Summary Of William James’ Book The Varieties Of Religious Experience

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This book comprises of a series of lectures on natural theology delivered by William James at the University of Edinburgh in 1901/1902. James sets out to analyze certain varieties of religious experience with an aim to discover their value for this life as an empirical fact with empirical standards. His main argument is that all religious experiences come from part of the mind which is unconscious and cannot be rationally known and therefore they all are of the same category of experience. They carry different qualities and can be categorized into different types but they are all the same and they come from the unconscious mind bursting into consciousness in a special way. He sets out to defend experience, and not theology, as the essence and substance of religion and to also present religion as the most important function of humanity. 

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Describing his methodology, he explains that the focus of his research would be on what he called religious geniuses and on personal religious experiences, rather than focusing on common individuals who have confined religious experiences and just imitate inherited traditions because, as he argues that, most religious sects and movements have developed out of the intense experiences of a small few. 

In chapter three, he criticizes scientists for ignoring the unseen aspects of the universe and argues that people have the capacity to perceive it and experience it as being real than the touched, heard or seen things. 

In the fourth and fifth chapter, he argues that the purpose of life is finding and maintaining happiness. Experiencing this happiness can then produce a religious experience. Some people are born with a positive mental state and have an optimistic view of life; this state can overpower all feelings of anguish and unhappiness and in some cases heal. 

Chapters six and seven discuss the various degrees of the sickness of the soul from minor to extremely sick souls where, for the case of the latter, the individual has to experience a second birth in order to experience and attain the purpose of life which is happiness. This process, as James addresses it in the eighth lecture, must be through a conversion experience. 

Chapters nine to fifteen address these types of conversions and the kind of change they can instill in the individual. James then discusses, in chapters sixteen and seventeen, the concept of mysticism and concludes that it is an experience rooted in the mind. 

Chapter eighteen discusses why religious experience cannot be explained by philosophy arguing that it is beyond logical constructs and cannot be described in conceptual or linguistic terms.

In conclusion, James acknowledges that for a believer, even though what he believes in may or may not exist, his state of faith is capable of transforming his life completely. Belief in the Unseen can unleash in an individual the great sense of individuality and purpose. Religion can genuinely be a tool for healing, integrating what was fragmented before. He acknowledges that although science could always try to replace religion, it would always fail because it only talks in the abstract. The spiritual experience an individual goes through is a more powerful because it is subjective. To a human being, spirituality is about the soul and the emotions and the imaginations and these represent everything to him. 

16 August 2021

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