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The Varieties of Religious Experience

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The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature is a book by the pioneering Harvard psychologist William James that comprises his edited Gifford Lectures on "Natural Theology" delivered at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland between 1901 and 1902.

"Scientific theories are organically conditioned just as much as religious emotions are; and if we only knew the facts intimately enough, we should doubtless see 'the liver' determining the dicta of the sturdy atheist as decisively as it does those of the Methodist under conviction anxious about his soul. When it alters in one way the blood that percolates it, we get the Methodist, when in another way, we get the atheist form of mind."

These lectures concerned the nature of religion and the neglect of science, in James' view, in the academic study of religion. Soon after its publication, the book found its way into the canon of psychology and philosophy, and has remained in print for over a century. James would go on to develop his philosophy of pragmatism, and there are already many overlapping ideas in Varieties and his 1907 book, Pragmatism.

Summary of some of the lecture topics

Proposition of value versus existential judgment

James believes that the study of the origin of an object or an idea does not play a role in the study of its value. He asserts that existential judgment, or the scientific examination of an object's origin, is a separate matter from that object's value. One must not consider an object's physical derivation when making a proposition of value. As an example, he alludes to the Quaker religion and its founder, George Fox. Many of the scientists in James' audience, and many today, immediately reject all aspects of the Quaker religion because evidence suggests that Fox was schizophrenic. Calling this rejection medical materialism he insists that the origin of Fox's notions about religion should not come into account when propositioning the value of the Quaker religion. As an aside, many believe El Greco to have suffered from astigmatism, yet no one would dismiss his art based on this medical detail. James proposes, somewhat sarcastically, that his audience's atheism is perhaps a dysfunction of the liver. Some believe science to be superior to religion because of its seemingly vain, unfounded, or perhaps insane origin. In his lectures, James asserted that these claims, while perhaps historically or epistemologically interesting, play no role in the separate question of religion's value.

Healthy-mindedness versus the sick soul

Ignoring the more scientific topic of medical health, James described two types of spiritual health:

  • The healthy mind. The healthy-minded have a naturally positive outlook on life. Perhaps influenced by the popularity of the Mind-Cure Movement, a social pressure group of the day that promoted positive thinking as a cure for disease and depression, James assumed that some people simply are happy. In the lectures, Walt Whitman is a favorite example of healthy mindedness.
  • The sick soul. Those people having a sick soul are those who are depressed and see the evil in all things. James focused on this "divided soul" personality as the candidate for the benefits of conversion. He believed that the only way for a sick soul to cure itself is to undergo a powerful mystical experience, or religious conversion. He argues these so-called "twice born" souls turn out to be the most healthy in the end, since they have seen life from both perspectives.

Reality versus symbols of reality

The lectures discussed the distinction between symbolism and reality. Symbols, such as the word "steak" on a menu, do not embody the actuality of the objects they represent. The word "steak" on a menu merely points to some slab of meat in the back of the restaurant. In a similar way, James posits that all of science is fundamentally detached from reality since the tools of science are merely pointers to some actual objective realm. He criticized his audience for the scientific tendency to ignore the unseen aspects of life and the universe. As an example, he discussed the way the notion of a lemon causes salivation in the mouth of an individual; while there is no lemon, there is clearly a process occurring worthy of academic inquiry.

Criticism of James' lectures

  • The lectures neglect the experience of ordinary religious people, tending to tap the religious experiences of exceptional people, or exceptional experiences of religious people. [How to reference and link to summary or text]
  • They overestimate the role of emotion in an individual's religious beliefs while ignoring the intellectual and vocational aspects of spirituality. Although some critics believe this might represent a sarcastic overtone, others say that James gorges on pathology as a precursor for genuine religious experience. Even as he dismisses "medical materialism," he might have brought up more arguments for the pathology of religion rather than against. [How to reference and link to summary or text]

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