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

Lectures 14 & 15: The Value of Saintliness

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In these two lectures James proposes to judge what absolute value religion adds to life. [p 326]

Gods correspond to contemporary attitudes

He argues that judgements on religious matters are subject to common sense, which evolves. Indeed, the gods of the various religions have always corresponded to the current state of human development:

After a few generations the mental climate proves unfavorable to notions of the deity which at an earlier date were perfectly satisfactory. [p 328]

James sees the psychological factor as crucial:

the original factor in fixing the figure of the gods must always have been psychological. [p 329]

The utility of gods

He explains this in terms of utility. Founders of religions bore witness to gods who had things of psychological (and also social) value to offer. When gods no longer served a useful function on account of changing attitudes, they were replaced. This ongoing process has given religious evolution:

It was in this way that the Greek and Roman gods ceased to be believed in by educated pagans; it is thus that we ourselves judge of the Hindu, Buddhist, and Mohammedan theologies; Protestants have so dealt with the Catholic notions of deity, and liberal Protestants with older Protestant notions. [ p 329]

The writer homes in in particular on Catholicism:

Not only the cruelty, but the paltriness of character of the gods believed in by earlier centuries also strikes later centuries with surprise. We shall see examples of it in the annals of Catholic saintship which make us rub our Protestant eyes. Ritual worship in general appears to the modern transcendentalist, as well as to the ultra-puritanic type of mind, as if addressed to a deity of an almost absurdly childish character, taking delight in toy-shop furniture, tapers and tinsel, costume and mumbling and mummery, and finding his glory incomprehensibly enhanced thereby [p 330]

Saintliness and belief to be judged by common sense

James proposes to judge saintliness by common sense, and also the religious beliefs behind it:

What I then propose to do is, briefly stated, to test saintliness by common-sense, to use human standards to help us decide how far the religious life commends itself as an ideal kind of human activity. If it commends itself, then any theological beliefs that may inspire it, in so far forth will stand accredited. [p 331]

This judgement is seen as a Darwinian process:

It is but the elimination of the humanly unfit, and the survival of the humanly fittest, applied to religious beliefs. [p 331]

A model for the development of religions

Before starting to make judgements, James offers a model of development for individual religions:

A survey of history shows us that, as a rule, religious geniuses [1] attract disciples, and produce groups of sympathizers. When these groups get strong enough to organize themselves, they become ecclesiastical institutions with corporate ambitions of their own. [pp 334-335]

He is interested in the initial phase of the process, when a new religious is personal to its founder. He notes that founders of religions experience loneliness and to illustrate this quotes at length from George Fox's Journal. Such a person experiencing the kind of life that Fox describes is also going to stand out as a misfit:

A genuine first-hand religious experience like this is bound to be a heterodoxy to its witnesses, the prophet appearing as a lonely madman. [p 337]

Another view of a religion's development

James now presents the model of a religion's development from the outside. A religion starts as one person's heterodoxy based on first hand religious experience; when followers are attracted, it becomes the heresy of a group; if it survives persecution, becomes a new orthodoxy. The writer offers a negative view of orthodoxy:

when a religion has become an orthodoxy, its day of inwardness is over: the spring is dry; the faithful live at second hand exclusively and stone the prophets in their turn. [p 337] [2]

An alternative fate to which an orthodoxy may condemn a new prophet is exploitation. In particular, the Catholic Church:

the dealings of the Roman ecclesiasticism with many individual saints and prophets yield examples enough for our instruction. [p 337]

Turning to his evaluation of saintliness, James points out that, by common sense standards, its virtues can look like excesses. He surveys in turn the excesses associated with four saintly virtues.


An excess associated with the virtue of Devoutness is Fanaticism (James's capitalisation). The examples are all theopathic Catholic saints who were nuns, ending with St Teresa of Avila [3], of whom he concludes:

there is absolutely no human use in her, or sign of any general human interest. [p 348]

Saintliness based on personal merit condemned

In fact, the very idea of sainthood based on personal merit, such as this saint embodied, is condemned as childish:

When Luther, in his immense manly way, swept off by a stroke of his hand the very notion of a debit and credit account kept on individuals by the Almighty, he stretched the soul's imagination and saved theology from puerility. [p 348]


Excess in the saintly virtue of Purity, James finds in a c16th Jesuit called St Louis Gonzaga, whose life, he suggests, was worthless. He comments that:

The Catholicism of the sixteenth century paid little heed to social righteousness ... To-day, rightly or wrongly, helpfulness in general human affairs is, in consequence of one of those secular mutations in moral sentiment of which I spoke, deemed an essential element in worth in character. [p 354]

Tenderness and Charity

In his section on excesses of Tenderness and Charity [p 355], James does not offer any particular examples, but argues for the common sense point of view that it is not practical to turn the other cheek. At the same time, he suggests that:

the human charity which we find in all saints, and the great excess of it which we find in some saints to be a genuinely creative social force. [p 357]

(Let us note in passing that it is in this context that James makes his only use of the term sacred:

St Paul long ago made our ancestors familiar with the idea that every soul is virtually sacred. ... this belief in the essential sacredness of everyone expresses itself to-day in all sorts of humane customs, and in a growing aversion to the death penalty and to brutality in punishment. [p 357])

The writer's notion is that humans generally have a potential for moral improvement and that the example of the saints stimulates ordinary mortals to realise some of that potential:

Momentarily considered, then, the saint may waste his tenderness and be the dupe and victim of his charitable fever, but the general function of his charity in social evolution is essential. [p 358]


In his section on the saintly virtue of Asceticism, James has a footnote dealing with the excesses of yet another Catholic saint. But he looks at this virtue in a mainly positive light:

The older monastic asceticism occupied itself with pathetic futilities, or terminated in the mere egotism of the individual, increasing his own perfection. But is it not possible for us to discard most of these older forms of mortification, and yet find saner channels for the heroism which inspired them?[p 365]

Voluntary poverty suggested

In fact, the writer suggests that a secular equivalent of military service is needed and that it may be found in voluntary poverty:

What we now need to discover in the social realm is the moral equivalent of war: something heroic that will speak to men as universally as war does, and yet will be as compatible with their spiritual selves as war has proved itself to be incompatible. I have often thought that in the old monkish poverty-worship, in spite of the pedantry which infested it, there might be something like that moral equivalent of war which we are seeking. [p 367]

The fear of poverty condemned

James identifies fear of poverty as a feature of contemporary English speaking society:

We have grown literally afraid of being poor. We despise any one who elects to be poor in order to simplify and save his inner life. If he does not join in the general scramble and pant with the money making street, we deem him spiritless and lacking in ambition. [p 368]

Indeed, he makes the following claim:

it is certain that the prevalent fear of poverty among the educated classes is the worst moral disease from which our civilization suffers. [p 369]

An exhortation to saintliness

In the end, James's judgement is that the world needs saints to make it a better place and exhorts us to sainthood of a kind that is right for us:

Let us be saints, then, if we can, whether or not we succeed visibly and temporally. But in our Father's house are many mansions, and each of us must discover for himself the kind of religion and the amount of saintship which best comports with what he believes to be his powers and feels to be his truest mission and vocation. [p 377]


1 Religious geniuses

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

2 First hand testimony, second-hand religion

For comment, go to First hand testimony, second-hand religion 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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