instead, the belief in an unseen order to which our task was to harmoniously adjust ourselves. This stands therefore that atheism is a religion – a controversial point to make around this era. Unlike Freud, he saw the unconscious as benign and the part of ourselves that we are unfamiliar with. In this sense, it is like God. And lastly, I appreciate his refutation of the claim that ‘religion is a mechanism for survival’.

    • I think I would disagree that atheism would fit into this pattern of adjusting ourselves to an unseen higher order of things. I think he wanted to expand the definition of authentic religion to include less clearly defined articles of faith, but nonetheless there would still be a spiritual reality, which atheists don’t believe in.

  13. I agree with Gabriella that James can be quite negative when decribing the “ordinary religious believer”, as he does not recognise their experiences as even worth of study. When he says “his religion has been made for him by others” I agree to some extent as it was the ancient religious leaders that have formed the religious traditions. I think there is a big disctinction between people who follow religion blindly, and yes their experiences are not as valuable, but people who have true belief do not just folow what the preachings without any consideration. If they consciously choose to follow the religious rituals and actually reflect on the meanings, I do not think their religious experiences can be dismissed in this way. James’ focuses on what he calls “religious geniuses”, I think is the wrong way to go about it. These people represent an extreme of a beliver and so their reliogious experiences are easier to ridicule and point out the flaws and origins, especially as James says they “show symptoms of nervous instability”. So surely their experiences are less valuable, then those of a ‘regular’ believer who isn’t fixated on having a religious experience?

    • Thanks Maria. He certainly focused more on the extreme mystical experiences than more indirect ones. This has consequences for his study.
      Interesting question about those of a nervous instable temperament. I don’t think it necessarily follows that these people’s experiences are less valuable. If we make the analogy from religious experience to musical or artistic experiences we could say that while the majority of us can listen and enjoy music or art, only a very few can compose great works to the standard of Mozart or Van Gogh – these could represent in the analogy those mystics who have direct religious experiences. We don’t discount the insights of great artists or musicians because they are slightly crazy. Indeed we think it comes with the territory. Why can the same not be true of those great saints and mystics who say they have seen God? As C D Broad said – you might need to be a bit cracked to have some ‘peep-holes’ into the supernatural world!

  14. It is interesting that – as a pragmatist – James seems concerned to ensure his theory could fit some form of general application, However, by rejecting the study of the “ordinary religious believer”, I think he has overlooked an essential part of religious experiences. While his theory has much to offer about first-hand divine revelation, and from this we can infer what would be said of those who then respond to these experiences and intergrate them into their own ‘religious experience’ (of looking at their life in a religious light) owing to the fact that the fundamental principles are transferrable (i.e. regarding their use to the individual agent), from a Freudian viewpoint, one could suggest that his evidence is highly flawed, as it could perhaps be that his subjects share a common childhood experience, gene or some reason that their credibility could perhaps be defected. In this regard, contrasting his findings with the ordinary believer could be beneficial in the sense that it may enhance the credibility of the primary agents. However, in the context of shared religious experiences, this criticism is clearly void.

    • OK Amy! High-falutin’ language there, but I think I get it. You are saying his argument, because it shares the same basic psychological assumptions as Freud, is flawed as an argument. If this is what you are saying, I think it is valid in some ways, because although he criticises Freud and says that origin of an experience doesn’t give us value, I think most would agree it does weaken rel exp if it comes from say, repressed sexual libido.

  15. Trying to respond to Bobby’s comment, but don’t want it to get lost up the feed, so I’ll reproduce it here:

    “After stating that ‘everything real must be experienceable somewhere, and every kind of thing experienced must be somewhere real’ he goes on to criticize a purely scientific and empirical approach- as stated by Anne-Marie . He seems to be stating religious experiences create real effects inferring the existence of a ‘real’ God. Yet as Mr Livermore has said the idea of God experienced may be no more real than the idea of the lemon. It seems James has created a circular argument akin to the purely scientific approach he is criticizing. Nowhere in his argument does James seem to give reasons as to why real effects infer the existence of ‘real’ ideas. James seems to have presupposed the most important premise in his argument.
    However, perhaps the ‘somewhere’ in which ‘real’ things can be experienced is some kind of transcendent world that James views as just as experiential as the physical world; hence his criticism of a purely scientific approach. I think this emphasizes the importance of the characteristics of religious experiences that he puts forth; the ineffable experience of God may be compared to the experience of the idea of the lemon. The fact they are ineffable makes them hard to view as experiences in the realm of empiricism, yet the fact they are both experienceable, as James suggests, infers the fact they must exist ‘somewhere’.
    Overall I think James argument weakens as he fails to define the ‘somewhere’ in which things must be experienced in order to be defined as real. Although he states religious experiences are transcendent and ineffable he gives no reason to explain why/how they then create ‘real’ effects.”

    I think this does get to the heart of one objection to his argument, which is that his pragmatism does leave rather open the question of the veridicality of religious experience. I want to try and defend James’ method here – Bobby says that “nowhere does James seem to give reasons as to why real effects infer the existence of real ideas”. I would say it depends how you define real. James as a pragmatist would probably not have in mind some kind of transcendental world. I will try and explain.

    The evidentialist argument against James just says, well you haven’t given good reasons to believe rel exps are veridical – there is just insufficient evidence.

    James says sometimes you should believe given insufficient evidence: for this there must be three conditions:
    1. It must be a forced option, with no alternatives eg. you have a choice – either you have to swim or go down with the ship
    2. It must be vital. It must make a difference to the whole of your life
    3. It must be a living choice, not just theoretical, it comes as a challenge in your culture to believe.
    He says religion is about having a fuller, more vital life, in that case you can’t wait for the evidence.
    So he would say that the reality of the lived experience as it affects the way you live your life is the only kind of reality that we should be concerned with. Wherever the experience comes from is not the point.

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