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VINE VOICEon 7 June 2003
A hundred years after its first publication, James' "Varieties of Religious Experience" is still probably the best place to start a study of the psychology of religion. Based on lectures delivered at Edinburgh in 1901-2, it is supplemented with an astonishing wealth of extracts from religious writings. Although understandably biased toward Western, specifically Christian traditions, it is breathtaking in its scope. Nowhere else will you find such a wide ranging and thorough survey of all those experiences and attitudes - mystical, emotional, ethical, visionary - that we term 'religious'. You will never get around to reading all of the authors quoted in this book, so this is the place to sample them.
Some readers will approach this work as believers seeking clarification, others as sceptics seeking to understand. Their viewpoint may be philosophical or theological or psychological. All will be rewarded. Critics voted this among the best 100 books of the twentieth century. If you want insight into humanity's religious dimension, it should be your number one choice.
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on 10 September 2001
Don't let the title of this serious looking book put you off- this book could change your life. William James is a hypnotic writer, his thought-provoking words truly enter the heart and soul of the reader. His psychological descriptions of events such as an alcoholic's 'moment of clarity' are truly poignant without sentimentality. James does not force the reader to chose between the religious or psychological explanations for the mysteries of life, but simply explains how our experiences shape our views. Essential reading for the thinker - this book will stay with you forever.
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on 24 September 2011
It is often said of classics that one is meant to know about but not actually read them. How many believers in evolution have actually waded through Darwin's dry tome? Well, this book is certainly an exception to that rule, and will leave most readers with changed views both on what religion really means as well as its significance to the individual. I'd seen the book quoted so many times by other authors that finally I decided to see what it was all about, and I'm glad I did. The many quotes I'd read from the book at various times were no substitite for the real thing. Don't be put off by what may appear from the outside as one of those dry comparative religion books. This is not about ecclesiastics, ceremonials, or creeds, but focuses on the common religious experience underlying mankind's various religions and philosophies. It shows that the religious experience and its effect on the individual is a process not limited to any religion or belief, but a phenomenon underlying the human experience. As it is such a powerful personal experience, it has led to the formation of many religions, but these have generally had the effect of stifling spiritual growth. No-one has a monopoly on spirituality, however much some religions try to promote such a misconception.

Interesting is his distinction between 'once-born' and 'twice-born' people (not to be confused with the Christian concept of 'born-again' - not all born-again Christians are twice-born, while not all twice-borns are born-again Christians, which for many just means an acceptance of the Christian creeds, a belief that Christ died for one's salvation). The twice-born person has gone through a period of intense spiritual suffering, their 'long dark night of the soul', and come out at the other end a new individual, with new spiritual insights and a new perspective on life and its challenges. Some born-again Christians do fit this description, but not many. One could reject one's Christianity, but one could never revert from twice to once-born.

We all know people who've never given a thought about spirituality, life or death. Generally, but not always, they are people who quickly found a comfortable place in society, and have not had a major spiritual crisis to shake them up a bit, or lack the sensibility to be affected by them when they do occur. These are the once-born individuals referred to by James. Until genuine spiritual growth occurs in such people they are likely to remain uninterested in anything but the material, or remain unthinkingly devout to the religion which they were, quite by chance, born into, and if they had to review a book like this, would be unlikely to award more than a single star.

I cannot recommend reading this book more strongly. Its one of those books that you'll never forget because in some undefinable way it leaves your a changed person. Having read many other more modern books on a similar theme, I can only say it more than favourably compares to many of them. The English is clearly early twentieth century, but still lucid and very readable, with few of the horrible literary devices with which many of the learned both then and now try to make their works more 'academic'.
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This remarkable work remains one of the most influential books on the interface of psychology and spirituality. The style is accessible and consistently interesting with well-reasoned arguments. Religions are not compared; the study is restricted to the experiences of the individual. The field of study is clearly defined and circumscribed. Chapter titles include Religion & Neurology, the Reality of the Unseen, the Religion of Healthy-Mindedness, the Sick Soul, the Divided Self & the Process of Unification, Conversion, Saintliness, Mysticism and Philosophy.

James considers the feelings, actions and experiences of individuals, insofar as they understand themselves to be in a relationship with whatever they consider the Divine. It thus deals with the spirituality of everyday life and has nothing to do with churches, doctrine or dogma. This is similar to what emerges when Geza Vermes explores the Authentic Gospel of Jesus; there's very little on doctrine but much about attitudes, relationships and behavior towards others.

Dealing objectively with a wide spectrum of observed and personally related religious experiences, James quotes from the autobiographical writings of famous authors, theologians and mystics from many traditions including Whitman, Luther, Voltaire, Emerson and Tolstoy. He mentions the importance of the passionate side of religion and its power of adding enchantment to life. Although it is not a difficult read, patience is called for since every sentence is loaded with multiple layers of meaning; one often has to reread a previous paragraph in order to fully grasp and properly process the insights and information. A mindful, meditative study of the text will richly reward the reader.

In his own words: "Both thought and feeling are determinants of conduct, and the same conduct may be determined either by feeling or thought. When we survey the whole field of religion, we find a great variety in the thoughts that have prevailed there; but the feelings on the one hand and the conduct on the other are almost always the same, for Stoic, Christian and Buddhist saints are practically indistinguishable in their lives. The theories which religion generates, being thus variable, are secondary. If you wish to grasp its essence, you must look to the feelings and the conduct as being the more constant elements."

As a comprehensive & thorough survey it offers valuable insights, revelations and points to ponder that contribute significantly to the reader's understanding of consciousness, psychological processes, mystic states, thought, emotion and the individual's relationship with the Eternal Divine. Simultaneously serving as a trenchant plea for religious tolerance, it sometimes read like a gripping novel, especially the chapters on the religion of healthy-mindedness, the sick soul, and mysticism.

Other works on psychology, religion and/or spirituality that I have found inspiring or informative are The Creative Process in the Individual by Thomas Troward, Religion in the Making by Alfred North Whitehead, The Hidden Power of the Bible by Ernest Holmes, Alter Your Life by Emmet Fox, Cracking the Bible Code by Jeffrey Satinover and above all, A Psychology of Hope by Kaplan and Schwarz.
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It has been said that Henry James wrote his novels as philosophical treatises while his brother William wrote his philosophical works as novels. This 1902 publication is justifiably considered as one of the 20th century’s most influential books on psychology and spirituality.
James considers the feelings, actions and experiences of individuals, insofar as they understand themselves to be in a relationship with whatever they consuider the divine. It is thus about the religion of everyday life and has nothing to do with churches and dogma.
He writes objectively about a wide spectrum of religious experiences and quotes from the autobiographical writings of famous mystics from many traditions and of people like Whitman, Luther, Voltaire, Emerson, Tolstoy and many others. No religions are compared, only the experiences of the individual, and his arguments are well-reasoned.
In his own words: “Both thought and feeling are determinants of conduct, and the same conduct may be determined either by feeling or thought. When we survey the whole field of religion, we find a great variety in the thoughts that have prevailed there; but the feelings on the one hand and the conduct on the other are almost always the same, for Stoic, Christian and Buddhist saints are practically indistinguishable in their lives. The theories which religion generates, being thus variable, are secondary. If you wish to grasp its essence, you must look to the feelings and the conduct as being the more constant elements.”
This book is a treasure trove of insights and collected wisdom that simultaneously serves as a trenchant plea for religious tolerance. And yes, it does sometimes read like a gripping novel, especially the chapters on the religion of healthy-mindedness, the sick soul, and mysticism.

The reader should be patient though. Although it is not a difficult text to grasp, every sentence is loaded with so much meaning that one has to return regularly to previous paragraphs in order to fully understand and process the arguments and insights. A thorough, patient study of the text will richly reward the reader.
An even more rewarding experience can be had by studying Richard Maurice Bucke’s “Cosmic Consciousness” and Stephan A. Hoeller’s “The Gnostic Jung and the Seven Sermons to the Dead” at the same time. These three classic works complement one another in a most marvelous way.
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on 10 October 2014
An important publication by one of the founding members of psychology usefully republished in our own time. The style of the writing is somewhat difficult to read in our own times but is a valued contribution to our understanding.
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on 31 March 2013
The sense of an unseen presence, conversion experiences, mystic visions... such things are the seeds of all religion, say James, and he surveys them here with much quoting from autobiographical literature. His standards are pragmatic, his attitude is sympathetic, his style is avuncular and his pace is (perhaps too) relaxed. If you're in a hurry you could skip to the last chapter where he summarises his findings and presents his conclusions. These range from the conservative and underwhelming to the personal, speculative and much more interesting.
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This landmark work remains one of the most influential books ever on psychology and spirituality. The style is accessible and engaging, consistently interesting with well-reasoned arguments. Religions are not compared; the study is restricted to the experiences of the individual. The field of study is clearly defined and circumscribed. Chapter titles include Religion & Neurology, the Reality of the Unseen, the Religion of Healthy-Mindedness, the Sick Soul, the Divided Self & the Process of Unification, Conversion, Saintliness, Mysticism and Philosophy.

James considers the feelings, actions and experiences of individuals, insofar as they understand themselves to be in a relationship with whatever they consider the Divine. It is thus about the religion of everyday life and has nothing to do with churches and dogma. This is similar to what emerges when Geza Vermes explores the Authentic Gospel of Jesus; there's very little on doctrine but much about relationships and behavior towards others.

He mentions the importance of the passionate side of religion and its power of adding enchantment to life. Dealing objectively with a wide spectrum of observed and personally related religious experiences, James quotes from the autobiographical writings of famous authors, theologians and mystics from many traditions including Whitman, Luther, Voltaire, Emerson and Tolstoy.

In his own words: "Both thought and feeling are determinants of conduct, and the same conduct may be determined either by feeling or thought. When we survey the whole field of religion, we find a great variety in the thoughts that have prevailed there; but the feelings on the one hand and the conduct on the other are almost always the same, for Stoic, Christian and Buddhist saints are practically indistinguishable in their lives. The theories which religion generates, being thus variable, are secondary. If you wish to grasp its essence, you must look to the feelings and the conduct as being the more constant elements."

This book is a comprehensive survey which offers valuable insights, revelation, wisdom and points to ponder that contribute significantly to the reader's understanding of consciousness, psychological processes, mystic states, thought, emotion and the individual's relationship with the Eternal Divine. Simultaneously serving as a trenchant plea for religious tolerance, it does sometimes read like a gripping novel, especially the chapters on the religion of healthy-mindedness, the sick soul, and mysticism.

Although it is not a difficult read, patience is called for since every sentence is loaded with multiple layers of meaning; one often has to reread a previous paragraph in order to fully grasp and properly process the insights and information. A mindful, meditative study of the text will richly reward the reader. An even more rewarding experience can be had by studying Richard Maurice Bucke's 1901 classic Cosmic Consciousness and Stephan A. Hoeller's The Gnostic Jung and the Seven Sermons to the Dead at the same time. These valuable works complement one another in a most marvelous way.

Other works on psychology, religion and/or spirituality that I have found inspiring or informative are The Creative Process in the Individual by Thomas Troward, Religion in the Making by Alfred North Whitehead, The Hidden Power of the Bible by Ernest Holmes, Alter Your Life by Emmet Fox, Cracking the Bible Code by Jeffrey Satinover and above all, A Psychology of Hope by Kaplan and Schwarz.
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VINE VOICEon 13 May 2010
A worthy subject,bringing philosophy back to its Socratic roots in our humanity,reconciling emotions with rationality. Emotions are an important part of an active,searching and thinking human being.The human world is full of emotions not because we are animals at heart,but rather because it is still full of signals that elate or threaten,and replete with events or people that produce discrepancies or interruptions,creating visceral responses.In the VRE,James examined the biographies of people who reported a belief that `there is an unseen order,and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto'.Such beliefs were subjective,but nonetheless real to the experiencer,and they had manifest effects on the individual's conduct.When such effects were `good',the individual was right to exercise the `will to believe', although not to insist that others share the same belief.Pragmatic philosophy emphasised usefulness rather than truth.The truth of which he spoke was not absolute but relative to each individual.

The `pluralistic and unfinished universe' had undiscovered potentialities, which different individuals might make actual through the hypotheses they held,the choices they made,and the purposes they pursued.The particulars of religious faith are true insofar as they provide the believer with emotional fulfilment.Also the mind is part of the body,and that an individual's mental adjustments are in fact environmental responses.The relationship of mind to world,is using it to control choice,effort and will,making adjustments which are modified by deterministic factors such as heredity and biology.In this he comes close to Meaurleau-Ponty's phenomenology.He was the coinerof wonderful phrases like 'divided self','mental state','subliminal consciousness','subconscious'.He influenced important thinkers like Jung and Wittgenstein.We learn through him the difference between 'belief in God' and 'belief in the existence of God',we're not talking about proofs but about benefits.
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on 16 October 2013
Great book tackling the subject of Psychology of Religion. James describes how, according to him, people are emotionally predestined to be religious and what kind of religious they will be. Very interesting.
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