The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature

by William James

William James (1842-1910), became one of the most eminent of American philosophers and psychologists. He was a teacher at Harvard (1872-1907);, at first of physiology and anatomy, later of psychology and philosophy.

This material is taken from the book published by The Modern Library, New York, 1902. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


(ENTIRE BOOK) It is to our culture’s advantage that there exists so many religious types and sects and creeds. This classic book has become famous as the standard scientific work on the psychology of religious impulses and of the varieties of religious experiences.


  • Preface

    The description of man’s religious constitution fills these twenty lectures.

  • Lecture 1: Religion and Neurology

    In those for whom religion is an acute fever one often finds symptoms of nervous instability, psychical visitations, exalted emotional sensibility, often fallen into trances, heard voices, seen visions and other ordinarily behavior patterns classed as pathological. These peculiarities often have given them their religious authority and influence.

  • Lecture 2: Circumscription of the Topic

    There is no one essence in religion, but many characteristics. So many books refer to religious sentiment as if it were a single sort of mental entity. There is no elementary religious emotion, no one specific and essential kind of religious object, no one specific and essential kind of religious act. In religion there are many.

  • Lecture 3: The Reality of the Unseen

    To characterize the life of religion in the broadest and most general terms possible, one might say that it consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves to that order.

  • Lectures 4 and 5: The Religion Of Healthy-Mindedness

    Science and the religion are both genuine keys for unlocking the world’s treasure-house to those who can use either of them practically.

  • Lectures 6 and 7: The Sick Soul

    The most complete religions seem to be those in which pessimistic elements are best developed, they are religions of deliverance — a man must die to an unreal life before he can be born into the real life. Evil is a pervasive element in the world we live in. Buddhism and Christianity are the best known of these religions of deliverance.

  • Lecture 8: The Divided Self, and the Process of Its Unification

    The psychological basis of the twice-born character seems to be a certain discordancy or heterogeneity in the native temperament of the subject, an incompletely unified moral and intellectual constitution.

  • Lecture 9: Conversion

    Conversion is the matter of receiving grace, experiencing religion, being regenerated, gaining assurance. The process is often gradual, often sudden. It is the process by which a self divided and consciously wrong, inferior and unhappy, becomes unified and consciously right, superior and happy, in consequence of its firmer hold upon religious realities.

  • Lecture 10: Conversion — Concluded

    Is the whole phenomenon of regeneration, even in these startling instantaneous examples, possibly a strictly natural process? It is divine in its fruits, of course, but is it in one case more and in another less so? And is it neither more nor less divine in its mere causation and mechanism than any other process, high or low, of man’s interior life?

  • Lectures 11, 12, and 13: Saintliness

    What are the practical outcomes for life from such movingly happy conversions as those discussed in the previous lectures?

  • Lectures 14 and 15: The Value of Saintliness

    Do the fruits of religion give absolute value to what it adds to human life? At least the great saints are immediate successes, as are the smaller ones. Let us, then, all be saints whether or not we succeed visibly and temporally.

  • Lectures 16 and 17: Mysticism

    Personal religious experience has its root and centre in mystical states of consciousness. The supernaturalism and optimism to which these mystical states would persuade us may, interpreted in one way or another, be after all the truest of insights into the meaning of this life.

  • Lecture 18: Philosophy

    Is the sense of divine presence a sense of anything objectively true? Feeling is the deeper source of religion, and philosophic and theological formulas are secondary products. All such formulas are misleading from their brevity, for belief that formulas are true can never wholly take the place of personal experience.

  • Lecture 19: Other Characteristics

    The door into the subliminal region seems unusually wide open. Experiences making their entrance through that door have had emphatic influence in shaping religious history. Religion’s uses to the individual who has it, and the uses of the individual himself to the world, are the best arguments that truth is in it.

  • Lecture 20: Conclusions

    The pragmatic way of taking religion is the deeper way. It gives it body as well as soul, it makes it claim, as everything real must claim, some characteristic realm of fact as its very own.

  • Postscript

    Any final philosophy of religion will have to consider the pluralistic hypothesis seriously.