William James and the Varieties of Religious Experience

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.

Originally a neurologist, James might have argued that spiritual experience comes from this or that process in the brain.  For example, some spiritual experiences originate in epilepsy.  It doesn’t matter.  Spiritual experience just is.  One reason James embraces this view so strongly is because he holds that reality is pure flux, having nothing stable, permanent, or absolute in it (Richardson, pp 15-18).  Reality is process, not thing.  Realities, like spirituality, are better described than explained, better experienced than understood.

The essence of religion, says James, is an individual experience of spirituality,

the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider divine. (Varieties, p 18)

James elaborates. 

I attach the mystical or religious consciousness to the possession of an extended subliminal self with a thin partition through which messages make irruption. We are thus made convincingly aware of the presence of a sphere of life larger and more powerful than our usual consciousness, with which the latter is nevertheless continuous.  (James, Correspondence, in Richardson, p 423)

A less than lucid statement, I take James to mean that the boundaries of the self are woven into a larger world of which we are generally unaware, but which thrust themselves upon us in moments of mystical consciousness. 

Mystical experience and dread

Mystical experience is not always pleasant.  James tells the story of a man he had seen in an asylum, 

a black-haired youth with greenish skin, entirely idiotic, who used to sit all day on one of the benches.  He sat there like a sort of sculptured Egyptian cat or Peruvian mummy, moving nothing but his black eyes and looking absolutely nonhuman.

“There was such a horror of him,” James continued, “and such a perception of my own merely momentary discrepancy from him, that it was as if something hitherto solid within my breast gave way entirely, and I became a mass of quivering fear.” (Varieties, pp 90-91)

The boundary between James and the boy is thrown into question, as James recognizes how little separates him from the “mummy.”  Experienced in this case as terror, less intense and terrifying experiences of identification lead us to care for other humans as though they were ourselves. 

The experience haunted James for the rest of his life.

After this the universe was changed for me altogether. I awoke morning after morning with a horrible dread at the pit of my stomach, and with a sense of the insecurity of life that I never knew before, and that I have never felt since. (p 91)

Now here comes the puzzling part.  James believes in the reality of mystical experience.  He does not believe that the doctrines of Christianity are an essential expression of this experience, but merely one way among others of expressing it.  And yet it is the doctrines of Christianity that saved him.  No logical contradiction is involved, just a surprise. 

The fear was so invasive and powerful that if I had not clung to scripture texts like “the eternal God is my refuge,” etc., “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy-laden,” etc., “I am the resurrection and the life,” etc.  I think I should have grown really insane. (p 91) 

Does this dread reside in all of us?  James seems to think so and so do I, but one cannot be sure.  In any case, some are better defended than others.  One reason may be because they have stronger “belief structures.”

The healthy minded and the sick soul.  The sick soul is better.

James distinguishes between two orientations toward the world.  There is no explanation of their sources.  They just are.

“God has two families of children on this earth,” says Francis W. Newman, “the once-born and the twice-born,” and the once-born he describes as follows: “They see God, not as a strict Judge . . . but as the animating Spirit of a beautiful harmonious world, Beneficent and Kind, Merciful as well as Pure.” (Varieties, p 47)

James argues that the happy mind is banal.  It seems to lack all seriousness of religion.  Nevertheless, it works for a lot of people to feel they are part of the flow of the positive powers of the universe, and who are we to say they are wrong?  Or not religious?  We can say they are banal, but that’s another claim. The banal can be religious too, for religion is the experience of participation in a higher power, be it life, or Yahweh, or the Holy Spirit.

Here we see one of James’ better qualities.  He does not admire the happy soul but he acknowledges not only its existence, but that it is a genuine expression of religion.  People are different.  Their beliefs are too.  I may prefer one over the other, but the happy soul seems to work for many.  “Workability” is key for James.  Not “is it right?” but “does it work?”

            The sick soul is right

It may not work better, but the sick soul is right about the world.  Healthy-mindedness is inadequate as a philosophical doctrine, because the evil facts which it refuses to account for are a genuine portion of reality.  They may be the key to life’s significance, opening our eyes to the truth in a way nothing else can (Varieties, p 92).

The normal process of life contains moments as bad as any of those which insane melancholy is filled with, moments in which radical evil gets its innings and takes its solid turn. The lunatic’s visions of horror are all drawn from the material of daily fact. Our civilization is founded on the shambles, and every individual existence goes out in a lonely spasm of helpless agony. . . . The deadly horror which an agitated melancholiac feels is the literally right reaction on the situation.  (Varieties, pp 92-93)

If this is true, it puts Christian teaching in a new light.  Hell is our own dread, and this dread has a real basis in the hate and fear that run rampant over the world. 

It may indeed be that no religious reconciliation with the absolute totality of things is possible. (Varieties, p 93)

Evil is in the world, and we shall not be reconciled with it.  Not if we are serious people.  No religious reconciliation with the absolute horror of Auschwitz is possible, and the healthy soul is happy at the expense of a genuine encounter with reality. 

Using God 

James is known as pragmatist.  “It’s true if it works.”  While he didn’t fully develop his pragmatism until after Varieties, pragmatism is present in his view of using God.  Referring to an article by James Leuba, James argues that all men want is to be able to use their God (Varieties, p 270).  If they can use him, they care very little who he is, or even whether he is at all.  Use, not belief, is the real question.  Rituals are the use of God, and so is prayer.  James quotes Leuba,

The truth of the matter can be put in this way: God is not known, he is not understood; he is used—sometimes as meat-purveyor, sometimes as moral support, sometimes as friend, sometimes as an object of love.  If he proves himself useful, the religious consciousness asks for no more than that.  Does God really exist?  How does he exist?  What is he? are so many irrelevant questions.  Not God, but life, more life, a larger, richer, more satisfying life, is, in the last analysis, the end of religion. (Leuba, pp 571-572; quoted in James, Varieties, p 270)

Pragmatic spirituality

Varieties combines pragmatism with an appreciation of the reality of spiritual or mystical experience.  This experience need not correspond to anything in the world, including God or the essence of being or whatever.  Spiritual experience just is; it’s real if you have it.  The problem is that spiritual experience can go bad.  We lose the boundary between self and the Hell that so infiltrates the world.  That happened to James, but without that experience James would have been a lesser man.


I asked a small group from my church if mystical experience supported their Christian beliefs.  Not only did everyone say no, but most didn’t want to have a mystical experience.  They would find it disturbing.  I’d like to have a mystical experience, but only within limits.  James shows the risks. 

Then why are you Christian, I asked the group.  Everyone answered with a version of “because it’s part of a family tradition.  It comforted and supported my parents and grandparents.”  I take this as a version of the “if it works” pragmatic approach to religion.  Christianity was useful to their families, helping them get through tough times, such as the death of a beloved parent or child.

In the end, spirituality and pragmatism don’t fit together very well.  They can be made to fit, James makes them fit, but there is a tension between them.  Spirituality is unconcerned with whether it works.  Spirituality just is.  And pragmatism regards spirituality as nothing special, just one more way to get the job done.  The job of getting through life.  But this way of looking at the relationship between them would likely be just fine with James. 


William James, Varieties of Religious Experience.  Digireads.com Publishing, 2011.  (original 1902) [All page references are to this edition; there are several editions, but no standard edition in print.]

William James, Pragmatism: A New Name for Old Ways of Thinking.  Dover, 1995. (original 1907).

James Leuba, The Contents of Religious Consciousness, The Monist, xi. 536, July 1901.

Robert D. Richardson, William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism.  Mariner Books, 2007.

10 thoughts on “William James and the Varieties of Religious Experience”

  1. I think that what distinguishes human beings is that they can think to ask the question “why?” – a question very familiar to all parents of small children.

    One could say that this ability is ‘spiritual’, which is a different interpretation of ‘spiritual experience’.

    Is it this that triggers the questions: “Why am I here” and “Where is ‘here’, anyway”?.

    Parents and others feel a need to provide answers to such questions and so myths are born and handed down from generation to generation. Hence, Fred, you own experiences of talking to people around you and hearing ““because it’s part of a family tradition.  It comforted and supported my parents and grandparents.”.

    Is there any need to look any further than that?

    1. I think family tradition is a good reason to be religious if it’s interpreted as part of a relationship to God in some way. Here’s where James goes wrong I think. Religion need not rest on mysticism, but on experiences of belonging and comfort. Fred

    2. I want to look further than that. Just to see if there might be more, though I don’t know how I would know. But family tradition is a good answer. Fred

  2. I thought James valued the mystical experience.
    We don’t know how many people have these.
    The prophets in the Hebrew Bible might have done.
    The imagery of the burning bush and still small voice has been highly valued
    But it could be interpreted differently in a different era
    And modern physics seems mystical
    P po)

  3. It might be like grief in that everyone seeks their own way but also that we find comfort being with people who care a bout us

  4. Sadly I did not find family tradition very helpful.
    The kind of Catholicism we had was heavily tinged with Jansenism.
    I swallow the whole and it took me a long time to escape 0
    Ironically a mystical experience was given to me me and help me to return to the world of others.
    0 I was not looking for a mystical experience. I had no idea about such things.
    But all human beings had failed me in my sorrow.
    Or maybe I couldn’t relate to other human beings at that time.
    The only thing of value possibly was the discipline and that I did not believe ultimately in the judgemental maybe a few crumbs of love had been absorbed into my being because I knew it when I got it.
    So in a sense I can agree with William James although I don’t find any church that isbnear enough to what I have experienced for me to become one of their group.l
    It seems to precede words or to surpass them

  5. What do once-born and twice-born refer to? I can think of born-again Christians, but the context especially the quote here: “he once-born he describes as follows: “They see God, not as a strict Judge . . . but as the animating Spirit of a beautiful harmonious world, Beneficent and Kind, Merciful as well as Pure.”, seems to suggest the once born are Christians.

  6. I think the twice-born refers to James concept of the sick soul, which he admires. It’s from a quote (cited in text). I think it’s a confusing term, to say the least. I don’t think it has much to do with how Christians use the term. Fred

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