Varieties of Religion Today: William James Revisited

Overview

A hundred years after William James delivered the celebrated lectures that became The Varieties of Religious Experience, one of the foremost thinkers in the English-speaking world returns to the questions posed in James's masterpiece to clarify the circumstances and conditions of religion in our day. An elegant mix of the philosophy and sociology of religion, Charles Taylor's powerful book maintains a clear perspective on James's work in its historical and cultural contexts, ...

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Overview

A hundred years after William James delivered the celebrated lectures that became The Varieties of Religious Experience, one of the foremost thinkers in the English-speaking world returns to the questions posed in James's masterpiece to clarify the circumstances and conditions of religion in our day. An elegant mix of the philosophy and sociology of religion, Charles Taylor's powerful book maintains a clear perspective on James's work in its historical and cultural contexts, while casting a new and revealing light upon the present.

Lucid, readable, and dense with ideas that promise to transform current debates about religion and secularism, Varieties of Religion Today is much more than a revisiting of James's classic. Rather, it places James's analysis of religious experience and the dilemmas of doubt and belief in an unfamiliar but illuminating context, namely the social horizon in which questions of religion come to be presented to individuals in the first place.

Taylor begins with questions about the way in which James conceives his subject, and shows how these questions arise out of different ways of understanding religion that confronted one another in James's time and continue to do so today. Evaluating James's treatment of the ethics of belief, he goes on to develop an innovative and provocative reading of the public and cultural conditions in which questions of belief or unbelief are perceived to be individual questions. What emerges is a remarkable and penetrating view of the relation between religion and social order and, ultimately, of what "religion" means.

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Editorial Reviews

Wall Street Journal

Old-time religion had a story about these sources of despair, reinforced every Sunday morning, but James will have none of this—he cannot be so easily consoled. What he needs is a direct sensation of the presence of God. The trouble is that such experiences are rare, and fragile and isolating, not to mention questionable (even for a theist like James). Religion, if it is to survive, must be buttressed by more than fleeting sensation. The acute question raised by Charles Taylor's interesting book is whether the modern world has room for anything else.
— Colin McGinn

Halifax Daily News

A century later, one of the world's most respected living philosophers, Canada's Charles Taylor, is taking a fresh look at James's classic. In his new book, Varieties of Religion Today...Taylor finds James's book both incredibly prescient and seriously lacking. Taylor applauds James for extolling the value of inner experience over empty ritual, and for predicting what would happen in 20th-century religion: a shift to a style of spirituality that rejects dogma, stresses emotional experience, emphasizes choice, promotes secularism and places highest value on personal authenticity.
— Douglas Todd

New Republic

Now at last we have a book about...William James, and it has been produced by a religiously obsessed man himself. Charles Taylor has been writing philosophy for many years, and the scope of his achievement is extraordinary. He has written on ethics, epistemology, language, and politics. He has analyzed Greek, medieval, Renaissance, and modern thought in learned discourses on the history of ideas. Even more amazing, perhaps, is that a corpus of philosophy so wide should be so intellectually coherent. All of Taylor's writings are unified by a goal, a mission, almost a calling: to understand by philosophical means who we have become and who we ought to strive to become...[A] small but very stimulating book.
— Erin Leib

Washington Times

[A] compelling distillation in which we learn three primary things about William James. First of all is his individualistic and experiential definition of religion...Second, Taylor introduces us to James' psychology which shuns the sunny optimists of life and takes more respectful interest in people who face life's dread and overcome it by religious experience...Finally, we learn of James' battle with the rationalistic and scientific agnosticism of his day.
— Larry Witham

Globe and Mail

Arguing that James's work has a striking topicality...Charles Taylor returns to James's arguments to shed light on the contemporary spiritual scene. Varieties of Religion Today is a rich, thought-provoking book, offering an incisive analysis of contemporary religious movements.
— Peter Emberley

Church Time

Charles Taylor's superb account of James's theology offers a powerful critique of the assumptions and consequences of this approach to religion. For Taylor, the rise of the religion of experience is, in no small degree, responsible for the increasing secularization of Western culture. James's religion is private religion, which has retreated from the public sphere and sets itself apart from the spirituality inherent within corporate life...Simply stated, without pretentiousness, yet underpinned by a great deal of philosophical sophistication, this is a must-read for all who are interested in the mission of the Church within an increasingly atomised secular culture.
— Giles Fraser

Choice

This short sparkling book contains a communitarian's reflections on the individualistic, experience-oriented religiosity of William James's Varieties of Religious Experience. Taylor's lectures wrestle with the question: "What does it mean to call our age secular?" They offer an account of "how we got to be that way"...It is a great pleasure to read a discussion of New Age spirituality by a gifted intellectual who eschews both sociological detachment and nostalgic, partisan jeremiads. This book is an excellent introduction to Taylor's more demanding volumes.
— D. Christie

Christian Science Monitor

This short book by a great contemporary philosopher revisits William James's Varieties of Religious Experience and finds much of it still valid a hundred years later.
— Tom D'Evelyn

Wall Street Journal - Colin McGinn
Old-time religion had a story about these sources of despair, reinforced every Sunday morning, but James will have none of this--he cannot be so easily consoled. What he needs is a direct sensation of the presence of God. The trouble is that such experiences are rare, and fragile and isolating, not to mention questionable (even for a theist like James). Religion, if it is to survive, must be buttressed by more than fleeting sensation. The acute question raised by Charles Taylor's interesting book is whether the modern world has room for anything else.
Halifax Daily News - Douglas Todd
A century later, one of the world's most respected living philosophers, Canada's Charles Taylor, is taking a fresh look at James's classic. In his new book, Varieties of Religion Today...Taylor finds James's book both incredibly prescient and seriously lacking. Taylor applauds James for extolling the value of inner experience over empty ritual, and for predicting what would happen in 20th-century religion: a shift to a style of spirituality that rejects dogma, stresses emotional experience, emphasizes choice, promotes secularism and places highest value on personal authenticity.
New Republic - Erin Leib
Now at last we have a book about...William James, and it has been produced by a religiously obsessed man himself. Charles Taylor has been writing philosophy for many years, and the scope of his achievement is extraordinary. He has written on ethics, epistemology, language, and politics. He has analyzed Greek, medieval, Renaissance, and modern thought in learned discourses on the history of ideas. Even more amazing, perhaps, is that a corpus of philosophy so wide should be so intellectually coherent. All of Taylor's writings are unified by a goal, a mission, almost a calling: to understand by philosophical means who we have become and who we ought to strive to become...[A] small but very stimulating book.
Washington Times - Larry Witham
[A] compelling distillation in which we learn three primary things about William James. First of all is his individualistic and experiential definition of religion...Second, Taylor introduces us to James' psychology which shuns the sunny optimists of life and takes more respectful interest in people who face life's dread and overcome it by religious experience...Finally, we learn of James' battle with the rationalistic and scientific agnosticism of his day.
Globe and Mail - Peter Emberley
Arguing that James's work has a striking topicality...Charles Taylor returns to James's arguments to shed light on the contemporary spiritual scene. Varieties of Religion Today is a rich, thought-provoking book, offering an incisive analysis of contemporary religious movements.
Church Time - Giles Fraser
Charles Taylor's superb account of James's theology offers a powerful critique of the assumptions and consequences of this approach to religion. For Taylor, the rise of the religion of experience is, in no small degree, responsible for the increasing secularization of Western culture. James's religion is private religion, which has retreated from the public sphere and sets itself apart from the spirituality inherent within corporate life...Simply stated, without pretentiousness, yet underpinned by a great deal of philosophical sophistication, this is a must-read for all who are interested in the mission of the Church within an increasingly atomised secular culture.
Choice - D. Christie
This short sparkling book contains a communitarian's reflections on the individualistic, experience-oriented religiosity of William James's Varieties of Religious Experience. Taylor's lectures wrestle with the question: "What does it mean to call our age secular?" They offer an account of "how we got to be that way"...It is a great pleasure to read a discussion of New Age spirituality by a gifted intellectual who eschews both sociological detachment and nostalgic, partisan jeremiads. This book is an excellent introduction to Taylor's more demanding volumes.
Christian Science Monitor - Tom D'evelyn
This short book by a great contemporary philosopher revisits William James's Varieties of Religious Experience and finds much of it still valid a hundred years later.
Publishers Weekly
In the early 20th century, Harvard sociologist William James delivered a series of lectures in Edinburgh that were eventually put together in book form as The Varieties of Religious Experience, still in print today. A century later, philosophy professor Charles Taylor spoke for the same lecture series, revisiting James's work for a postmodern audience. His Varieties of Religion Today is a provocative, witty and worthy conversation with James's timeless work. (Mar.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In these lectures, delivered at the Institute for the Human Sciences in Vienna, Taylor (philosophy, McGill Univ.; Sources of the Self) reconsiders William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), a seminal text in American religious studies, examining whether the points James made are relevant today. While recognizing James's extraordinary insight into the spiritual needs of the modern world, Taylor makes one major criticism: that James rejected the legitimacy of communal religious experience, i.e., the experience of Church, and concentrated on individual religious experience as paradigmatic. But even as he takes issue with the narrowness of James's focus, Taylor finds much of interest in his subject and uses James's works as a springboard for his own discussions of the current state of religion in America, which he sees as struggling with the same debate about religious faith and doubt. In doing so, Taylor offers a well-written, easily accessible overview of today's individualistic religious tendencies. Recommended for larger public collections and those with strong holdings in theology. Augustine J. Curley, Newark Abbey, NJ Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674012530
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 8/28/2003
  • Series: Institute for Human Sciences Vienna Lecture Series , #1
  • Edition description: 1st Harvard University Paperback Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 142
  • Product dimensions: 4.80 (w) x 7.78 (h) x 0.39 (d)

Meet the Author

Charles Taylor is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at McGill University.
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Table of Contents

1. James: Varieties

2. The "Twice-Born"

3. Religion Today

4. So Was James Right?

Notes

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