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

Lecture 20: Conclusions & Postscript

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James summarises the characteristics of the religious life as follows:

  • 1. That the visible world is part of a more spiritual universe from which it draws its chief significance;
  • 2. That union or harmonious relation with that higher universe is our true end;
  • 3. That prayer or inner communion, with the spirit thereof - be that spirit God or law - is a process wherein work is really done, and spiritual energy flows in and produces effects, psychological or material, within the phenomenal world.
  • Religion includes also the following psychological characteristics:-
  • 4. A new zest which adds itself like a gift to life, and takes the form either of lyrical enchantment or of appeal to earnestness and heroism.
  • 5. An assurance of safety and a temper of peace, and, in relation to others, a preponderance of loving affections. [pp 485-486]

Extreme examples

He next defends himself against the possible charge of having presented extreme testimonies of religion:

I took these extremer examples as yielding the profounder information. To learn the secrets of any science, we go to expert specialists, even though they may be eccentric persons, and not to commonplace pupils. [p 486] [1]

Religious diversity

James then welcomes religious diversity, answering no to his own question:

is the existence of so many religious types and sects and creeds regrettable? [p 487]

It is, as we might say, a matter of horses for courses. Different types of people need different brands of religion:

If we are peevish and jealous, destruction of self must be an element of our religion; why need it be if we are good and sympathetic from the outset? If we are sick souls, we require a religion of deliverance; but why think so much of deliverance, if we are healthy-minded? Unquestionably, some men have the completer experience and the higher vocation, here just as in the social world; but for each man to stay in his own experience, whate'er it be, and for others to tolerate him there, is surely best [pp 487-488]

Religious diversity and the science of religions

The writer now reconciles this welcoming of religious diversity with his suggestion of a science of religions. He points out that such a science is not going to be able to decide which religion is preferable.

What is more, the scientist of religions may end up rejecting them all:

The cultivator of this science has to become acquainted with so many grovelling and horrible superstitions that a presumption easily arises in his mind that any belief in religion is probably false. In the prayerful communion of savages with such mumbo-jumbos of deities as they acknowledge, it is hard for us to see what genuine spiritual work - even though it were work relative only to their dark savage obligations - can possibly be done [p 490] [2]

Religion as an anachronism

James next rejects the Survival theory [p 490], the claim that all religion is anachronistic, a survival from earlier in human development, full of ideas that look ridiculous in contemporary eyes:

It does not follow, because our ancestors made so many errors of fact and mixed them with their religion, that we should therefore leave off being religious at all. [p 500]

For religion is about the personal:

Religion, occupying herself with personal destinies and keeping thus in contact with the only absolute realities which we know, must necessarily play an eternal part in human history. [p 503]

The essence of religion

James asks that it be borne in mind that, if his view of his subject seems thin, it is because he is trying to get at its essence:

I am expressly trying to reduce religion to its lowest admissible terms, to that minimum, free from individualistic excrescences, which all religions contain as their nucleus, and on which it may be hoped that all religious persons may agree. [p 503]

This approach gives primacy to religious feeling as opposed to religious thought:

When we survey the whole field of religion, we find a greater variety in the thoughts that have prevailed there; but the feelings on the one hand and the conduct on the other are almost always the same, for the Stoic, Christian, and Buddhist saints are practically indistinguishable in their lives. The theories which Religion generates, being thus variable, are secondary; and if you wish to grasp her essence, you must look to the feelings and the conduct as being the more constant elements. [p 504]

Uneasiness and its solution

The writer identifies the essential intellectual content of religion as an uneasiness and its solution:

1. The uneasiness, reduced to its simplest terms, is a sense that there is something wrong about us as we naturally stand.

2. The solution is a sense that we are saved from wrongness by making the proper connection with the higher powers. [p 508]

The more developed minds

More particularly,

In those more developed minds which alone we are studying, the wrongness takes a moral character, and the salvation takes a mystical tinge. [p 508]

The more

James argues that his more developed minds become aware of something that he refers to as the more:

[The various theologies] all agree that the more really exists; though some of them hold it to exist in the shape of a personal god or gods, while others are satisfied to conceive it as a stream of ideal tendency embedded in the external structure of the world. [p 510]

He proposes to offer a scientific understanding of the more and also of the union with it of which religious geniuses [3] are so convinced. [p 510] James aims to give his more a scientific basis by connecting it with the subconscious:

Let me then propose, as a hypothesis, that whatever it may be on its farther side, the more with which in religious experience we feel ourselves connected is on its hither side the subconscious continuation of our conscious life. [p 512]

The subconscious: a bridge between science and religion

He sees in this formulation a bridge between science and theology. For science, the subconscious is a recognised psychological fact. [p 512] For theology:

the theologian's contention that the religious man is moved by an external power is vindicated, for it is one of the peculiarities of invasions from the subconscious region to take on objective appearances, and to suggest to the Subject an external control. [pp 512-513]

The subconscious and the supernatural

Committing himself to expressing a personal belief, the writer suggests that the subconscious merges into the supernatural:

The further limits of our being plunge, it seems to me, into an altogether other dimension of existence from the sensible and merely understandable world. Name it the mystical region, or the supernatural region, whichever you choose. [pp 515-516]

The supernatural is real on the following grounds:

that which produces effects within another reality must be termed a reality itself, so I feel as if we had no philosophic excuse for calling the unseen or mystical world unreal [p 516]

James, the Christian

In the next sentence, James refers to himself as a Christian and labels his unseen reality God:

God is the natural appellation, for us Christians at least, for the supreme reality, so I will call this higher part of the universe by the name of God. [p 516]

He comments thus:

I only translate into schematic language what I may call the instinctive belief of mankind: God is real since he produces real effects. [p 517]

Real effects make God real

James ends the final lecture on the issue of the real effects that make God real:

The real effects in question, so far as I have yet admitted them, are exerted on the personal centres of energy of the various subjects, but the spontaneous faith of most of the subjects is that they embrace a wider sphere than this. [p 517]

However, he does not point to any effects other than the spiritual energy he has previously discussed:

What the more characteristically divine facts are, apart from the actual inflow of energy in the faith-state and the prayer-state, I know not. But the over-belief on which I am ready to make my personal venture is that they exist. [p 519]

Faith-state is a term the writer has introduced earlier in this lecture to refer to the emotional content of religious belief imparted by the kind of experiences he has examined. For example:

It may be a mere vague enthusiasm, half spiritual, half vital, a courage and a feeling that great and wondrous things are in the air. [p 505]

The term prayer-state has not been used before. However, it will be recalled that in the previous lecture James has argued that genuine prayer imparts spiritual energy.

Over-belief is a term that has been used in this lecture and in the one on philosophy to refer to the particular beliefs of particular religions: religious ideas over and above the essential intellectual content James has identified.

The existence of God

James adds a short Postscript after the final lecture in order to clarify his general philosophical position. [p 520] In it he expands a little on his reasoning for the existence of God:

If asked just where the differences in fact which are due to God's existence come in. I should have to say that in general I have no hypothesis to offer beyond what the phenomenon of prayerful communion, especially when certain kinds of incursion from the subconscious region take part in it, immediately suggests. [p 523]

James admits, however, that the evidence of religious experience does not point conclusively to the existence of God:

The only thing that it unequivocally testifies to is that we can experience union with something larger than ourselves and in that union find our greatest peace. [p 525]


1 Extreme testimonies

For comment, go to Extreme testimonies on the Issues page. [Back to Article]

2 Primitive religion

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

3 Religious geniuses

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

(c) John C Durham, 2002

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