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

Lecture 2: Circumscription of the Topic

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James now homes in more closely on his proposed subject matter. He declines to offer a definition of what the term religion might mean in general, but spends this lecture on discussing what it is going to mean for him in the lectures to follow.

No specifically religious emotions

As a preliminary, James argues that there are no specifically religious emotions. What might be seen as religious emotions are no more than ordinary human emotions elicited in religious contexts. For example,

religious awe is the same organic thrill which we feel in a forest at twilight, or in a mountain gorge; only this time it comes over us at the thought of our supernatural relations. [p 27]

Personal religion

James next explains that he is going to confine himself to personal religion, while ignoring its organised manifestations. According to the writer, personal religion is more fundamental, more primordial, than organised religion in the sense that the great religions, and indeed the Christian sects, arose from the personal religion of their founders:

the founders of every church owed their power originally to the fact of their direct personal communion with the divine. [p 31]

James admits that there are:

other things in religion chronologically more primordial than personal devoutness in the moral sense. Fetishism and magic seem to have preceded inward piety historically. [p 30]

Thus there are stages of religion:

if fetishism and magic may be regarded as stages of religion, one may say that personal religion in the inward sense and the genuinely spiritual ecclesiasticisms which it founds are phenomena of secondary or even tertiary order. [p 30]

However, James excludes the primitive stage of religion  [1] from his considerations:

our knowledge of all these early stages of thought and feeling is ... so conjectural and imperfect that farther discussion would not be worth while. [p 31]

So for the purposes of the lectures, and this is the heart of the matter, religion is going to mean:

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. [p 31]

The Divine

The last part of the definition obviously calls for some elaboration. James argues that:

we must interpret the term divine very broadly, as denoting any object that is godlike, whether it be a concrete deity or not. [p 34]

Buddhism comes within James's frame of reference, as does the belief system of Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom James quotes at length.

But there are limits beyond which the term divine cannot be stretched: experiences based on belief systems that are merely a matter of stoic morality are not going to be discussed by James. The distinction between personal religion and personal morality is apparently something of great importance to the writer: he pursues it for a good half of the lecture. It seems that the essential criterion for deciding whether a person is motivated by the one or the other lies in the spirit in which he or she deals with life's trials and tribulations. The truly religious person - James refers exclusively to Christians here - positively embraces life's troubles as manifestations of divine purpose, whereas the stoic merely submits to them without complaint.

I shall not detail James's discussion here, the distinction he seeks to make being irrelevant to the particular purposes of this site and of little interest generally to people today.


1 Primitive religion

For comment, go to Primitive religion on the Issues page.     [Back to Article]

(c) John C Durham, 2002


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