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William James' Religious Knowledge

Updated on April 14, 2012

William James is an American philosopher and psychologist who aroused the interest of the academic field through his pragmatic approach to philosophy. For James, religion should be approached from an empirical perspective rather than intellectualizing and theorizing about it. Thus, his pragmatic approach to religion has become grounds for much ontological and moral debate. Though he also assumed that religious beliefs or knowledge is the expression in which each person experience and justify religious beliefs.

Accordingly, James defined religion as the "feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine" and further describe the churches as "when once established, live at second hand upon tradition; but the founders of every church owed their power originally to the fact of their direct personal communion with the divine" (The Varieties of Religious Experience). This pertains not only to the key superhuman prophets or founders of mega religions today like Muhammad, Krishna, Buddha, but encompasses all sect originators. Ergo, personal religion is still the very elemental thing or component.

Furthermore, James describes religious experience as the supreme meaning within an experience that a casual or common investigation would have problem defining besides just looking at the direct origin. Here is where mysticism comes in. The mystical experience that put forward the human experience that is defined within religious traditions validated by language and concepts within the belief system; for instance, prayers are studied to have produced a unique perspective on experiential awareness of the world that results to both meaningful and productive personal contentment of an individual. Thus, religious experience is essential in a way that it provides an avenue for practical benefits that other forms of experience cannot. Some sort of a euphoria that could only be explained within the envelope and boundaries of religious language.

On the part of religious knowledge or ideas, James believes that their existence is not something for people to heavily contemplate on or argue about in an abstract manner because that is not its purpose; Religious knowledge exists for people to use for their own purpose. If such a religious knowledge works for a particular individual, then they, like tools, have served their purpose. If it does not work or satisfy the individual human the way that it is intended to, they are without value or truth and thus have no or irrelevant connection with the practical experiences of the individual's action. In this case, we could also go back and interject why James does not agree that religion should be overly analyzed—if it does not work for us, then it serves no purpose. Ergo, analyzing religious knowledge based on its abstract and premises is just a futile endeavor because it serves no purpose whatsoever—not for the religious knowledge per se and certainly not after proving the point after arguing about it.

This view of religious knowledge allowed James to support and advocate that religious experience is essential because it provides individuals with the practical and realistic benefits that is unique to religion that no other form of experience can.


To sum up James' points, religious knowledge is only beneficial to the individual who believes that these knowledge benefits him in a mystical way that the common laws of science failed to explain. However, over-analysis of such knowledge should be avoided because it will only lead to futile discourse since his premise explains that there is already apprehension or rejection of the idea in the first place.


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    • lee custodio profile image

      lee custodio 6 years ago

      thanks Electro-Denizen for reading my hub. :)

    • Electro-Denizen profile image

      Charles 6 years ago from Wales, UK

      This is very interesting. I'd never heard of this guy... Another one to log into my head somewhere. Good hub, thanks :-)

    • lee custodio profile image

      lee custodio 6 years ago

      hmmm... i guess so. :)

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      Sooner28 6 years ago

      You are going all out with these philosophical hubs!