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William James and Psychology of Religion. James A. Van Slyke. William James (1842-1910) . Considered by many to be one of the top psychologists of all time Principles of Psychology (1890) Classic work in psychology Prominent figure in psychology of religion

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william james 1842 1910
William James (1842-1910)
  • Considered by many to be one of the top psychologists of all time
    • Principles of Psychology (1890)
    • Classic work in psychology
  • Prominent figure in psychology of religion
    • His definition of religious experience is the starting point for most studies in the field
    • Not particular religious orientation, but recognized the value of religion
varieties of religious experience 1902
Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)
  • Pure Experience
    • Experiences were discreet episodes that needed to be analyzed as a whole
    • Introspection – personal examination of experience
  • Pluralistic Universe
    • Religious experiences are not based on a common element
    • Experiences are diverse and disconnected
varieties of religious experience 19021
Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)
  • Essence of religion is experience rather than belief
  • Must investigate individual experiences to understand religion
  • Religion based on individual feeling (Schleiermacher)
    • Passionate
    • Emotional
    • Energetic
varieties of religious experience 19022
Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)
  • Institutional religion is less important than individual experiences
  • Definition of religion:
    • “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual [persons] in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider divine” (from Varieties)
  • Varieties contains a number of different accounts of religious experiences
varieties of religious experience 19023
Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)
  • James struggled with depression for most of his life
    • Felt that a religious temperament may help with psychological difficulties
  • Located persons on a continuum
    • Healthy Minded
    • Sick Souled
  • Religious experiences may help the sick souled
  • Helpful for dealing with psychological problems
will to believe 1897
Will to Believe (1897)
  • Three different Aspects of Religion
      • Alive – live options that must be dealt with
      • Forced – cannot be skeptical (example of a marriage proposal)
      • Momentous – something important to be gained
will to believe 18971
Will to Believe (1897)
  • Differences in forms of Belief
    • Scientific – Rational
      • May be amended with no real bearing on my life
    • Religious
      • Too important to wait before choosing
      • Seeks out what is good
      • Any decision that is of utmost importance requires an act of faith
defining religious experience
Defining Religious Experience
  • Highly Diverse, Culturally Distinct
  • Difficult to Define
  • May be heightened emotional and unusual sensory experiences
  • Ordinary experiences interpreted through a religious framework
    • Communion
defining religious experience1
Defining Religious Experience
  • Rodney Stark (1997)
    • Confirming – Sensing the presence of the Divine
      • Silent time during a prayer
    • Responsive – Experience of being helped in some aspect of life
    • Ecstatic – More intense feeling of connectedness with the divine
      • Glossolalia – speaking in tongues
    • Revelational – Receiving some sort of special knowledge from the divine
      • Prophecy
  • Non-conceptual knowledge of the divine
  • Characteristics in Varieties
    • Ineffability – unable to give a verbal description of the event
      • “Beyond words”
    • Noetic Quality – Something life-changing has been learned
    • Transiency – experience lasts for a brief time
    • Passivity – Feeling like the experience was out of one’s control
  • Unitive experience
    • A sense of union with God
    • Usually a fundamental part of defining a religious experience
    • Perceiving a unity to God or the Supernatural
    • Sense of participation in that unity
  • Paradoxical
    • Beyond normal reason, cannot be described
    • Yet, believed to be true
    • Knowledge was gained, yet can’t describe what that knowledge is
christian mysticism
Christian Mysticism
  • Long history of mysticism in Christian theology
  • Often occurred in smaller communities seeking solitude with God
  • Kataphatic tradition (Positive)
    • Prayer that focuses on praising the many attributes of God (love, grace, compassion, etc.)
  • Apophatic tradition (negative or lack of knowledge)
    • Realization of our own ignorance before God
    • Any positive statement cannot fully describe the divine attributes
potential problems
Potential Problems
  • How do you describe the indescribable?
  • Religious experiences cannot be completely ineffable
    • Use language to describe them
    • Use religious imagery and symbols
  • Translation
    • Language differences between psychology and religion
    • Can a nonreligious person understand a religious experience?
    • Can someone gain a first person perspective of another?
potential problems1
Potential Problems
  • Methodology
    • How reliable is introspection?
    • Can the subjective be transferred into the objective?
    • Limited to texts written by others and interviews
  • Was the experience a true experience of the divine?
  • Point of view
    • Theoretical stance will change the way the data is interpreted
    • Is it possible to be ‘objective’ in regard to religion