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Religion, spirituality and the individual: William James

William James (1936) was among the most important analysts to take the nature of religious experience seriously. As a psychologist, James was most interested in the internal intimate communion with the divine rather than in the social function and effects of religion.

James defined religion as the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.

James warned against confounding the phenomena of mere tribal or corporate psychology that he deemed religion's wicked intellectual partner or dogmatic dominion with manifestations of the purely interior life that are the exclusive object of our study. Thus James differentiated first hand religion that is, experiential, internal religious experience from secondhandreligion, or external religious doctrines, creeds and institutions.

This distinction between religious experience at the individual as opposed to the corporate level is useful in explaining many paradoxes in the sociology of religion, such as why women might be more religious than men even though the doctrines to which they adhere discriminate against them.

James's distinction between an interior spiritual life and corporate religion also coincides well with the perspective of a growing contingent of people who consider themselves spiritual but not religious.