William James — The Varieties of Religious Experience

The Varieties of Religious Experience, by William James, was published in 1902. It is a formative book for me and its metaphors have profoundly shaped several strands of my thinking.

As the title suggests, James collected different accounts of religious experiences from across cultures and looked for what was common between them. He did so from the position of a sympathetic sceptic: he wanted to believe, but did not. And he did so from the position of a psychologist: he was interested in the effects on the mind rather than in institutions, sacred texts, or biology.

He found four common characteristics among religious experiences, which are:

  1. Ineffable: they must be experienced to be understood, they cannot be fully described by words.
  2. Noetic: by which he means they feel somehow special or divine revelations of knowledge.
  3. Transient.
  4. Passive: the feeling happens to you, and you are not in control of it, your will is in abeyance, you are in the presence of a superior power.

On ecstasy

I was particularly struck by one account among many:

Ryan Pernofski

The Holy Spirit descended upon me in a manner that seemed to go through me, body and soul. I could feel the impression, like a wave of electricity, going through and through me. Indeed, it seemed to come in waves and waves of liquid love; for I could not express it in any other way. It seemed like the very breath of God. I can recollect distinctly that it seemed to fan me, like immense wings. No words can express the wonderful love that was shed abroad in my heart. I wept aloud with joy and love; and I do not know but I should say I literally bellowed out the unutterable gushings of my heart. These waves came over me, and over me, and over me, one after the other, until I recollect I cried out, ‘I shall die if these waves continue to pass over me.’ I said, ‘Lord, I cannot bear any more;’ yet I had no fear of death”.

That reads to me very much like someone taking their first MDMA (or me, a single dove, in 1994).

Others have applied James’s framework to accounts of near death experiences and found them to fit (e.g., Raymond Moody). The framework also fits psychadelic experiences from LSD, mushrooms and ayahuasca.

This suggests to me a biological basis for the transcendant experience.

But for James this is not a question of whether there is a God, or if spirituality is ‘real’. The feelings could be caused by a man on a cloud or excessive seritonin release (“medical materialism”), but neither explanation need refute the value of the experience. James was the father of pragmatic philosophy after all. He was interested in considering the effects of religious experience regardless of their root. And they are, as he saw them:

  1. The visual world becomes a subset of a spiritual universe, from which it draws its significance.
  2. Union or harmonious relation with that higher universe is our true end; a sense of oneness with something that is bigger than ourselves.
  3. Prayer (or meditation) has real effects, psychological or material, in the phenomenal world. I do not take this to be ‘manifesting’, or the universe rearranging itself to your desires, but instead the effect on your state of mind and your likelihood to act.
  4. A new zest for life, an assurance of peace, and a “preponderance of loving affection”. Magnanimity, equanimity, courage.

In examining the topic James covers a lot of ground with persuasive argument and an elegant turn of phrase.

On the insufficiency of reason

Dorr Bothwell

I went through half a life allowing reason to dominate completely, presuming there was an answer to everything and a right decision in every situation, so long as enough information was collected and logic was applied assiduously. I did not understand the insufficiency of reason until I met grief.

James did. He wrote that rationalism “is the part that has the prestige undoubtedly, for it has the loquacity, it can challenge you for proofs, and chop logic, and put you down with words. But it will fail to convince or convert you all the same, if your dumb intuitions are opposed to its conclusions. If you have intuitions at all, they come from a deeper level of your nature than the loquacious level which rationalism inhabits. Your whole subconscious life, your impulses, your faiths, your needs, your divinations, have prepared the premises, of which your consciousness now feels the weight of the result; and something in you absolutely knows that the result must be truer than any logic-chopping rationalistic talk, however clever, that may contradict it. This inferiority of the rationalistic level in founding belief is just as manifest when rationalism argues for religion as when it argues against it”.

He argues that waking rational consciousness is but one type of consciousness divided by the “flimsiest of screens” from other forms of consciousness…and even if we go through life not suspecting the other forms, we should not have a “premature closing of our account with reality”.

Later, James writes “feeling is private and dumb, and unable to give an account of itself. It allows that its results are mysteries and enigmas, declines to justify them rationally, and on occasion is willing that they should even pass for paradoxical and absurd”.

I’m sure others have reached the same conclusions before, and Jonathan Haidt among others, promulgates something similar today. Haidt describes the elephant and the rider: with the elephant being automatic processes and the rider being consciously controlled processes; intuitions come first and rationalisation second. This is intuitively understood (natch) by many, but I also think many are completely blind to it, as I was, leading to frustration and misunderstanding in relation to themselves and others. Even those more aware of the other forms of consciousness are often too ready to dismiss them, to judge them of less value than waking reason. We shy from paradox and struggle with ambivalence.

On the poverty of materialism

Roman mosaic, c.200 CE

James does not think that materialism can describe the breadth of human experience.

He argues that a “sadness lies at the heart of every merely positivistic, agnostic, or naturalistic scheme of philosophy”…“The skull will grin in at the banquet”…Once life is known to lead nowhere, “however agreeable it may be in its immediacy, its glow and gilding vanish”…“The old man, sick with an insidious internal disease, may laugh and quaff his wine at first as well as ever, but he knows his fate now, for the doctors have revealed it; and the knowledge knocks the satisfaction out of all these functions. They are partners of death and the worm is their brother, and they turn to a mere flatness”.

While I enjoy the language I am somehow immune to this melancholy; glow and gilding remain. It doesn’t matter to me that this is all temporary. The idea of a disinterested universe has never left me feeling bereft. The lack of ‘meaning’ is not my lament. In fact, somehow, I find it reassuring and freeing, just like the anonymity of a big city.

But there is something about the poverty of materialism that James captures well.

It is the terror and beauty of phenomena, the promise of the dawn and of the rainbow, the voice of the thunder, the gentleness of the summer rain, the sublimity of the stars, and not the physical laws these things follow…weight, movement, velocity, direction, position…what thin pallid uninteresting ideas”.

Later he compares objects, science, reality, when considered separate from subjective experience, as “a printed bill of fare as the equivalent for a solid meal”.

Science, he challenges, cannot remove the private, personal and subjective. “That which produces effects within another reality must be termed a reality itself, so I feel as if we had no philosophic excuse for calling the unseen or mystical world unreal”.

The total expression of human experience, as I view it objectively, invincibly urges me beyond the narrow ‘scientific’ bounds. Assuredly the real world is of a different temperament — more intricately built than physical science allows”.

This begs the question, I think, of whether science can ever colonise the ‘total expression of human experience’ and ‘the real world’. Or, even as we learn more, will there always, necessarily, be something hiding in this space outside science. And, wary of the attractive myth of progress, will this space shrink or perhaps expand?

On apophenia II

Owen Schuh

James influenced my interest in apophenia, and expresses the problem well.

He writes “order and disorder, as we now reognise them, are purely human inventions”…“We work over the contents of the world selectively”.

If you throw down a thousand random beans, by eliminating a sufficient number, you can “leave the rest in almost any geometrical pattern you might propose to me, and then say that the pattern was the thing prefigured, and the other beans were mere irrelevance”.

Our dealings with Nature are just like this. She is a vast plenum in which our attention draws capricious lines in innumberable directions. We count and name whatver lies upon the special lines we trace, whilst the other things and the untraced lines are neither named nor counted”.

There are many things we ignore when we discover and preserve regular ‘adapted’ things. “Yet all the while between and around them lies an infinite anonymous chaos of objects that no one ever thought of together, of relations that never yet attract our attention”.


Really, this is a fantastic book that I cannot recommend more. On the journey, there are so many other great bits to call out another time: on changing historical attitudes to poverty, to the suspicion of mysticism that makes it heresy, to a concise expression of what thoughts are and how to judge intelligence, to multiple wonderful watery metaphors of consciousness.



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