The Varieties of Religious Experience (Notable American Authors) | William James

Summary of: The Varieties of Religious Experience (Notable American Authors)
By: William James


Embark on a journey to explore the diverse landscape of religious experiences and their impact on human psychology with William James’ ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’. Understand how our unique perceptions and emotions shape our individual beliefs and insights into the world. Delve into various aspects of religion, from institutional to personal, and the significance of mystical experiences. Uncover the transforming power of religious experiences and the characteristics of saintliness in individuals. Discover the role of prayer, the subconscious, and the relevance of religious philosophy or theology in our lives.

Religion and Psychology

The link between religious experiences and the mind is explored in this book. While science and philosophy have their place, they cannot explain everything we experience. Religious experiences open our minds to new emotions and guide us towards new revelations. Despite being perceived by some as symptomatic of mental illness, religious experiences can provide immense value and be educational. Through the story of George Fox, we can see how drawing on these experiences can lead to new religious movements. To understand the value of religion, we must separate its history, constitution and origin, and consider its importance in our lives.

Two Facets of Religion

Religion is not just about churches and temples. There are two main facets of religion: institutional religion and personal religion. Institutional religion involves predetermined religious practices that are often not a matter of choice. It is more of a cultural norm acquired while growing up. Personal religion, on the other hand, reflects our deep-rooted beliefs or what we consider to be true. It can be in the form of belief in science or any other personal truth. Personal religion is rife with religious experiences, feelings, and behaviors that individuals act out when they feel connected to the divine. Unlike morality, which is a product of logical reasoning, religion involves emotions. The faithful Christian sees problems as signposts of divine purpose and embraces them gladly, while the moral Stoic deals with life’s challenges without complaint but doesn’t see any purpose in doing so. By understanding personal religion based on experiences, feelings, and behaviors, we can differentiate it from morality and philosophy.

The Power of the Unseen

Our beliefs in things that can’t be seen guide our behavior. Although abstract and unseen ideas affect the way we think and act, they are as real as the seen. The memory of being insulted, for example, is often more visceral than the actual experience of affront. We act as if we were free and perceive human nature as if it was bursting with potential, and this unseen order guides our behavior. Our belief in beauty, strength, truth, justice, and so on, makes them real. Plato’s idea of forms explains that physical things are just copies of their absolute form, which can’t be witnessed directly. Instead, we see them indirectly, like shadows cast on the wall of a cave. Regardless of whether these beliefs are true or not, they allow us to define our visible world.

Healthy-Mindedness: A Force within Us

The book explores the concept of healthy-mindedness, its two types and their characteristics. It primarily focuses on the latter kind and how adopting this approach can heal various physical illnesses. The author introduces “once-born” and “twice-born” types of healthy-minded individuals and uses Walt Whitman as an example of the former. While once-born people are naturally happy and healthy-minded, twice-born individuals see the world as a combination of good and bad, and thus they must defy the negative elements in life to maintain their mental and physical health. The author advocates for adopting a healthy-minded perspective, which he argues can aid in the healing of physical health issues. This contradicts the traditional scientific view that suggests humans are passive recipients of diseases caused by external factors such as bacteria and viruses and require external treatment like medication. Instead, the author contends that individuals possess a force within themselves that can heal physical ailments if they believe in it. The book connects this concept with the modern-day mindfulness and self-help movements.

Sickly Souls: The Battle Between Good and Evil

The book discusses how experiencing evil can lead to a sickly soul filled with sinister thoughts, which could result in depressive illnesses. The author identifies two types of sickly souls: one believes that evil deeds can be absolved of guilt through prayer and hope, while the other believes sin is inescapable and leads to depressive illnesses. However, religious experiences can help alleviate depression. The author cites Leo Tolstoy’s My Confession, which highlights the meaninglessness of finite life compared to an infinite, spiritual one, and how belief and faith can provide answers to the puzzle of existence.

The Twice-Born and the Journey to Healing

The twice-born are those who acknowledge the division between good and bad within themselves and the world. This division can be reconciled through either gradual change or abrupt change. The story of Tolstoy illustrates the gradual overcoming of the divided self, while Saint Augustine of Hippo’s conversion to Christianity exemplifies the latter. The conflict between the ideal self and the actual self can be healed through these two means, as shown by ancient Greek medical teachings. As such, the darker side of life that the twice-born see is not necessarily problematic, but rather an opportunity for growth and reunification of the divided self.

Understanding Conversion

Conversion is the process of transferring power from one set of ideas to another. When a group of ideas dominates over others, it becomes the habitual center of personal energy. There are two ways conversion happens – volitional, which is voluntary and conscious, and self-surrender, which is involuntary and subconscious. The latter can be instantaneous in select cases. Religious conversion brings new emotional experiences like well-being, happiness, and understanding new truths.

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