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The Varieties of Religious Experience ()

Modern Library Top 100 Non-Fiction Books of the 20th Century

    He's just like a blob of mercury, you cannot put a mental finger on him.
        -Alice James, speaking of her brother, William.

William James' masterwork is based on a series of lectures on "natural religion" that he delivered at the University of Edinburgh in 1901.  He defined religion as "the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine." He is the great enunciator of the idea that all religions are equally valid and valuable, that since they can contain no animating truths, they should be measured merely by their effects on individuals.  He is profoundly wrong.

He is wrong in the way that all of the great artists of the Romantic period, from Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats to Picasso, are wrong, in his emphasis on the individual and his denial of the universal and the absolute.  James offers a view of religion as a wholly personal matter, the utility of which lies in its benefits for each person.  Like all of his intellectual cohorts, he had lost faith in universal truth.  Indeed, one biographer has suggested that the succession of short term jobs that he held lead him to posit the equal value of all experiences.   Because of this crisis of faith, he was unable to make judgments about the truth or value of different religious beliefs or ultimately to believe that any belief system had value beyond the effects on individual believers.

The great challenge that confronts Western man is to reclaim the primacy of Judeo-Christianity from James and his ilk.  Genesis, the Ten Commandments and the Gospels are not merely inspirational for individuals, taken together they express the aspirations of the species.  Mankind's struggle to rise from the sheeplike state of Adam (before the fall) towards eventual Godhood, is the organizing story that has produced most of our greatest achievements.  We should not surrender the centrality of these beliefs to the multiculturalists and moral relativists, no matter how gracefully they write.


Grade: (F)


William James Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: William James
    -ESSAY: Taking William James Seiously (Jerry L. Martin, 4/14/23, Voegelin View)
    -ESSAY: The Book of James: William James's lectures on religion, a century later (Joseph Loconte, January 15, 2003, Heritage)
    -REVIEW: of Sick Souls, Healthy Minds: How William James Can Save Your Life by John Kaag (John Banville, Literary Review)

Book-related and General Links:

    -OBITUARY: William James Dies; Great Psychologist: Brother of Novelist and Foremost American Philosopher Was 68 Years Old (NY Times, August 27, 1910)
    - William James (Professor Frank Pajares, Emory University)
    -A View of William James (R.H. Albright)
    -REVIEW : Review of "The Anaesthetic Revelation and the Gist of Philosophy" (William James, Atlantic Monthly, 1874)
    -OBIT : Henry James (James Jackson Putnam, Atlantic Monthly, December 1910)
    -BOOKNOTES : Author: Linda Simon Title: Genuine Reality: A Life of William James Air date: June 7, 1998 (C-SPAN)
    -PROFILE : William James (Russell Goodman,Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
    -PROFILE : The Nitrous Oxide Philosopher (Dmitri Tymoczko, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY : William James and the Tradition of American Public Philosophers (Cushing Strout, August 2001, Partisan Review)
    -ARCHIVES : "william james" (Find Articles)
    -New Age, New Thought William James and the Varieties of Religious Experience (LeRoy L. Miller)
    -REVIEW: of William James The Varieties of Religious Experience Ý(1902) (Carol Zaleski, First Things)
    -REVIEW: of Submitting to Freedom: The Religious Vision of William James by Bennet Ramsey (Peter Ochs, First Things)
    -A View of William James (R.H. Albright)
    -Introductory Lecture to LBST 402 and to The Varieties of Religious Experience (Ian Johnston, Malaspina University-College)
    -ESSAY:  From Virtue to Morality: Republicanism in the Texts and Contexts of William James  (Paul Jerome Croce, Journal of American Studies of Turkey)
    -REVIEW: of GENUINE REALITY: A LIFE OF WILLIAM JAMES, by Linda Simon Aches and pains  Like many great thinkers, William James was troubled in body and mind (Scott Stossel, Boston Phoenix)
    -REVIEW : of Manhood at Harvard: William James and Others by Kim Townsend (Pat C. Hoy II, Harvard Magazine)
    -REVIEW : of A Stroll with William James, by Jacques Barzun (Robert Coles)
    -REVIEW : of  GENUINE REALITY: A LIFE OF WILLIAM JAMES, by Linda Simon (Scott Stossel, Boston Phoenix)
    -REVIEW : of Genuine Reality: A Life of William James, by Linda Simon (Richard Wakefield)
    -REVIEW : of Science and Religion in the Era of William James:  The Eclipse of Certainty, 1820-1880 volume one  By Paul Jerome Croce (Phillip E. Johnson)
    -REVIEW : of The Divided Self of William James by Richard M. Gale (Michael L. Raposa, First Things)


And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever:

003:023 Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.

- oj

- Dec-04-2007, 20:06


Um...Mr. Judd, are you OK in there? You repeatedly remind your readers of your acceptance of Judeo-Christian values. Then you turn around and claim that the point of it all is that mankind attain Godhood.I've read the Bible a half dozen times at least (once in the original Hebrew and Koine Greek), and have a pretty fair acquaintance with the Church Fathers. Did I miss something? I really don't recall OUR Godhood being on the table.

- ernest deschoening

- Nov-10-2007, 13:38


You do realize that Christianity is not the only religion, nor is it the oldest one right? Why would James comment on the 10 commandments if he is talking about a personal relationship with (as he puts it) an 'ideal power'? Hinduism, Taoism and others do not share the same 'rules' as christianity but they all do share some things, in personal experiences which is what he comments on. I suggest you re-read this book without a Christian bias but I'm sure you won't....

- diasFlec

- Oct-01-2006, 11:07


I think you miss the point - a personal relationship with God is the highest relationship in one's life. You can't fill your hunger by reading a menu, someone said, and you can't fulfill your spiritual hunger just by belonging or going to a church, one hopes that you ultimately have a personal relationship with God. Sometimes it seems people and the institutions forget that. James' book is about psychology, and is a study about that aspect of spiritual life. It doesn't mean churches and religious institutions are bad. It's not a black-or-white thing. All of God's creations are good, as it says in Genesis. He created it all, and it was good. It's all under the same umbrella, called unconditional love.

- Jay Rosen

- Aug-21-2004, 22:07


I am thinking of putting my first editionn copy of Varieties of Religious Expirence by ; William James (1902) on E-Bay, to auction it off.

Any suggestions on what I should start the bidding at ?

Thank you, Tom Krohmer

P.O. Box 391 Guerneville, CA 95446

Voice Mail; 707-433-0104 box 2530

- Tom Krohmer

- Sep-16-2003, 17:17