The Varieties Of Religious Experience: A Study In Human Nature Paperback – November 9, 2009
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Brother of the writer Henry James, William James (1842-1910) defined religion as ‘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 the divine.’ James, therefore, defined religion, not by the church that people attend, but by what people do in their everyday life. For James, religion was not a ‘single quality’ but a ‘group of qualities’ that form actions. The lectures that form this book, although with radical views at the time, was considered one of the best works of non-fiction in the 20th century for its intellectual thoughts on religious tolerance and respect.
James draws on a number of sources, studies and themes, including a sense of the divince presence, mystical experiences, pathological unhappiness, character changes, characteristics of the faith-state, saintly life, democracy and humanity, fanaticism, cosmic consciousness, meditation, science of religions, religious leaders, and the pluralistic hypothesis. From the Quaker to the Christian, from Immanuel Kant to Walt Whitman, from the abstract to the absolute, William James ends with theoretical and practical conclusions. For example, he looks for the commonalities: ‘there is a certian uniform deliverance in which religions all appear to meet.’
This is an interesting philosophical and psychological account of religious tolerance and social cohesion, written over a hundred years ago, from the author’s circuitous lifelong pursuit of the examination of a study in human nature.
James's writing will strike the modern reader as somewhat quaint or, as one Amazon reviewer puts it, stilted. In part that is because the philosophic language used to analyze, e.g., Hume, Kant, Darwin, Nietzsche, et al. is different now from what it was in 1902, but it is also due to the fact that James has a tendency to speak, at length, when brevity might have served him better. He gives the reader the feeling (and admits to it) that he is struggling to explain something and so he returns to it time and again, the result sometimes being additional cloudiness rather than precision and clarity. The book could probably be half as long (or a third as long?) and still make the same points.
The bottom line is that it is always useful and instructive to watch a learned and nimble individual explore a subject of vast complexity and vast importance. I was struck by the extent to which his attitudes corresponded with Hume's (see esp. pp. 74, 455) though that may be due in part to my own interest in and fascination with Hume's views of religion and his systematic reinforcement of the notion that the realm of faith should not be subject to 'rational' analysis because it is, by definition, a matter of faith.
All should read this, if only to supplement their knowledge of early 20th century intellectual history and to flesh out their sense of the ethos within the James family.
Top international reviews
Religious experience may lead to an optimistic or pessimistic belief - either "we are to be saved, life is good' or "we will be damned; life is a losing struggle. Thus religion can be a comforter, or a cause for chronic anxiety.
James makes no judgement about the "truth" of religion. But he does affirm that the religious or spiritual impulse is widespread amongst human beings, if not universal.