Alfred Adler (1870–1937), an Austrian psychiatrist, began his studies with Sigmund Freud but eventually disagreed with Freud’s emphasis on sexual trauma as the main source of mental disorders and parted ways with him. Adler’s main theory was that people should be studied as a whole, as beings who spend their lives reacting to the environment, rather than as a summation of their drives and emotions. In respect to religion, he contended that human belief in a God was one way of aspiring toward perfection. His theories were expounded in his book Neurotic Constitution (1912).
Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), also an Austrian psychiatrist, is often called the father of psychoanalysis. His research on the unconscious still affects the study of psychology in the twenty-first century. His basic tenet was that people experience conflicts between what they desire and what are the confines of their societal customs. The development of religion, Freud contended, began with a child’s need for a relationship with the father. Later in life, Freud published the book The Future of Illusion (1927), in which he debunked theories of religion on scientific grounds.
Carl Jung (1875–1961) was at one time a pupil of Freud, but like Adler, Jung also disagreed with Freud’s emphasis on sexuality. Jung’s interest was in the connection between the conscious and unconscious minds. One of his main theories stated...
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Since The Varieties of Religious Experience was originally delivered in the form of spoken lectures, the style of writing is dictated more by the rules of oration than by those of composition. A series of twenty separate lectures were given by James in 1901. In these lectures, James first presents his ideas, then defines their terms and provides examples to demonstrate the significance of his findings.
James talks directly to the audience in the firstperson point of view. His arguments follow a logical path, sometimes using questions to lead his discussion forward and next providing the responses as he interprets them. Since his lectures offer extensive material that must be slowly assimilated, he breaks down his information into easily digestible portions. His use of examples not only adds signifi- cance to his theories but also offers a break in the intellectual discourse. The examples put a face on the concepts James is trying to convey and are like stories within stories, often encompassing extraordinary events.
The structure of James’s lectures follows a pattern that begins with the basic understanding of religion and neurology and then slowly rises from the more practical to the highest elevations of the spiritual, concluding with lectures on saintliness, mysticism, and philosophy. In so doing, James builds a strong foundation of understanding. He provides a language for all who are listening to him, so they will completely...
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Compare and Contrast
1910s: Buddhism becomes popular in the West. Zen Buddhism is spread through the presentations of Japanese Zen leader D. T. Suzuki.
1950s: June 30, 1956, the phrase ‘‘In God We Trust’’ is adopted as the U.S. national motto. In the following year it begins to appear on U.S. paper currency. It was already in use on certain coins since 1864.
Today: Cardinal Francis Arinze, a Nigerian who is on the short list for candidates to succeed Pope John Paul II, travels around the world promoting inter-religious dialogue. He is the president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.
1910s: Sigmund Freud publishes his book The Interpretation of Dreams in English in 1913, and the first journal devoted to psychology, Journal of Applied Psychology, begins publishing in 1917.
1950s: In 1950, Alan M. Turing publishes his article ‘‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’’ in the quarterly Mind, and the American Association of Psychology publishes the first Code of Ethics of Psychologists in 1953.
Today: The 27th International Congress of Psychology is held in Stockholm, Sweden, in July 2000. A U.S. Labor Department census for the year 2000 reports that there are approximately 200,000 psychologists employed in the United States.
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Topics for Further Study
James did not put a lot of faith in organized religion, but rather in the personal experience of religious inspiration. Focus on his arguments against institutionalized religion, then research the philosophical ideas of Martin Luther. How do the two mens’ ideas clash? Write your conclusions and explain where you stand in this debate.
Research the basic tenets of the transcendentalists, and read Emerson’s lecture ‘‘Self Reliance.’’ Create a dialogue between James and Emerson on the topic of religion based on your comparison.
Choose one of James’s contemporaries (such as Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, or Wilhelm Wundt) and compare his theory of people’s need for religion to James’s. In what areas are they of like minds? How do they differ? In your opinion, are their theories compatible with modern times? Why or why not?
Interview two clerical leaders of two very different local churches, synagogues, and/or mosques. Prepare yourself for the meetings with a list of at least fifteen to twenty questions. These questions should reflect the ideas that James has put forth in his book. Some of the questions might reflect some of your own considerations after reading the book. Write a paper of your findings, comparing the thoughts of the clerics with James’s theories.
One of the concluding chapters of James’s book deals with mysticism. Research three major organized religions (such as Buddhism, Taoism,...
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An audiotape of James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, narrated by Flo Gibson and published in 2001, is available from Audio Book Contractors. A 1994 audio version narrated by Erik Bauersfeld is available from Knowledge Tapes.
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What Do I Read Next?
A reading of Bruce Kuklick’s collection William James: Writings 1902–1910 (1988) offers a comprehensive understanding of the range of James’s views. This work also includes addresses on Emerson and James’s famous essay ‘‘The Moral Equivalent of War.’’
James’s Essays in Religion and Morality (1982) extends the concepts covered in The Varieties of Religious Experience. Essays in Religion and Morality was published by James’s alma mater, Harvard University, and includes an introduction by John J. McDermott, a Jamesian scholar.
The Meaning of Truth: A Sequel to ‘‘Pragmatism’’ (1909) was one of the last books by James to be published before his death. This book delves into the most important of James’s philosophical discourses.
James’s most significant study, The Principles of Psychology (1905), was one of the first comprehensive textbooks about the study of psychology, leading to James earning the title of ‘‘father of psychology.’’
James was close to his brother Henry, a novelist who spent most of his life living in Europe. The brothers’ correspondence is collected in William and Henry James: Selected Letters (1997), which offers an insider’s look at their relationship and shared concepts.
To gain a further understanding of the development of religious experience in the United States, read The Republic of Many...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Ferrari, Michel, Introduction, in Journal of Consciousness Studies, Vol. 9, No. 9–10, 2002, pp. 1–10.
Leib, Erin, ‘‘God’s Pragmatist,’’ in New Republic, June 24, 2002, p. 38.
Menand, Louis, ‘‘The Return of Pragmatism,’’ in American Heritage, Vol. 48, No. 6, October 1997, pp. 48–57.
Taylor, Charles, ‘‘Risking Belief: Why William James Still Matters,’’ in Commonweal, Vol. 129, No. 5, March 8, 2002, p. 14.
Turing, Alan M., ‘‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence,’’ in Mind, Vol. 59, No. 236, October 1950, pp. 433–60.
‘‘William James Dies: Great Psychologist,’’ in the New York Times, August 27, 1910.
Zaleski, Carol, ‘‘A Letter to William James,’’ in Christian Century, Vol. 1, No. 2, January 16, 2002, p. 32.
———, ‘‘William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902),’’ in First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, March 2000, p. 60.
Feinstein, Howard M., Becoming William James, Cornell University Press, 1999. This biography of James was originally published in 1982. This edition offers a new introduction.
Grattan, C. Hartley, The Three Jameses; A Family of Minds, Longmans, Green, and Company, 1932. Grattan presents the lives of father Henry and...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
Sources for Further Study
Carrette, Jeremy, ed. William James and “The Varieties of Religious Experience”: A Centenary Celebration. New York: Routledge, 2005. A collection of more than a dozen scholarly essays examining James and the history of psychology; James, psychology, and religion; and James and mysticism. Illustrated; bibliographical references, index.
James, William. The Meaning of Truth. New York: Longmans, Green, 1909. This is James’s more mature and systematic position on truth, which is quite relevant to his suggestions at the end of the present work and The Will to Believe.
James, William. The Will to Believe, and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy. New York: Dover, 1956. Particularly in the title essay, James virtually takes up where he disappointedly left off in The Varieties of Religious Experience, with an evaluation of the truth of religious beliefs.
Richardson, Robert D. William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. A major biography of James, a comprehensive tome at 622 pages, with plates, illustrations, maps, bibliographical references, and index. Includes several chapters on James’s religious thought, including one on The Varieties of Religious Experience.
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