“It is with no small amount of trepidation that I take my place behind this desk, and face this learned audience. To us Americans, the experience of receiving instruction from the living voice, as well as from the books, of European scholars, is very familiar. At my own University of Harvard, not a winter passes without its harvest, large or small, of lectures from Scottish, English, French, or German representatives of the science or literature of their respective countries whom we have either induced to cross the ocean to address us, or captured on the wing as they were visiting our land. It seems the natural thing for us to listen whilst the Europeans talk. The contrary habit, of talking whilst the Europeans listen, we have not yet acquired; and in him who first makes the adventure it begets a certain sense of apology being due for so presumptuous an act.”
William James begins this series of 20 lectures with a basic premise that I think is interesting — we could very well try to explain the physiological explanation for religious feeling and religious belief, but that this would not really account for the experience of it. He also suggests that it’s partly important to look at the origins and cause of religious belief, and then to ask the consequence of it.
I have a few issues with the book here that go more into an original sin of the book that is bothersome. Despite several mentions of how some concept will be explored further in the text in regards other religions, almost the entirety of this book is built around Christianity, sometimes talking about sects within that but not often, and specifically Protestantism. This is an obvious problem because not only is religious experience much more variable than that, the causes are tied to geography, language, culture, and other elements that James is unable to get into because he simply doesn’t know. I am not sure if this is too much of an insider’s look at his own religion or culture’s main expression of religion or trying too hard to be liberal-minded, and doesn’t recognize its own blindspots.
Regardless, this book is severely limited in its scope, and has a lot more to say about the state of psychology in 1901 than it really does about religion in general.