Stephen's Reviews > The Varieties of Religious Experience

The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James
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Feb 23, 09

Read in February, 2009

"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 sects like the Quakers, Anabaptists, Christian Scientists, and Mormons did not get much ink. So, if you are looking for a survey of different religious beliefs like the title implies, you should look elsewhere. Instead you get kind of a description of different emotional elements that the author supposes are common to all religious experience. He speaks of Healthy-mindedness, which sort of relates to modern new age and heuristic practices, but he is speaking in the 1890's so his examples are of New England style transcendentalism like Emerson or Whitman. "The Sick Soul" deals with excessive negative dwelling on sin or hell-fire. He talks about the quest to find yourself and the powerful conversion experiences that can happen when you do. Then Asceticism (or "Saintliness") and Mysticism are explored. Remember, all of these things are covered with very old-fashioned terms and references making the modern reader wince, so the book sounds better than it actually is. Finally he comes to his conclusions and his suggestion for a science of religion that will find the truths that exist in religiosity in all of its forms and discard the introduced falsehoods. A fine sentiment it is, too bad he didn't spend more time elaborating on that and less time on excessive quotations from questionable sources like letters from an anonymous friend.

This is the second straight non-fiction clunker I have read that was published in the 1890's or early 1900's. I got to thinking that all old non-fiction must be bad. It is all filled with overly flowering prose, bad references, excessive quotations of bad references, and a lack of any strong point or theory behind the writing (good narrative, but for what?) Then I thought about how much I enjoyed "A History of the English Speaking People", or "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire", or "A Study of History" and I banished those thoughts from my head. Bad non-fiction is just bad non-fiction regardless of the date of publication. Now that is not to say that William James is a poor writer, because there are beautiful passages here. It is just that modern readers kind of expect a strong statement of a hypothesis and then a gallant effort at backing it up with credible sources and not the meandering (beautiful meandering) and weak sources you get.



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Reading Progress

02/16/2009 page 200
50.25% "There is a kernel of a good book in here. Unfortunately it is obscured by the language and examples. Didn't they have editors back then?"
02/19/2009 page 250
62.81% "Tough read. I just can't seem to make good progress."
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Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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Patrick I think he is trying to prove that God exist because people out there have personal religious experience out there that causes them to change so much so that it can only be attributed to the Divine. Moreover, the fact that despite the diversity of experiences, it can be objectively be described means that the force that influences these experiences is real.


Stephen Good point!


message 3: by Mark (last edited Aug 14, 2011 03:21PM) (new)

Mark Schnell I like your review, Stephen. It validates why I started the book once, many years ago, but never finished it. I read maybe one or two chapters, and decided the author taking the mound was all windup and no pitch.

That disappointed and surprised me, since from other readings I got the impression that this was a great work of major importance. I wondered why that might be. Perhaps it was ground-breaking in its day, in that someone dared to suggest religious feeling could be an object of scientific study. Maybe Freud was ground-breaking in the same sort of way. I remember as a child being astonished to learn about Freud coming up with "scientific" explanations of the mind, since it seemed to me that the mind, consciousness, thoughts, were all as unknowable to science as was the soul. So now, even if Freud is considered to be nothing more than pseudo-science, as Popperians would have it, he still must be given credit for making the effort he did.


Stephen Good insight Mark. If the book was written later it undoubtedly would be a little more diverse than it is. It does seem that the author took an approach similar to early anthropological works so the observation about scientific study is dead on.


message 5: by Martha (new) - added it

Martha Why do you think his sources are weak? Do you just mean that they don't represent the entirety of religious experience? Beside that fault, I find them appropriate. They are all direct autobiographical descriptions, which are just what he needs. The one other trouble might be that he never questions the veracity of the accounts, but I think many of them were fairly trustworthy. And for each dishonest testimony, I do think you could find a dozen honest ones of the same tenor.


Stephen I dislike the type of source used in non-fiction of this period where they site "a good friend of my sister-in-laws". I think it was a polite way of not naming names, but it does not stand up to modern conventions. I don't think any were dishonest.


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