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  • Writer's pictureTyler Tidwell

Review: Varieties of Religious Experience by William James

Updated: Dec 12, 2022

In a series of twenty lectures, James gives a thorough analysis of the religious experiences of man. Here is an outline of his main themes:


James describes two broad methods that we can apply to the study of religion, which we might call the “roots versus fruits” debate.

The “roots” approach focuses on explaining religion. Where did each world religion come from? Who founded it? Who wrote its sacred texts, and when? What were/are its anthropological and sociological implications? This approach is akin to a scientific investigation in which religion is conceived as a natural phenomenon to be exposited in the same manner as, say, the movement of tectonic plates or the temperature at which tungsten melts (which is just under 6200 degrees in case you were wondering). Implicit to this approach is the assumption that religious beliefs are a purely psychological affair with no corresponding reality in the world of physical causality, which natural science studies. In philosophy, this sentiment is often captured by the phrase “matter precedes mind.”

The “fruits” approach focuses on learning from religion. What are the primary moral lessons of a religion? What metaphysical picture of reality does it paint? What is the nature of the Divine? How should man live? How should we interpret death and suffering? This approach is more like a personal quest for wisdom and knowledge vice a purely formal, systematic affair (though formal, systematic theology often plays a vital role in such a pursuit). Religious beliefs are thought to have a corresponding reality in the physical world, though the exact nature and causal implications of this reality are predictably disputed.

James recognizes that, as with any important subject, both approaches have their blind spots and are prone to various modes of parochialism. He argues that a blend of both methods is the correct course of action, but tends to be far more critical of those who follow a strictly “roots” methodology vice those whose focus is on the “fruits” of religion. He borrows an anecdote from a medieval Arab philosopher to illustrate this viewpoint: one can study the state of inebriation from every scientific angle possible, but if one has never actually been drunk, his knowledge is incomplete. James believes we must approach the subject of religion with as broad a view as possible, only winnowing down our aperture when absolutely necessary.


James highlights three salient aspects of “the religious sentiment”:

1. There is an unseen Order underlying the merely physical world we find ourselves in.

2. Having a right relation with this Order is the chief end of man.

3. Prayer or communion with this Order has a real effect on our spiritual, psychological, and physical disposition.

James bifurcates this very broad sentiment into two general schools of thought: “healthy mindedness” and the “sick soul.”

The religion of healthy mindedness is characterized by a general optimism toward the progress and perfectibility of man, a de-emphasis of sin, and a focus on how an individual finds happiness in the here-and-now (Baby Boomers, think Norman Vincent Peale; Gen-Xers, think Joel Osteen). This religious mindset is perhaps best captured in a recently released self-help book with no small claim as its title: The Universe Has Your Back. While James doesn’t completely dismiss ideas like this (or Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking), he is critical of their shortsightedness regarding the ailments of life, and he believes whatever benefits they may render are tenuous. Stage 4 brain cancer seems curiously immune to the power of positive thinking; in 1945, the inhabitants of Dresden did not feel like the universe had their backs. James believes the religion of healthy mindedness is ultimately too shallow to support our psychological needs, especially when it comes to life’s inevitable sufferings.

The religion of the sick soul is characterized by man’s fallibility, the impurity of the flesh, and the illusory and temporal nature of worldly pleasures. Sickness, disease, disaster, and death are baked into the very essence of the human enterprise, and we should neither expect to avoid them nor allow them to rob us of belief in a greater good. This school of thought takes a more circumspect view toward human agency, one in which man needs redemption or purification from a source beyond himself. James acknowledges this viewpoint to be a potential stumbling block for those prone to pessimism. Still, he also notes the great boon of resiliency it can provide when a person is confronted with the undesirable aspects of life. When a modern Westerner reads about past monastic orders devoted to asceticism and voluntary poverty, he finds them as incomprehensible as they are anachronistic. However, James sees a very practical psychological dynamic at play: the inoculation of man to the purely physical, temporal elements of life.


Westerners have always had a strong inclination to objectify and universalize even their most personal beliefs. James finds this tendency to be problematic when dealing with the religious sentiment, and he believes any expectation of an “objective” approach to religion is foolhardy. Rationalism often proves impotent in the face of strongly felt intuitions or personal revelation, and no subject is without a tinge of subjectivity.* If subjectivity is not to be eliminated, James says we have no choice but to afford it a place in our scheme of thought. There is a great tension to balance here – pure objectivity may be illusory, but pure subjectivity leads to the dissolution of standards. As with most issues, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

For his part, James believes the religious sentiment has some sort of significant corresponding reality in the physical realm. He doubts natural science’s ability to circumscribe all aspects of what man considers meaningful to his existence.

*In chapter two of his brilliant – if somewhat incomprehensible – magnum opus The Decline of the West, German historian Oswald Spengler argues that mathematics (typically conceived as the Holy Grail of objectivity by the Western mind) is, in fact, a highly subjective affair – one in which a culture’s concept of number is always a derivative of its metaphysics. As Spengler puts it, there is no mathematic; there are only mathematics, and each system must be viewed in light of its philosophical foundations.


1. James deliberately focuses on examples of extreme religious sentiment. His lectures are full of excerpts from letters, journals, and books by people whose religiosity far exceeds what we typically encounter in day-to-day life. James claims that this method allows us to better highlight the most important aspects of religious experiences, but this line of reasoning is questionable. Sometimes an average case is just as instructive as an exemplary one, and it seems equally important to understand the religious experiences of the common man as much as those of the saint.

2. Essentially a series of lecture notes converted to book form, the writing style is sometimes less than thrilling, and at just over 500 pages long, it’s hard to give James any points for concision.

Tyler Tidwell is a retired Marine who lives in the Oklahoma City area with his wife and three children.


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