The Psychology of Religion/Chapter 3

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This prosy analysis of the impulses at work in the mind and lite of a religious woman will give the reader some idea of my general attitude toward the subject of this Little Blue Book. If it seems, in comparison with some of the learned-looking essays you have read, superficial and materialistic, let me say that I learned it from the profound and spiritual authorities of my clerical years. "Things are not to be multiplied without necessity" is an axiom of Scholastic Theology: it means that, when you set out to explain a thing, you must try what known factors will explain before you drag in unknown. I want the reader to see for himself if, in his own sphere of observation, these many quite familiar agencies which I have enumerated do not suffice to explain the simple fact that there are three women worshipers to two male.

Thus since, like Professor Thouless, I find fanciful psychological explanations superfluous, I approach the Psycho-Analytic school on this subject in a critical mood. For reasons which cannot be discussed here the scientific world of our time suffers a perfect plague of new theories, most of which are the very truth for a few years and are then abandoned in out-of-date editions of encyclopedias. Indeed it is not merely the scientific world, but the general world of thought. Poets rage about new types of poetry, musicians about the "new music," sculptors about Rodin and Epstein, painters about Futurism and Cubism, and even economists and Socialists run on through a series of Marxian Socialism, Guild Socialism, Unionism, Direct Action, Credit Control, Anarchy, Soviet Socialism, etc., etc. It is not so much a new "psychology" in our generation as an expression of a new freedom and, particularly, a vast new literature, always itching for novelties, which broadcasts or megaphones every new idea and gives it a fictitious importance.

Having for thirty years observed philosophers, scientists, and economists hug their new theory for five or ten years and then discard it for another which was equally certain (and generally quite contradictory of the preceding), I have become in my mental attitude what I might describe as a conservative anarchist. I have no more respect for the authority of the hour than I have for the authority of Jesus Christ, Anthony Comstock, or the British or American Constitution. . . .

Which means, in other words, that Psycho-Analysis may in the course of time shrink to the present size of Dergsonism, Futurism, Einsteinism, Mendelism, Modernism, Planetesimalism, etc. That, like most of these, it brings a permanent contribution to thought it seems safe to admit. But, quite apart from the commercial exploitation of it and the usual desperate applications of its principles to everything under the sun, it plainly has two of the familiar defects of new theories: it ignores or distorts many facts, and it has a great love of verbiage.

In its more familiar form, the Freud system, it seems to me, and now to most people, an extreme exaggeration of what is certainly a very large fact in life, sex; and when it is applied to religion it is quite untrue to experience. On this side there was a strong disposition on the part of thoughtful people to receive the Freudian explanation. As I have explained, the usual idea of the religiousness of women is very exaggerated, and the view was commonly taken that the repression of sex-feelings in unmarried girls and women was largely responsible. There is even now more sex-repression in young women than young men, though the situation is changing, but no one has ever clearly explained why the sort of poisoning or jaundicing of the psychic system by sex-repression should lead to greater religiousness.

I have read a new theory of something or other by a distinguished Psycho-Analyst which was, as he admitted, based upon "about a dozen" diagnoses. My own experience as a father-confessor (who is a kind of Psycho-Analyst) thirty years ago, in the course of which I heard thousands of confessions of young ladies, was that the bulk of them were no different in their attitude to religion than the men: that the really morbid amongst them were, though not married, by no means chaste; and that disorders of menstruation bad far more influence on them than suppressed sex-desire. At all events, the very plain influences I indicated in the last chapter do not leave much in the religious psychology of woman to be explained by sex, when we get the correct figures of disproportion of the sexes.

I have had the opportunity during recent years of making some study of the "psychology," in regard to religion, of young women between twenty and thirty. In few cases was there any serious religious feeling, though most of them belonged to one or other Church, and it seemed that, if anything, their sex-situation disposed them to rebel against religion. The clergy, as everybody knows, regard sexual feeling as the greatest cause of abandonment of religion; and I wonder if any would be so bold as to say that when young women in their twenties put an end to their sex-saturation by marriage they become less religious. It is, surely, rather the reverse. On the other hand, a very large acquaintance with Rationalist families convinces me that, when their daughters reach the stage of sex-development and repression they very rarely feel any new disposition toward religion. If they do begin to attend a church, as they sometimes do, the reason is confessedly social, recreational, or matrimonial.

Hence, while I have not space here to discuss the general truth of Freud's theory, I think that his application of it to religion is very theoretical, and it is certainly contrary to all my experience. That sex has nothing to do with the early evolution of religion itself I have explained in another volume, Little Blue Book No. 1008, The Origin of Religion. Religion is far older than phallic religion. Sex appears in connection with religion at a relatively high savage level, and what we call the religion of Melanesians, Australians, and still lower peoples is an attitude toward the spirits of the dead and the surrounding world in which there is not the slightest reason to suspect even a subconscious bias of sex. Its roots and causes are perfectly plain. It is entirely a matter of primitive reasoning on phenomena, tradition, and sentiments caused by these very definite and conscious beliefs.

It is said, in particular, that the very wide spread of a cult of a mother-goddess in old religions is due to the famous "Oedipus complex." Dr. E. Jones shortly defines this as "the impulse, gratified in primordial times, toward parricide and incest." Oedipus was the ancient Greek gentleman who, quite ignorant that they were his parents, having been reared in exile, slew his father and married his mother; and they were both so horrified when they learned their true relationship that Oedipus blinded himself, that he might never look his fellow mortals in the face again, and the mother killed herself. It is rather hard on the virtuous ancient Greeks that their Sunday School legend should be used to give a name to a supposed tendency of every male to hate his father and desire his mother. Oedipus never knew his parents. Moreover, it is a mere theory of certain fanciful sociologists (lightly adopted by H. G. Wells) that in "primordial times," the son, when he came to maturity, clubbed his father and mated with his mother. What about his sister, and the next man's daughter, who would be far more desirable? The facts even of lower savage life are entirely against the theory. As to ourselves and our Oedipus complex, I leave it to the reader, who knows just as much about it as Freud, to say if he thinks any large proportion of youths have an even subconscious desire of sexual intercourse with their mothers and are disposed on that account to hate their fathers. Life has a disconcerting way of being much less picturesque than our theories.

At all events, the mother-goddess has nothing to do with the Oedipus complex, because there is invariably a father god (generally the sky or sun) as well. The Cretan religion is the only one with a single female deity, and it is not primitive, but highly civilized. The mother-goddess is simply mother-earth fertilized by father-sky. It is a quite normal and healthy application to primitive religion (which existed long before this stage) of the ordinary sex-idea, not a taint from a subconscious poison.

Wherever this wonderful Oedipus complex, which seems to me totally false to the facts of life, is applied to religion, it is just as fantastical. One Psycho-Analyst writer uses it to explain Christ's love of his mother and indifference to his father. The facts are exactly the opposite. Taking the gospels for the moment as historical, but excluding John, which is notoriously a second-century romance, Jesus detested his mother, and was disliked by her, while his father seems to have died before the time described. Every word of Christ to or about his mother is harsh, and she joined his brothers in wanting to have the enthusiast put under restraint. He simply had the monastic (Essene) aversion from women.

In his Essays in Applied Psychology (1923) Dr. E. Jones tries several further applications of the new ideas to religion. The Oedipus practice of prehistoric men, we are told, is the root of the doctrine of original sin, and consequently of the Atonement. When the stage of morality was reached, men reacted with loathing upon the earlier practice of incest and called it the great sin or original sin. But the very few savage tribes which ever admitted incest with mothers—we know hardly any—are far below the level of ideas of original sin, and, when this legend appears, at the Babylonian and Egyptian level, there cannot possibly have been any knowledge of remote and obscure savages who practiced Oedipism. Moreover, the legend is as far removed from it as is the story of Jack the Giant-Killer.

Dr. Jones says that the characteristically Christian idea is surrender or subjection to the Father, not defiance of him. There, he says, you have the ethical reaction on Oedipism. Not in the least. The idea is not characteristically Christian, but is common to the whole group of pre-Christian religions with slain gods, and Frazer has plainly traced the whole evolution. The deity to be placated may be father or mother—it is father in several religions besides Christianity—but the primitive idea is that a god or representative of a god shall be slain lest he grow old and the fertility of the earth and men be reduced. (See Little Blue Book No. 1104, The Myth of the Resurrection.)

We are further told that the Holy Ghost was originally the mother goddess and was dislodged by reaction against Oedipism. The actual story of the evolution of the belief, which may be read in any history of dogma, is quite different. The Holy Ghost is an artificial creation out of words by the early Christian theologians, not a goddess turned male. The exclusion of Ishtar from Judea had nothing to do with a supposed Oedipus complex. It was due on the one hand to the Monotheism or monopoly imposed in their economic interest by the priests of Jahveh, and on the other to the ordinary Semitic contempt for women. Instead of showing any trace of an Oedipus complex, the Jews had a profound veneration for their fathers and precious little regard for their mothers.

In other words, the pressure of sex in the subconscious depths seems to have no more to do with the creation of specific religious beliefs than, as a rule, with the general religious attitude. In lands where there is no sex-repression in youth—lndia, for instance—people are far more religious than in a modern American city. Colored girls, who are not much tainted with sex-repression, are scarcely less religious than white college-girls. In poorer districts and countries (Ireland, for instance), where marriage is early, the girls are far more religious than in late-marriage circles. A hundred sets of facts of real life are against the theory. Sex-starvation or perversion is apt to make young women unhealthy, and in a few cases this may have a religious expression. Facts do not justify us in saying more than that.

Psycho-Analysis of the Jung and Adler type, which keeps the sex-impulse in its place and speaks rather of a general surge upward from the subconscious of old vital impulses, throws no light on religion. There is no reason why suppressed impulses should find a religious expression. But the chief weakness of writers of both schools who discuss religion—and I am not concerned otherwise with the theories—is that they assume that there is something in the religious mood or attitude which has not yet been explained by more familiar and conscious impulses. We shall see that there is not. The roots of religion are in the conscious mind.