First published in 1905, The Varieties of Religious Experience is a collection of lectures given at the University of Edinburgh in 1901 and 1902. William James was a psychologist, and as such, his interest in religion was not that of a theologian but of a scientist. In these twenty lectures, he discusses the nature and origin of religious belief. The average believer is one who has inherited his religion, but this will not do for James’s inquiry. He must find those believers who have a voracious religious faith, because these people have also often experienced a number of peculiar psychological episodes, including having visions, hearing voices, and falling into trances. Students of psychology and those interested in the mental process of belief will find these lectures informative. American psychologist and philosopher WILLIAM JAMES (1842-1910), brother of novelist Henry James, was a groundbreaking researcher at Harvard University and one of the most popular thinkers of the 19th century. Among his many works are Principles of Psychology (1890) and Human Immortality (1898).
When William James went to the University of Edinburgh in 1901 to deliver a series of lectures on “natural religion,” he defined religion as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.” Considering religion, then, not as it is defined by–or takes place in–the churches, but as it is felt in everyday life, he undertook a project that, upon completion, stands not only as one of the most important texts on psychology ever written, not only as a vitally serious contemplation of spirituality, but for many critics one of the best works of nonfiction written in the 20th century. Reading The Varieties of Religious Experience, it is easy to see why. Applying his analytic clarity to religious accounts from a variety of sources, James elaborates a pluralistic framework in which “the divine can mean no single quality, it must mean a group of qualities, by being champions of which in alternation, different men may all find worthy missions.” It’s an intellectual call for serious religious tolerance–indeed, respect–the vitality of which has not diminished through the subsequent decades.
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