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The Psychology of Religion:
0443 ON LINE 9 weeks. Mar. 10 thru May 11, 1997 $330 ( nfc
please consult New School for for-credit prices )

Instructor: Sharon Packer, M.D.,
Diplomate, American Board of Psychiatry & Neurology



Religious beliefs, rituals and organizations reflect, perpetuate, and transform individual and social behavior. Recognizing these interactions, social scientists--as well as neuroscientists--had much to say about religion.

This course considers classic studies on the subject by psychiatrists, psychologists, neurologists, and ethnopharmacologists, and includes readings from Freud, Jung, James, Leary, Harner, and Campbell, Galanter, and many more.

We examine these writings within the context of the writer's life and times. In doing so, we will encounter a vast variety of opinions about topics like asceticism, Asian religious systems, altered states of consciousness, cults, conversion, shamanism, mysticism, myth and meditation and more.

Studying these widely differing points of view will not necessarily lead us to the "truth" about the psychology of religion. But it will show us just how varied the approaches to this subject are, and how thinking about this topic has evolved since William James published his landmark book about the Varieties of Religious Experience back in 1902. By the end of this course, each of us will be in a better position to formulate our own personal positions on these endlessly controversial questions covered in class.

Please note: This is a distance-learning, COMPUTER-BASED COURSE. Registration fees include 24-hour technical support and training in cutting- edge on-line learning techniques, in addition to regular course material. You need not be enrolled in other New School courses to take this course. Available for-credit (ask about for-credit fees). To register, call: 229-5690 M-F 9:30-5:00 P.M., or visit our website at: http://WWW.DIALNSA.EDU


Greeting/Welcome Letter

Hello to everyone out there, wherever you are!

Although I cannot see you or hear you in the conventional sense of the word, I look forward to meeting all of you throughout the term, and to hearing from each and every one of you, as the semester progresses.

We have a short cybersemester ahead of us. But there are mountains of material on this ever-fascinating subject of psychology and religion. We will be able to cover only the peaks of those mountains in class, through our readings and cyber-discussions and field trips to relevant websites. All I can say is, I hope you are as excited as I am about this general topic, and about the ways that the study of the psychology of religion has evolved since 1902.

It has been difficult for me to whittle down our reading list to a reasonable amount, simply because there is so very much that has been said about this subject. So I decided to present you with a "thali" of several of these topics, rather than a "smorgasbord" of the dozens of different dishes available.

By that, I mean that we will taste good size chunks of several authors on the subject (like the half-dozen half-cups of portions that appear on the classic Indian stainless steel "thali" plate). That way, we will get a more than "taste" of those several different dishes; we will get smallish but sufficiently sizable amounts to make them memorable. And each of you will have the option of ordering a full-size portion of your preferred approach, at any time during or after our "dinner". While we won't learn everything there is to know on the subject that way, at least we won't run the risk of sampling so many spoonfuls of an overflowing smorgasbord table that everything tastes the same in the end, we can't remember which dish was which by the time our banquet of learning is over.

Let me tell you just a little bit about what we will read, and about how we will structure this course. Each week (or sometimes everyone other week), we will read from a different author on the subject. We will start with William James, who spearheaded the study of the psychology of religion back in 1902. Each of the authors we will read presents a radically different approach to the subject. Some of the books will engage you. Some will enrage you. None will tell you the "whole truth and nothing but" about this complex topic. But all should stimulate you to think more about this subject, and to help you formulate your own opinions.

I will outline our reading material, bring in interesting background information about our authors, and ask lots of questions for you to think about. What I look forward to most is hearing your reactions to our readings. Because each of you brings a unique set of experiences and education, I suspect that each of you will have slightly different insights about the authors we discuss. That is a good thing, for in this course, we are not aiming for a consensus of attitudes, the way we would if this were simply a social science or neuroscience course. Nor are we searching for an ultimate truth, as we might if we were studying theology per se. This course is a study of the history of ideas, from the beginning of the century to the present day.

I encourage each and every one of you to express your opinions openly, and to ask questions freely, and to remember that there are rarely any right-or-wrong answers in a subject such as this. At the same time, I ask all of you to bear in mind that we come from different backgrounds and belief systems (or lack of belief systems), and that speaking about religion can expose sensitive personal issues. It is important not to insult or undermine someone else's belief system. Nor should we try to recruit our classmates to our own faiths (or lack of faiths) through this class. That may sound like a difficult balancing act, but I have faith in cyberstudents to work with me turn this class into a very special experience, one as special as the medium and the subject themselves. Because we cannot see or hear each other in cyberspace, it may take a little extra effort to retain this sensitivity through this medium.

As for using the computer: At first, it may feel a little strange to "speak" to one another through the "ether", so to speak. For many of us, there will be times in the very beginning that the new technology is as frustrating as it is fascinating. (I know it was for me!) But, believe me, any awkwardness in using the computer will soon pass, and, hopefully, we will all find fun, friendship, and fountains and fountains of knowledge through this unique learning method. With that, why don't you just pull up a chair (or a cushion, whichever you prefer), and we can all sit down to "dinner", and have our food for thought! I hope to see you here three to five times a week!

COURSE REQUIREMENTS, and other such essential information

1. Each student is requested to log in 3-5 times a week, even if all you have to say is "hello". I realize that not everyone will have something to say about every author we study (and that not everyone will have read the material each time, since we do have a lot of reading to do), but both I and your other classmates will be happy to hear that you are out there, just the same.

2. Your participation in each session is strongly encouraged. Remember, writing out your responses in cyberspace is not the same as writing a master's thesis (or even the same as writing a term paper), so please try not to be self-conscious, and do not demand too much from yourselves. Just jot down whatever comes to mind (as long as it is not intended to be hurtful to anyone else), and share your thoughts with everyone present. Feel free to shower praise on a particular point of view, or to rant and rave about an author's approach, or to tell us that you are unsure about what someone is saying. (Some of the authors we will read are indeed difficult for me to follow, so I expect that everyone will have questions about some of the material.) (50% of grade)

3. Talking "out loud" to one another in class is not only permitted in cyberspace, it is recommended. Remember how much fun it was to pass notes to one another back in junior high? We can do the same thing in cyberspace!

4. Our class size is small and has been deliberately restricted so that there is plenty of time for everyone to talk. Just the same, it is strongly encouraged that each of you teams up with one, and preferably two, "buddies", so you can share the assignment described in the next section. Many people find that they learn the most through a buddy from a different background than one's own.

5. Each week, I will ask for "volunteers" to "specialize" in a different chapter of the text, and to "talk" about it in greater depth in class. Of course, everyone is free to talk about everything, but, I assume that not all of you will be interested in reading everything on the list, nor will you necessarily have the time to do as much work each week. This way, you will have a choice about what you want to read and talk about. (30% of grade)

5. TERM PAPERS: Those of you taking the course for credit will be asked to write a short paper (4-6 pages) on a topic of your choice. The paper is due one week before the last day of the semester. The topic of the papers will vary for each individual. Feel free to suggest your own topic, or, if you prefer, I can suggest some ideas that I think will interest you (after I have a chance to get to know you and find out about your special interests). By the end of the third week of class, each student should pick a topic and send me the idea (or alternatively, ask me for suggestions). It is strongly recommended that you prepare an outline by the fifth week, which I can review for you, if you like, before you put in extra work. That way, there will be three weeks left to complete the paper, and everyone who would like to discuss his/her paper can do so in the last class. (Those people who don't want to discuss their papers can listen to the others.) (20% of grade)

6. PLEASE NOTE: This course is strictly an educational endeavor. It is not intended to provide psychotherapy sessions or medical treatment. Of course, education in and of itself should enrich one's life, and better society in general by increasing the awareness and responsiveness of its members. And so I hope and expect that this course will improve the course of your lives and the lives of everyone you come in contact with. But that is not the same as providing personal medical care/counseling through this course. Any questions?

7. ANOTHER REMINDER: Our discussion of the influence of drugs on religion will take place from a purely intellectual and historical point of view. This material is not intended to condone drug use of any sort, or to promote any illegal activities. There is no laboratory component accompanying that part of the course. For those of you who feel inspired to replicate the hallucinogenic experiences described by Harner, there are enough web sites to surf that strive to do exactly that--without resorting to any harmful chemical additives. Any questions? (Sorry to sound like a spoilsport, but this is the Nineties, not the Sixties.)


Monday 9-11 P.M. (calls cannot be accepted at any other time) (Please email me for phone number)

Term Papers: Topics to be arranged individually.
See discussion in Section 5 above.
Paper due May 4, 1997


James William: The Varieties of Religious Experience. Macmillian. 1961. ISBN: 0-02-085970-8

Ward Ivan: Is Psychoanalysis Another Religion? Freud Museum Publications, 1993 ISBN: 0-948687-05-3 (reprint available through the New School)

Gay Peter: A Godless Jew. Yale University, 1987

Jung CG: Psychology and the East. Princeton- Bollingen , 1993. ISBN: 0-691-01806-5

Jung CG: Psychology and Western Religion. Princeton- Bollingen , 1993 ISBN: 0-691-01862-6

Hirai Tomio : Zen Meditation and Psychotherapy. Japan Publications, 1989. ISBN: 0-87040-666-3

Harner Michael: Hallucinogens and Shamanism. Oxford. 1973 ISBN: 72-92292-

Galanter Marc: Cults, Faith, and Healing. Oxford Paperbacks. 1989 ISBN:0 -19-505631-0

Kakar Sudhir : The Analyst and the Mystic, University of Chicago Press, 1982 ISBN: 0-26-42279-8

We will not read every chapter in every book, and will keep required reading to 50-100 pages per week. Also, you may choose either one of Jung's books to read.

Week One: Introduction.

This first week will be devoted to: getting to know one another, learning about why you are here, what you want to get out of this class, what you want to put into it, which questions you want to answer, what your presumptions are. After this initial introduction, we will concentrate on: Circumscribing the topic. Defining what religion is (and discussing why it is so difficult to define). Reviewing our syllabus and our book list. Presenting alternative approaches to studying this subject and explaining why we are studying psychology and religion from an historical perspective. We will be visiting the Psychology and Religion Website to see syllabuses from other classes on Psychology and Religion, discussing the advantages and disadvantages to studying religion from a social science perspective, and comparing the psychological perspective to the sociological and the anthropological and the political. For DIAL students (distance-learning program), we shall also talk about: Strolling through cyberspace. Navigating the net. Connecting to hypertext. Finding help through New School 24-hour technical support staff at 1-800-862-5038 or by emailing at any time to:

FOR THOSE OF YOU WHO WANT TO GET A HEAD START: Please introduce yourself, tell us where you're from (other than cyberspace), and let us know why you wanted to take this course (is it religion, psychology, both, or none of the above!). What do you hope to learn, and have you had any kind of courses, experiences, travel, or what not, that might be related.

Plus: please write down as many "buzz words", topics, or themes about the psychology of religion that you can think of in 15 minutes or less. (This is not a trick question; it will help us put this subject in historical perspective.)

(Week Two in DIAL): William James, Where it All Began (Or did it?)

Reading: The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James

Just as they say that all of philosophy is a footnote to Plato, so we can say that all of the psychology of religion is a footnote to William James. (Or else it is found in James' footnotes!). We start with his remarkably forthright chapter on Religion and Neurology, where James confronts us with the fact that most, if not all, religious innovators simultaneously suffered from neurological disorders. We instantly appreciate James' emphasis on the "fruits, not the roots". Soon, we see how diametrically different his attitude is from Freud's focus on the origins of religious ritual. James' section on Mysticism, and his distinction between the religion of the "healthy-minded" and the "religion of the sick-minded" provide further insight into his appreciation of individual, as opposed to institutional, religion. We discuss the reasons why James considered American transcendentalists like Wordsworth, Emerson, and Thoreau to be as religious as medieval Christian mystics. We also explore the ways that James' own upbringing as a Swedenborgian mystic (as opposed to a more mainstream Protestant sect) manifests itself in his pioneering book on personal and private religious experience. Soon on, it becomes apparent why this physician-philosopher remains on everyone's reading list nearly a century after he wrote The Varieties. Those interested in James' extensive studies of conversion, which come complete with vivid descriptions of the role of religion in reducing alcohol abuse, will be able to pursue those chapters for their term paper topic.

(Week Three in DIAL): Sigmund Freud, also known as St. Sigmund

Reading: Is Psychoanalysis Another Religion? by Freud Museum Publications or A G*dless Jew by Peter Gay

For better or for worse, Freud had an indelible influence on twentieth century thought. Not too long ago, Freud was championed by the artistic avant-guard, by the intellectual elites, and by the upper-echelon of the psychiatric establishment. His influence was so great that it rivaled religion, and provoked critics into claiming he created a cult instead of a scientific credo. Yet Freud has fallen from favor as we near the end of the century, to the point that public protests brought plans for a Smithsonian Museum exhibition of his life and works to a standstill. Regardless of whether he was right or wrong, Freud's outspoken opinions about the reasons society subscribes to religion have been too influential to overlook. And the conflicting hypothesizes about the contribution of Freud's Jewish background to the start of psychoanalysis are too intriguing to ignore. We shall read a small sample of writings on the subject, as found in this interesting illustrated booklet put out by the Freud Museum in London. We shall also ponder about Freud the False Prophet, Freud as "St. Sigmund", Freud, the (supposedly) G* dless Jew, even Freud as the Anti-Christ, whose anti-religious attitudes stole the soul of the twentieth century and invoked all sorts of social and sexual evils in American society. We will discuss topics like Freud's atheism, his almost exclusively Jewish psychoanalytic circle in anti-Semitic Austria, how the Jewish circumcision ritual found its way into Freud's theories on castration anxiety (as per Sander Gilman), as well provocative parallels with Jewish mystical thought.

(Week Four in DIAL): C.G. Jung

Note: There is a choice of reading for these two sessions (or you may choose to read both books, or even more, if you have the time or inclination)

Reading: Psychology and the East by C.G. Jung OR Psychology and Western Religion by C.G. Jung

Too many people today assume that Jung was singularly positive in his approach to religion. As it turns out, his attitudes were much more ambivalent, and quite complex. Jung was no less controversial a figure than Freud, but for very different reasons, and remains so to this day, as we see in Richard Noll's acerbic study of The Jung Cult. According to Noll, religion played a much more decisive role in shaping Jungian personality theory than science or clinical psychiatric experience. Instead, Jung's ideas stem from early Christian gnosticism, mystical Zwingli Protestantism, from the same German Volkish mythology that made Wagner famous, from ancient Greco-Roman mystery rites, and even from Eastern ideas. Alternatively, they say that Jung's ideas inspired the New Age, contributed to the Sixties' Counterculture, and helped Hitler. Often dense, and occasionally overly-simplistic, Jung's writings on religion are too vast to cover completely. So we will take turns reading two basic books on the subject, one on topics such as Taoism, the I Ching, Tibetan Buddhism, and India, and the other on Western religion and the symbolism of the Eucharist and the Trinity. Interested class members will be directed to much more material for outside sources for the term paper.

(Week Five in DIAL): Asian Religion/Biological Basis of Belief.

Reading: Zen Meditation and Psychotherapy by Tomio Hirai, M.D.

Those of us who come from a medical background (and even those of us who don't) have often wondered how it is that spiritual exercises as meditation, yoga, and biofeedback can have such intense physical effects, as well as profound psychological repercussions. While no one has come up with complete answers to these complex questions to date, there are many interesting medical studies on the subject. This succinctly written book, prepared by a Japanese psychiatrist, provides us with a starting point for studying the physiological aspects of these altered states, and their potential benefit for relieving neuropsychiatric distress. Hirai gives us a more medically- grounded introduction to Far Eastern ways of thought than equally interesting philosopher Alan Watts or psychologist Eric Fromm, who write about the same subject, but who focus on Zen concepts of the sense of self, the ego, and the soul. His treatment of the subject is vastly different from Jung's metaphorical approach to the same material. We will also touch upon contrasts with Tibetan Buddhist thought about psychological distress, which is really derived from the ancient Indian medical system of Aryuveda.

(Week Six in DIAL): Hallucinogens and Shamanism

Reading: Hallucinogens and Shamanism by Michael Harner

A few decades ago, the Counterculture's encounter with hallucinogenic drugs spawned a vast body of literature about the role of drugs in religion, and, in response, about the authenticity of the religious experience in general. Some of those studies were scholarly, some were silly. Often times, anthropologists had the most interesting insights into the subject, simply because their field research led them to unofficial laboratories of human experience. Timothy Leary was easily the High Priest of this approach, and Leary's lengthy but easy-to-read writings, with commentaries by his cultists, are easily accessible through the World Wide Web. So we shall read Harner's introductory text on hallucinogens and shamanism, partly because Harner's slim volume has something for everyone, with its essays on subjects as diverse as Renaissance-era European witchcraft and South American Amazonian yage cults. Our readings will acquaint us with a serious subject that has inspired showmanship as well as scholarship.

(Week Seven in DIAL): Cults

Reading: Cults, Faith and Healing by Marc Galanter

The relatively recent writings by this alcoholism-expert mark an abrupt turn-about from the free-wheeling, experience-oriented, drug-embracing attitudes of the sixties and seventies. Rather than recommending drug use as a way of opening us up to religion, as Leary or Harner or Castenadas or Huxley or even Maslow did, Galanter shows how religion (or, more correctly, cult-type religion) can "cure" the use of drugs and alcohol. He makes us wonder if religion can and should be the "methadone of the alcohol and drug-addicted American masses". We will look for the relationship between this approach, and Marx and Engels' denunciation of religion as "the opium of the masses", as well as William James' early writings on conversion experiences. Somewhat more controversially, this book characterizes Alcoholics Anonymous as a charismatic cult, and so should be especially thought-provoking for those students studying for their certificates in substance-abuse counseling. Very much in touch with the conservative ethos of our times, this book will show us how social attitudes changed in a short time, and how much such attitude shifts are mirrored in supposedly scientific studies. In class discussion, we will also consider the roles of social pressure, isolation, altered states of consciousness in "cults", and will attempt to define what a "cult" is. Through this topic, we will touch on the contributions of sociological, anthropological and political analysis of religious phenomena.

(Week Eight in DIAL): Indo-Tibetan Religion

Reading: The Analyst and the Mystic by Sudhir Kakar

Written by an Indian-born but Western educated psychoanalyst, this interesting and unusual book admits to being more of a personal narrative, in the post-modern style, than a scientific study. Kakar traces the author's odessy through India's melange of Muslim folk healers, Hindu demonologists, Aryuvedic herbal healers, and mystics. He compares and contrasts several indigenous Indian religious explanations for mental illness with the author's own orthodox Freudian analysis of these experiences. It presents thought-provoking parallels with contemporary biological psychiatric interpretations. Anyone with an interest in Asian approaches to the murky ground between mysticism and mental disease will appreciate this study. At the same time, those grounded in Western epistemology will gain a greater understanding of their own terrain by gazing at it through this cross-cultural lens.

(Week Nine in DIAL): Summing Up:

Pulling it all together. Sharing our reflections about our readings in retrospect. Asking questions we wished we had asked earlier. Presenting our papers. Positing our own opinions. Deciding where to go from here.

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