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Critically Assess The Claims And Conclusions On William James’ Variety Of Religious Experiences

1311 words - 6 pages

William James was a philosopher and psychologist from New York City.In the book ‘the varieties of religious experience’, James concluded that religious experience testifies that “we can experience union with something larger that ourselves and in that union find our greatest peace”. He defined such experiences as “experiences of the divine” and believed that religious experience was at the heart of religion, true religion unlike religious teachings, practices and attitudes as these, for James are ‘second hand’ religion which later develops as individuals reflect on their common experience. It is the actual experience which points to God. However this theory does little to prove religious ...view middle of the document...

However, for a number of reasons, James argued that these experiences may well have a supernatural element as well as a physical element. Firstly, he believed that the sheer volume of his case studies is empirical evidence of the effects of religious experience. These provide us with clues of the reality which lies beyond this world. Secondly James believed that religious experiences from different faiths were similar. They were experiences of the same ultimate reality which is then interpreted into the ‘second hand’ religious structure of that person. A Christian might interpret an experience as the presences of the Holy Spirit, whereas a Hindu might interpret it differently.
James also argued that despite the wide variety of religious experiences there is a common core to all of them, they will normally include similar elements such as the sense of being in the presence of a greater power or the recipient has relatively little control over the experience. Also includes an insight into “usually unseen dimensions of existence which are of intrinsic value and fundamental importance”. For some they may consist of a direct experience of the divine or may be a gradual realisation that there is more to life than the world around us and it often leads to a greater understanding of God. James claimed that this common core pointed to a single objective source of all religious experiences.
In response, many critics claim that it is difficult to even define or interpret what a genuine religious experience is let alone decide if they have a common core. Many scholars claim a common core is simply not true and the sheer variety of religious experiences suggests they have a human, rather than a divine origin. Weaknesses of James’ conclusions are further pointed out that it is very difficult to maintain, as James did, that the religious experiences of Jews, Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, etc. are fundamentally identical. In addition, most religions make claims that conflict with each other, for example, Christians claim that Jesus is the Son of God whereas Muslims claim Jesus was simply a prophet who did not die on the cross and Jews reject Jesus’ divinity. For some scholars these conflicting claims in different religious traditions cancel each other out, weakening James’ claims.
Another thing James believed was that religious experiences were valid and objective because of two observable effects they had on people both in the immediate and long term. Firstly, the immediate impact which may be dramatic and involve visions, voices and may last a few minutes or hours. Secondly, the moral helpfulness of the experience, they usually involve recognition that their current lifestyle is wrong or lacking in something. This will then normally lead to significant changes to their moral perspective and how they choose to live their life. People will often feel more fulfilled and purposeful in their understanding of the world and their place in it. Examples of...

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