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William James
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The Varieties of Religious Experience

4.09 of 5 stars 4.09  ·  rating details  ·  6,180 ratings  ·  258 reviews
"I am neither a theologian, nor a scholar learned in the history of religions, nor an anthropologist. Psychology is the only branch of learning in which I am particularly versed. To the psychologist the religious propensities of man must be at least as interesting as any other of the facts pertaining to his mental constitution. It would seem, therefore, as a psychologist, ...more
Paperback, 517 pages
Published October 31st 1990 by Vintage/Library of America (first published 1902)
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Paul Bryant
Jul 06, 2011 Paul Bryant marked it as to-read-nonfiction  ·  review of another edition
I had an unusually long conversation with my daughter Georgia (also now a Goodreader) once when she was seven years old (she's now 16 going on 17, just like in the song) and the matter of eschatology came up, so I asked her directly - well, what does happen when you die? So she laid out what she thinks happens, and I was so taken by the stuff she came out with that I wrote it down. As it's a variety of religious experience I thought it appropriate to include here.


I wanted to like this classic book, but I can't do it: too many things are wrong. A shame, because I completely approve of the idea. William James, writing around the end of the 19th century, sets out to take a cool look at how people experience religious feeling, basing his investigation on state-of-the-art psychological theory. What do we discover, and what do the findings tell us about the nature of religion? For the first two or three chapters, I enjoyed it and thought it was going in a good ...more
The amazing thing about James is he can write with precision and humility about something so completely intrinsic and fraught with pit falls. Most writers run at the subject with some large bias of the mystical, the absolute. You have thousand of books written every year proclaiming their strain of Christianity, Judaism, Vegetarianism, Atheism, Mormonism, Buddhism, as being the only true and living way to view the divine AND the only mirror to view and judge ourselves. James is different. He art ...more
I have heard of this book for years and have meant to look into it for about as long – but earlier this year I read a book called Ghost Hunters William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death and that made me more curious about James and his philosophy. I had read some of his philosophy at University, but not really a lot.

I had no idea this would be quite so long. I also had no idea this was based on a series of twenty lectures he gave at the University of Edinburgh between
Foreword to the Centenary Edition, by Micky James
Editors' Preface
Introduction: The Spiritual Roots of James's 'Varieties of Religious Experience'
Introduction: The Return to James: Psychology, Religion and the Amnesia of Neuroscience
Preface from the 1902 Edition

--The Varieties of Religious Experience

A classic of course, still potent and assured. I return to it for its look at the realism of the 'sick soul'. It comforts me.

It is not religion that is the concern here. Human emotions and feelings are the focus. How these influence a personality could as equally underlay their political orientation, their philosophical orientation, and they do in fact represent how a person actually is in the world: how they relate, how they feel, in short their character. There is an existential edge, of cours
Paul Cockeram
Most people seem to think this book is important for the light it sheds on religion, or perhaps as an advancement in the field of religious studies. However, I would argue that this book's real significance lies in James' respect for our conscious experiences of things as the origin of real truth, insight, and significance. James is one of those rare thinkers who values the subjective more highly than the objective: "The world of our experience consists at all times of two parts, an objective an ...more
"I fear that my general philosophic position received so scant a statement as to hardly be intelligible"

That about sums up this text for me. Although the language is beautiful, I never really got a understanding of what the author was trying to prove.

A more apt title for this book is probably "The Varieties of Anglo-American Protestant Religious Experience". There was slight mention of other belief systems (Islam, Sufi-ism, and Hinduism, had small cameos). Even the more interesting Protestant s
Bryn Hammond
I still haven't read this cover to cover but it's a work of art. As a student I targeted the section on drunkenness -- a lyrical description I haven't seen bettered. But don't trust my memory. I was a drunken student.
A classic from a very important thinker, as fresh today as when it was written. Although the book has some limitations, such as emphasis on Christianity relative to other religions, one could echo the Bible in saying the world could not contain all the books that might be written on the subject.

James examines a wide range of particulars and boils them down to general facts and some hypotheses, concluding that at the very least, conversion experiences "even for a short time show a human being wh
Erik Graff
Dec 16, 2013 Erik Graff rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: everyone
Recommended to Erik by: no one
Shelves: psychology
Being derived from public lectures, The Varieties of Religious Experience is neither a particularly deep nor demanding book. It is, however, both beautifully written and clearly expressed--hallmarks of James' style. Informally unsystematic, the painless effort of going through it will likely present the reader with useful insights, apt examples and challenging arguments.

I was particularly challenged by the idea that some people, what he calls healthy souls, are constitutionally happy. Being to t
Bob Nichols
Given his reputation as a thinker and writer, this is a disappointing book on substance and style.

James delves into the wide variety of transcendent (the "Reality of the Unseen") experiences and provides many anecdotal accounts to illustrate them. Given James' background in psychology, and the likely influence of Darwinian theory on philosophical pragmatism ("Truth" is what best works), it is surprising that James accepts these accounts at face value without questioning whether other underlying
Soooooo ridiculously ahead of his time. He manages to anticipate more or less the entirety of 20th Century philosophy, both analytic and continental. In fact, he's one of the few thinkers I've encountered (Freud, Marx, Beauvoir, Deleuze, Spinoza, and Said being a few others) whose intellect is strikingly original enough to pierce through the reader's own perspective. Also, in the present American popular-intellectual climate of religious/spiritual pabulum versus asshole scientism, it's hella ref ...more
this is of its time, 1902, in that religious experiences in all varieties are Christian, and designed, mostly, to confirm such usual monotheistic, modern, forms- not entirely avoiding Catholicism but most revealing Protestantism as generally practiced in the America of his time- including evangelical movements... this book reminds me not of religious texts, read or unread, but of durant's 'story of philosophy' which is almost as old (also a three)...

and the strategies j begins with are to 1) de
Karen Hanson
To be honest I didn't finish this whole book. I began reading this while on my own religious journey and found it to be a great resource to understand the different feelings and experiences I had along the way. I sort of stopped and started this book as my journey progressed because it helped me to relate to the continuing evolving ideas that were put forth. I actually recommend reading the book this way as it's hard to relate to things like the "dark night of the soul" if you've never been thro ...more
Having just read Oliver Sacks's Hallucinations, I decided to plow through a book that has been on my shelf for a long time: The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James.

My reasoning was as follows: Sacks's book offers a neurologist's explanation for almost any imaginable religious phenomenon. In effect, where God is concerned, the human brain can do it all: hear voices, see angels, receive instructions, imagine the unimaginable.

Sacks did not set out to prove that God doesn't exist,
A true classic of religious scholarship and psychology that is both relevant and readable. James explores many psychological and philosophical characteristics of the religious experience, and shows at least some of its variety in terms of its extreme and benign forms.

This leaves us with an essential account of what religion truly means and the way in which it is or can be intertwined with social, political and other factors. It lets us unravel such threads in an effective way, and shows us that
Randy Olds
This was a very rewarding, although somewhat cumbersome at times, tome. William James, the "father of American psychology", approaches a very wide variety of religious experiences given subjectively form those who experienced them and examines them from an objective point of view. He looks at the multiple facets of religious experience from a neurological (as well as could be done in 1902), psychological as well as philosophical point of view, all in an apparent attempt to empirically and ration ...more
Carol Apple
Just for scope and ambition The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James is an amazing book:One man takes on the vast oceans of the human spiritual experiences and attempts to describe and categorize them, analyzing written records for pattern and meaning, and finally coming to some very interesting if tentative theories about what is really going onin the hearts andminds ofthe human race. I decided I needed to read this book because in the course of my never-ending and ever receding s ...more
Katy Whitney-noes
This book was great...
Some quotes:

"The more commonplace happinesses which we get are 'reliefs,' occasioned by our momentary escapes from evils either experienced or threatened. But in its most characteristic embodiements, religious happiness is no mere feeling of escape. It cares no longer to escape. It consents to the evil outwardly as a form of sacrifice-inwardly it knows it to be permanently overcome."

"...the prophet appearing to be a lonely madman. If his doctrine prove contagious enough to
Susanna Rose
Reading this book, I fluctuated between various reactions. Total absorption, because the whole set-up of the book is new and eye-opening. I have never seen religion examined from a purely pragmatic perspective, nor have I ever read anything that focused exclusively on the individual relationship of one human to the divine, sans all the traditional trappings, nor have I seen characteristics of religious experience connected to a range of other phenomena (drunkenness, ghostly visions, optimism, di ...more
James' masterwork, The Varieties of Religious Experience, is an interesting and groundbreaking work.

The book is structured as lectures on a large theme - mysticism, healthy-mindedness, etc, and somewhere in the neighborhood of half of the words are direct quotes from people whose personal experience exemplifies the characteristic in question. In building the book in this manner, James allows for the systematic comparison and contrast for these radically different types of experience, and he use
David S. T.
This book was okay, there were some interesting parts but it was sometimes hard to finish because it was often just quote after quote and lots of anecdote examples of religious experience. This was okay and interesting at first but it sometimes became a chore to continue. I'd be willing to bet that almost half of this book is nothing more than direct quotes from people who had a so called religious experiences and almost everyone of these quotes were from Christians (I can only remember one non ...more
Geoffrey Fox
To try to make sense of the religious fanaticism that either inspires or serves as a pretext for so much of the violence and destruction we are watching at this moment, I turned to this book, which I had long intended to read. It has been a great pleasure to be in the company of such a rational, good-willed and articulate thinker for nearly 500 pages. I was interested in the subject matter, and amazed by many of the examples he quotes of extreme religious devotion (though the quoted passages are ...more
Urban 53
Many years after first reading this philosopical/psychological classic by William James, it remains so very timely in its major endeavor to respect, describe, and (inadequately) categorize religious experience. This work comprises his compiled Gifford Lectures from 1901-02, and still stands as one of the most cogent presentations against scientism (the belief that all that can be validly known is by the sensory-based, empirical method) as well as a door-opening, psychological acknowledgement of ...more
Fascinating. James aims to describe and classify the various types of mystical religious experiences that have been reported over the centuries by those who experienced them. He points out near-universals in these experiences and concludes that there are other types of reality that we are not normally conscious of and that mystical states give us some hint of. I appreciate James's perspective--which is that of a person who doesn't experience these states himself but has respect for them and is n ...more
Jeff Wheeler
This was definitely not a pleasure read - it's a series of lectures from an psychologist back in the early 1900's that he gave in Scotland. I got it for free on Kindle and spent many months going through the lectures one by one and found a number of passages that were quite wise and interesting. What I found most fascinating was the similarities in describing the emotional experiences caused by religion, regardless of the sect. I found many of the descriptions resonate with my own experience. Wh ...more
John Doe
I read some of this, so I know just enough to be dangerous:) James reviews several journals of founders of religious sects. He notes that most of them exhibit signs of psychosis. He argues, interestingly, that religious truth may burn slightly hotter in the mind. And that, it is not necessarily true that what people with psychosis say is untrue or not valuable to sane people. He notes the prevalence of many artist and writers who struggled with mental illness; our society values their work highl ...more
This is probably one of the most adult books I've read about religion itself. James clears out a lot of fundamentalist/empiricist bullshit and really gives these phenomena the generous, humane analysis which they deserve. He recognizes that these behaviors not seeming to add up either in coolly rational or ecstatically mystical terms is precisely what makes them worthy of our attention and consideration.
Also: "So long as we deal with the cosmic and the general, we deal only with the symbols of
Jon Boorstin
This from one of the inventors of modern psychology. Looking at religious experience not in a proscriptive way, but descriptively -- how great religious thinker think. It embraces the breadth of our experience, and encourages us to follow our own peculiar combination of quests and impulses.
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William James (January 11, 1842 – August 26, 1910) was an American philosopher and psychologist who was also trained as a physician. The first educator to offer a psychology course in the United States, James was one of the leading thinkers of the late nineteenth century and is believed by many to be one of the most influential philosophers the United States has ever produced, while others have la ...more
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Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking Pragmatism and Other Writings The Principles of Psychology, Volume 1 William James: Writings, 1902-1910 The Will to Believe, Human Immortality, and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy

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