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Marc Fonda's Notes (Pt. 1) on William James: The Varieties of Religious Experience

Religion and neurology

  • Two orders of inquiry about anything:
    • Existential judgement: "What is the nature of it? How did it come about? What is its constitution, order and history?
    • Proposition of value: "What is its importance, meaning or significance, now that it is once here?"
  • "Higher criticism" of the Bible is the existential judgement.
  • Original experiences that lead to religious movements characterized by symptoms of neurological abnormality. George Fox, founder of Quakers, given as example.
  • "Medical materialism" is inadequate, because it neglects the propostion of value.
  • Judging validity of religious experience. Two criteria:
    • Immediate delight
    • Good consequential fruits for life
  • Put another way, it's short-term vs long-term. And they're often incompatible. "Inner happiness and serviceability do not always agree".
  • "If merely 'feeling good' could decide, drunkenness would be the supremely valid human experience."
  • Don't disparage religion because it seems to be linked to mental derangement. Proposition of value is what counts here. Judge it by its results.
  • A new set of criteria:
    • Immediate luminousness
    • Philosophical reasonableness
    • Moral helpfulness
See also:

Circumscription of the topic

  • Many kinds of religious sentiment, hence confusion as to its nature.
  • Institutional religion vs personal religion.
  • James chooses to cover only personal religion.
  • "Fetishism and magic seem to have preceded inward piety historically ... may just as well be called primitve science as primitive religion."
  • "Religion, therefore, as I shall ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they consider the divine."
  • Divine can be impersonal, as in the "transcendentalist cult" of Emerson.
    • Religion is a concern with primal truth.
    • But it is not a flippant or sneering attitude (example: Voltaire).
    • Religion must be serious (solemn).
  • "If any one phrase could gather its universal message, it would be, 'all is not vanity in this universe, whatever the appearances may suggest'".
  • "Religion is equally hostile to heavy grumbling and complaint."
  • Accepting the universe, two kinds of acceptance:
    • Passive stoic resignation. Ex: Marcus Aurelius, agrees to the scheme
    • Passionate happiness of Christian saints. Ex: Theologia Germanica, agrees with the scheme
      Difference of emotional mood, not just of doctrine.
      "I accept the universe." - Margaret Fuller
      "Gad, she'd better!" - Thomas Carlyle
  • With the latter kind of acceptance, we find:
    • Perseverance, life as a war, "a sort of cosmic patriotism which calls for volunteers."
    • Gutting it out on moral fiber only gets you so far.
    • Hence, need to surrender, and trust the divine.
      [Compare 12-step program, surrender to higher power]
    • Sense of relief.
      "This sense of happiness in the absolute and everlasting is what we find nowhere but in religion."
    • But not straightforward relief. " mere feeling of escape. It no longer cares to escape."
      "A higher happiness holds a lower unhappiness in check."
    • "...the world is all the richer for having a devil in it, so long as we keep our foot upon its neck."
  • We need to come to terms with the universe anyway, and religion makes it easier.

The reality of the unseen

  • Ideas elicit from us a reaction, stronger than that which results from sensory input. This motivates prudential and moral behavior.
  • Kant: ideas of pure reason (abstract thought)
  • Higher abstractions give meaning to experience.
  • Plato: forms
  • Sense of something outside oneself ("externalized"):
    • Undifferentiated sense of reality, "consciousness of a presence" as an imperfectly formed hallucination.
    • Example: consciousness of an evil presence
    • Example: consciousness of a benign presence.
    • More specific senses of presence: less imperfectly formed hallucination
    • Rare, brief experiences of presence of God, called "mystical" experiences.
    • A negative counterpart exists: sense of unreality, distinctly unpleasant
    • Experiences are utterly convincing to the subject.
  • Rationalism, opposed to mysticism. Demands articulate grounds for belief:
    • Definitely stateable abstract principles
    • Definite facts of sensation
    • Definite hypotheses based on these facts
    • Definite inferences logically drawn
  • Rationalism gives a superficial account of things
  • The non-rational dominates religion
  • Religion first motivated by fear, then joy comes to play a central role.
  • Somberness of religion
    • Man is puny before God (Book of Job)
    • Even peace with God is tinged with respectful fear.
    • Man cannot be the measure of things - puny before the universe.

The religion of healthy-mindedness

  • Hedonistic ethic: happiness as proof of truth
  • Components of cosmic emotion: enthusiasm and sense of freedom. Examples: St. Francis, Rousseau, Diderot.
  • Nature is absolutely good.
  • Once-born rather than twice-born: feel no need for regeneration.
  • Ex; Theodore Parker
  • Ex: Dr. Edward Everett Hale
  • Walt Whitman
    • Systematic expulsion of contractile thoughts
    • Natural animnal man without a sense of sin, "pagan"
    • "He is aware enough of sin for a swagger to be present in his indifference toward it."
    • Whitman: "What is called good is perfect and what is called bad is just as perfect."
  • Real paganism was different (contrasting to ancient Greeks)
    • Clear sense of good and bad, if not actually sin.
    • Pessimistic - no heaven.
    • "This integrity of the instinctive reactions, this freedom from all moral sophistry and strain, gives a pathetic dignity to ancient feeling. And this quality Whitman's outpourings have not got."
  • Systematic healthy-mindedness
    • "... an abstract way of conceiving things as good"
    • Refuses to admit reality of evil. Sees the labelling of things as 'evil' to be the only real evil.
    • Systematically turns attention away from all thoughts of evilness.
    • All unhappiness is caused by consciousness of good vs evil
    • "We divert our attention from disease and death... the world we recognize officially in literature is a poetic fiction far handsomer and cleaner and better than the world that really is."
  • Liberalism in religion
    • A victory of healthy-mindedness over old morbidness.
    • Notion of evolution, progress is inevitable and good
    • Ex: Professor Starbuck - content with the finite
  • The mind-cure movement
    • Influences: Emersonianism, Berkeleyan idealism, spiritism, Hinduism, etc.
    • Results in miracle cures (nowadays we call it 'faith healing')
    • Popularity due to its practical effectiveness
    • 'Fearthought' is the root of evil, leads to 'misery-habit' and 'martyr-habit'
    • Pantheistic: we differ from God only in degree, not in kind
    • Evil is ignorance of the fact that we are God
    • Thoughts are forces, and have real effect
    • Superficial resemblance to Lutheran and Wesleyan notion: "you are saved now, if you would but believe it"
    • Crucial difference: Protestant salvation through self-despair ('surrender') absent in mind-cure.
      No conviction of sin, no humility.
  • Dr. Goddard credits faith cures to power of suggestion.
    Requirements of suggestion:
    • Personal faith
    • Enthusiasm
    • Example
    • Novelty ("the force of a revelation")
  • Systematic exercise in passive relaxation / meditation / 'entertaining the silence'
    • Concentration
    • Attainment of self-control
    • Self-centered, oblivious to surroundings
    • Passively open to insight
  • 'Recollection of God' also in Catholic practise (Alvarez de Paz)
  • Mind-cure and science/positivism have opposite notions of nature of mind
    • Mind-cure: Mind controls and creates reality
    • Positivism: Reality exists independently of mind, and creates mind
    • "Has science made too wide a claim?" After all, mind-cure works, to a large extent.

The sick soul

  • Repentance means getting away from sin. Catholics and Martin Luther agree on this, though not on the method. Also Molinos, founder of Quietism.
  • Systematic theism tends toward all-in-all God
  • Which tends toward monism
  • Which implies evil is part of God
  • Which contradicts notion of God as absolutely good
  • Healthy-midedness: evil is irrational, so don't examine it.
  • Two notions of evil
    1. Mal-adjustment with things
    2. Wrongness or vice in one's essential nature
  • Pain threshold
    • Healthy-minded live on one side
    • Sick souls live ion the other
    • Perhaps each type needs a different religion
  • Life is precarious, "the worm at the core"
    • Happiness is never completely unbroken
    • Current of evil underlies even the optimist's life
    • Ex: Goethe
    • Ex: Luther
    • Ex: Robert Louis Stevenson: "failure is the fate allotted"
    • Ex: Ecclesiastes
    • "The fact is life and its negation are bound up inextricably together."
    • Healthy-mindendess is "forgetfulness and superficiality"
  • Early Greeks not as healthy-minded as claimed (again)
    • "the moment the Greeks grew pensive and thought of ultimates, they became unmitigated pessimists."
    • Stoic insensibility
    • Epicurean resignation
  • The neurotic constitution. Opposite of healthy-minded, denies all good.
    • Anhedonia - inability to feel pleasure or joy
    • Anguish
  • Tolstoy
    • "...facts are compatible with opposite emotional comments"
    • Passions are gifts, beyond our control
    • Sense of unreality, loss of meaning
    • Perplexity: what can you count on in a world of shifting meaning?
    • Perplexity: how to live
    • Unhappy, but unwilling to give up
    • Thirst for God kept him going
  • Redemption is more than just reversion to former happiness.
    • It takes evil into account, but sees it swallowed up in good.
    • Ex: John Bunyan
    • Ex: Henry Alline
    • Before redemption: envy of the placid beasts, who have no sense of sin
  • Features in summation
    • Vanity of mortal things
    • Sense of sin
    • Fear of the universe
  • The melancholia of the sick soul asks legitimate questions.
    • "No prophet can claim to bring a final message unless he says things that will have a sound of reality in the ears of victims such as these."
    • Healthy-mindedness works very well until melancholia comes, then fails utterly.
    • "The lunatic's visions of horror are drawn from the material of daily fact."
    • "The completest religions..." Buddhism and Christianity, "religions of deliverance"

The divided self, and the process of its unification

  • Twice-born see natural good as deceptive
  • Twice-born psychological basis: inner conflict, 'heterogeneity'.
  • "Unhappiness is apt to characterize the period of order making and struggle."
  • Unable to carry out noble intentions
    • Paul: "What I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I."
    • Christ: "the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak."
    • Augustine: "the efforts of one who would awake"
    • Henry Alline
  • Unification may be sudden or gradual
  • Counter-conversion, "away from religion into incredulity". Ex: Jouffroy. Illustration: conversion to avarice.
  • Horace Fletcher: sudden conversion to Buddhism. "Get rid of anger and worry". Became healthy-minded.
  • Tolstoy, more gradual. Sought meaning in God.
  • John Bunyan, very gradual.


  • Ex: Stephen H Bradley, felt converted at age 14, then came to doubt conversion, converted again at tent rally. Very emotionalistic.
  • Association - types of mindsets, and dependence on context
    • Role - specific to what you're doing at the moment, "ordinary alterations of character"
    • Transformation: a"whenver one aim becomes so stable as to expel definitively its previous rivals"
    • Whimsies: abstract ideals lacking conviction. Ex: pre-conversion Augustine's spritual desires
    • Emotional oscillations (different moods)
    • Conversion: change in the "habitual centre of his personal energy" ("mechanical equilibrium")
  • Dr. Starbuck on conversion: Very like the storms of adolsecence, but greatly compressed in time
  • Prof Leuba: emphasizes moral aspect, response to sense of sin
  • Ex: S.H. Hadley, reformed drunkard
  • Some people are unconvertible - "little aptitude for relious faith" or "anaesthetic on the religious side".
  • Starbuck on two types of conversion
    • Type 1: Volitional - change by one's own effort
      "to exercize the peronal will is still to live in the region where the imperfect self is the thing most emphasized"
    • Type 2: Self-surrender - let the change come by itself
    • Volitional effort leads to emotional exhaustion ("temporary apathy").
    • Then: "opposite affection should overpoweringly break over us"

Conversion - concluded

  • Sudden conversion leads to loss of carnal appetites
    • Ex: Henry Alline
    • Ex: a correspondent of Prof. Leuba
  • Ex: M Alphonse Ratisbonne
  • Some denominations demand instantenous conversion: Moravians, Methodists, Revivalism.
  • Field of consciousness
    • Geniuses seem to have much wider fields of consciousness than average people.
    • The border betweeen the conscious and subconscious is fuzzy, a gray area.
    • Incursions from subconscious into consciousness occur (neuroses).
    • Neurotic symptoms are identical to those of sudden religious conversion. Automatisms, hallucinations.
  • Fruits for life
    • External fruits are lacking for most (exemplary cases excluded). No clear distinction between the suddently converted as a group, and the unconverted as a group.
    • "...generation and regeneration are matters of degree."
    • " general spiritual significance, but only a psychological significance."
  • Prof. George A. Coe, study of 27 converts, and some non-converts
    • "...the results strikingly confirm the view that sudden conversion is connected with the possesion of an active subliminal self."
    • Many are not converted at revivals. Belong to "spontaneous" subclass.
    • Those who are converted belong to "passive" subclass
  • Three requirements for sudden conversion:
    1. Pronounced emotional sensibility
    2. Tendency to automatisms
    3. Suggestibility of the passive type
  • What is attained: " altogether new level of spiritual vitality, a relatively heroic level...", called "sanctification".
  • Feelings associated with conversion
    • Sense of control by higher power.
    • Sense of assurance (Leuba calls it "faith-state")
      • "...loss of all worry"
      • "...sense of perceiving truths not known before"
      • ...everyday world seems somehow new.
    • Automatisms and photisms (hallucinations), compared to effects of mescal.
    • Ecstasy
  • Two types of sudden conversion
    • Backsliding
    • Permanent
    • Starbuck: much of what is called backsliding is only "a fluctuation in the ardor if sentiment"
See also:
Thirteen stage bifurcating crisis by

  • 11,12,13 Saintliness
  • Return to the index to Marc Fonda's notes on The Varieties of Religious Experience

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