William James: The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) Summary. The aim here is to summarise the work generally, highlighting ideas of particular interest.

Lecture 1: Religion and Neurology

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VRE is a series of twenty public lectures which William James (1842 - 1910), American philosopher and psychological theorist, was invited to deliver at Edinburgh University on the theme of natural religion. He introduces the lectures by gradually homing in on what is going to be his particular subject matter: a psychological perspective on religion.

Literary Sources

James starts by emphasising that his source material will be literary:

If the enquiry be psychological, not religious institutions, but rather religious feelings and religious impulses must be its subject, and I must confine myself to those more developed subjective phenomena recorded in literature produced by articulate and fully self-conscious men in works of piety and autobiography. [p 3] [1]

Second hand religion

The writer clarifies his programme further by announcing that he will be excluding from consideration the ordinary religious believer, who follows the conventional observances of his country [p 6]. For it would be unprofitable to study the second hand religion of such a person:

His religion has been made for him by others, communicated to him by tradition, determined to him by fixed forms by imitation, and retained by habit. It would profit us little to study this second-hand religious life. [p 6]

Religious Geniuses

In fact, James indicates that his attention will be on religious geniuses [2]. He claims that there is a close connection between religious genius and psychological abnormality: religious geniuses have often shown symptoms of nervous instability. [p 6] He offers as a prime example the case of George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, quoting at considerable length an episode from Fox's Journal.

George Fox: an unstable religious genius

Fox tells how, one day in the countryside, catching sight of the cathedral city of Lichfield in the distance, he felt impelled to take off his shoes, walk into the city and shout out in the streets and in the market place, Wo to the bloody city of Lichfield. After getting that out of his system, so to speak, he was able to leave the city, retrieve his shoes and go about his business. He later learned that a thousand Christians had been martyred in Lichfield in Roman times and concluded that he had been visited by some kind of divine compulsion to commemorate the event.

James defends himself against the possibility of being criticised for reducing religious inspiration to mental aberration by dismissing what he calls medical materialism. He argues that it is not good enough to dismiss heightened religious experience on the grounds that it is the fruit of mental abnormality: what counts is the quality of the fruit, not its source. On this score, he quotes at length St Teresa of Avila [3].

James explains why he wants to make the connection between his religious geniusand psychological abnormality. Firstly, there is the idea that study of the abnormal helps us to better understand the normal. Thus,

Morbid impulses and imperative conceptions, fixed ideas, so called, have thrown a flood of light on the psychology of the normal will. [p 22]

Secondly, there is the idea that obsessiveness allied with ability can be productive:

when a superior intellect and a psychopathic temperament coalesce ... in the same individual, we have the best possible condition for the kind of effective genius that gets into the biographical dictionaries. [pp 23 - 24]


1 Spiritual elitism

For comment, go to Spiritual elitism on the Issues page.

[15-07-11] Note that the quotation has previously contained a copying error, not religious emotions instead of not religious institutions. Thanks to Umit Kartal for signalling my mistake. [Back to Article]

2 Religious geniuses

For comment, go to Religious geniuses on the Issues page. [Back to Article]

3 Saint Teresa of Avila

For comment, go to Saint Teresa of Avila on the Issues page. [Back to Article]

(c) John C Durham, 2002

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