a quick note on “the varieties of religious experience” [lecture I]

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“The Varieties of Religious Experience” by William James
Lecture I: Religion and Neurology

I. “These experiences we can only find in individuals for whom religion exists not as a dull habit, but as an acute fever rather. But such individuals are “geniuses” in the religious line; and like many other geniuses who have brought forth fruits effective enough for commemoration in the pages of biography, such religious geniuses have often shown symptoms of nervous instability. Even more perhaps than other kinds of genius, religious leaders have been subject to abnormal psychical visitations. Invariably they have been creatures of exalted emotional sensibility. Often they have led a discordant inner life, and had melancholy during a part of their career. They have known no measure, been liable obsessions and fixed ideas; and frequently they have fallen into trances, heard voices, seen visions, and presented all sorts of peculiarities which are ordinarily classed as pathological. Often, moreover, these pathological features in their career have helped to give them their religious authority and influence.”

II. People attempt to invalidate religious experience through “medical materialism,” which places the origin of religious experience in organic processes (i.e. temperament, over-instigated nerves, bad digestion, lack of exercise, etc.)

III. Although a state of mind cannot claim independence from organic processes, it is illogical to discredit spiritual states based on their supposed origins in it. “In the natural sciences and industrial arts it never occurs to anyone to try to refute opinions by showing up their author’s neurotic constitution. Opinions here are invariably tested by logic and experiment, no matter what may be their author’s neurological type. It should be no otherwise with religious opinions.”

IV. The value of religious experiences should be judged by immediate luminousness (or philosophical reasonableness) and moral helpfulness. “In the end it had to come to our empiricist criterion: By their fruits ye shall know them, not by their roots.”

V. The best possible condition for effective genius occurs when a superior intellect and a psychopathic temperament coalesce. “In the psychopathic temperament we have the emotionality which is the sine qua non of moral perceptions; we have the intensity and tendency to emphasis which are the essence of practical moral vigor; and we have the love of metaphysics and mysticism which carry one’s interests beyond the surface of the sensible world.”





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