Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion

Living Edition
| Editors: David A. Leeming

William James and Conversion

  • Gerardo Del GuercioEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-27771-9_200236-1

James, William (January 11, 1842–August 26, 1910): William James was born in Lower Manhattan on January 11, 1884, to the affluent Henry James, Sr. and Mary Robertson Walsh. In addition, he is the older brother of writers Henry James and Alice James. William James subsequently gravitated into the most famous American Philosopher of the nineteenth century. Together with Charles S. Pierce and John Dewey, James led the philosophical movement called pragmatism and was later named “the father of American Psychology.” At Harvard University, James studied anatomy and physiology under physiologist Louis Agassiz’s tutelage. Afterwards, James’ focus changed to psychology and the interplay between experience, thinking, and conduct.

Although William James published several works, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature is his most notable. In it, James illustrated that over and above being regarded as a chief psychologist, he was also measured an important philosopher and religious intellectual. Additionally, James called the speeches he structured from The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature a “descriptive survey” (5) of the multiplicities of devout understanding; however, this formed only part of the narrative. Indeed, the James’ lectures safeguarded his pragmatic interpretation of religion alongside other psychology accounts of faith which understood it as an uncharacteristic outlook or endeavored to diminish religion to an intellectual bustle.

In the essay “Circumscription of the Topic,” William James explained religion in terms of individual experience: “the feeling, acts and experience of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they consider to be divine” (James, 36). Under no circumstances did James comment on the heavenly existence as well as to putting forward that religion encompassed one starting place in the human psyche. Religion is not exclusively originated in a singular or alternative perception. Consequently, religious thinkers, sociologists, and psychologists claiming religion is comprehensively elucidated from their select point-of-view as a discipline differ from James; rather, James argued religion played a role in turning intolerable life characteristics into tolerable ones. Unmistakably, humans frequently depend on religion in order to confront daily impediments of pain, disease, defeat, and death. Religious conviction additionally assists individuals to survive as individuals in the world.

Psychoanalytic Mystic Dan Merkur investigates James’ meticulous curiosity in the study of the progression a nonreligious person employs to adopt a religious life – conversion. Simply put, James invested work on the way religion differs from the present day’s notion of irreligion leading him to observe religious practice in terms of an attribute of conversion. James contended religious knowledge includes four rudiments: they are indescribable, authoritative, limited in time and the spiritual is passive (Merkur, 190). Religious experience comes before religious establishments in James’ philosophy and this should be religion’s primary aim. Devoid of religious experiences leading to religion’s belief system configuration, the establishments would be nonexistent. This places psychologists in an advantageous position to research religion within their expertise in order to study the psyche which in their scholarship is where experience is situated.

William James contrasted contemporaries including Sigmund Freud by offering a psychological defense of religion. Freud advocated a relatively negative regard toward it. On the other hand, James recognized experience in terms of a significant attribute of the study of religion rather than of a canon or institution establishing a challenge for conventional theological ideology formations of the self, religion, and sacred customs.

In short, William James did not intend to solve the major philosophical dilemmas of his era. Instead, he attempted to place them into categories for people to resolve their own troubles. In his influential 1896 essay “The Will to Believe,” James argued every individual must decide on their own difficulties stemming from the human psyche and that fate cannot be settled on a scientific basis (25). James ultimately advocated that if humans believe in the possibility of a future occurrence taking place, then this conviction augments our power to assistance in making this event achievable when the time arrives for action.



  1. James, W. (2002a). Religion and neurology. In The varieties of religious experience: A study in human nature (pp. 3–30). New York/Toronto: Modern Library.Google Scholar
  2. James, W. (2002b). Lecture II: Circumscription of the topic. In The varieties of religious experience: A study in human nature (pp. 31–60). New York/Toronto: Modern Library.Google Scholar
  3. James, W. (2014). The will to believe. In The will to believe, and other essays in popular philosophy (pp. 1–30). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.York College, The City University of New YorkNew York CityUSA