The Varieties of Religious Experience


The Varieties of Religious Experience

A Study in Human Nature

William James

Abridged and freely adapted for modern readers


Larry Kincaid

The Varieties of Religious Experience is William James’s most famous book, and for readers who are not professional psychologists or philosophers, it certainly is his most important and interesting book.

It owes its beginnings to the fears and hopes of a wealthy Scot, Adam Lord Gifford (1820-1887). Noting that new biological and geological theories conflicted with traditional Christian beliefs, Lord Gifford feared that unless steps quickly were taken to reconcile religion and modern science, educated people would soon become religious skeptics or atheists. To help avoid this catastrophe, he willed a fortune to Scottish universities to sponsor an ongoing lecture series aimed at promoting and diffusing “the study of Natural Theology in the widest sense of the term—in other words, the knowledge of God”.

The first “Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion” were delivered in 1888 by the foremost European expert on Indian culture, Friedrich Max Müller (1823-1900). Since then, Gifford lectures have been delivered annually (except 1941-1945) at one or another Scottish University by many of the world’s outstanding philosophers, scholars, scientists, and theologians, including Hannah Arendt, Neils Bohr, Etienne Gilson, Werner Heisenberg, Iris Murdoch, Reinhold Niebuhr, Albert Schweitzer, and Alfred North Whitehead, Carl Sagan, Martha Naussbaum, and Noam Chomsky.

William James was the first American invited to be a Gifford Lecturer, but he was too ill to accept in 1898 and recommended his Harvard colleague, Josiah Royce. By 1900, James’s health had improved, and he accepted a second invitation. His lectures were delivered between 1900 and 1902 to a general audience at the University of Edinburgh.

In James’s first lecture he declared that since the relatively new science of psychology was the only area in which he had some expertise, his lectures would present “a descriptive survey” of humanity’s fundamental “religious feelings and impulses.” For sources, he would rely primarily on the writings of intelligent, articulate men and women whose spiritual intensity and quirky personalities had made them, in James’s phrase, “religious geniuses.”

Revised and considerably expanded, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature was first published in 1902. Immediately recognized as a masterpiece, the book has been continuously in print for over a hundred years.


Famous and widely praised, yes, but read less and less. Sixty years ago the renowned psychologist Gordon Allport guessed that very few psychologists under 45 actually had read Varieties from cover to cover.  Today, probably most readers under 45 hardly even know that the book exists. Recently some 200,000 general readers who responded to a survey conducted by Modern Library did rank Varieties 43rd best among nonfiction books of the 20th century. But it’s safe to say that the title got few votes from younger respondents and that many of the older readers who voted for the book had read only excerpts.

Why is such a great book on such an interesting and important topic increasingly neglected and forgotten? Well, two reasons immediately suggest themselves. First, for a work of nonfiction that is not a history, not a biography, and not written for scholars or professional psychologists, Varieties is quite long. Most editions run to 500-plus pages, and many of those pages are filled with very long quotations, often in small type. Second, though James’s writing style is much admired by many writers, scholars, and older readers for its conversational intimacy and vivid imagery, it does tend to be rather formal and verbose by modern standards. Moreover, younger readers find it not only wordy, but also grammatically baffling and filled with unfamiliar words and names, obscure allusions, puzzling metaphors, and confusing figures of speech.

Any reader not discouraged by the book’s length and difficulty soon will find a more substantial reason to lay Varieties aside. Because James’s lectures virtually created the field known today as psychology of religion, they of course contain many new ideas that were controversial and even startling. Naturally James felt compelled to include enough information to enable his listeners to understand and fairly judge his complex and subtle arguments. Much of this information he read aloud from biographies and autobiographies of intensely pious men and women. Knowing that it is hard to retain and digest information read aloud, James illustrated important points by reading several similar personal accounts one after another. Drawn from various centuries and countries, these quotations often are even wordier, more obscure, puzzling, and grammatically complex than James himself. When he revised the lectures for publication, instead of severely editing this quoted material, he compounded the problem by adding more quotations in lengthy footnotes.

In short, only a determined person will begin reading Varieties, and only a very determined, widely-read, and sophisticated reader will push on to the end.


If The Varieties of Religious Experience is so difficult to read, enjoy, and appreciate, why not just let it continue its quiet descent into oblivion?

The most compelling answer to this question recently was reaffirmed by a carefully selected panel of distinguished writers, scholars, scientists, and literary critics.  Next to The Education of Henry Adams, the panel declared, The Varieties of Religious Experience is the “best” nonfiction book in English published in the 20th century.

Better than Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, better than The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money by John Maynard Keynes, An American Dilemma by Gunnar Myrdal, A Theory of Justice by John Rawls, Ideas and Opinions by Albert Einstein, Philosophy and Civilization by John Dewey; better than In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, better than The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn, Principia Mathematica by Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell, Science and Civilization in China by Joseph Needham, The Double Helix by James D. Watson, and better than 86 other books of unquestionable, enduring importance written by many of the most brilliant intellectuals the modern English-speaking world has produced. Every “best” list can be argued with, but obviously the book continues to be very important, far too important to let quietly slip below the horizon.

Indeed, it seems to me that the worldwide resurgence of religious fundamentalism and religious conflict during the past fifty years makes the book more important than ever. Though James’s masterpiece was published over a hundred years ago, still it is true that no other book has as much to tell us about the psychology of religion.


This fact and an awareness that today few Americans can or will read the book in its original form led me to begin the greatly abridged and freely adapted version of The Varieties of Religious Experience that I now am making generally available for the first time.

I want to stress that this adaptation is not a summary, a commentary, or  “Varieties of Religious Experience for Dummies.” My goal from the beginning has been to create the very book that might have come into being if William James himself had five years ago told a modern publisher that he wanted to make his book more attractive and accessible to today’s readers. That publisher, I imagine, would have instructed one of her best editors to revise the original text so it would appeal to a modern audience of reasonably skilled readers age thirty and older.

I also image that, given this assignment, that editor would be guided by three priorities.  Without a doubt, her top priority would be to insure that all of James’s basic ideas, concepts, and arguments regarding the psychology and philosophy of religion were presented faithfully, clearly, coherently, and as true to James’s original meaning as possible. Her second priority would be to achieve the first priority by using James’s own words whenever possible and reflecting his often vivid, thrilling, and always unique writer’s voice.  A third priority would be to substitute gender-neutral nouns and pronouns for masculine nouns and pronouns when those are used in merely a general sense.

With these priorities in mind, the editor would then set out to abridge and adapt James’s words, ideas, concepts, and arguments to the needs and limitations of less learned, less leisured, and less sophisticated readers than those who heard his lectures or bought his book during the first fifty or sixty years of the 20th century.

What would this editing process entail? First, it would entail eliminating from the manuscript any words that the editor thought were not needed to convey James’s basic meaning and tone; second, breaking the lengthy paragraphs, typical of late 19th and early 20th century academic prose, into shorter paragraphs; third, modernizing, paragraph by paragraph, the book’s grammar and syntax, allusions, metaphors, and figures of speech; fourth, altering James words and phrases in any way that seemed to the editor to convey to modern readers James’s true meaning better than the words and phrases James himself had chosen a century earlier.

Having envisioned that ideal editor, I cast myself for the part in the fall, 2003, and in two years completed an abridged adaptation of The Varieties of Religious Experience.

What I would love to say at this point is that when I showed William James the revised manuscript and explained why I thought the revisions were needed to reach a modern adult audience, he laughed and exclaimed, “Publish it just like that! That will be my book for these times.”  Of course he couldn’t say that because he is dead. Nor can I even claim with certainty that he would approve of what I have done with his book. So much abridging and changing necessarily involves a lot of interpretation. Luckily, readers who wish to compare the way I have expressed James with the way he expressed himself will find the original book readily available in its entirety on the Internet.

All I can say with certainty is that I have tried my best to say in a more modern way exactly what William James tried his best to say a century ago. Until another editor comes along who cares more, knows more, and writes well enough to do a better job, I will assume that William James would approve of what I have done and value my effort on his behalf.
















                           POSTSCRIPT (ORIGINAL TEXT)

Back to Top

Download eBook