The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James

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Historical Context

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

James’s Contemporaries
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 there were two different properties of the unconscious; one was personal and the other was universal. Jung believed that humans have a natural religious function, and their psychic health depends on expressing it. His religious concepts can be found in his Modern Man in Search of a Soul (1933) and Psychology and Religion (1938).

Wilhelm Wundt (1832–1920) was born in Germany, the son of a Lutheran pastor. Like James, Wundt was interested in both psychology and philosophy. He did research at the University of Leipzig on sensation and perception—similar to what James was doing at the same time at Harvard, with both men being credited with beginning what eventually was referred to as experimental psychology. Later in his life, Wundt focused on cultural psychology by studying the mythologies, cultural practices, literature, and art of various societies. In Elements of Folk Psychology: Outlines of a Psychological History of the Development of Mankind (1916), Wundt develops his concepts of religion.

Political and Social Developments at the Turn of the Century
During the early 1900s, turmoil spread around the world. In the United States, great monopolies continued despite the passage in 1890 of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Unsafe working conditions at factories often resulted in death, and there were no protective laws in place to keep children out of the workplace. There were no mandatory laws to provide guaranteed education, and only 10 percent of the population graduated from high school. Civil rights for minorities did not exist, and lynchings were on the rise in the South. A woman’s right to vote was not written into an amendment until 1919. Internationally, World War I was waiting on the horizon.

On the positive side, the Wright brothers were perfecting their flying machines and Henry Ford established the Ford Motor Company, which would produce the first affordable automobiles, greatly influencing the overall wealth of the United States, and dramatically changing American culture. American pop culture, fashion, and fads spread quickly overseas. The first electric typewriter was invented, as was the hamburger, ice cream cone, comic book, jukebox, and telephone Yellow Pages. New York City put its first taxis on the streets, and the first Rose Bowl and first World Series were played.

In 1901 Theodore Roosevelt became the twenty- sixth American president. He pursued an aggressive thrust to make the United States one of the world powers in order to protect national security. When he took office, U.S. naval power was only the fifth...

(The entire section is 2,093 words.)