The Varieties of Religious Experience

William James
The Varieties of Religious Experience

DISCLAIMER:The following discussion of JAMES'S PSYCHOLOGY OF RELIGION consist of lecture notes prepared for myself. If I am wronging and copyrights, let me know and ask me to stop. I will be happy to comply. Furthermore,
there is no claim to perfect English and other formalistic considerations other than HTML. Also,
if you really want to understand James, I recommend you read his writing itself.

There has been an unbroken succession of scholars that have been inspired by James's work such that the interests of the present generation--which has at last produced a comprehensive edition of his works--is enough to be considered a revival. Because James was convinced that the nature of the universe requires a pluralistic perspective, he argued that a mere textual analysis of his writings, especially if it overlooks the character of the audience that each was delivered to, would lead nowhere. Essential, he insisted, is an imaginative grasp of his centre of vision. That is, when one tries to place his writings in a precise and well arranged formula, one runs the risk of gravely misrepresenting him.

Varieties was written in the spirit of a defense of the religious outlook. James believed in a right each individual has to affirm religious propositions solely upon the basis of emotional predilection--but only under certain conditions. The choice confronting the individual must be inescapable, so that not choosing is a choice. The alternatives must be living--appealing options that can be genuinely embraced; and the decision must be momentous--providing a unique opportunity that will make a significant difference in a person's life. It requires sufficient intelligible grounds for acceptance. (For further information about this approach to religious belief see The Will to Believe).

James was doubtful that any particular religious doctrine was true and that the majority of people need to have their faiths "broken up and ventilated" in order to rid them of their sickliness and barbarism. James did not write this book for the popular market of ordinary lives, rather he intended it for academics instilled with false and inhibitory notions of science and scientific evidence. It was for this tiny minority--as well as himself--that James sought to legitimate religious faith.

James said that we tend to spontaneously believe that which presents itself to our senses, unless it is contradicted by a previously held belief. Thus faith came not by willing it but by discrediting every contradictory belief (as is the case in the scientific method?). The Varieties in turn represents a direct approach to justifying religious faith in terms of empirical evidence. At the heart of the varieties is a judgment of the spiritual type--one that is addressed to things of value, significance, importance and meaning (vs. existential Judgment--by means of description and classification--which deals with the phenomenon's constitution).

James wanted to know what are religion's fruits for life. Nonetheless, he was prepared to explore the existential side of religion at the same time. He issued a sharp warning against medical materialism (still important today as the works of James Hillman indicate)--the notion that religion is strictly due to physiological states, or organic disturbance (Adler, early French psychoanalysts). That is, the knowledge of the origins or conditions of phenomena does not provide sufficient basis for judging its value.

The Varieties possess at least three faces: [1] it is a philosophical work of spiritual judgment; [2] he acknowledges that his own curiosity of his personal religious experiences played a part in shaping the lectures.; and, [3] third face is seen in the abundance of the material that he collected to carry out the task of judgment. The material is again and again allowed to stand on its own merits and its richness far exceeds the paltry generalizations that can be made of it.

Thus James speaks to us with a plurality of voices.

  1. James the sensitive artist and pioneering phenomenologist, who attempts to understand from within and to appreciate the uniqueness of every individual;
  2. the empirical scientist and explanatory psychologist, impressed by the lawful regularities of nature and doubtful of psychology's ability to discern causal relations; and,
  3. James the liberal Protestant and pragmatic philosopher. Impatient with every form of dogmatism and guided by common sense and confessed philosophical prejudices, he set out to evaluate as a whole the value of religion for human life.

For those of you who are familiar with David Wulff's Psychology of Religion you know the way he analyses the Varieties. From the descriptive angle, Wulff indicates that the Varieties emphasizes individual differences and great diversity of religious experiences. It is in individual differences that we find the realness of the religious experience. Hence we find that his interest was not in the institutional types of religions as they tend to oppose genuine religious inspiration in favor of dogmatism and the reduction of experience to a secondary importance.

James's method was one of inner reflection and empirical evidence collected from personal documents. In fact his approach is very much like that of the great phenomenologist of religions William Berde Christensen. In terms of the personal documents James relied almost exclusively upon the religious experiences of uncommon individuals who lived at the extremes of religious experience. He thought this was the way to go as it is only by apprehending the exaggerated extremes that one can find religious life lived first hand. These individuals, on the other hand, tend to psychopathology. But the reverse is not true. Thus the individual's that James chose were those who were most concerned with piety and self-consciousness as well as being the "most accomplished in the religious life and best able to give an intelligible account of their ideas and motives." Among the luminaries he assembled are: Leo Tolstoy, John Bunyan, Martin Luther, and Walt Whitman.

When one uses personal documents there are several problems that must be taken into consideration. For instance, we must discern between the motivations for writing the texts: are they written spontaneously for self-reflection of are they written with a didactic end in mind? There is also the question of consistency: should all documents be of the same sort? Again there is the question of the means of analysis (statistical or interpretative?) In James's case we know he employed both common and uncommon religious persons, the majority of his documents were of the spontaneous kind and the greatest number were written by persons of the Protestant faith. Given James interest in individuality, the vagaries of inner experience, and his far from random sampling of respondents any quantitative analysis of his material would surely have been pointless. He also felt that the more genuine and idiosyncratic forms of piety cannot be comprehended by means of representative samples and statistical analysis. Instead he relied upon his own and his readers capacity for empathetic understanding.

From the existential point of view we find James asking the question: What can we say or do about the varieties of religious experience? Although James recognized the difficulties in framing and finding an answer to this question (introspection tells little about causal relations, and science had not yet and may never come to any real understanding of the correlates of subconscious activity, and the generalizations coming from inferences from his concern with exceptional persons) James still thought it possible to infer some of the casual features responsible for the diversity of human piety.

James develops a twofold typology to characterize and infinite number of inborn impulses common to all humans. These are broken into

  1. a lower one of fleshy sensation, instincts, desires, egotism doubt and the lower personal interests; and
  2. a higher, more profound sphere where one may find, for example, the self-forgetful expansive affections and the tendency to subject oneself to strenuous challenge and sacrifice.
To James this duality on human nature is the basis of all religious experience. And that these two aspects change throughout one's life. Using the metaphors of the subconscious and the subliminal, James notes the close connection religion has to the unconscious. This is demonstrated by the high degree of automatism (actions carried out without awareness) among religious leaders. Events in the subconscious region, he speculates, may account for the converted individual's abrupt change of heart, after a long period of subconscious incubation, as well as the revelations of mystical experiences. To James the subliminal region is the home of everything that is latent and the reservoir of everything that passes unrecorded or unobserved. That is, intuition, persuasions, convictions, non-rational operations and so on. Thus, he concludes, it is the "fountain-head of all religion." Thus to James differences in religious experience reflects differences in character and the accessibility to the subliminal field (the content of which is dependent upon the individual's lived experiences--larger in some than in others and hence may be more active). Nonetheless, these are not the only possible aspects of individual differences important in shaping religious experiences--i.e., there are also differences in constitution and temperament, emotional susceptibility, intellect, sensibility and suggestibility to life's experiences.

As a spiritual judgment James hoped that the Varieties would promote a "critical science of religions" grounded in the facts of personal experience. His hope was to help remove the dogma and worship of "historic incrustations" as well as help to sift out the doctrines which are incompatible with the findings of natural science. His conclusions were modest. He felt that there is an underlying unity of feeling and conduct in all versions of the diversity of religious experience.

Ideas, symbols and teaching, James thought, are only secondary: helpful embellishments but not indispensable for the continuance of religious life. The feelings that he speaks of are cheerfulness and expansiveness in terms of life; and, there may be a sense that "great and wonderful things are in the air." These feelings indicate what James considered to be a faith-state which imparts meaning and zest to life.

Among the conflicting doctrines, James finds a common intellectual nucleus, consisting of Two impressions. The first is uneasiness--a sense that something is wrong out there--and the second is a sense that we are saved from the wrongness by making the proper connections with the higher powers. In both impressions, for James, the higher self plays a crucial role. That is,

  1. it allows us to perceive the wrongness within, and
  2. it is what we identify with our real being.
We come to realize that this higher part borders on and is continuous with the higher powers which is conceived of as active in the universe outside of ourselves and by a contract with it we may find salvation (the 'force' of Star Wars versus the Christian context: i.e., salvation). To James this aspect of the higher powers is more connected with the other side of our subconscious continuation of our conscious life. Thus, by this hypothesis, the reports of religious individual's having the experience of control from without, i.e., god's grace, makes sense to us as the higher aspect of our own selves which is hidden from us and, hence, we perceive it as external to ourselves.

The Text:

Let's look at some of the chapters themselves. I would like to point out chapters 1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 16-17 which offer a lot of information about James's psychology of religion. The first chapter is his argument against medical materialism which is still an important methodological consideration for the psychology of religion, depth psychology and other non-scientific/non-positivistic and medical branches of the study. Chapters 4 and 5 speak of James's 'healthy minded individual' and his or her relation to religion. Conversely chapters 6 and 7 discusses James's notion of the other religious type--the sick-souled. Chapter 8 is an introduction to chapters 9-15 in that it suggests the aspects of conversion and saints that are found in the religious experiences of the sick-souled--i.e., it speaks of the divided self and the process of its unification. I will not go into detail in all of these chapters, but I would like to deeply explore the chapters on medical materialism and mysticism--the rest I will summarize.

Chapter One: Religion and Neurology

James begins by stating his interest is in the religious feelings and experiences of individuals and not in institutional religions. He goes on to speak about his methodological approach--something which we have already gone through. So we will proceed to page 26 where we find James commenting on the pathological nature of great religious individuals. He notes that we must classify them as we would any other individual and that this propensity to classification is a natural aspects of human behaviour (Buddha to Ananda). The second natural aspects of our apprehension of phenomena is to analyze their nature. He feels that such actions are cold-blooded as it threatens to undo our own souls experiences and vital secrets. It would, in effect, use the same breath that would report their essence to destroy their significance.

Such methods of discrediting states of mind are used throughout the scientific and medical worlds and the positivistic approach to all subjective phenomena. Hence there is a tendency to brutalize such experiences as being merely expressions of our organic state of being. This is what James refers to as medical materialism. It is the tendency to reduce subjective phenomena to the banal by claiming that it has nothing to do with any sort of real experience but is rather to do one's body. This kind of approach is found in the early French psychological approaches to psychology, and it anticipates Freud's project and understanding of religion and neuroses by decades, as well as another prominent psychologist--Adler--by considerably more time.

To James such approaches are much too simple-minded systems of thought for what is being considered. This approach is the type that makes such claims as St. Paul's experience on the road to Damascus was due to a discharging lesion of the occipital cortex, it disregards St. Tersa as a hysteric, and so on. Its project is reduce religious experiences as self-induced intoxications due to perverted actions of various glands. By this medical materialism thinks that it has undermined to spiritual authority of all such individuals.

James's question, then, is as follows: How can such an existential account of the facts of mental history decide in one way or another upon the spiritual significance of such experiences? Even though it is true that there are physical changes accompanying all experiences (religious or otherwise) to claim that this is the reason for the experience is as ridiculous as claiming that the liver is the reason that one becomes an atheist. That is there is no reason to assume that material circumstances have anything to do with the determination of whether one state of mind is superior to another.

Rather the qualitative differences noted in experiences is dependent upon whether they immediately affect us and whether we remember them later and will bring us fruits in life. James notes that what feels most good is not necessarily what is most true when measured by the verdict of further experience.(31) A good example is if one is drunk: one feels good when one is drunk, but this person is by no means 'true', in a great many ways, when drunk. Thus if "feeling good" were the criterion, then being drunk would be the supremely valid human experience. But we know that this is not the case--i.e., the revelations that appear in such states are only fleeting and rarely are born out when one is sober.

From this example James turns to mystical and sentimental experiences. These experiences are said to come rarely but also carry an inner authority and illumination when they do come. Although they seldom come to all most follow the "inner voices" in any number of different ways--hence the discordancy of religious experience. It is a discordancy, however, that cannot ever be resolved by any merely medical test. The values of such experiences must be borne out by such criterion as immediate luminosity, philosophical reasonableness, and moral helpfulness. Yet the medical materialists are not concerned with such reasons. Rather its concern is with the origins of the experiences. To James this is a faux pas of the medical materialistic approach to religion. This is a dogmatic philosophy that insists that knowledge of the origin of feeling is all that is important.

(35) James returns to his argument by reminding us that his means of apprehending religious life is by it results exclusively. But we may ask whether we should ignore the pathological question altogether. His answer is twofold: curiosity carries us on--i.e., we will do what we will do; it always leads to a better understanding of the significance of a thing when we consider it s exaggerations and perversions, its equivalents and nearest relatives everywhere. Still this must be done with consideration of the uniqueness of the religious experience and not used as generalizations to be applied to all similar things. The advantage of considering the pathological is that it displays isolated factors that could not otherwise be seen and studied with such clarity if they were clouded by their usual conditions. A thing must be considered in both its environment and in all of its variations.


Thes Chapters discuss the religion of the healthy minded. To James, as I have already mentioned, the healthy minded individual is one who has a tendency to see all things as good, this is the person as the eternal optimist, one who has a hard time perceiving evil in the world. James, however, makes a distinction in healthy mindedness: on the one hand, that there are those that are involuntarily healthy minded--they generally apprehend an immediate feeling of happiness from life in general. Such individuals tend to ignore evil absolutely and this behaviour can become a religious policy, an way of religiously seeing the world. On the other hand, he points out an inverse distinction--i.e., voluntary healthy mindedness. Such individuals are said to have evolved an abstract way of conceiving of things as good. They consistently follow the most important currents in human nature and all cultivate such an attitude in one way or another to some degree.

The notions of the healthy minded and the sick souled, and the two aspects of the healthy-minded, provides James with a ground for a discussion of the "mind cure." This is a direct result of beliefs which say that there is a way out of the morbidism of religious life--something that is seen in the rise of liberal Protestantism, evolutionism, and the general optimism of humanity felt previous to World War I. This "mind cure" movement was called a deliberately optimistic approach to the practical and speculative sides of life. Leaders in such faiths have the intuitive opinion that everything will be resolved by a healthy-minded attitudes as love, hope, trust while avoiding states of doubt, concern, and so on. These kinds of movements still exist today. They take the from of Ego psychology, self-help humanistic groups, and several new religious movements. It is the "don't worry, be happy" approach to the varieties of life.

To James this movement represents one of two spheres of thought. This is the more shallow one in opposition to the more profound one. The shallower sphere is one of fleshy sensations, instincts, and desires as well as egoism, doubt and lower personal interests. It is the sphere of the healthy minded which represents a fear of inwardness, of inward reflection of true self-reflection. James calls it a living system of mental hygiene which is compacted with optimism.

Although it is obvious that James values this kind of experience less than the other, he still gives it its due. That is, he considers it one of the wide range of the varieties of religious experiences. But it requires, for general acceptance, a number of individuals who find this the best way of regenerating their view of the world. This means that it must effectively provide the type of conversion experience which is lasting and pervasive, in order to indicate the efficacy of this approach.

James concludes these Chapters by noting the dissimilarities of the "mind-cure" approach to scientific methodology (of the late Enlightenment). That is, the closeness of the mind-curers to the belief that such and such will bring about cure is absolutely at odds with scientific methods which are strictly empirical in nature. Still James notes that both offer an interpretation to the world--ones that may not be compatible with one another--each of which offering some kind of truth. 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. What, in the end, are all our verifications but experiences that agree with more or less isolated systems of ideas (conceptual systems) that our minds have framed? (110) That is, there is no reason to assume that one system of understanding is right to the exclusion to all or any others. Each system is itself a genuine key that can unlock the world's treasure house of experiences and points of view.

LECTURES 6 and 7

Chapters 6 and 7 discuss the opposing type of individual--the sick souled individuals. In contradistinction to the healthy minded type of religions that deal with evil by ignoring it and even denying its existence, the sick souled religions take evil into full account. James notes, that to admit the existence of evil is to complicate the philosophy of religion. Speaking of the Christian world view, he claims that religions has always tended to see God as the all-in-all. This goes hand in hand with the assumption that the religion is monistic, and that the world is one unit of absolute fact. This, as we know, is at variance with James's understanding of the world and religious experiences as well as being at odds with practical theism which has maintained the polytheistic approach to understanding of the universe. That is, is shows itself to be completely "satisfied with a world composed of many original principles, provided that we be only allowed to believe that the divine principle remains supreme, and that the others are subordinate." (117)

In the latter case God is not necessarily evil, but in the former (monistic view) God is as much the root of evil as he is the root of good. Here is where the difficulty in the philosophy of religion appears--for how is it logical that a being which is all good also is evil? It is in the religion of healthy-mindedness that god is not seen as evil. This can be said to be a projection of their understanding of their own inherent stance on evil. That is, if it can be done away with by one's wishes then the same must be true of god.

Such people, James says, who constantly attempt to throw off the mantel of evil are also constantly subjected to it. Those who admit it are less like to be caught unawares. James (119) enters into a discussion of the sick souled or the morbid minded individuals. Just as he divided the healthy-minded into two classes so does he claim that there are different levels of the morbid minded. Some see evil merely as maladjustment with things--i.e., a lack of correspondence between individual life and the environment. There are others for whom evil is something more radical and general, as a wrongness or vice of one's essential nature which requires a supernatural remedy. For such individuals the mind cure is absolutely incompatible. Such individuals find that their concerns are much too deep for such shallow attempts to alleviate their morbidity.

Such individuals are said to experience a deep discordancy, dividedness within their selves that requires a deep and moving experience--one which is generally referred to as a conversion or mystical experience. Its significance is the chief means of determining its value to these individuals. Thus James refers to such individuals as the "twice born." What he means by this is that the religious experience that they receive is similar to that of what we now call the born again. The morbid minded are reborn of their misery to a greater understanding of their lives in the context of the universe. It is not that such individuals can not experience joy, that would be an absurd assumption. But what it means is that they place more value or significance in the pessimistic experiences in their lives.

Pages 130-135 James gives us an example of Tolstoy's own experience of morbidity and how it transformed his religious understanding of existence and the universe. What it amounts to is absolute dis-enchantment ordinary life and the recognition on Tolstoy's part that the whole range of his habits and activities were recognized as a ghastly illusion and mockery of life. This is similar to Buddha Guatama's experiences leading to his enlightenment as well as the Buddhist axiom that noting is real, all is illusion. James notes that in the process of regeneration, redemption is like a second birth--as mentioned above--in which the sufferer is returned not to normal health but to a deeper sense of conscious being than he or she could enjoy before. He notes that there is no instance of intellectual insanity or delusions about matters of fact; rather what had occurred is what he called melancholy--what we today call depression.

From this point of view we can see how the morbid minded would denigrate the world views of the healthy minded as being incredibly shallow and as lacking something essential. To the healthy minded, on the other hand, the sick souled appear "unmanly" and diseased. Living in dirt and misery rather than light and life. Their production of misery seems almost obscene and ill. From our understanding of James's life, where would you place him? As a healthy minded individual or as a sick souled person? In fact James notes that the healthy minded person's position is philosophically less adequate. That is, any system that refuses to admit the presence of evil is one-sided and fundamentally misdirected and is thus a formally less complete system of thought.


Chapter 8 discusses the means by which sick souled individuals become "born again." This Chapter is referred to as 'the psychology of the second birth.' Here James suggests, as we have already noted, that the sick souled have to be born twice in order to be happy. The result of the above discussions is that there is basically two separate religions by James's standards. On the one hand, there is the healthy minded religion--the religion of the once born which is said to be a one storied affair whose accounts of religious experience is kept in one denomination and whose parts have the values they naturally appear to have (sign vs. symbol). On the other hand, the twice born religion is said to be a 'doubled story mystery.' In this mystery is the apprehension of two lives: the natural and the spiritual--the first must be lost in order to participate in the second. Thus James points out that the extremes of these two religions can be said to be those of pure naturalism on one end and pure salvationism on the other.

The psychological basis of the twice born is discussed on pp. 144ff. Opposed to the healthy minded who are born with a homogeneous personality (i.e., their inner constitution is harmonious from the outset), the twice born tend to have a heterogeneous personality, That is, their constitution is said to be in turmoil and discordant. There are, of course, several differing levels to suh heterogenity. James notes that the tendency to this disposition has been explained as being due to inheritance--the character traits of antagonistic and incompatible ancestors are said to preserved alongside of one another. But he feels that such a position requires further evidence. This is a good position for him to take because to agree with this statement would leave him subject to accusations of what is now called biological determinism which is, in effect, a form of medical materialism.

On page 147 James offers an example of a discordant personality as found in the Confessions of St. Augustine. James brings out the points of Augustine's struggle with the two souls within his breast, his shame of his weakness of will, his relentless search for truth and purity of life, and his philosophical twists and turns. In Augustine's case as well as in the other examples that James provides us, the protagonist eventually emerges into the smooth waters of inner unity and peace--but these descriptions are of a sudden and total change of heart (mystical), so to speak. Hence, James provides us with examples of several individuals whose conversion to this peace, security and unity occurred more gradually--Tolstoy for example (156-158).

On pp. 190ff James continues to discuss sudden conversions. First it requires a state of being that leaves one in a position where the lines between actual and what is potential are only vaguely apprehended. It is a state in which it is always hard to say whether certain mental events are conscious or not. Thus conversions are experiences that are perceived as coming from without the individual while, in reality, they come from within. Sudden converters are said to be highly self-suggestive and possess an active subliminal self--active imagination. Thus there are three things needed for conversions

  1. pronounce emotional sensibility,
  2. tendency to automatons--impulsive behaviour, and
  3. are passively suggestible--i.e., self suggestion coming from the activity of the subconscious.
The affects one experiences during conversions are said to be the following:
  1. sense of higher control,
  2. a sense of redemption from their melancholy,
  3. a joyous conviction as to the value and truth of the experience, and a sense of being "at one with nature or all creation."
This last criterion, union, is called a faith state in which the beliefs become objects of faith. There are three aspects to this state:
  1. central is a loss of worry and gaining a sense of harmony with the universe,
  2. there is a perception of truths not previously known,
  3. the world often appears to undergo an objective change--i.e., there is a sense of a clean and beautiful newness or freshness, and
  4. finally there is a sense of great joy and happiness.

James cautions us, however, not to assume that the sudden conversion experiences are better or longer lasting than the gradual ones. On the contrary, sudden conversions, while definitely more dramatic, tend to be relatively short lived. James notes that they often tend to "backslide"--i.e., loose in intensity--and the individual tends to slide back into his or her old habits. Still, James notes, just as when a person falls in love, the emotion that is given out always remains as such. Although it may vary over time in intensity, it is always still present and affective. What James is trying to say is that once such an experience has changed your life once, it is changed forever.


Conversion to James is a process of regeneration or the reception of grace. It is a process, sudden or gradual by which a self that has been divided becomes united and happy as a consequence of a more firm hold on religious realities. James' analysis of conversion experiences continues on page 163. By pointing out the notion of association in psychology (of his day) he notes that we will find that a person's ideas, aims and objects form diverse internal groups and systems which are relatively independent from one another. Each aim is said to follow a certain specific kind of interests and gathers and subgroups certain kinds of ideas. Each subgroup may be completely dissociated from one another; yet when one group is present and engrosses the interest, all the ideas connected with other groups may be excluded from the mental field.

It is through the passing from one state of being to another (base on a 'grouping of aims') that a person may experience the kind of transformative process which is can be described as conversion. If the individual maintains this altered state of being he or she may become permanently transformed. Ordinary alterations of character, however, are not normally called transformations because each is rapidly succeeded by another in an opposite direction. Rather it is when one group of aims takes over the self, so to speak, and becomes stabilized so that it ousts all of its rivals, that we speak of such events as being "transformative."

Such alterations, James says, represent the means to the divided self--i.e., the tendency to dissociation and fragmentation. A less complete means of division appears when there occurs the simultaneous co-existence of two or more groups of aims of which one is dominant. James calls such fleeting aspirations 'whimsies' which are said to exist on the outer reaches of the mind, while the real self is occupied with a completely different system. Over one's lifetime there is a constant change in our interests and a consequent change of place of our system of ideas--from centre to outer and vice versa. That is the individual's soul follows different concerns at different times in a person's life. And the soul is, to James, altered by the individual's emotional states of being. What is hot one day, is cold the next. It is, obviously, the hot parts that interest the soul and interact with the emotions. Although what he speaks of in terms of the soul and its emotional responses is similar to his thoughts of emotions in relation to belief as we found in The Will to Believe, his interest here is pointed in another direction. That is, he takes up the consideration of emotional oscillation and the conversion experience. If, for instance, the hot parts are interchanged in rapid succession of one another, then we result with a wavering or divided self as was spoken about in the last Chapter. When, however, the focus of excitement and heat comes to lie permanently within a specific system, then the change may be a religious one and we call it a conversion--especially if the experience is a sudden one or following a crisis.

At this point in the Chapter, James come to make some distinctions in terminology. Thus he calls the hot places in an individual the habitual centre of one's personal energy. He continues along the thread of his argument by noting that it is of great importance as to which set of ideas become central to one's consciousness. For, if we call a person converted, by this we mean that ideas which are religious and which had been peripheral to a person's consciousness become central and that the religious aims form the habitual centre of that individual's personal energy.

In terms of the questions as to why and how such shifts in consciousness occur, James replies that psychology can only give a general description but is unable to account for all the factors involved. Neither the outside observer nor the subject can give an adequate explanation of this phenomena. All that can be said is that we know that there are live and dead options, hot and cold ones; and when something that was cold become hot then everything around it must be transformed and altered to fit the new understanding which has developed.

James goes on to notes that formed ideas and associations work to retard changes in one's states of being. New information, he notes, plays a large role in accelerating such changes. And such information may work through either subconscious or conscious means. When there is a subconscious change, he continues, there is extreme difficulty in accounting for the alteration as it remains buried in that unknowable realm. James continues by noting that violent emotional happening are especially good in causing the types of ontic alterations under question. We all know the explosive, changeableness experienced by falling into love, jealousy, anger hate and the like. Such emotions can grab hold of us and alter our way of perceiving the world.

James refers to the work of Edwin Starbuck and the conversion experience in terms of adolescents. Based upon the analysis of statistical material from questionnaires he found a striking parallel between the normal conversion experiences of adolescents and that of their growth into a larger spiritual community. The mean age is 17, and the symptoms are also similar--e.g., sense of incompleteness, depression, morbidity, sense of sin, anxiety, doubts and the like. And the result is also said to be the same: happy relief and objectivity, confidence found in the self, etc. Starbuck's conclusion is that "Conversion is in its essence a normal adolescent phenomenon, incidental to the passage from the child's small universe to the wider intellectual and spiritual life of maturity." (167)

From this view theology is seen to be the means of taking the adolescent's tendencies and builds upon them; "it sees that the essential thing in adolescent growth is bringing the person out of childhood in the new life of maturity and personal insight....It shortens the period of storm and stress." Starbuck's conversions are of course the normal kind that any individual may at some time experience in his or her life. Still James notes that there are certain individuals who may never have a conversion experience. These are people form whom the language of spirituality may have no value, incapable of showing faith or inhibited from the experience. These are people who personal centre of energy never enters the religious sphere. That is, they are temperamentally incapable of the religious experience.

James goes on to note that there are two forms of mental life which result with two different conversion experiences: the conscious and voluntary and the unconscious and involuntary ways; by volition or by self surrender. E.G.: trying to remember something but it is on the tip of the tongue--i.e., serendipity. For the volitional type the conversion is generally slow and gradual, and consists in building up, piece by piece, a new set of moral and spiritual habits. (like achieving a plateau experience--cf. Abraham Maslow's Religion, Vales and Peak Experiences.) In this case the subconscious plays less and less dramatic a role than in the case of self-surrender.

In the case of self-surrender the individual must give up, relinquish his or her personal will. Although an individual may resist it is not until total surrender that the conversion takes place. The reasons for the importance of this sudden self-surrender is twofold. First, the individual has been struggling to maintains a state of being that is perceived of as being in sin--which he or she is eager to escape. Second, there is a positive ideal that the individual aims. In such a case it is obvious that the state of sin that an individual lives in is more concrete than the positive ideal that he or she may imagine. It is often that case that the state of sin is such that the individual is engrossed with it such that he or she is obsessed with escaping the sin rather than aiming to achieve the positive ideal. Yet, James describes the process as one which is inescapable--that the organism must progress towards this transformation for all the interference from the present state of sinfulness.

Starbuck, James thinks, puts his finger on it hen he notes that the attempt to remain in control of the situation is precisely that emphasizes this imperfect self. Where, however, the subconscious takes charge and enforces the transformative process there is more success. It causes it to well up on its own and thus encourages the self surrender that is necessary to result with the ontic transformation. That is, when the subconscious has been building up its material for so long it must one day inevitably burst open and take over the individual.


James begins this chapter by noting the experience had by St. Paul on the road to Damascus--instantaneous conversion--as the preeminent illustration. He quickly offers three examples of this kind of experience before entering into some general remarks over the issue. From these examples James makes some preliminary remarks of the phenomenology of such conversion experiences. First, it often appears to be the case that the individual undergoing the conversion is in a position of passive observance. It is at such moments that the converted come to an understanding that the breath of the divine is breathed into their lungs. Third, there is a tendency for those to have experienced sudden conversion to have considered these to be miraculous rather than a natural process. Forth, voices are often heard, visions are often seen, automatic motor phenomena are often experienced, and there always is that surrender of personal will as if an extraneous higher power has come in and taken possession. Following this is the sense of restoration, safety, cleanliness which is so intense that it is considered also to be the result of a miracle as well as justifying one's radically new attitude. (188) Thus it is considered natural that the converted individual had to suffer depression and the like previous to the conversion--i.e., the individual must have and to experience evil before receiving grace.

On p.p. 189ff James asks the question what we are to think of this? Is it a miracle? Are there two classes of humans in which one partakes in the nature of the divine more sincerely than the other? Before answering these questions James makes some more comments from the psychological point of view: he remind us of his comments from the last Chapter--i.e., the shift of the centre of consciousness, through both conscious and subconscious means based upon incubation and maturation. From this James turns to a discussion of the subconscious field. First of all he notes that there is no real distinction between conscious and subconscious, rather they exist in a continuum with one another--as a field of consciousness. He goes on to note that as our mental fields succeed one another, each brings with it its own centre of interest around which the objects of which we are less conscious tend to be at the periphery. Some are wider and others narrower, it is the wider ones which provide us a greater sense of freedom--permit us a great deal of intuitive insight, whereas the narrower field are considered to be oppressive. Of course, James allows for a large variation of this in terms of individual differences in constitution and temperament. The whole point of this, however, is to bring to light the notion of unconscious memories. That is, just because something is not central to consciousness, does not mean that it does not exist. By saying it is difficult to know such material s not to say that the material is not there or important.

This notion of unconscious memories is of importance when considering, as James calls it, the phenomena of religious biography. The interest that comes from the notion that having a strongly developed unconscious life is that it must in some way or another effect the conscious life--unaccountable impulses, inhibitions, obsessive ideas and hallucinations, and suggestibility for example. (c.f. Freud) James speculates that when ever we encounter an instance of such explosive irruptions into consciousness as a conversion experience that there is some sort of similarity between the two phenomenon. From this point of view we can see the instance of sudden conversion as something which is the result of a psychological mechanism and that this can be used to show that there is no miraculous occurrence in sudden conversions. Still he makes the distinction between the sudden conversion and the purely psychological happenstance. It is in the fruits of life that are realized by the conversion that give it positive value and suggest that conversion should be venerated--even if it is a piece of natural psychology.

At this point James makes an argument that there is no real class of individuals who do and do not have conversion experiences. In fact, there is no real distinction between those who have had one and those who have not. Furthermore, even for common people a conversion is the biggest experience that person can have--it will not do to make the distinction between the so called great and the common. That is, conversion experiences both gradual and sudden are something that all classes of people can encounter. It is a natural tendency for all individuals. In each experience there is required a confluence of three factors:

  1. pronounced emotional sensibility,
  2. tendency to automaticisms--irruptions of the unconscious into the conscious,
  3. the suggestibility of the passive type (197).
If all there factors are present, indicates James, the predictable result would be a sudden conversion, a transformation of a striking kind.

James reiterates that the sort of transformation is of a kind that is highly transformative. The personality is changed; the individual is born anew whether or not his or her personal psychological idiosyncrasies play a role. The notion of external control, James says, may be a mere misunderstanding of the depth of the subliminal self that is involved in the conversion. That is, the subliminal side of each individual is deep and we are only aware of the tip of the ice berg, so to speak. It is when the unknown aspects of the subliminal self act in such events that they are interpreted as being something that comes from without the individual.

Phenomenology of the affectual background of the conversion experience: (199ff) As noted previously the conversion experience is preceded by an emotional state of being which is highly melancholic. In fact, the more deep the depression the more expansive the salvation experience. It is a non-rational experience of reality and is a psychological parallel to a biological notion of growth/maturity. Thus, following conversion, the affective state is one of assurance that results from a loss of worry, a notion of individuation, a sense of harmony, a willingness to be. Second there is the sense of perceiving truths that were until then not known--the mysteries of life become lucid even if the solution remains unutterable. Third, there is the perception that the world has undergone an objective change in which an appearance of newness beautifies each object.

James then takes up the question of transiency and impermanence and sudden conversions: i.e., backsliding from the transformation caused by such experiences. To James this is a natural occurrence, we all lapse from an emotional state--i.e., those who fall in love may fall out of love, etc. Even if one's feelings may fluctuate, the profound changes in one's life brought about by the conversion experience still remain. One final comment, it generally understood to be the case that sudden conversions are more transient than the gradual ones.


Mysticism, James says, is an ability to see truth in a special way. James finds that there are four marks of mystical experiences:
  1. Ineffability: That is, mystical experiences involve a negative state of mind. This means that it defines expression--i.e., no adequate account of the experience can be given in words. Thus it follows that the experience must be immediate and direct--that it cannot be transferred to others. It is like one must have musical ears in order to know the value of a symphony; one must be in love oneself in order to understand the motives of a lover.
  2. Noetic quality: mystical states seem to those that experience to also be states of knowledge. They are states that allow insight into the depths of truth invisible to the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations full of importance and significance.
The first two states will allow any experience to be mystical. Hence James offers two others, which are less easily marked but sometimes found are also put forward:
  • Transiency: That is, mystical states cannot be maintained for long periods of time. Except in rare cases, he says, half an hour to two hours is the limit. Then they fade and the memory of the experience also tends to fade and become obscure.
  • Passivity: Although a mystical state may be elicited by meditation, etc., the characteristic state of consciousness is one of passivity or acceptance and openness. In such a state the mystic will feel as if her or his will is in abeyance as if he or she was in the grasp of a higher will.

    On pp. 301ff James gives some examples of typical examples of mystical experiences. He uses the metaphor of a 'mystics ladder' as a means of showing the progressive characteristic of mystical experiences. The first step is the experience that we can all have/feel when reading poetry, watching an intense movie, viewing an particularly salient piece of art and so on. The second step is reminiscent of the deja vu experience that most, if not all, of us have experienced at one time or another. The technical name that James uses for this is the "dreamy-state." They bring a sense of mystery to things and provide a feeling of an enlarged perception of reality.

    The next step includes deeper dreamy states. Such states are still far from uncommon. It may be called a trance like apprehension of a feeling of connectedness to the all; being surrounded by truths that are just out of reach. The fourth step on the ladder is one that is subject to public scrutiny even today. This is the type of mystical states that arises from intoxicants and anesthetics. James notes that alcohol is the most common. He goes on to note the effects of nitrous Oxide (pp305). When he speaks of this type of induced mystical experience he does so with a confidence that belies his own first hand experiments with such anesthetics. Nonetheless, James notes that any truth apparently gained fades quickly upon achieving consciousness and generally is later seen as absolute nonsense. His conclusions from his own experiments is as follows:

    our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them is the question--for they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness. (305; see 306)

    The fifth step (examples 314-324) on the mystics ladder is those mystical experiences that are cultivated as an elements of religious life. Such practices appear in several religions: Sufi mystical traditions (316f), Hinduism (315), Buddhism (315-16), Native American Vision Quests, Christian mystical tradition (319-331 mostly Catholic--Protestants seem to have given it up as a practice) and so on. Yoga, for instance, means the harmonious blending of the mind with the divine. It is a practice that involves fasting, exercises, breathing controls, etc. It basically involves the overcoming of the baser bodily needs to escape the constraints and desires of the fleshy in order to achieve an illumination born of the spirit.

    The next question James brings to light is whether mystical experiences can be taken as authoritative. That is, do they furnish any warrant for the truth of the twice-bornness and the supernaturalism and pantheism which it favours? James provides his answer in three points:

    1. Mystical states, when well developed, usually are, and have the right to be, absolutely authoritative over the individuals who experience them. We can throw mystics into a prison or worse but we cannot change this person's mind. Even though the mystics five senses may have been in abeyance during the experience, what had occurred did so in a completely empirical way to that individual.
    2. No authority emanates from them which should make it a duty for those who stand outside of them to accept their revelations uncritically. Even though mystical experiences may make a marriage with several metaphysical systems, they still retain authority only to the individual who experienced it. That is, it may have no specific content of its own, rather is may merely be an affective state. Thus there is no right for anyone to elevate its prestige in favour of any specific belief system previous to it. that is, it must remain with in the individual context in which it occurred.
    3. They break down the authority of the non-mystical or rationalistic consciousness, based upon the understanding and sense alone. They show it to be only one kind of consciousness. They open out the possibility of other responses to them. They are excitements like the emotions of love or ambition, gifts to our spirit by means of which facts already objectively before us fall into new a expressiveness and make a new connection with our active life. They do not contradict these facts as such, or deny anything our sense have immediately seized. (335) It must always remain open that these states may be superior to rational consciousness.

    The Response of the Critics

    1. Neglect of Ordinary religious persons: Some people are critical of James' dependence upon the religious experiences of exceptional people or only exceptional experiences. It is because his evidence lies in the morbid and mystical that the Varieties does not provide and adequate basis for the generalization of religion as a whole. Critics maintain that normal experiences also give rise to forces that readily adapt themselves to diverse personal needs and changing times. Such experiences are commonplace and posses no mystical truth or state, but they still form a steady influence in every community which makes for the conservation and progress of all forms of social good including religion. It is interesting to note that in the Varieties James passes over the ordinary individual's piety as nothing but dull habit, yet his own experiences, at the time of his spiritual crisis, came to him not as a dramatic experience but through the deliberate cultivation of certain newly resolved habitual practices.

    2. Exclusion of institutional and historical factors: Several critics fault James for treating his subjects' religious experiences outside of the traditional and historical contexts in which they appeared. Since religion, like a language, is a creation of human society, they argue, individual experiences and confessions only become meaningful when they are considered in the context out of which they arise. There is a mutuality of relation of personal religion and the institutional. They cannot be separated, because both informs and forms the other.

    3. Overestimation of the role of feeling: That is, the notion that feeling is that which is the matrix of religion and is it out of feeling that faith and ritual arise. Critics challenge this point arguing that James overestimates the role of feeling and underestimates the roles of the intellectual, ethical and the vocational aspects of religion. Although he uses "feeling" in a ambiguous way--one that includes both the cognitive and the emotional, he still considers feeling to be "dumb and private." Thus James seems to cast the intellectual and speculative aspects of the mind into a secondary role. Others criticize his subordination of the will to feeling. To these people religion is an active response to the experiences of life. James's subordination of will, thus equates to a lack of conscious response to the experiences that one comes up against. This point of view excludes the activity of the cognitive and volitional aspects of a person in having any say in her or his life experiences.

    4. Inclusion of pathology: The assumption that pathological dispositions may be a prerequisite for genuine religious experiences is also criticized. Some claim that the psychopathic not only do not explain piety but also constitute what "true religion" preserves the faithful from. Others may admit that the dissociative character of some religious luminaries may lend a impetus to religious development, but the majority of the fruits of such dispositions are bad.

    5. Appeal to unknowable subconscious processes: Other critics assume that the testimony of the a person's own inner being is a certification of religion as a phenomenon of health and not illness. Thus healthy piety is placed squarely in the conscious realm and true religion is seen to be a result of fully conscious break with a person's former ways, achieved through self-determination and passionate inner struggle. Such critics are not willing to accept James's speculations regarding causal factors in a subconscious realm. This realm they claim is a "refuge for ignorance."

    6. Imposition of philosophic biases: A further critique of James's presentation appears in terms of his work as a philosopher. The critique rests on his preoccupation of defending religion in terms of the pragmatic view of truth that is said to be the origination of the limitations thus far reviewed. James is accused of not being empirical enough, and that his selection of the evidence was influenced by his own philosophical agenda--of pragmatism and his desire to justify a view of the world as consisting of a "multiverse of spiritual agents" with whom we may come in contact and from whom we may derive higher energies. It is through James's speculations that this contact point is in the subconscious realm that causes James to overlook the more common and less striking form of religious piety in which God is conceived of as more objectively and distant (for my money this is an argument based in the theological biases of a monotheistic religion).

    7. Several people have been disquieted by James's pluralistic outlook: (Jakob Margreth, Catholic, 1909) Most readers, however, have found much that is provocative and valuable in these lectures. and the Varieties is today a classic work in the psychology of religion. This book has had an immense influence on writings in this field ever since it was first published as you can tell by my posting it on the Web. Its popularity has been such that within a decade of its initial release it had been translated into most major European languages. His influence has been particularly intense in Germany where it became a part of the hermeneutic discussions, a theological tool, and the inspiration of the study of individual religious lives.

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