The Varieties of Religious Experience (Religious Reactions)

Religion, whatever it is, is a man’s total reaction upon life, so why not say that any total reaction upon life is a religion? Total reactions are different from causal reactions, and total attitudes are different from usual or professional attitudes. To get at them you must go behind the foreground of existence and reach down to that curious sense of the whole residual cosmos as an everlasting presence, intimate or alien, terrible or amusing, lovable or odious, which in some degree every one possesses.

This sense of the world’s presence, appealing as it does to our peculiar individual temperament, makes us either strenuous or careless, devout or blasphemous, gloomy or exultant, about life at large; and our reaction, involuntary and inarticulate and often half unconscious as it is, is the completest of all our answers to the question, “What is the character of this universe in which we dwell?

It expresses our individual sense of it in the most definite way. Why then not call these reactions our religion, no matter what specific character they may have? Non-religious as some of these reactions may be, in one sense of the word ‘religious,’ they yet belong to the general sphere of the religious life, and so should generically be classed as religious reactions.

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902).

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