Eugene Taylor is a clinical psychologist, lecturer at Harvard Medical School and senior psychologist at the Massachusetts General Hospital. He has previously written on William James and consciousness as well as spiritual healing, and has been involved in a variety of oriental cult groups. He brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to his task.
The task turns out to be a historical survey of marginal religious and paranormal groups and movements that in one way or another have found their way onto the American religious scene. The writing is lively and adorned with abundant detail reflecting the profound immersion of the author in his subject..
Way stations on this journey include the Great Awakening of pre-Revolutionary times, Jonathan Edwards and visionary Calvinism, the Quakers and Shakers, Swedenborgism, New England Transcendentalism and its influence on literary lights like Hawthorne and Melville, other peripheral movements like homeopathy, phrenology and mesmerism that dabbled with the fringes of the paranormal, utopian socialism and the revivalism of the second Great Awakening in the 19th century, and on to the golden age of spiritualism, theosophy and Christian Science.
The discussion then turns to a variety of movements more closely aligned with scientific interestspsychic research and the psychology of religion. Further chapters take up the invasion of oriental cults of Hindu and Buddhist inspiration, andof particular interest to psychologistsa discussion of the influence of Freud and Jung on the American scene. The menu is rounded out by chapters on Esalen and other countercultural movements, and finally the emergence of humanistic and transpersonal versions of psychology. There have been other and better studies of these movements, but the present rendering is lively, informative and oriented to popular consumption.
One might question the assumption of the title, since these movements have rarely remained in the shadows and many seem to have grasped more than their share of the limelight. This account is in essence an advocacy for the marginal and the paranormal. Guiding spirits are William James and Carl JungJames for his interest in and contributions to the study of paranormal phenomena and Jung for his penchant for the mystical, spiritual and mythic parameters. Freud loses out because of his skepticism and efforts at empiricism. One interesting aspect of this discussion is the degree to which, following James, the psychology of religion has been historically diverted into preoccupation with the paranormal, if not abnormal, aspects of religious experienceto the long-range disadvantage of the field, I suspect.
I guess it is worth remembering that religious movements are always "shadowed" by marginal and peripheral countermovements bordering on the abnormal. Even Christianity had its Gnostic variants. Surprisingly, Taylor makes little of the diffusion of pathological influences in many of these parareligious movements; but if he does not offer much by way of interpretation beyond his special pleading for the legitimacy of the deviant in the name of freedom and diversity, his accounts are worth reading and should stimulate further interest. He makes this easy by providing useful references. If the reader can maintain perspective on Taylor’s spin, his book makes for an interesting and entertaining read.