The takeaway: I thought this book would be amazing, but I had a lot of mixed feelings about it. James comes away saying one thing about religion throughout the book and then reached an incongruent conclusion at the end. He repairs this with a postscript at the prompting of what must have been a lot of questions from befuddled readers. Despite this problem, the book is a goldmine of quotes and raw information about mystical experiences. Worth the time to read. A free copy is available here.
First a confession: I actually listened to the audiobook version of this, rather than reading the written version. This was a good decision, and I encourage everyone to try it. The Varieties of Religious Experience (VRE) was originally not a book but a series talks, like turn-of-the-century TED talks, and even more interesting. Instead of jumbo screens, microphones, and spotlights, imagine a gaslit auditorium and a large chalkboard. Instead of geek glasses and smartphones, imagine people in bowler hats with handlebar mustaches taking notes with a pad and paper. The “chapters” in this book are the written copies of these talks, twenty in all, and are intended to be performed as much as read. There is a musical quality to them, an attentiveness to the sound and cadence of the language that is hidden in a silent reading. If you haven’t, check out the audio version and listen for yourself.
This book is such a classic, and has touched so many lives, that it is hard to review it, much less critique it, without feeling a twinge of unworthiness. It was published to rave reviews in 1902, has been in print for over a hundred years, and is one of those books that people describe as changing their lives, so it is hard to set aside the halo of reverence and simply take it as it actually is with a critical eye.
After listening for a while I began to realize something that helped me break it free from its gilded cage, and it is this: what James is doing is exactly the same thing prominent thinkers on religion are doing today.
In his talks James mentions vocal atheists, pop religious figures, and public philosophers all in the midst of heated debates over whether religion is simply harmful superstition leftover from the childhood of our species, or the only way to truth and prosperity. While listening, my mind kept leaping into the present, to images of Daniel Dennet, Christopher Hitchens, William Lane Craig, Joel Olsteen, John Lennox, Stephen Pinker, Sam Harris, Reza Aslan, and all the others having the very same debate today, but instead of pamphlets and booklets, it is now done with tweets and blogs. It is the same show, with a slightly different cast of characters, and seeing it that way made the book all the more fascinating. I suddenly had a context in which it all made sense – and oddly enough it is the context we still live in!
Here is the gist of what he claims in the book: religious experiences are all of the same category of experience because they come from a part of the unconscious mind that we cannot know rationally. They have different qualities and can even be classified into different types or families, but they are all the same sort of thing – the unconscious mind bursting into consciousness in a special way.
This claim has a lot of merit. I think he may be right. And if he is it has huge implications for the commonality between all religious traditions. But here is the strange thing: this idea is explained in lecture twenty, and it doesn’t match how he describes religious experiences in the rest of the book. What is weird is that up until that final lecture he goes on and on about the reality of mystical experiences, and strongly hints (through his choice of quotes and his own descriptions) that these experiences refer to a real transcendent cosmic reality. He adds a postscript in which he attempts to explain his views further, so guess I wasn’t the only one who noticed the discrepancy between how he talks about religion and how he explains it. In the post script he states plainly that (despite his conclusion in lecture twenty) he does believe in the supernatural and that mystical experiences refer to a real transcendent reality. I’m glad the point became clear, but really, why put it in a post script?
Another issue with the VRE is that, while James purports to investigate religious experiences in all their variety, he really only looks at what we would consider mystical experiences in the most positive sense. He essentially ignores those kinds of religious experiences that make religion appear awful, and one can’t help sensing a strong bias in what he chooses to provide as examples of religious experience. Today we are swimming in a sea of religious violence and the people committing these acts appear to be ecstatic about what they are doing – and this is nothing new. In fact, it is not as bad today as it was during James’s time if Steven Pinker is to be believed.We could dismiss these as inauthentically religious actions, not true feelings of devotion and union with something larger with oneself. But are they really?
There are many stories of samurais working diligently on their enlightenment and whistling while they went about the work of war. There are crimes against humanity occurring in Burma right now sanctioned by Buddhist monks, one of whom has earned the nickname “the Bin Laden of Buddhism.” The Gita reads like a mutant mixture of military training manual and nondual guide to awakening. The violence in the Abrahamic religions hardly needs mentioning. It is hard to admit, but hybridized into even the most profound and mystical expressions of religion throughout history are violent acts which on the surface we instinctively wish to push aside or explain away with a metaphor. I have strongly felt the pull to do this in the past as I was looking for something true in these traditions, and I believe James felt this as well when writing the VRE. He mentions the crusades in passing, almost apologetically, but quickly moves on to more positive examples.
I feel like I’ve been too harsh on one of my heros, and despite my criticism let me be clear that James is a hero of mine. So let me point out why this is also an awesome book worth reading (or hearing). First, James has one of the best, most complete, and well sourced descriptions of the dark night. He focuses primarily on Christianity, but acknowledges that these experiences happen to people everywhere. In lectures 6 and 7 he calls this issue “The Sick Soul,” and gives a rich description of what a dark night is like. He proposes an interesting idea as to why it seems to happen so often to mystics: personality. James believes that the dark night is one of two basic experiences (healthy-minded or sick) that mystics can have based on their personal disposition. I found this idea utterly fascinating. I think there is some truth to it in that while everyone (in my experience) does indeed experience a dark night, some experience it as a mild sense of dissatisfaction while others find it overwhelming. Could it be the technique, or the particular path, doesn’t really matter when it comes to this, but that the personality of the person is what leads to these differences?
Secondly, he makes some brilliant points about why mystical experiences should be taken seriously by philosophers and scientists, and why they should become (and did become) a legitimate object of interest to rational people everywhere. In the process he does an amazing job of humanizing the lives of mystics, making their experience less alien to people who don’t understand what it is like to have such experiences first hand. Additionally, he openly endorsed the notion that certain kinds of drugs could usher in mystical experiences, a notion that was not common in academic circles at the time and likely cost him, but no doubt encouraged future generations to take the idea seriously. Finally, William James is an icon of academic rigor for a reason and it really shows in this book. He thoroughly researched his topic, and the book is a goldmine of quotes about mystical experiences from people in throes of them. He organizes them and brings them to life in a brilliant way that is really something to admire.
Overall, I can say that VRE was not what I expected. Once I was able to look at what James is claiming without becoming too star-struck I found myself having a lot of mixed feelings. This was unexpected, because the VRE has been on my reading list for so long, has been recommended by so many smart people, and is referenced in so many works I love, that I honestly expected that I would find myself nodding along, feeling inspired throughout. That wasn’t the case. Sometimes I found myself taken aback by the leaps of logic and the mental gymnastics he uses to argue his case, and often he makes predictions that simply haven’t come true (one advantage of reading it in the future). At other times, I thought he discussed and described aspects of mystical experience so well that it hasn’t been topped since. I came away not loving the work, and certainly seeing its flaws, but respecting it and glad I gave it my time.