Sunday, March 22, 2020

Varieties of Religious Experience - William James

I'm re-reading "Varieties of Religious Experience" by William James these days. I liked it the first time I read it 45 years ago and it still resonates with me today.

The book is comprised of a series of lectures that William James gave in 1901 and 1902 at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. James is known as the father of modern psychology, an important American philosopher and one of the founders of the philosophical school known as Pragmatism.

Even though William James was writing over 100 years ago he is still very relevant to our times. This author has written a book titled "Sick Souls, Healthy Minds" with the sub-title "How William James Can Save Your Life" that was released this year.

James writing is atypical for a lot of academic writing in that it's written in a conversational tone with limited use of obscure terminology. In the "Varieties of Religious Experience" he focuses on individual relationships to the divine and how that relationship informs a persons actions throughout life. It's a really interesting book and William James was a really interesting person.

It's a look at religion from a pragmatic or practical point of view that emphasizes religion as a means to alleviate fear and maximize happiness. There is no theology, or debate about faith vs. reason in this book but rather example after example of faith in something divine informing people's lives in ways that make them healthier and happier human beings.


James coined the phrase "stream of consciousness" to describe how humans think. Rather than a mechanical ordered form of thinking of the sort, "I'm thirsty, I think I'll get a glass of water, I need to remove a glass from the cupboard, fill it with water, bring the glass to my lips, tilt it...etc. The actual way we think is more like "I'm thirsty, my nose itches, what was that sound I just heard, oh there's a bird and a squirrel on the fence, what was I thinking about?"

We deal with a lot of complexity in life by forming habits. Humans are very good at making a lot of things in life habitual - taking a drink, walking, brushing our teeth, tying our shoes. This is good because if we didn't have a way to control our stream of consciousness to some extent, and make some things habitual, we would be helpless and confused. On the other hand, it can also be detrimental to form habits that take the place of thinking - this could span from the simple act of eating a bag of chips or turning on the TV without thinking, to a complex act of habitually putting ourselves down because we're always eating chips and watching TV...or making it a habit to be grouchy..or you name it - we have lots of good and not so good habits.

The good news in James work is that humans are very malleable. We can form new habits. We can make it a habit to be happy. We can make it a habit to read good books, watch good shows and listen to good music. We can make it a habit to be kind. It's really unlimited - and very encouraging for those interested in making their best authentic self.

You can find some similar ideas in Buddhist thought referring to our "monkey mind". In that discipline we use meditation and concentrate on our breathing to stop paying attention to all the flotsam and jetsam flowing down the stream. Meditation is something of an end in itself, the goal being to relax, detach and reach a state of equanimity - not to "do" anything. James has some ideas about how we can train that monkey mind to make ourselves happier, healthier and more effective individuals.


You can read about William James at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy or the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Wes Cecil has a good podcast on William James focused on the psychological insights contained in James writing and lectures.

BBC Radio 4 - In Our Time has a podcast on William James and The Varieties of Religious Experience.

Since I'm promoting reading philosophy I'll include a link to this piece from a few years ago in The Guardian - Philosophy Can Teach Children What Google Can't.

In these times - it seems like we might be at a point where people would like to rethink (or think) about what constitutes a good life and how society might be shaped to provide the most good for the most people. Reading and discussing philosophy - listening to great thinkers, reading great books - including those from Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and Vedic thought, are all steps in that direction. Our end goal is bringing our theories into practice and to thrive at being the loving, unique, precious, beautiful, real person the Divine wanted us to be. That's all any God could ask for.