The Varieties of Religious Experience: Issues

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It is difficult to believe that much advance planning went into the work. Whatever the value of some of its parts, it just does not hang together as a whole. Here are some of the inconsistencies and other problems that lead to this conclusion, along with some comments from the perspective of this site.

VRE issues on this page:

Religious geniusesSaint Teresa of AvilaPrimitive religionExtreme testimoniesSpiritual elitismFirst hand testimony, second-hand religionTwo sides of the same coinSpiritual energy |

1 Religious geniuses:

Lecture 1 creates the impression that the lectures are going to be about people called religious geniuses: not so. The issue does not come up again till Lectures 14-15 or after that till Lecture 20.

George Fox, founder of the Quakers, is the only religious genius that James identifies as such. He is discussed in Lectures 1, 14-15 and also 11-13; he is mentioned in Lecture 19.

One thing is certain, neither Christ nor any of the founders of the other major religions of the world are discussed to any significant extent in VRE. Any scrutiny of their psychologies might have been deemed offensive, but it is difficult to see how useful conclusions about the psychology of religious genius could have been arrived at without such discussion.

Genius was a key concept in James's day, needed to explain cultural progress, as with Newton, Beethoven, Michaelangelo. Maybe James started out with the notion of using the concept to show that religious progress worked like progress in the sciences and arts, then realised too late that this line of argument would not be sustainable. [1]

2 Saint Teresa of Avila:

In Lectures 14-15, James declares there is absolutely no human use in her, or sign of any general human interest. [p 348]. This is in spite of having referred to her a couple of pages earlier as one of the ablest women, in many respects, of whose life we have the record. [p 346] Indeed, he had quoted her in Lecture 1 with seeming approval.

James's problem with Saint Teresa is that her spirituality was not to his taste. His criterion was utility: he looked for useful human fruit [p 348], whereas she was a contemplative, focussed on developing her personal relationship with God.

This is Protestantism, not science. A scientist trying to be objective about personal religion would not have criticised mystical contemplation as pursued by Catholic enclosed religious orders, but simply have catalogued it among others as a relevant phenomenon to be understood.

A little later on, in Lectures 16-17, James offers a sort of Beaufort Scale of mystical states in which he features Saint Teresa at one of the levels. This time, he does restrict himself to objective observation of her as a religious phenomenon.

The essential difference between the two discussions of the saint is that the first involves a judgement of moral worth, whereas the second does not. The contrast points to a permanent problem in VRE: James mixes two opposed stances, trying on the one hand to demonstrate scientifically that Protestantism is top religion, on the other hand merely to observe and understand.

3 Primitive religion:

In Lecture 2, James excludes the primitive stage of religion 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]

However, it is not long before he does bring up the issue. In Lecture 4-5, he uses the then current idea that The savage mind thinks things operate by personal forces [p 119] in a polemical argument against its anthropological proponents.

He brings up the issue again in Lecture 20, as part of his belated attempt to present the lectures as scientific. We read regarding the writer's proposal of a science of religions:

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]

If science is about observing and understanding phenomena with as much objectivity as can be mustered, then James's attitude to pre-literate humanity is far from scientific. It is the kind of attitude that had sustained slavery and was still sustaining colonialism.

Personal forces

We may note a certain irony in James's dismissal of the savage mind for seeking to explain things in terms of personal forces, when it is precisely in terms of personal forces that he himself seeks to explain religion. For what are the exalted individuals he presents as the driving force behind religious development if they are not personal forces.

Of course, there is something of a difference between the personal forces James finds in savage understanding and those we find in his own understanding. The former are gods, whereas the latter are special humans in personal contact with God. But for this site the difference is not fundamental.

This is not to suggest that James was himself in some sense savage in his thinking. This site rejects any idea that there ever was any such thing as the savage mind or primitive thinking. As long as there have been humans, they have always had the same thought processes as ourselves.

4 Extreme testimonies

Near the end of The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James attempts to defend 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]

This just will not do. The analogy is false. James's project in the book is to understand religion by looking at the raw experiences reported by believers. This is not analogous with going to somebody with specialist expertise. James is confusing experience with expertise.

The fact that people with expertise may be eccentric and in that case comparable in personality with those who have extreme religious experiences is irrelevant, a red herring.

It is a highly significant error because it is James's only defence against the main charge that can be levelled at the book: that the kind of specialised material he bases his conclusions on is not representative of religion generally.

Of course, the very idea that extreme examples provide the best insights is highly problematic. For one thing, it might be pointed out that just as in neuro-science, damaged brains reveal the workings of the undamaged brain, so in religious psychology, extreme cases throw light on the non-extreme. But the two cases are not analogous: the unusual functioning we might suppose in extreme religious experience is not comparable to the impaired functioning in cases of brain damage.

For another thing, if extreme religious experience was simply ordinary religious experience intensified, then James might be justified in attending to it. However, that line of argument is not open to him. At the start of the book, he has made a radical distinction between, on the one hand, subjects of extreme religious experience and, on the other hand, ordinary believers: suggesting that the two types of experience involved are not merely quantitively but qualitatively different.

The main problem with attending to extreme examples is a loss of perspective: non-extreme examples, necessarily the vast majority of any full range of examples, and its most representative, get lost sight of. What James furnishes in VRE is a study not of religious psychology, but of extreme religious psychology.

Again, the passage quoted incorporates James's underlying premise that there is indeed something profound to be discovered in extreme religious experience. Taking it for granted that such experience must be deeply meaningful makes VRE a work essentially of theology rather than of science.

5 Spiritual elitism

In Lecture 1 of VRE, James announces that his study will be of literary sources:

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].

That already restricts him to the religious experience of a tiny minority of believers. He confirms this a little later: he will exclude the ordinary religious believer, who follows the conventional observances of his country . [p 6]

For the writer regards the religion of the ordinary believer as second hand and unworthy of consideration:

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]

This approach yields not only the problem discussed just above in Extreme testimonies, that the evidence presented in VRE is unrepresentitive of religion experience generally, but another problem as well. It lays James open to the charge of spiritual elitism. For he clearly sees believers in two groups, a small minority who have direct experience of the supernatural and a large majority who don't, whose religious life he dismisses as second-hand.

We may usefully note the distinction James makes between the religious experience of his elite and the religious life of his ordinary religious believer. This seems to suggest James values extraordinary religious experiences, extreme religious highs we might call them today, over everyday lives lived in accordance with religious principles.

6 First hand testimony, second-hand religion

There is something of a contradiction between the way James evaluates his spiritual elite and his idea of second-hand religion. It seems as though he evaluates his spiritual elite positively for generating religious testimony on the basis of their experience, then evaluates his ordinary believers negatively for accepting that testimony. For what is second-hand religion but the response of ordinary believers to the first-hand testimony of James's special souls.

Thus in Lectures 14-15, James offers a model of development for individual religions:

A survey of history shows us that, as a rule, religious geniuses 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]

It is hard to see any sense in James approving of his religious geniuses for attracting disciples, while at the same time disapproving of the disciples for being attracted and doing what disciples do.

There is another problem. James makes disciples entirely responsible for turning the testimony of his religious geniuses into organised religion. But surely religious history shows that the religious geniuses themselves participate in the process, even taking the leading role in it: appointing special representitives, as with Christ and the Apostles, and laying down rules. Indeed, isn't a significant amount of the testimony of religious geniuses a matter of providing rules for disciples to follow.

Two sides of the same coin

09-11-06: This site finds James entirely in error to contrast his religious elite with ordinary believers, whose religion he dismisses as second-hand. For without ordinary believers there are no special souls: they are two sides of the same coin.

Plenty of individuals in every culture throughout the world claim to talk to God face to face, to have visions, hear voices, be visited by spirits or whatever, but all but a tiny minority of them are regarded as misguided, eccentric, deranged or worse. It is only when these things have meaning within the culture and when other members of the community decide to take them seriously that they become significant.

It is James's purely Protestant religious understanding of religious history that allows him to view his special individuals in isolation from their cultural and social context. From its earliest days Protestantism saw religious history as a matter of God revealing Himself progressively to special individuals, from the Old Testament patriarchs and prophets onwards, with the people blessed if they listened and blighted if they didn't.

Shortly after James's death, the Lutheran religious theorist, Rudolf Otto, offered an evolutionary version of the Protestant idea of progressive revelation through special individuals in his The Idea of the Holy [1917], summarised and discussed elsewhere on this site. However, this part of the book is generally ignored.

In these Protestant religious understandings, God in some way chooses individuals and speaks through them. But if we don't believe in God we have to come up with some other explanation for the success of prophets and the like: that has to be in cultural and social terms.

Note that those atheists who attempt to explain away religious revelations as a matter of brain functioning or aberrant psychology are accepting the Protestant perspective. They fail to explain why a tiny minority of individuals who claim supernatural experiences get to be taken seriously by the people around them. For more on this, see Neurotheology on this site.

We find a similar acceptance of the Protestant perspective on the part of atheists who use arguments like the teapot analogy in discussions about belief in the existence of God. Thus the British philosopher, Bertrand Russell, compared belief in God to belief in a teapot orbiting unseen round the sun.

This analogy makes sense only if you don't consider why people believe certain things and not others. People are not going to believe either in God nor in an invisible teapot just because some individual stands up and urges them to do so. Communities always have what are for them good reasons for their beliefs: reasons we can understand in social and cultural terms. See also Teapot analogy.

7 Spiritual Energy

This idea found in Lecture 19 is extremely important for the study of the sacred. Just a few years after VRE, Durkheim came up with a sociological theory of spiritual energy which parallels James's psychological version. According to the American psychological theorist, in intense prayer, a highly charged psychological situation, spiritual energy passes from God to the person praying. According to the French sociologist, in highly charged social situations, spiritual energy passes from the social group as a whole into particular realities that represent the group. It is not difficult to suppose that James's idea was the inspiration behind that of Durkheim. See Durkheim on the Sacred on this site.

Just a few more years later still and Otto came up with the idea of the numinous. It is easy to believe that Otto too was influenced by James. However, while both writers take a psychological perspective, focussing on intense personal religious experience, James points to the energising practical effect on the subject of an encounter with the supernatural, whereas Otto analyses the nature of the subject's experience of the encounter. See Rudolf Otto's The Idea of the Holy 1 on this site.

Science to Religion Crossover

We may surely suppose that James derived his notion of spiritual energy from the c19th American therapeutic/spiritual movement, where ideas of some kind of energy communicating the Cosmos to the individual were fundamental. After all, part of that movement was Mind Cure, with which James was very familiar: see Mind Cure.

Now the c19th American tradition descended from the c18th theories of Mesmer on animal magnetism permeating the universe and of Swedenborg on subtle energies flowing from other dimensions. So we can conclude that James's spiritual energy notion stems ultimately from c18th science to religion crossover. Of course, the tradition has continued uninterrupted to this day, with New Age ideas emphasising our need to connect with the Cosmos and thereby access beneficial energies. [2]

This site finds the originally c18th scientific metaphor of spiritual energy extremely helpful for the understanding of supernatural religion in general and of Christianity in particular. Thus, behind the theology, the Catholic sacraments seem comparable to New Age crystals and the like: both are essentially sacred devices for tapping into a supernatural power source for the benefit of the individual. It's simply that, with intellectual resources differing from those of the c18th and thereafter, early Catholicism had a different understanding of the beneficial power of the divine communicated to humans: for example, in terms of water to purify the soul and of bread and wine to give it sustenance.

Note also how the metaphor of supernatural power as some kind of electro-magnetic energy has passed into popular culture. In the scene at the end of the Spielberg film, Raiders of the Lost Ark, light energy from the sacred ark evaporates the villains in a sort of slow motion mini nuclear explosion effect.


1 Genius

Today, the concept is used only commercially: to explain the value of works of art, sell records, fill concert venues, sports stadiums etc. Newton is not a saleable commodity and, besides, he thought too much about other things apart from physics, so his genius status is currently being withdrawn.

For the enthronement of Newton as a genius, see Patricia Fara: Newton, the Making of Genius (2002). This book is itself part of the Newton debunking industry.

Dec 2011: I recently came across the work of psychologist, D K Simonton, who takes genius seriously: as in his Origins of Genius - Darwinian Perspectives on Creativity (1999) and Genius 101 (2008).

Professor Simonton led me to the lengthy William James article, Great Men and their Environment (1880). Here, the Harvard luminary makes a case for the 'great-man theory' of cultural change generally.  I suggest that this theory is an extension of the Protestant understanding of religious history in terms of prophet figures. The piece is readily available online at Project Gutenberg[Back to Article]

2 The c19th American Therapeutic/Spiritual Movement

See e.g. Robert C. Fuller: Holistic Health Practices, esp pp 230 - 234, in Peter H. Van Ness (ed): Spirituality and the Secular Quest (1996)    [Back to Article]


(c) John C Durham, 2003 - 2004

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