Review of 'Varieties of Religious Experience' by William James

By Vexen Crabtree 2003

#book_reviews #religion

Book CoverThe Gifford Lectures delivered at Edinburgh 1901-1902, First Edition printed 1960. Quotes are taken from Fifth edition, paperback, 1971, Collins.

"Varieties of Religious Experience" is a classic book. Most of its documentation concentrates on the full range of religious experience within Christianity but where the author also comments on other religions he does so accurately and astutely.

Atheism and unreligion:
The first few chapters show that there are large academic circles which William James knows to be largely atheistic, and also that there are large numbers of secular-living people as well as explicit atheists in general, and not just in England but from William James' homeland, the USA. Also see p468-469.

"There are systems of thought which the world usually calls religious, and yet which do not positively assume a God. Buddhism is in this case. Popularly, of course, the Buddha himself stands in place of a God; but in strictness the Buddhistic system is atheistic"
  • Used on Buddhism is an Atheist Religion.

  • p54
    "[The more fervent atheists] have often enough shown a temper which, psychologically considered, is indistinguishable from religious zeal"
  • Used on Atheism and Secularism.

  • p71
    "It is not only the ideas of pure Reason as Kant styled them, that have this power of making us vitally feel presences that we are impotent articulately to describe. All sorts of higher abstractions bring with them the same kind of implacable appeal. [...] The whole universe of concrete objects, as we know them, swims, not only for [a transcendentalist], but for all of us, in a wider and higher universe of abstract ideas, that lend it its significance. As time, space and the ether soak through all things so (we feel) do abstract and essential goodness, beauty, strength, significance, justice, soak through all things good, strong, significant and just"

    My notes: It is very much clear to some psychologists that the meaning and emotional abstractions that we make, due to our biochemical makeup's and history (culminating as our phenotype), diffuse the world with meaning that is just as real as the cold concrete data our mere senses provide us with. Our assumptions and humanity make us experience meaningfulness and presences where reality itself doesn't.

  • Used on The False and Conflicting Experiences of Mankind: How Other Peoples' Experience Contradict Our Own Beliefs.

  • p87
    "I spoke of the convincingness of these feelings of reality, and I must dwell a moment longer on that point. They are as convincing to those who have them as any direct sensible experiences can be, and they are, as a rule, much more convincing than results established by mere logic ever are. [...] Probability is that you cannot help regarding them as genuine perceptions of truth, as revelations of a kind of reality which no adverse argument, however unanswerable by you in words, can expel from your belief"

  • Used on The False and Conflicting Experiences of Mankind: How Other Peoples' Experience Contradict Our Own Beliefs.

  • p93
    "Saint Augustine's maxim, Dilige et quod vis fac - if you but love [God], you may do as you incline - is morally one of the profoundest of observations, yet it is pregnant, for such persons, with passports beyond the bounds of conventional morality"

  • Used on Christian Moral Theory and Morality in Action: Biblical Morals and Social Disaster.

  • p106-107 clearly describes the early movement that we now know as "New Age", calling it the "New Thought" and "Mind cure" movement. He describes it as a wave that is sweeping America in the 1960s.

  • Used on The New Age.
  • "It has reached the stage, for example, when the demand for its literature is great enough for insincere stuff, mechanically produced for the market, to be to a certain extent provided by publishers - a phenomenon never observed, I imagine, until a religion got well past its earliest insecure beginnings. One of the doctrinal sources of Mind-cure is the four Gospels; another is Emersonianism or New England transcendentalism; another is Berkeleyan idealism; another is spiritism, with its messages of "law" and "progress" and "development"; another the optimistic popular science evolutionism of which I have recently spoken; and, finally, Hinduism has contributed a strain. [...] The leaders in this faith have had an intuitive belief in the all-saving power of healthy-minded attitudes [...] Their belief has in a general way been corroborated by the practical experience of their disciples; and this experience forms to-day a mass imposing in amount".

    "Although the disciples of the mind-cure often use Christian terminology, one sees from such quotations how widely their notion of the fall of man diverges from that of ordinary Christians."

  • Used on The New Age.

  • p108 references footnotes on further study of mind cure.
    "Lest my own testimony be suspected, I will quote another reporter, Dr. H. H. Goddard, of Clark University, whose thesis on "the Effects of mind on Body as evidenced by Faith Cures" is published in the American Journal of Psychology for 1899 (vol. x.). This critic, after a wide study of the facts, concludes that the cures by mind-cure exist, but are in no respect different from those now officially recognized in medicine as cures by suggestion".

    p132, in chapter "The religion of healthy-mindedness"
    "The obvious outcome of our total experience is that the world can be handled according to many systems of ideas, and is so handled by different men, and will each time give some characteristic kind of profit, for which he cares, to the handler, while at the same time some other kind of profit has to be omitted or postponed".

    p137, Chapter "The sick soul" opening page
    "Evil is a disease; and worry over disease is itself an additional form of disease, which only adds to the original complaint. Even repentance and remorse, affections which come in the character of ministers of good, may be but sickly[...]"

    p170 continues to state that Buddhism and Christianity are more "complete" because they have a fuller accounting of evil and suffering, and that the New Age (by implication) is least complete.

  • Used on The Satanic Mind is Balanced.

  • p144
    "And just so we might speak of a "pain-threshold" or a "fear-threshold," a "misery-threshold," and find it quickly overpassed by the consciousness of some individuals, but lying too high in others to be often reached by their consciousness. The sanguine and healthy minded live habitually on the sunny side of their misery-line, the depressed and melancholy live beyond it, in darkness and apprehension. [...] Does it not appear as if one who lived more habitually on one side of the pain-threshold might need a different sort of religion from one who habitually lived on the other? This question, of the relativity of different types of religion to different types of need, arises naturally [...]".

    Mystical experiences can support any religion, it depends on culture and phenotype of the person. It can cause, or support, any form of religion including asceticism, gnosticism, theism and can also cause insanity, genius or works of art.

    "This absence of all potentiality in God obliges Him to be immutable. [...] Were there anything potential about Him, He would either lose or gain by its actualization, and either loss or gain would contradict his perfection. He cannot, therefore, change".

    "The consequence is that the conclusions of the science of religions are as likely to be adverse as they are to be favorable to the claim that the essence of religion is true. There is a notion in the air about us that religion is probably only an anachronism, a case of "survival," an atavistic relapse into a mode of thought which humanity in its more enlightened examples has outgrown; and this notion our religious anthropologists at present do little to counteract.

    This view is so widespread at the present day that I must consider it with some explicitness before I pass to my own conclusions".

  • Partially used on "The Universe Could Not Have Been Created by God: The Failure of First Cause Arguments" by Vexen Crabtree (2010).

  • p495
    "Originality cannot be expected in a field like this, where all the attitudes and tempers that are possible have been exhibited in literature long ago, and where any new writer can immediately be classed under a familiar head".