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William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience is one of the world's most popular attempts to meld science and religion. Academic reviews of the book were mixed in Europe and America, however, and prominent contemporaries, unsure whether it was science or theology, struggled to interpret it. James's reliance on an inherently ambiguous understanding of the subconscious as a means of bridging between religion and science accounts for some of the interpretive difficulties, but it does not explain why his overarching question was so obscure, why psychopathology and unusual experiences figured so prominently, or why he gave us so many examples and so little argument. To understand these persistent puzzles we need to do more than acknowledge James's indebtedness to Frederic Myers's conception of the subconscious. We need to read VRE in the context of the transatlantic network of experimental psychologists and psychical researchers who provided the primary intellectual inspiration for the book. Doing so not only locates and clarifies the underlying question that animated the work but also illuminates the structural and rhetorical similarities between VRE and Myers's Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death. In contrast to the individual case studies of hysterics, mediums, and mystics produced by others in this network, both Myers and James adopted a natural-history approach in which they arranged examples of automatisms to produce a rhetorical effect, thus invoking science in order to evoke a religious response. Where Myers organized his examples to make a case for human survival of death, James organized his to make a case for the involvement of higher powers in the transformation of the self. Read in this way, VRE marks a dramatic shift from a religious preoccupation with life after death to a religious preoccupation with this-worldly self-transformation.
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Keywords: William James: Frederic Myers; automatisms; experimental psychology; psychical research; religious experience

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Professor of Religious Studies, University of California at Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA 93106-3130;, Email:

Publication date: 2009-06-01

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