The Varieties of Religious Experience HTML version

Lecture 2. Circumscription Of The Topic
Most books on the philosophy of religion try to begin with a precise definition of what its
essence consists of. Some of these would-be definitions may possibly come before us in
later portions of this course, and I shall not be pedantic enough to enumerate any of them
to you now. Meanwhile the very fact that they are so many and so different from one
another is enough to prove that the word "religion" cannot stand for any single principle
or essence, but is rather a collective name. The theorizing mind tends always to the
oversimplification of its materials. This is the root of all that absolutism and one-sided
dogmatism by which both philosophy and religion have been infested. Let us not fall
immediately into a one-sided view of our subject, but let us rather admit freely at the
outset that we may very likely find no one essence, but many characters which may
alternately be equally important to religion. If we should inquire for the essence of
"government," for example, one man might tell us it was authority, another submission,
an other police, another an army, another an assembly, an other a system of laws; yet all
the while it would be true that no concrete government can exist without all these things,
one of which is more important at one moment and others at another. The man who
knows governments most completely is he who troubles himself least about a definition
which shall give their essence. Enjoying an intimate acquaintance with all their
particularities in turn, he would naturally regard an abstract conception in which these
were unified as a thing more misleading than enlightening. And why may not religion be
a conception equally complex?[9]
[9] I can do no better here than refer my readers to the extended and admirable remarks
on the futility of all these definitions of religion, in an article by Professor Leuba,
published in the Monist for January, 1901, after my own text was written.
Consider also the "religious sentiment" which we see referred to in so many books, as if
it were a single sort of mental entity. In the psychologies and in the philosophies of
religion, we find the authors attempting to specify just what entity it is. One man allies it
to the feeling of dependence; one makes it a derivative from fear; others connect it with
the sexual life; others still identify it with the feeling of the infinite; and so on. Such
different ways of conceiving it ought of themselves to arouse doubt as to whether it
possibly can be one specific thing; and the moment we are willing to treat the term
"religious sentiment" as a collective name for the many sentiments which religious
objects may arouse in alternation, we see that it probably contains nothing whatever of a
psychologically specific nature. There is religious fear, religious love, religious awe,
religious joy, and so forth. But religious love is only man's natural emotion of love
directed to a religious object; religious fear is only the ordinary fear of commerce, so to
speak, the common quaking of the human breast, in so far as the notion of divine
retribution may arouse it; religious awe is the same organic thrill which we feel in a forest
at twilight, or in a mountain gorge; only this time it comes over us at the thought of our
supernatural relations; and similarly of all the various sentiments which may be called
into play in the lives of religious persons. As concrete states of mind, made up of a
feeling PLUS a specific sort of object, religious emotions of course are psychic entities