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The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature

4.05  ·  Rating Details ·  8,031 Ratings  ·  337 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, 534 pages
Published April 28th 1983 by Penguin Classics (first published 1902)
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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
Paul Bryant
Oct 04, 2007 Paul Bryant marked it as assorted-rants-about-stuff  ·  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.


Mar 16, 2015 Darwin8u rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: aere-perennius, 2015
“There are two lives, the natural and the spiritual, and we must lose the one before we can participate in the other.”
― William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience


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, Vege
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

May 18, 2008 Abailart rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
May 27, 2013 Paul Cockeram rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Feb 09, 2009 Stephen rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
"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
Barnaby Thieme
It's impressive how well this book has withstood the passage of time. More than a century after its publication, it continues, on the whole, to feel extremely fresh and insightful, compared with the works of some other psychologists whom I could name. Like ... people whose name rhymes with "Kroid." But I digress.

Unlike the dogmatic theoretic architectonics that would increasingly dominate the field of psychology in the twentieth century, James subscribed to an empirical pragmatism that is quite
Erik Graff
Dec 06, 2008 Erik Graff rated it really liked it  ·  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
the gift
later later addition: reading chapter on james in evasion of philosophy, on american pragmatism, certainly inspires more reading of his work. does not directly mention much of this text, but reveals his and others, pierce, emerson, dewey, all influenced by, all noted, christianity as baseline to their attitudes, their ideas, of idealism embodied in empirical and abstract ideologies of truth, effect, value- so maybe should pay attention to this book...

later addition: note to readers of this revie
May 19, 2017 Feliks rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: criticism
Lame Goodreads tells me I'm "reading this for the 2nd time". Nope. My 'to read' shelf is simply part of my 'read' shelves because I don't want Amazon monitoring my upcoming reading choices. Goodreads has really gone to the dogs with all these newfangled tracking options. Leave things alone! Stop adding bells-and-whistles to everything!

Anyway so, this is my first time reading William James (or any of the James family) and it's a superb book. Falling aptly in line with my recursive taste for cereb
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
Bryn Hammond
Apr 14, 2014 Bryn Hammond rated it it was amazing
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.
May 07, 2012 Michael rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: thought-religion
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
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 thinkers think. It embraces the breadth of our experience, and encourages us to follow our own peculiar combination of quests and impulses.
Bob Nichols
Feb 23, 2011 Bob Nichols rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jana L.
Aug 02, 2013 Jana L. rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: thinking, spiritual
I go back and forth on giving this book 4 stars or 5. I thought it was excellent considering where the field of psychology was at the time, but I was disappointed in how James's analysis stayed in the realm of the subjective and anechdotal. Of course, religious experience is radically individual and subjective, so it makes sense that much of his work would discuss individual experiences as such. However, I felt that in the first half he relied too strongly on autobiographical passages to prove h ...more
Dec 20, 2016 Lily added it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Interest in deep dive on religious faith
Recommended to Lily by: Its reputation as a classic by a worthy writer
Okay, I shall claim having read this in 2016. But it was a first pass for me, and this is one of those books I don't think I should really claim as having read until at least a second read, and maybe a third.

At this distance from August (now December), when I set James aside, never to really return to it, what stands out to me are a) while mystical experiences are a "real" part of human life, they in and of themselves are not adequate to empirically demonstrate the existence of divinity existing
Apr 10, 2013 Robert rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 well written book, accessible to a relatively broad public, but not likely to convince anyone not already responsive to James’ intuitions. His cautious claim on truth is bound to bother non-believers as well as those who are sure their faith has a firm basis in reason or revelation. To the last mentioned any view of religion as primarily (though not ultimately) a psychological phenomenon must be both wrong and dangerous. And the chance that James’ anecdotal empiricism will convince any critic ...more
Charles Puskas
Jun 24, 2016 Charles Puskas rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I was an intrigued by this often-quoted book by the learned physician and pyschologist brother of the novelist Henry James. Bill Wilson of Alcoholics Anonymous derived the concept of higher power, letting go of your anxiety, and diverse spiritual experiences from the book. His descriptive analysis of the diverse religious experiences of Madame Guyon, Emerson, John Wesley, George Fox, Jonathan Edwards, Martin Luther, Teresa of Alvila, Transcendentalists, Ignatius of Loyola, Philo, certain Buddhis ...more
I can understand why this has so many 5 star reviews and why it is considered a classic. This is a collection of lectures James gave, and you get some of the feel of the current “Modern Scholar” or “Great Courses” series. He is engaging with the audience. There are a boatload of examples. And the path he takes to get to his conclusion isn’t what you’d expect (I didn’t expect major detours through saintliness and mysticism, but those topics were about a third of the book). I found the examples to ...more
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
May 24, 2009 Odile rated it it was amazing
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
Aussiescribbler Aussiescribbler
Religion is a contentious topic. It is normal that each of us should look on our own form of belief or lack there of as truthful and the other options as various forms of eccentricity. So I feel that the best way to start a review of a classic book which surveys the field of varying forms of religious experience, is to give an overview of my views on the topic so that my own bias can be accounted for.

I identify as a pantheist. Wikipedia gives this definition : “Pantheism is the belief that the U
Josh Friedlander
For obvious reasons, I've been trying to avoid news and politics for the last while, but I am fascinated by the anthropology of it - how people are capable of disagreeing so virulently on such fundamental issues. Take Mencius Moldbug, a brilliant scientist who happens to think that everything went downhill from the Glorious Revolution; or the fact that all the best historians of the 20th century were doctrinaire Marxists. When I was younger I naïvely thought that rational, intelligent actors wou ...more
Carol Apple
Apr 25, 2015 Carol Apple rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 on in the hearts and minds of the human race. I decided I needed to read this book because in the course of my never-ending and ever recedi ...more
Geoffrey Fox
Jul 03, 2012 Geoffrey Fox rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
John Martindale
While making my way through “Varieties of Religious Experience” By William James, I enjoyed reading about several religious conversions of the most dramatic kind, James wrote that in many cases, what is “attained is often an altogether new level of spiritual vitality, a relatively heroic level, in which impossible things have become possible, and new energies and endurances are shown. The personality is changed, the man is born anew, whether or not his psychological idiosyncrasies are what give ...more
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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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