Defective Logic in the Discussion of Religious Experience

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Defective Logic in the Discussion of Religious Experience  (1911) 
by Mary Whiton Calkins

Defective Logic in the Discussion of Religions Experience[1]

One wishes that Professor Ames had been content to draw only the conclusions which follow legitimately from the premises of his interesting and vigorously written book. In common with Irving King[2] and other recent writers, he holds, in general, that the religious consciousness is social in nature and in origin. In particular, he argues that religious ceremonials are the crystallizations of social habits, that sacrifice is the perpetuation of the ceremonial, social meal (Ch. VII.), that prayer is an immediate “exclamatory impulse … one factor in the larger ceremonial activity“ (Chs. VIII., IX., XV.), that taboo can be explained without reference to divine authority (Ch. IV.), and that religion differs from magic only as public practise is distinguished from private (Ch. V.). “Because these ceremonials are social,” Ames says, “and therefore have the massive and corporate value of the entire community consciousness … they attain the distinctive character which entitles them to be called religious” (p. 72). It would be rash to assert without further discussion that Ames gains all his contentions on these hotly disputed points.[3] The present writer is not qualified to pronounce on many of these moot questions, and seeks simply to point out how far Mr. Ames falls short, even granting his premises, from establishing his conclusion.

On its positive side, this conclusion is, to be sure, so vague that it is almost beyond the range of criticism. Religion is defined as “the consciousness of the highest social values” (p. 168), “a reflection of the most important group interests” (pp. 49, 50; cf. p. 72), “a system for the controlling of the group with reference to the ends which are felt most acutely by the group as a group” (p. 72). Negatively, however, the teaching of Ames gains precision through his opposition to the spiritistic, or personalistic, doctrine that religion consists in man’s awareness of gods or of God. But the view that religious ceremonial is social in origin and in content, so far from disproving the doctrine that religion is conscious relation of human to divine, is perfectly compatible with it. One may admit without a quaver Ames’s account of taboo, of magic, even of prayer, and still hold that the religious consciousness arises out of purely human, social intercourse only when this collective “group consciousness” gains as its object a self conceived as superhuman. Against such a construction Ames would, of course, interpose the considerations by which he seeks to discredit intellectualistic conceptions of religion. The rationalistic view of religion is, he holds, untrue to history and to psychology alike. Primitive man is not “clearly conscious of himself as a spiritual agent or soul” (p. 95); “the notion of the soul does not precede the idea of objects” (p. 96); even the philosopher only “gradually attains a dim, partially organized sense of personality” (p. 972). Ames concludes that because the sense of personality is dim, it plays no rôle in the religious consciousness, and that if it is gained late in racial and in individual experience, the religious consciousness, admitted to be primitive, can not be limited to a personal object. Accordingly, he conceives a spirit as “an object which strikes the attention forcibly” (p. 106); describes the gods of primitive peoples as “central objects in the life processes of man” (p. 311); and says vaguely that “the idea of God serves to generalize and idealize all values …, gathers into itself the interests and values of our daily concerns …, involves a living process, law, or movement in the working of which distinct ideals are attained” (p. 318).

There is evident here, once more, a mistiness of positive conception and an insensitiveness to the limitations imposed by the nature of the argument. In the opinion of the writer, Ames argues effectively against the purely intellectualistic form of the personalistic conception of religion. But this does not justify him in his opposition to all forms of personalism. For a consciousness of self, however dim, is personal, not impersonal; and the awareness of God may be of any grade of clearness and of any conscious type. It may therefore be freely admitted that neither savage nor philosopher ever attains a consciousness of self which is free from contradictions, and that the religious experience of most people, civilized as well as primitive, is impulsive and emotional rather than reflective, practical rather than speculative. But it does not follow that the religious consciousness is impersonal or that it lacks a personal object. Rather, the consciousness of oneself in relation to a superhuman self is preeminently a feeling and willing consciousness even when it contains intellectual elements. From Schleiermacher down, the personalistic conception of religion has been held by scholars who have opposed, as vigorously as Ames himself opposes, a rationalistic account of the religious experience.

To conclude as we began: one may grant all the premises of Professor Ames without reaching either of his two conclusions: (1) that religion is merely the “highest” type of social experience, (2) that religion does not consist in the conscious relation to personal gods or God. On the other hand, there is abundant reason to conclude that every religion is a realized relation to a divine object conceived, or at least treated, as personal.

Mary Whiton Calkins.

Wellesley College.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1927.


The author died in 1930, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.

 
  1. “The Psychology of Religious Experience,” by Edward S. Ames, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1910.
  2. Cf. “The Differentiation of the Religious Consciousness,” 1905, and “The Development of Religion,” 1910.
  3. Cf., for the opposing view, Wundt, “Völkerpsychologie,” zweiter Band, “Mythus und Religion,” dritter Teil, pp. 690 ff., et al.