James Proposes a Rational Basis for Religious Experience Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Varieties of Religious Experience, by esteemed American philosopher and psychologist William James, is a foundational work in the psychology of religion and a hallmark of American individualism.

Summary of Event

William James was born on January 11, 1842, to Henry and Mary James, the eldest son in a very religious family. James’s grandfather, an Irish immigrant, was involved with the building of the Erie Canal and made his fortune while working on it. This left a sizable inheritance to Henry James, Sr., who led his family all over New England and Europe in search of the perfect education for his sons William and Henry, Jr., who later became a famous novelist. Varieties of Religious Experience, The (James, W.) Psychology of religion [kw]James Proposes a Rational Basis for Religious Experience (1902) [kw]Religious Experience, James Proposes a Rational Basis for (1902) Varieties of Religious Experience, The (James, W.) Psychology of religion [g]United States;1902: James Proposes a Rational Basis for Religious Experience[00300] [c]Religion, theology, and ethics;1902: James Proposes a Rational Basis for Religious Experience[00300] [c]Psychology and psychiatry;1902: James Proposes a Rational Basis for Religious Experience[00300] [c]Philosophy;1902: James Proposes a Rational Basis for Religious Experience[00300] [c]Publishing and journalism;1902: James Proposes a Rational Basis for Religious Experience[00300] James, William

After publishing his landmark Principles of Psychology in 1890, James turned mostly to philosophical interests. Following his important work The Will to Believe, and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy in 1897 and his self-identification as a pragmatist during a lecture at the University of California, Berkeley, James was set to deliver his Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh, Scotland, which would become his monumental The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (1902). Inherent in the book’s subtitle is the idea that a religious connection is fundamental to human existence. With the importance of religious experience in mind, James stated from the start that his intent was not to defend religion through scientific proofs. Such an endeavor would be fruitless, in James’s mind, even if one could construct such a defense. Instead, the book refers to a skirmish in James’s war with the “absolute.”

It is vital to note that The Varieties of Religious Experience is devoid of talk of religious absolutes—that is, religious institutions, ideas, ideals, or rituals—because such absolutes never enter into concrete human experience. Instead, James was concerned with individuals’ religious lives: their feelings, acts, and experiences as they come to terms with their relation or relations to the divine. For his material, James used several examples and recollections from his own life, some labeled as his experiences, some surreptitiously penned as someone else’s. To supplement these examples, James used some data from a student’s study on the religious habits of the Harvard community. He added analyses from religious texts, history, and literature to these examples, creating a veritable treasure trove of instances. The sheer volume of The Varieties of Religious Experience made it appear somewhat scientific, almost authoritative, even though the text was not an especially systematic or rigorous work (a fact that James freely acknowledged). The book’s many examples added to its girth, but James’s definition of “religious experience” was sufficiently general that it required the many examples he provided.

The topics discussed in The Varieties of Religious Experience were vast and detailed. In a famous chapter, James wrote about mysticism, although he was not concerned with mystical rituals or mystically based religions. Instead, his only interest was in individual mystic experiences, and he identified four characteristics that he claimed unify mystical experiences. First, mystical experiences are ineffable; they cannot be communicated satisfactorily to another person. Second, mystical experiences possess a noetic quality; that is, they appear to be connected to the intellect. Mystical experiences are also transient, and the subject usually remains passive while the experience somehow happens to him or her. In the chapter, James asked if these experiences might be windows through which humans see parts or aspects of reality that they might otherwise miss. James’s questions were indicative of his approach to talking about religious experience, in which he began with concrete examples and used them to make generalizations—but not laws or rules—that explain rather than govern the experiences to which they refer.

In the conclusions to The Varieties of Religious Experience, James asserted that religious experience plays a fundamental role in human life. He even went so far as to say that desire for connection with the divine ranked among the most basic and vital of biological human needs, regardless of whether a religious experience was “true.” In fact, James was not concerned with the truth of these experiences, only with the experiences themselves. Religious experiences, James said, are useful precisely because they are moments in which human beings find themselves connected with some greater reality or greater part of the whole, since these experiences are not part of humans’ normal cognitive relations.

William James.

(Library of Congress)

In some ways, The Varieties of Religious Experience was an expansion of the themes found in James’s earlier essay “The Will to Believe” "Will to Believe, The" (James, W.)[Will to Believe] and was written for the same audience in the same style. The main argument of “The Will to Believe” centered on whether or not people have the right to religious belief in an increasingly scientific world. In short, it was an essay that justified faith, and in it, James claimed that there are times when belief in an outcome can help to bring about its reality. For example, a young man who wants to believe that a group of other young men are his friends might wait for this idea to prove itself true and in the process miss making friendships that will last a lifetime. By acting as if it were true, however, he meets the other young men halfway and helps to make the idea that they are his friends true. James argued that the power of belief—and of the religious experiences that engender it—is that it is an instrument of action, not merely a cognitive exercise. Religion is useful because it leads to beliefs that cause one to act in certain ways and makes a concrete difference in an individual’s life, broadening perspectives and creating possibilities for new experiences. Human beings need beliefs in order to avoid being tied to the realm of proofs and a bare, earthly, and material existence.

Talking about religious experience in a purportedly philosophical manner while leaving out religious institutions left James open to sharp criticism. It was said that he wanted to give people the “right” to believe what they wanted to just to be happy, but that this was not philosophy, properly speaking. He was accused of speaking too loosely about serious matters and attacked for his studies’ lack of scientific rigor. Nonetheless, The Varieties of Religious Experience remains one of the most widely read texts in the philosophy and psychology of religion and in American philosophy as a whole.


In addition to his efforts to validate personal religious experience, James rescued religion from the clutches of absolutists. The Varieties of Religious Experience was a cornerstone of religious pluralism. By showing that all people have religious experiences of the personal sort, regardless of their religious affiliations—or lack of them—James showed how similar all people are and how minute the differences among many religions can be.

The Varieties of Religious Experience is one of the most important works in the philosophy of religion, but it is also a seminal work in the psychology of religion. In his research, James examined not only outward experiences but also individual states of consciousness undergoing religious experiences. By emphasizing the value of a religious experience to the individual, James drew a strong connection between religion and psychology. While he never intended to prove religious truths scientifically, James did attempt to justify religious belief in a rational manner, arguing that belief helps human beings experience what is otherwise only imaginable. Varieties of Religious Experience, The (James, W.) Psychology of religion

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. 1902. Reprint. New York: Modern Library, 1994. An essential text for anyone interested in religion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Will to Believe, and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy. New York: Dover, 1960. Collection of essays delivered in the rhetorical style popular at the time.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Menand, Louis. The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001. Intellectual history of American thought before World War I.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Simon, Linda. Genuine Reality: A Life of William James. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1998. Biography examines both James’s life and his philosophy.

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