ordinary religious believers vs religious geniuses

In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James makes a distinction between two kinds of religious people: the ordinary religious believer versus the religious genius.

The ordinary religious believer

This is the person who oftentimes from his upbringing has been taught to be part of a particular religion. Most Christians are Christians because their parents are Christians and have brought them up as Christians. The same is true for Muslims, Buddhist, Hindus and most other religions.

Many of these people have never experienced deep, transformational, religious experiences.

There can be no doubt that as a matter of fact a religious life, exclusively pursued, does tend to make the person exceptional and eccentric. I speak not now of your ordinary religious believer, who follows the conventional observances of his country, whether it be Buddhist, Christian, or Mohammedan. His religion has been made for him by others, communicated to him by tradition, determined to fixed forms by imitation, and retained by habit. It would profit us little to study this second-hand religious life.

This kind of religion is often lived by following a prescribed set of rituals, adhering to the values laid out to them by institutionalized religion, and they adhere to and set what’s thought to as “the norm”.

Religious geniuses

These are a very different kind of religious people. They undergo intense, hardcore religious experiences that often can be deeply unsettling. They’re religious not because that’s how they’re brought up, but they’re religious because they’ve had personal experiences that made them question the nature of life.

We must make search rather for the original experiences which were the pattern-setters to all this mass of suggested feeling and imitated conduct. These experiences we can only find in individuals for whom religion exists not as a dull habit, but as an acute fever rather.

We often look at religious leaders as heroes. We idolize and idealize them, put them on a pedestal that sets them apart from us, as if they’re cut from a completely different cloth, as if they’re a completely different species. What we fail to see is that the spiritual insights they share are often the result of experiences few of us would be willing to undergo.

But such individuals are “geniuses” in the religious line; and like many other geniuses who have brought forth fruits effective enough for commemoration in the pages of biography, such religious geniuses have often shown symptoms of nervous instability. Even more perhaps than other kinds of genius, religious leaders have been subject to abnormal psychical visitations. Invariably they have been creatures of exalted emotional sensibility. Often they have led a discordant inner life, and had melancholy during a part of their career. They have known no measure, been liable to obsessions and fixed ideas; and frequently they have fallen into trances, heard voices, seen visions, and presented all sorts of peculiarities which are ordinarily classed as pathological. Often, moreover, these pathological features in their career have helped to give them their religious authority and influence.

Would you be willing to lose your mind? Would you be willing to sacrifice your sanity? Maybe you would, if you knew that at the end of this experience, you’d emerge with deep religious wisdom and become a person of greater value to your community. But would you still if you didn’t know this? Would you still if it felt like you were just losing your mind, would you still move forward if this journey might be nothing but a descent into madness? Because the truth is, we can never know where this path will lead us, and few things are as troubling and unsettling as the fear of losing your mind, and with it, everyone and everything you love and cherish, including your own identity, however troubled it might be.

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