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The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)

by William James (Author)

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Gifford Lectures (1900-1902)

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Showing 1-5 of 20 (next | show all)
I think this book started out strong, but I just wasn't interested anymore by the time I got to the end (although the fact that it took me several months to read this as an ebook may have played a part in that). Looking at religion from a physhological standpoint is a great idea, though. I also found several memorable quotes from this book:

"Q. What does Religion mean to you?

A. It means nothing; and it seems, so far as I can observe
useless to others. I am sixty-seven years of age and have
resided in X fifty years, and have been in business forty-five,
consequently I have some little experience of life and men, and
some women too, and I find that the most religious and pious
people are as a rule those most lacking in uprightness and
morality.

The men who do not go to church or have any religious convictions
are the best. Praying, singing of hymns, and sermonizing are
pernicious--they teach us to rely on some supernatural power,
when we ought to rely on ourselves. I TEEtotally disbelieve in a
God. The God-idea was begotten in ignorance, fear, and a general
lack of any knowledge of Nature. If I were to die now, being in
a healthy condition for my age, both mentally and physically, I
would just as lief, yes, rather, die with a hearty enjoyment of
music, sport, or any other rational pastime. As a timepiece
stops, we die--there being no immortality in either case."

"Does it not appear as if one who lived more habitually on one
side of the pain-threshold might need a different sort of
religion from one who habitually lived on the other? This
question, of the relativity of different types of religion to
different types of need..."

"Their stimulant and anaesthetic effect is
so great that Professor Leuba, in a recent article,[347] goes so
far as to say that so long as men can USE their God, they care
very little who he is, or even whether he is at all. "The truth
of the matter can be put," says Leuba, "in this way: GOD IS NOT
KNOWN, HE IS NOT UNDERSTOOD; HE IS USED--sometimes as
meat-purveyor, sometimes as moral support, sometimes as friend,
sometimes as an object of love. If he proves himself useful, the
religious consciousness asks for no more than that. Does God
really exist? How does he exist? What is he? are so many
irrelevant questions. Not God, but life, more life, a larger,
richer, more satisfying life, is, in the last analysis, the end
of religion. The love of life, at any and every level of
development, is the religious impulse."[348]" ( )
  AmandaL. | Jan 16, 2016 |
A good, although difficult, read. How does human nature act upon our perceptions of what we consider supernatural? There is validity to our spiritual bent. It comes about through culture and belief. The validity of that belief is independent of scientific verification. ( )
  JVioland | Jul 14, 2014 |
I wore a copy of this book out, and replaced it in the early nineties with this edition. It is both a worthy reference (still, more than 100 years after it was first written), and a pleasure to read. ( )
  Lyndatrue | Jan 9, 2014 |
I am actually glad I read this. It was rather educational. Maybe the most educational example in here is poor old Henry Suso. Yup, he of the "undergarment studded with a hundred and fifty brass nails, sharpened and so fixed as to pierce his skin".

Thomas Paine dismissed this kind of nonsense easily a hundred years before James in The Age of Reason. Someone else's private "revelations" are nothing to me. ( )
  zangasta | Feb 9, 2012 |
The book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, by William James is the result of the 1901 Gifford Lectures on Natural religion at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. My edition was published in 1958. William James was an American psychology professor (Harvard University). He came to philosophy late in his life.

As can be expected of a non-fiction book written in the early part of the last century (1901-2), it is dense. The vocabulary and grammar are a bit stiff and academic. As can be expected of a book that has remained in print for over a century, Varieties in Religious Experience is a fascinating, landmark book.

It takes over 20 pages to define religion as it will be discussed in the lectures/book. “Religion, therefore, as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us 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.” is a quotation from the middle of this discussion, which further defines divine so that it includes the non concrete divine such as in Emerson's Natural Law and Buddhism's atheism.

James' view is of individual extremes of religious emotions, objects, and acts. Apparent unity is artificial, and it is in the variety where one finds the reality of religious inspiration and truth.

This is the first draft of this review, which will be continued when I finish the book, which will be a while, as it is an incredibly dense book. ( )
  Bidwell-Glaze | Jan 8, 2012 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
James, WilliamAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Barzun, JacquesForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Niebuhr, ReinholdIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Nock, Arthur DarbyForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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IN FILIAL GRATITUDE AND LOVE
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This book would never have been written had I not been honored with an appointment as Gifford Lecturer on Natural Religion at the University of Edinburgh.
It is with no small amount of trepidation that I take my place behind this desk, and face this learned audience. To us Americans, the experience of receiving instruction from the living voice, as well as from the books, of European scholars, is very familiar. At my own University of Harvard, not a winter passes without its harvest, large or small, of lectures from Scottish, English, French, or German representatives of the science or literature of their respective countries whom we have either induced to cross the ocean to address us, or captured on the wing as they were visiting our land. It seems the natural thing for us to listen whilst the Europeans talk. The contrary habit, of talking whilst the Europeans listen, we have not yet acquired; and in him who first makes the adventure it begets a certain sense of apology being due for so presumptuous an act. Particularly must this be the case on a soil as sacred to the American imagination as that of Edinburgh. The glories of the philosophic chair of this university were deeply impressed on my imagination in boyhood. Professor Fraser’s Essays in Philosophy, then just published, was the first philosophic book I ever looked into, and I well remember the awestruck feeling I received from the account of Sir William Hamilton’s classroom therein contained. Hamilton’s own lectures were the first philosophic writings I ever forced myself to study, and after that I was immersed in Dugald Stewart and Thomas Brown. Such juvenile emotions of reverence never get outgrown; and I confess that to find my humble self promoted from my native wilderness to be actually for the time an official here, and transmuted into a colleague of these illustrious names, carries with it a sense of dreamland quite as much as of reality.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0140390340, Paperback)

"I am neither a theologian, nor a scholar learned in the history of religions, nor an anthropologist. Psychology is the only branch of learning in which I am particularly versed. To the psychologist the religious propensities of man must be at least as interesting as any other of the facts pertaining to his mental constitution. It would seem, therefore, as a psychologist, the natural thing for me would be to invite you to a descriptive survey of those religious propensities."

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:03:28 -0400)

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The Varieties of Religious Experience, by William James, is part of the Barnes & Noble Classics series, which offers quality editions at affordable prices to the student and the general reader, including new scholarship, thoughtful design, and pages of carefully crafted extras. Here are some of the remarkable features of Barnes & Noble Classics:

  • New introductions commissioned from today's top writers and scholars
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  • Selective discussions of imitations, parodies, poems, books, plays, paintings, operas, statuary, and films inspired by the work
  • Comments by other famous authors
  • Study questions to challenge the reader's viewpoints and expectations
  • Bibliographies for further reading
  • Indices & Glossaries, when appropriateAll editions are beautifully designed and are printed to superior specifications; some include illustrations of historical interest. Barnes & Noble Classics pulls together a constellation of influences—biographical, historical, and literary—to enrich each reader's understanding of these enduring works.

    Acclaimed as one of the greatest works of nonfiction published in the twentieth century, William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience was revolutionary in its view of religious life as centered not within the Church but solely within “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude. Using the language of psychology, James tries to explain religious phenomena—such as conversion, repentance, mysticism, and saintliness—as psychic energy that arises from the unconscious mind in times of trouble. To support his theories, James turns to the autobiographical writings of a wide variety of mystics and writers, including Walt Whitman, Martin Luther, Voltaire, Emerson, and Tolstoy. The result is a colorful and wide-ranging collection of recorded experiences that James compares, categorizes, and analyzes. Many of his categories—including the sick soul, the divided self, and healthy-mindedness—have become standard in the study of religions. Exquisitely written, The Varieties of Religious Experience has had a profound influence on modern spiritual thought, including the psychology of religion and recovery programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

    Wayne Proudfoot is Professor of Religion at Columbia University, specializing in the philosophy of religion. He has published Religious Experience, as well as articles on William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and American Protestant thought.… (more)

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