In The Varieties, James sets up a continuum of religious personality orientations. At one end he places the "healthy minded," people for whom "happiness is congenital and irreclaimable." By healthy minded, James means "those, who, when unhappiness is offered or proposed to them, positively refuse to feel it, as if it were something mean and wrong." At the other end, he places the "sick souled," people who tend to maximize the evil they encounter in life, "based on the persuasion that the evil aspects of our life are of its very essence." The sick-souled individual has a divided sense of self that can only be unified through a transformative experience. James calls this transformation "conversion," which he links to a shift in attention and focus. One's focus "may come to lie permanently within a certain system; and then, if the change be a religious one, we call it a conversion, especially if it be by crisis, or sudden."
James was also fascinated by mystical experience. He hypothesized that "personal religious experience has its root and center in mystical states of consciousness." But he felt excluded from the full intensity of mystical experience. So he came to believe that while mystical experience is "absolutely authoritative" for those individuals who experience it, those without such experience should not feel compelled to accept mystical revelations uncritically. Although one cannot know the intensity or personal authority of another's mystical experience, what can be known is how that experience manifests itself in the "fruits" of religious charity, good works, and saintliness.
Morality and religion were interrelated for James because he believed religion could provide the energy to be moral when a purely "athletic" type of ethics "inevitably" weakens and disintegrates. James argued that a primary function of religion was not simply to supply moral prescriptions that allow one to accept the nature of the universe with fear or "stoic resignation," but rather to transcend "morality pure and simple" and accept the universe with "passionate happiness." Ultimately, James believed, we were dependent on the universe, and must inevitably face sacrifice and surrender. Religion thus makes attractive and genuine "what in any case is necessary."
James used the moral fruits of individual lives to gauge and understand the depth and intensity of the religious experience that precipitated them. By analogy, the importance of James's study of religious experience can be gauged by the profound influence it had on the subsequent history of the psychology of religion, including the work of Theodore Flournoy, Carl Jung, Gordon Allport, and Eugene Taylor.
Philosophical Psychology of Religion
James's lifetime interest in philosophy became his major mode of operation near the end of his career, and he devoted one of the last lectures in The Varieties to "Philosophy." James's contributions to the philosophical psychology of religious experience incorporated his dominant philosophical concepts-pluralism, radical empiricism, and pragmatism.
James held that the human condition is too varied to be accounted for by any single explanatory system. Rather, a plurality of powers (variables, gods, etc.) must be taken into account. James's open-mindedness led him to conclude that the study of religion should always emphasize the worthy-of-respect validity of multiple perspectives, traditions, and extremes in religious experience. He argued that different temperaments need different types of religious experiences.
To James, religious pluralism was an ethical value that restrained one-sidedness and promoted tolerance.