The Psychology of Religion/Chapter 1

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Some years ago I wrote a work, The Evolution of Mind, in which I used almost the entire teaching of four or five branches of science to throw light on one single issue: whether mind is a function of the nervous system and how, as such, it came into being. I then held the eccentric opinion that the first object of any science was to tell us the nature of the reality or realities it studied; that the first question which thoughtful people would put to a science of mind is, in view of the world-wide interest in the subject, whether the mind is a spiritual intruder in a material universe or merely a function of the steadily developing nervous system. And the only men who failed to appreciate my work were the psychologists. "That," said a St. Louis professor, fraternally but firmly, to me, "is not psychology."

The evolution of psychology is a proof that science has not yet completely emancipated itself from its serfdom to religious beliefs. It was originally a branch of philosophy, and its chief purpose was to serve religion by furnishing convincing proofs that the soul is spiritual and immortal. In proportion as the methods of science were adopted in it, and arguments of a philosophical character were eliminated, the aim of the science was changed. Half a century ago it abandoned the word "soul," and it threw out the question of immortality as a minor irrelevance to be wrangled over by Materialists, Christians, Spiritualists, and Theosophists.

Then psychology ceased to concern itself about the nature of the mind or consciousness, and declared that its aim was to study states of consciousness. How there could be "states" of something without something of which they were states was left to philosophers, but thirty or forty years ago the common phrase was that all that we had to study was a stream of states of consciousness. Now, in the current joke, psychology has even "lost consciousness," and the unfortunate person who wants really to know what mind is—a question the answer to which is supposed to affect the very foundation of human life—finds no guidance or assistance in any branch of science or even in modern philosophy.

And thus there came about the paradox of modern psychology, that it spreads itself over a field of vast extent and steadily refuses to consider the chief question that occurs to the mind about itself. We have a psychology of everything, from education to salesmanship, from the heroine of the novel or the film to the art of advertising, from the baby to the bishop, from the criminal to the saint. In another ten years we shall have psychologies of wallpapers, soft drinks (I have heard an expert divide humanity into white coffee and black coffee people), tooth-brushes, cigarettes, neckwear, and griddle cakes. About a million people in America make a good living out of the other hundred and fifteen millions by psychologizing about them. The store, the studio, and the school reek with psychology. It explains everything, from the commission and detection of crime to the baby's love of mud and its grandpa's weakness for erotic films.

How much more we know about human nature than Abraham Lincoln or Oliver Wendell Holmes did I am not quite sure, but, setting aside all the humorous exaggerations and commercial exploitations of the word, the ideal is excellent. We are to apply scientific method—which in the long run means merely more careful observation—to every form of human behavior. The only groan of the pessimist that is worth a moment's consideration is his plea that our conduct is no wiser or better than that of the Athenians of two thousand years ago or of the Egyptians and Babylonians of four thousand years ago. Let us, by all means, give the stars and electrons and buried fossils a spell of rest, and turn this very wonderful apparatus of science upon life. Let us have a quite candid, scientific analysis of the behavior of pivotal people like the politician and his agent, the policeman, the preacher, the storekeeper (as well as the customer), the reformer, and so on.

Anyhow, since the religious part of man's behavior is said to be the most important and most interesting of all, it ought to be the first to attract the psychologic eye. Here, however, the shadow of the great prohibitionist Moses lies across the path, and the psychologist either turns away or becomes remarkably timid and accommodating. We have had a score of works on the psychology of religion in the last twenty years, and they are all bad. You may take the most sagacious writer of them all, William James (Varieties of Religious Experience), and if you care to make a real study of any one of the religious characters that he reviews—say St. Augustine—you will realize that his "Psychology" is a very different thing from accurate biography. Other professors write thousands of pages on the subject, carefully premising that what they say must not be regarded as a criticism of the value of religion, but you do not feel much clearer in the end as to why your neighbor holds religious views, or why your wife or daughter should be distressed to the marrow of her dear little soul because you won't go to church.

The best recent book on the subject, and a comparatively small book, is An Introduction to the Psychology of Religion (1923) by R. H. Thouless, lecturer on psychology in a British university. He hits the nail on the head. Unfortunately, he also hammers the boards a good deal in the usual style, but he does give a sensible analysis of ordinary religious belief. He correctly says that the task is to "express the workings of the mind when it is religious in terms of the mental processes we have discovered in secular psychology." He avoids the question of the origin of religion, which really, though it fascinates the professors as a rule, throws little or no light on religious belief today. We wore clothes originally to keep ourselves warm: we now wear them to keep other people cold. And Mr. Thouless will have none of these fantastic theories which "create a new and mystifying psychology for religion alone." We form religious beliefs, and have corresponding emotions, as we form political beliefs.

And here we find in this in many ways excellent book the same defect as in all the others. They almost entirely ignore—generally do ignore entirely—the most important element of all: priestcraft, by which I mean here simply the trade of the priest. He is no villain because he wants people to appreciate his wares, but the fact is that if he did not push them in the way he does, all the other "psychological" factors would amount to very little. Interest in politics would be feeble if there were no political orators, although political conduct is certainly concerned with grave realities of life. How much real interest in religion would there be if a hundred thousand clergymen did not make it their proper and very earnest business to keep that interest alive?

Most people have only to reflect, say, on all the people in their own block to realize this, but I will give here one historical illustration. The American population is especially composed of religious, and often fanatical, contingents from nations of the old world who had suffered persecution; and even in the last hundred years the main streams of immigration (Irish, Italian, Polish, Jewish, etc.) have predominantly brought religious fanatics, because they naturally came from the poorest, least educated, and most overcrowded countries, which means the most religious.

Now consider the fortunes of the most fanatical of them all, the Roman Catholics, when the great expansion of the American people toward the Pacific took place in the nineteenth century. It is true that there were not priests enough to found chapels wherever a few hundred Catholics settled—a difficulty which Rome can always overcome by consecrating German or Belgian peasants and drafting them abroad—but the main point was that priests were generally disinclined to leave Boston and Philadelphia and rough it with the western pioneers. The result was that in a few decades literally millions of these fanatical Catholics lost all interest in religion. In 1836 Bishop England (Catholic bishop of Charlestown) was requested by Rome to draw up, in Rome, a careful statement of the facts. He estimated that between 1815 and 1836 the Church had lost 3,750,000 people. It was worse afterwards during the western expansion and the big Irish, Italian, and Polish invasions. I may deal with the matter in a later Little Blue Book, and will say here only that in 1891 a group of American Catholics addressed a memorial (the Lucerne Memorial) to the Pope bewailing that 16,000,000 had apostatized. The Vérité of Quebec made the same estimate, independently, in 1898. The New York Freeman's Journal in the same year put the loss at twenty millions, and I have shown from immigration analyses that the loss was at least fourteen or fifteen millions.

In other words, the most fanatical of all religious adherents fell away in masses when there were no priests to bother them, and, although priests came along as soon as there was money enough in any town to give a middle-class income to an ordained peasant, they never recovered the apostates or (in most cases) their children. I could fill a large volume with these concrete and overwhelming illustrations of the supreme importance of the priest or minister, yet he is scarcely ever mentioned In discussions of the psychology of religion. It would be "superficial" to explain religious belief in that way. . . . Anyhow, it would not be prudent.

You do not look for prudence, but plain English, in Haldeman-Julius publications, and we shall see here what amount of truth there is in the various psychologies of religion. We are going, together, to examine the religious beliefs of the men and women you actually know. Academic writers are very apt to construct their own "religious man," and too often they construct him to fit a preconceived theory of what he ought to be. Other writers take eccentric and exceptional types of believers and make general theories of religion out of their analysis of these. Let us try, as far as possible, to ascertain the actual attitudes of a very great variety of religious men and women—there is, of course, no such thing as a religious type—and see what influences give them the different shades of religious belief or emotion which most of us lack.