William James and the Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)
The book I’m reviewing, over one-hundred years old, is as important today as when first published, maybe more so, as its arguments against what James calls scientific materialism speak to the aggressive atheism of today.
James argues that religion gets its energy from spiritual experience. Religion itself is an “over-belief,” an elaboration of spiritual experience. The elaboration, such as the teachings and doctrines of Christianity, are relatively unimportant. Important is the spiritual experience that gives rise to belief structures. James, however, was unable to hold to this view. The “belief structures” of Christianity may have saved his life.
The book was so important and remains important because it redirects the argument from “does God exist?” about which we can argue, to spiritual experience itself. It doesn’t matter where it comes from, it doesn’t matter to what it corresponds. If some people have what James calls spiritual experiences, then spiritual experience exists. The experience itself is real, even if its object remains in doubt. Possibly it has no object but itself.