Why am I blogging my chapter-by-chapter thoughts on William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience (hardcover, Kindle)? First, I’m correcting the slightly embarrassing fact that I have never read it, despite it’s being a classic of non-fiction and one of the most famous secular analyses of religion ever written. Second, because I’ve been lassoed into leading a discussion of it at a book club meeting a couple of months from now, and this will help me organize that task. Third…well, I’ve done this sort of thing before (see my chapter-by-chapter posts on Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth, Irshad Manji’s Allah, Liberty and Love, Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape, and Harris’s Waking Up), and I’ve generally had a good response.
Since this is the first time I’ve blogged like this on a book that is not contemporary, a little background info is in order. William James (1842-1910) was an American philosopher and psychologist, a New York scion and a graduate of Harvard Medical School. He made his career as a professor at his alma mater, but in 1901-2 he delivered a series of lectures on religion at the University of Edinburgh (yes, in Scotland). These lectures were subsequently published as The Varieties of Religious Experience, James’ most famous and most influential work.
Lecture I – Religion and Neurology
In introducing himself James notes that he is “neither a theologian, nor a scholar learned in the history of religions, nor an anthropologist.” His interest is in approaching religion as a psychologist. We will also see that James is necessarily limited by the state of psychology and medicine at the turn of the 20th century. While the germ theory of disease (to pick an example) had long been accepted by the medical community of 1901, medical science as we think of it today was still in its infancy. James occasionally makes odd references to “overinstigated” nerves, torpid livers and disordered colons as among the physical conditions that might affect a person’s overall attitude or mental states. (It may be significant to note that, while James was an MD, he never actually practiced medicine.)