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William James and the Inner Side of Religion

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William James (1842-1910), Harvard professor of psychology and philosophy, is considered one of the pioneers of the psychology of religion. For James, religion is a deeply subjective phenomenon and not the acceptance of theological teachings.

“While I was in general depression about my future, I was suddenly overcome by a terrible existential anxiety. The image of an epileptic that I had seen in the asylum appeared in my mind’s eye”, reported the psychologist William James during a lecture at the Scottish University in Edinburgh.

“I felt such revulsion and at the same time felt my momentary difference so clearly, as if something that had been solid within me was slipping away and I became a quivering heap of fear. After this experience, the universe was completely different for me.”

At this point in time, 1901, William James is considered the most important psychologist of his time. In 1890 he laid the foundations of modern, scientific psychology with his extensive work, the ‘Principles of Psychology’.

His lectures in Edinburgh were entitled ‘On the Diversity of Religious Experience’. James himself was not a particularly religious person. In 1904 he wrote in a letter: “I have no living feeling of an intercourse with God. I envy those who have one as I know it would help me immeasurably. For my active life, the divine is limited to abstract concepts, which interest and influence me as ideals, but they do so only feebly compared to a sense of God if I had one.”

William James was born in New York in 1842. His grandfather, an Orthodox Presbyterian, had immigrated to the United States from Ireland in 1789 and had become wealthy through real estate deals. Relieved of all economic worries, William’s father made sure that his children received a first-class international education. William and his younger brother Henry, who later became a famous novelist, attended schools in London, Paris, Bolzano and Bonn.

From 1864 William James studied medicine at Harvard. During a stay in Germany in 1867, he attended lectures by the famous physicist and physiologist Hermann von Helmholtz in Berlin. From 1872 James taught himself at Harvard, first physiology, later psychology and philosophy.

Along with the logician and philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, William James is considered the founder of pragmatism. This is a philosophy for which truth does not consist in the correspondence of a statement with reality. From a pragmatic point of view, truth means that a thought or statement is true if it is useful for human action. True from a pragmatist perspective is what works.

William James:”Truth’, to put it briefly, is nothing other than that which brings us forward along the path of thought.’

And for religion this means: “Pragmatism expands the field in which one can seek God. … Pragmatism is ready for anything, it follows logic or the senses and accepts even the most humble and personal experience. He would also accept mystical experiences if they had practical implications.”

Not surprisingly, James’s lectures on the diversity of religious experience are not about beliefs. Rather, James is looking for a common pattern underlying religious experiences—regardless of religious beliefs. For James, religion is what remains as an emotion in the individual if one disregards the external tenets and rituals of religion.

‘Religion means the feelings, actions, and experiences of individuals who believe themselves to be related to the divine.’

This notion of religion as a private, inner event is strongly influenced by the Protestant culture of piety in which James grew up. He also makes a momentous methodological decision that has brought him strong criticism, especially from colleagues:

in his investigations he concentrates on religious geniuses, as James calls them. By this he means people with unusually intense religious experiences.

By restricting himself to personalities such as Martin Luther, Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Avila or John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, James narrows the picture of religious experience. Derived from the biographies of these so-called religious geniuses, for James, religious experiences are always connected with intense experiences of crises, an existential psychological emergency that radically questions his previous life.

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In doing so, James ignores all positive or unspectacular forms of religious experience – such as the feeling of deep security or a self-confident piety rooted in religious traditions.

One reason for this one-sided methodological approach is the American religious culture. Which, as was made clear in the case of former President George W. Bush, is strongly influenced by the idea of ​​a ‘born again’, a rebirth. So the idea of ​​finding faith and God through a personal crisis and thus also spiritual and moral renewal.

Religious experience needs no institutions and no theological teachings. On the contrary. For James, organizations and belief traditions erode religious sentiment, making it empty and abstract. The Tübingen theologian and James editor Eilert Herms:

‘The ‘religious experience’ reveals what is originally about religion: namely, an event in the most intimate layer of personal self-awareness, an event that affects the immediacy of self-awareness.’

As the Protestant theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher also localized William James Religion in Feeling. Feelings, however, are private and individual. Thus, for James, the defining feature of religion is the religious feeling of the individual and not the acceptance of sacred scriptures and theological doctrines.

“If we survey the totality of religion, we discover a great variety of dominant ideas; but the feelings on the one hand and the behavior on the other are almost always the same; for Stoic, Christian and Buddhist saints are practically indistinguishable in their way of life.”

Accordingly, mystical experiences mark the core of religious feeling for him. For such experiences, according to James, are characterized by breaking down all the ordinary barriers between the individual and the absolute. The mystic feels one with the Absolute, but at the same time he is aware of this state.

The mystical experience thus opens up access to a subconscious self.

The subconscious self, which James also calls the ‘further self’, is not to be confused with Sigmund Freud’s unconscious, which is primarily a system of repressed and warded off instinctual content. For James, the subconscious encompasses all mental processes that we are not conscious of, whether they are the result of our personal development or our physical condition. Eilert Herms:

“The individual self owes itself to preconscious life processes that exclude it from the wider self. This surrender of the individual self to preconscious life processes is fundamental and absolute.”

For James, the preconscious is the condition of religious experience. Only the expanded self releases the energies to enable the religious experiences of the conscious self. In the case of the great figures in religious history in particular, such as Buddha, Paul or Mohammed, the boundary between the conscious and the preconscious self was extremely permeable. Only this permeability made possible the revelations, visions and enlightenments that made them charismatic founders of religions.

William James: “From what we have seen, it seems to me that the door to this region seems unusually wide open for deeply religious people; in any case, experiences that came through this gate have subsequently shaped the history of religion.”

Since religion for James is shaped exclusively by individual, private experiences, it can never be wrong or reduced to a few aspects. For James, both official church representatives and prominent critics of religion therefore work with a false concept of religion.

They appeared in book form just weeks after James had completed his Edinburgh lectures and were a smash hit. By the time James died in 1910, 18 editions had appeared.

The first German edition appeared in 1907. At the same time, however, independent religious-psychological approaches emerged in Germany, with which one proceeded methodologically differently than William James.

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William James and the Inner Side of Religion. (2022, September 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from
“William James and the Inner Side of Religion.” Edubirdie, 15 Sept. 2022,
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