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The Varieties of Religious Experience

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William James' treatise on religious experiences attempts to cogently explain aspects of psychology related to mystical experiences.

James was most interested in the direct experiences of people, which they and sometimes observers would afterwards claim as religious or spiritual in tone. Whether the experience was deemed a mystical connection, or as a sign of prophecy or other religious significance, and how these could translate into future significance in faiths - such as the designation of saintliness - are topics which concern the author.

The book itself is divided into twenty different lectures, each of which focuses upon religion and its relation to psychology. James makes a distinction between religion conceived by a healthy mind, and religious experiences which denote some form of psychic malady or illness, a phenomenon James refers to as 'the sick soul'.

James explores in detail how religious experiences, and their retelling, result in the growth and expansion of religions. Conversions have, James notes, resulted from the convincing nature and aspects shared by spiritual events experienced by individual adherents.

Writing at the beginning of the 20th century, there had hitherto been little serious attempt at analysing and cataloguing the religious experiences in a psychological context. James brought his experience as a Harvard University professor to deliver a convincing and comprehensive treatise, characterised by a comparative disregard for theology and the principles behind organised religion.

This edition of The Varieties of Religious Experience contains the full text, inclusive of the notes which are frequent throughout the chapters.

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Review:

One of the seminal works of philosophy and theology. (Catholic Herald)

From the Back Cover:

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.

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