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

Lectures 4 & 5: The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness

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At the the end of the third lecture, James had pointed to two kinds of attitude in those who have powerful religious experiences: pessimism and optimism. In the fourth and fifth lectures, he focuses on the latter, healthy-mindedness, as he calls it.

James distinguishes two kinds of religious optimism: the simple and the complex. The former is the case of those who are naturally optimistic, the latter is the case of those who have to work at being optimistic.

Simple religious optimism

We may note that the writer reveals himself as somewhat uncomfortable with people who do not feel burdened by their own sinfulness or that of others, people who seem oblivious to the suffering there is in the world:

In some individuals optimism may become quasi-pathological. The capacity for even a transient sadness or a momentary humility seems cut off from them as by a kind of congenital anaesthesia. [p 83]

The writer's prime example of the simple variety of religious optimism is Walt Whitman, whose brand of defiant healthy-mindedness is especially not to his taste.

Complex religious optimism

James devotes most of his attention to the complex kind of religious optimism, in which believers make a conscious effort to be healthy-minded: a conscious effort, as he sees it, to close their eyes to the evil in the world:

To the man actively happy, from whatever cause, evil simply cannot then and there be believed in. he must ignore it; and to the bystander he may then seem perversely to shut his eyes to it and to hush it up. [p 88]


James focuses in particular on something called mind-cure, a movement in vogue at the time in the USA [1]. He finds it worthy of notice because in a significant number of cases it has worked. If sick people were being made well, then mind-cure must correspond to something real in some people.

James quotes at length from the movement, to the effect that people need to banish fear from their thinking and get in touch with the Infinite. Here is a snippet from one of James's quotations:

In just the degree in which you realize your oneness with the Infinite Spirit, you will exchange dis-ease for ease, inharmony for harmony, suffering for abounding health and strength. [p 101]

Mind-Cure v. Protestantism

James does not doubt that significant results have been obtained and offers lengthy testimonies from friends of his who have been cured of incapacitating nervous illnesses by following that kind of advice. He emphasises that this is a genuinely religious movement, suggesting a parallel between its idea of union with the Infinite and ideas found in Protestantism.

The writer supposes that the same kind of psychological forces are at work in both cases. There are people who need to learn to relax. For such people, the particular messages of Lutheranism and Methodism worked formerly, as the mind-cure message is working now:

The mind-curers ... have demonstrated that a form of regeneration by relaxing, letting go, psychologically indistinguishable from the Lutheran justification by faith and the Wesleyan acceptance of free grace, is within the reach of persons who have no conviction of sin and care nothing for Lutheran theology. It is but giving your little private convulsive self a rest, and finding that a greater Self is there. [p 111]

Note that James is not claiming that this applies to everybody. As he says:

The whole outcome of these lectures will, I imagine, be the emphasizing to your mind of the enormous diversities which the spiritual lives of different men exhibit. [p 109]

The writer explains the success of mind-cure in terms of three factors. Firstly, unlike the Churches, it is new and fresh. Secondly, it appeals to a segment of the population for whom the Churches have no appeal. Thirdly, it addresses the subconscious in a way that Protestantism does not. Its systematic approach to reaching the subconscious James finds very comparable to Catholic spiritual exercises.

Primitive Thought

The discussion of healthy-mindedness and mind-cure ends with them being related to the idea of primitive thought as this existed in James's day. According to the writer, self-styled scientists or positivists suppose that The savage mind thinks things operate by personal forces [p 119] [2]. They contrast this with science, which they see as demonstrating the reverse: that personality is in the final analysis no more than the operation of the laws of physics.

James points out that mind-cure undermines the scientific philosophy; what is more, it uses scientific method to do so. For mind-cure claims that the ultimate forces of the universe are personal and that its successes can be verified experimentally.

The writer concludes as follows:

The experiences which we have been studying ... plainly show the universe to be a more many-sided affair than any sect, even the scientific sect, allows for. [p 122] Both science, with its material benefits, and religion, with the benefits of mind-cure, have a role: the science and the religion are both of them genuine keys for unlocking the world's treasure-house. [p 122]


Primitive thought, with its belief in individualized personal forces, seems at any rate as far as ever from being driven by science from the field to-day. Numbers of educated people still find it the directest experimental channel by which to carry on their intercourse with reality. [p 123]


1 Mind-Cure

Christian Science and the like [Back to Article]

2 Primitive religion

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

(c) John C Durham, 2002

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