Pragmatist William James’ Theory of Religion

William James (1842–1910) is considered a pioneer thinker and was one of America’s most influential philosophers whose ideas paved the foundations for much of modern psychology and impacted various disciplines including philosophy, education, and religion. 

Although we focus on his theory of religion, James is known primarily for his contributions to psychology. James was aware of this himself when, during a lecture talking about religion, he humbly admitted that he is “neither a theologian, nor a scholar learned in the history of religions, nor an anthropologist” (1). Instead, he was a psychologist and a notable one at that given the influence of his magnum opus Principles of Psychology (1890) that took a dozen years to complete. 

In this entry, we develop several important insights James offers and then focus on his theory of religion presented in The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (1902).

James as a Pragmatist and Psychologist 

As a major theorist in American philosophy, James is best described as a “pragmatist” (a term James, influenced by Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), himself coined), a worldview he articulates in his lectures and book Pragmatism: A New Name for Old Ways of Thinking (1907). 

Pragmatism posits that the value of an idea depends on the consequences or “conceivable effects of a practical kind” that it has on human beings. An idea is true, in James’ view, if its assists a person in attaining a “satisfactory relation with other parts of our experience…” (2). James calls this the “pragmatic method” which values an idea “by tracing its respective practical consequences.” James favored the pragmatic method because it collapsed philosophical disputes “into insignificance the moment you subject them to this simple test of tracing a concrete consequence” (3). More fully, James remarks that,

“Any idea upon which we can ride, so to speak; any idea that will carry us prosperously from any one part of our experience to any other part, linking things satisfactorily, working securely, simplifying, saving labor; is true for just so much, true in so far forth, true instrumentally. This is the ‘instrumental’ view of truth…” (4)

The entirety of philosophy, James proffers, should focus on how what definite difference an idea “will make to you and me” (5). Truth is not what it is usually thought to be, namely ideas that correspond to the way the world is, but rather what is useful. James remarks that “ideas prove to have a value for concrete life, they will be true, for pragmatism, in the sense of being good for so much.” He uses the “cash-value” metaphor as a way to determine what practical difference an idea would make to a person. 

James, as a functionalist and empiricist (he equates pragmatism with “the empiricist attitude”), renders experience primary. Through experience, ideas must be judged. Experience is the most reliable guide for pursuing the truth about reality. Good ideas prove themselves useful in experience, bad ideas do not. With credit to James’ efforts and lectures, pragmatism dominated much of American philosophical and intellectual thought during the first decades of the twentieth century. It will become clearer how James’ empiricism and emphasis on experience are central in his theory of religion.

James’ masterpiece in psychology is his enormous The Principles of Psychology which came to influence important thinkers including John Dewey, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, and others. Fascinated with the brain and workings of the mind, James posits the existence of mental states and takes to describing them as accurately as possible. He goes to work “looking into our own minds and reporting what we there discover” (6). 

James outlines the phenomenon of consciousness, which he presents as an active stream (James coined the phrase “stream of consciousness”). Consciousness is like a river constantly engaging the world through a process that is always changing; consciousness is an “active element” (7). The “active element” in consciousness is selective in that it enables the perceiver to focus on particular objects instead of others. James believes that minds experience objects that exist independently of consciousness. He considers perceptions, sensations, and imagination to be closely linked to the operations of the mind and view of the world. Objects are immediately available to perception and sensation and the imagination draws on both to form ideas the perceiver thinks corresponds to reality.

This brief background to James’ thought is relevant to his theory of religion, especially since it focuses so much on experience. It is James’ pragmatic philosophy that made him think it important to consider religion. Religion produces results and effects in the experiences of people, which makes it worthy of consideration (8).

James’ Theory of Religion

James had much to say about religion and informs his audience of some of his views on theology. As a psychologist, James is clearly most interested in religious experience as suggested by the title of his book, The Varieties of Religious Experience

James maintains a positive view of religion. In his The Will to Believe (1896), he claims that we “cannot live or think at all without some degree of faith” (9) and that “to believe is greatly to your advantage” (10). James takes a more negative view of materialism saying that it entails “the denial that the moral order is eternal, and the cutting off of ultimate hopes” whereas belief in God affirms and preserves an ideal order, especially the moral order that is “one of the deepest needs of our breast” (11). This positive outlook did not make James blind to the evils perpetrated by religion. He acknowledges that religion and the “saintly temper” have spawned violence (e.g. Cromwell’s executions) and intolerance (e.g. Luther’s prejudicial views of the Anabaptists) so that “when “freethinkers” tell us religion and fanaticism are twins, we cannot make an unqualified denial of the charge” (12).

Varieties demonstrates James’ keen interest in religion. The book is based on James’ Gifford Lectures (1901-1902) and is organized into two sets of lectures. He wants to offer a theory of religion and religious experience to which science does not object. This urges him to consider religious experience. It is worth observing James had a religious-like experience that motivated him in his work. He describes this experience as follows,

“The streaming moonlight lit up things in a magical checkered play, and it seemed as if the God of all nature mythologies were holding an indescribable meeting in my breast with the moral Gods of the inner life. The two kinds of Gods have nothing in common… the human remoteness of the inner life, and yet the intense appeal of it, its everlasting freshness and its mercurial decay… all whirled about inextricably together” (13).

This unusual occurrence presented James with a strong impetus to analyze religious experience. It also pushed him to present the Gifford Lectures and compose Varieties. James divides religion into two categories: the institutional and personal: “In critically judging of the value of religious phenomena, it is very important to insist on the distinction between religion as an individual personal function, and religion as an institutional, corporate, or tribal product” (15). James objects to the latter “institutional” type and clearly emphasizes the former. This emphasis likely draws on James’ own unique experience. Consider James’ definition of religion,

“Religion (in the deepest psychological sense of the word) is comprised of the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men (and women) in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine” (16).

James does not think that a psychological examination of religious matters like experience undermines or rejects religion. Although such analysis might to some “discredit the religious side of life”, James maintains that that “of course [is] absolutely alien to my intention” (17).

James’ definition is informative and several items can be immediately noticed. There is a lack of mentioning doctrine suggesting religion is not primarily conceptual or intellectual. There is also no mention of social institutions but a rather isolated form of religiosity involving a worshiper in “solitude”. Further, one finds an emphasis on experience and feeling. James does not think religion should be based on doctrine, but rather on religious experience. He sees experience as preceding doctrine: ‘‘When I call theological formulas secondary products, I mean that in a world in which no religious feeling had ever existed, I doubt whether any philosophic theology could ever have been framed” (18). 

Feeling “is the deeper source of religion… philosophic and theological formulas are secondary products, like translations of a text into another tongue” (19). These secondary philosophic and theological formulas are what James terms “over-beliefs”. James himself holds to over-beliefs and identifies them with God, although his finite conception of God bears little resemblance to an orthodox Christian understanding of God. 

James affirms finite theism (which maintains that God is finite in knowledge or power or both) and was skeptical of an orthodox Christian conception of God. His skepticism largely stems from the perceived implications of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. James thinks evolution reveals an evil God; it posits an “enormous waste” of nature in producing results that get destroyed because of their unfitness. He also emphasized the number of adaptations which, if designed, would argue an evil rather than a good designer. “To the grub under the bark the exquisite fitness of the woodpecker’s organism to extract him would certainly argue a diabolical designer” (20). The Christian God, to James, is unintelligible and a rather evil designer should he exist. 

Although James considered himself a supernaturalist, he did not consider the arguments for God (the cosmological, teleological, and moral arguments, for example) persuasive, although being somewhat more favorable to the argument from design (teleology). As a pragmatist, James maintains that one is only warranted to believe in a God who has a use: “The gods we stand by are the gods we need and can use, the gods whose demands on us are reinforcements of our demands on ourselves and on one another” (21). Any beliefs in God supporting “ideal” human activity “will stand accredited. If not, then they will be discredited”.

Returning to feeling and experience being the essence of religion, no dispassionate or purely intellectual comprehension of the universe would have produced religious philosophies and theologies. Only feeling and experience can account for this as these engendered “myths, superstitions, dogmas, creeds, and metaphysical theologies” so rich and popular within humanity throughout the ages. 

At the root of religious experience are “mystical states of consciousness” (22) that James defines as ineffable: “it defies expression”, “no adequate report of its contents can be given in words”, and it can only be directly experienced. A mystical state is also one of knowledge in that something becomes known (its “Noetic quality”). Mysticism is at the heart of religious experience and James ascribes a pragmatic component to it. Mysticism can nurture action. Saint Ignatius was a mystic whose “mysticism made him assuredly one of the most powerfully practical human engines that ever lived” (23). And Saint Teresa’s mysticism is one “admirably disposed for action” (24).

Before distinguishing them, James notes a similarity between psychology and religion, which is that “both admit that there are forces seemingly outside of the conscious” (25). Human beings live in dependence on unseen forces. For the religious, this dependence is on divine support and from what religion “becomes an essential organ of our life” (26). Psychology and religion “both admit that there are forces seemingly outside of the conscious individual that bring redemption to his life”. Psychology and religion differ, however, when it comes to their explanations for these forces. Religions affirm that these forces “are direct supernatural operations of the Deity” whereas psychology sees them as “not transcend[ing] the individual’s personality” and in the subconscious (27).

Despite the subordinate position of reason to experience in James’ theory of religion, this is not to say that reason is totally absent. Human beings are, James recognizes, thinking beings and so reason must have a place in religion somewhere. Several statements in Varieties are suggestive. First, reason must “redeem religion from unwholesome privacy, and to give public status and universal right of way to its deliverances…” (28). In other words, by using reason, religion can be discussed with others via language, or what James calls “general and abstract verbal formulas”. One can also reflect on religion and James uses his own lectures on religion as an example. His lectures are an attempt to “extract from the privacies of religious experience some general facts which can be defined in formulas upon which everybody may agree” (29). Such reflection cannot be possible without using reason.

Reason is usable to judge religion by how it squares with science. Reason can “eliminate doctrines that are now known to be scientifically absurd or incongruous” (30). According to James, one can work with religions as “hypotheses” by “testing them in all the manners, whether negative or positive…” The tester uses reason as she evaluates religions and can, if she feels compelled, “reduce their number, as some are found more open to objection”. She can also “become the champion of one which she picks out as being the most closely verified or verifiable” (31). Although religion is primarily experiential and emotive, this does not exclude the cognitive and rational.

James locates the core of religion within the inner recesses of the individual, as quite apparent in his statement “that the evidence for God lies primarily in the inner personal experiences” (32). He notices a human desire for “making proper connection with the higher power” and that through such a connection “We can experience union with something larger than ourselves and in that union find our greatest peace” (33). He believes that religious experience pointed to a transcendent aspect of the universe. Nowhere emphasized is the role of the institutional or social setting.

James theorizes concerning the experiences of religious “geniuses” since he believes an analysis of them is important. By geniuses, James refers to pivotal figures or “pattern-setters” such as the founders of religions whose experiences impacted and influenced others (the “ordinary religious believer[s]”) embedded within a tradition embraced by convention or habit (34). James believes we can learn much more about religion by analyzing the experiences of geniuses rather than those of ordinary religious believers. What does James think of the experiences of these geniuses? 

These religious geniuses, he writes, were often “subject to abnormal psychical visitations” (35). The religious impulse was alive within them like an “acute fever.” But these people were “liable to obsessions” and frequently falling into trances, hearing voices, and seeing visions, “all sorts of peculiarities which are ordinarily classed as pathological” (36). James contends that it was their pathology that aided their careers as religious geniuses to “attract disciples, and produce groups of sympathizers”.

The experiences of the religious geniuses attracted a following which then evolved into organized religions as new followers kept being added into the mix. The result was the emergence of doctrine and philosophical theology with their strong emphasis on reason, which James objects to. James uses George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, as his example for a figure one might consider “pathological”. From “the point of view of his nervous constitution”, Fox “was a psychopath”. Presumably by “psychopath”, James indicates that Fox was susceptible to visionary episodes during his religious career. James turns to quoting examples of Fox’s visions from Fox’s diary to press this point home. James states that these experiences are “literally and objectively true” (37) and “casts light on many phenomena of religious biography” (38).

Further Reflections on James’ Theory of Religion

James’ theory of religion and religious experience has been influential in several areas.

James’ functionalism had a profoundly influenced John Dewey (1859-1952), also a pragmatist who made room in his philosophy for instrumentalism in which the mind is an instrument for adapting the individual organism to its environment. Dewey’s A Common Faith (1934) utilizes James’ distinction between religion and religious experience. The former “religion” includes religious phenomena such as rituals, practices, and doctrines embodied in some religious institution. The latter “religious” refers to experience that has no connection to any religious institution, social organization, or system of beliefs.

Although some of his insights like his functionalism are no longer accepted by most psychologists today, textbooks on educational psychology still reference James as well as the many others who have engaged his ideas over time (39).

In the academic study of religion, James’ call for a science of religion has been heeded. James states he would be happy indeed if his lectures in Varieties “could ever be accounted a crumb-like contribution to such a science [of religion]…” (40). Today there are many departments in universities across the world specializing in the study of religion and in which James’ ideas feature prominently. His reflections on experience have motivated many scholars to analyze religious and mystical experience not only in religious studies, but in other areas too such as in psychology, theology, philosophy, and anthropology. 

Largely outside of the academia, James’ emphasis on religious experience he locates internal to persons will find warm reception by many who prefer a privatized spirituality not fixed to or influenced by religious institutions and doctrines. Such religious persons will appreciate the perspective offered by James such as that “religious experience… is that which lives itself out within the private breast” (41) and that “the evidence for God lies primarily in inner persona” (42). James clearly made experience primary over institutions and doctrines. Many devotees of New Age spirituality, for instance, believe that God is in all things (pantheism) which includes being within the person or oneself (43).

Further, because religion is primarily experiential and internal, James’ thought offers much room for one to define his or her religiosity. Many New Agers believe they have the power to create their own reality and that this enables them to have power over life events, death, and reincarnations.

Of course, many will disagree with James on various points. One can certainly imagine philosophers and theologians disagreeing that doctrine and reason need to be subordinate to experience. James does not claim reason has no place in religion, but one might argue that reason and experience are more balanced than James allows for.

Another area of disagreement many will have with James concerns his strong emphasis on pragmatism in religious belief. James proffers a “cash-value” notion of belief in God in that the “instinctive belief of mankind” is that “God is real since he produces real effects” (44). Or “if the hypothesis of God works satisfactorily in the widest sense of the word, it is true” (45). This cash-value interpretation of God is likely James’ attempt to make belief in God consistent with pragmatism to avoid making pragmatism undermine such belief. But is this necessarily what theists think about God being “real”? Arguably not. Many theists believe God is “real”, objectively speaking, regardless of what real effects belief in him entails. In fact, there could be no humanity and no human beliefs in God (e.g. during the age of the dinosaurs), but God would still objectively exist.


1. James, William. 2015. The Varieties of Religious Experience. Philosophical Library Open Road. p. 9 (ebook format).

2. James, William. 1920. Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. Archive Classics. p. 49 (ebook format). 

3. James, William. 1920. Ibid. p. 44.

4. James, William. 1920. Ibid. p. 49. 

5. James, William. 1920. Ibid. p. 44.

6. William, James. 2014. The Principles of Psychology. p. 256.

7. William, James. 2014. Ibid. p. 406.

8. Karl Oscar Budmen. The Religious Philosophy of William James. p. 291

9. James, William. 2017. The Will to Believe. Publishdrive. p. 95.

10. James, William. 2017. Ibid. p. 97.

11. James, William. 2017. Ibid. p. 160.

12. James, William. 2015. Ibid. p. 401. 

13. Lewis, R. W. B. 1991. The Jameses: A Family Narrative. New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux. p. 500–501

15. James, William. 2015. Ibid. p. 394.

16. James, William. 2015. Ibid. p. 41.

17. James, William. 2015. Ibid. p. 13.

18. James, William. 2015. Ibid. p. 509.

19. James, William. 2015. Ibid. p. 509.

20. James, William. 1920. Ibid. p. 82.

21. James, William. 2015. Ibid. p. 391.

22. James, William. 2015. Ibid. p. 444.

23. James, William. 2015. Ibid. p. 475.

24. James, William. 2015. Ibid. p. 476.

25. James, William. 2015. Ibid. p. 247

26. James, William. 2015. Ibid. p. 63.

27. James, William. 2015. Ibid. p. 246.

28. James, William. 2015. Ibid. p. 509.

29. James, William. 2015. Ibid. p. 510.

30. James, William. 2015. Ibid. p. 533.

31. James, William. 2015. Ibid. p. 533.

32. James, William. 2016. William James: Essays and Lectures. England: Routledge. p. 53. 

33. James, William. 2015. Ibid. p. 621.

34. James, William. 2015. Ibid. p. 13.

35. James, William. 2015. Ibid. p. 15.

36. James, William. 2015. Ibid. p. 14.

37. James, William. 2015. Ibid. p. 593

38. James, William. 2015. Ibid. p. 275.

39. Ivie, Stanley. 2006. “The Legacy of William James.” Journal of Thought 41(4):117-136. p. 121. 

40. James, William. 2015. Ibid. p. 511.

41. James, William. 2015. Ibid. p. 394.

42. Slaatte, Howard Alexander. 1986. Contemporary Philosophies of Religion. Lanham: University Press of America. p. 40

43. Steyn, Chrissie. “The New Age Movement in South Africa.” Journal for the Study of Religion 7(2):83-106.

44. James, William. 2015. Ibid. p. 594.

45. Slater, Michael R. 2009. William James on Ethics and Faith. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press p. 221.

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