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William James' Varieties of Religious Experience

For William James, much of the interest in the varieties of religious experience lies in their effects on human beings, and their ability to cause the human being to respond and change. In his own life, James dealt with emotional problems which were not assuaged until his own conversion experience, although that was not a conversion to conventional Christianity or anything like it. In this study, James explored religious experience in order to understand its origins and its effects. He seems to have correctly concluded that the sense of divine presence, or a larger power friendly to human beings, is an accurate one for others and for himself. The intention in the following pages is to examine some of James' discussion of this issue.

In his postscript, James indicated that he would have to place himself among those crasser, or piecemeal, supernaturalists because he found it unacceptable that the transcendental principles could exist without having any consequences or effects. Instead, he concluded that in at least some instance there is an incursion through the subconscious which is at least partly not ourselves and that this produces an effect. He indicated that his observation of this relatively frequent experience convinced him to adopt the hypothesis that:

At these places at least, I say, it would seem as though transmundane energies, God, if you will, produced immediate effects within the natural world to which the rest of our experience belongs (431).

Even hedged about, that is a fairly clear assertion that the common religious belief that God, or the eternal, enters history is an accurate observation at the psychological level, or the level of personal transformation. He does not say that God enters the world and stops a dam from bursting, or saves a child from dying. But, he does clearly say that the ideal seems to enter and particularly when the subliminal door is open, and that this can provide a basis for und...

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William James' Varieties of Religious Experience. (1969, December 31). In Retrieved 10:45, November 29, 2021, from