The Psychology of Religion/Chapter 5

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There is yet another theory of the psychology of religion that we must consider. There are, in fact, almost as many theories as there are religious thinkers, or thinkers about religion, but my readers will scarcely expect me here to discuss all the philosophic subtleties and novelties of Eucken, Bergson, Fouillée, Tagore, Royce, Croce, Seth, Ward, and every other modern religious thinker who invents some variation on the ancient theme and gathers a group of followers. If a single one of these gentlemen is correct, if a believer of any type is right, the essential truth for man, the real drama of life, in comparison with which the secular story of the race, is a puppet-show and the unfolding of the universe is a triviality, is the dialogue of the immortal soul and the eternal God. Yet it seems that there is nothing in the world so hard to discover as this. The theory refutes itself.

Let us turn rather to those more familiar aspects of our subject which are of general interest. You get here a further illustration of the evil to which I have drawn attention throughout these Little Blue Books. Even writers who regard themselves as profound are so really superficial that they very frequently do not even conceive exactly the subject they are discussing. Hundreds of writers of books and essays have in the last twenty years referred to or enlarged upon "the psychology of religion." It stands for something modern, profound, and precise. Well, what exactly do they mean by it?

Half these writers seem to mean the psychological conditions in which religion first appeared, and they speculate on these with a glorious indifference to the fact that the life of the lower savages today shows us how primitive man thought, felt, and reacted. When they do quote a few savages, they pay little or no attention to the cultural level of the people they quote; and they generally select a few instances which confirm their theory and ignore the rest. But I have devoted another volume (Little Blue Book No. 1008) to the origin of religion. It is a totally different question from the one we now confront. An idea or institution may arise for one reason and be maintained for quite a different reason.

I once noticed in a Queensland forest an interesting case of a parasite-tree. A wild fig grows parasitically up the trunk of a eucalypt, sucking its sap out of the eucalypt. After a time, the fig sends roots of its own into the soil, so that, by the time the eucalypt is sucked dry and killed, the fig is a sturdy tree living by its own roots and clasping in its arms the skeleton of the original eucalypt. I saw in this at once a figure of ecclesiastical Christianity growing upon the person and teachings of Jesus and then striking roots of its own in the soil of the Middle Ages. But it will serve as a figure of the growth of religion generally. Priestcraft, for instance, fastened upon religion parasitically when it became sappy enough to support a parasite and later struck its own roots in the soil.

But let us first attach a precise meaning to "the psychology of religion." It is a clumsy phrase. I use it only because it is familiar, but psychology is the whole science of mental behavior, not an interpretation of a particular thing. And what do we mean by "religion"? The objective body of doctrines, rituals, and priesthoods, or the subjective acceptance of them? I have, in any case, dealt in other Little Blue Books with the evolution of religion in the objective sense. We mean here religion as an attitude of belief and emotion. And again we have to ask, whose? There is almost nothing in common between the mental attitude of a liberal professor of theology at Chicago and of a peasant in southern Mexico, of a Theistic scientist and a Roman Catholic laundry woman or housemaid. All that we can do here is to take two broad classes, the ordinary and the intense or fanatical believer, with a few variations within each class, and analyze the mental attitude.

For the first class, the great mass of religious people throughout the world, there is a good deal of truth in the new theory to which I referred. Ten years ago a book entitled Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War (1916), by W. Trotter, was widely discussed. That period of intense collective emotion very naturally suggested a theory that human beings have a good deal of the herd-instinct which keeps together buffaloes or baboons and causes them to act in certain standard ways. Mr. Trotter, like all pioneers or discoverers of ideas, exaggerated, but in claiming that the herd-instinct is the principal cause of religious belief he had at least considerable facts in his favor. As I have already explained, I dislike the word instinct, but of the great mass of religious believers scattered over the earth it may justly be said that they believe and worship because the herd does.

Of eighteen hundred million worshipers far more than fifteen hundred millions—say Chinese, Hindus, Latin Americans, the more backward races, and the mass of the peasantry everywhere—have no "psychology of religion." They inherit religious beliefs as they inherit beliefs about cattle and babies. There is more "psychology," more variety of psychic elements, in their political than in their religious life. By the age of ten they are completely equipped with a set of religious beliefs, and for the rest of their lives their beliefs are based entirely upon authority, their practices follow almost automatically upon their beliefs or are guided by universal custom, and their emotions are not different in character from their political or domestic emotions. They have the same awe and reverence for God as for the king, and the great festivals of the year give them the same joy and excitement as secular rejoicings of political crises do.

There Is very little variation in this great body of worshipers beyond the variation of individual temperaments. Some are, notoriously, "more religious" than others: which means that they are more emotional generally or that they brood over the religious ideas more than the others do. You have just the same variations of emotional intensity in the political world, and it is therefore needless to ask for any special psychological explanation of the "piety" of many of these mass-believers. The Hindu is more fanatical about politics than about religion. Indeed, even in the domestic sphere you find analogous variations in wives and mothers, while in any body of, say, a thousand Democrats you will find the same variations in intensity of belief and emotion as in a body of a thousand Baptists.

Professor Thouless, whose book I have previously recommended because it avoids the meretricious practice of creating "a new and mystifying psychology for religion alone," identifies the psychological factors of the religious attitude as (1) the influence of tradition, (2) personal experience (consciousness of moral conflict and emotional life), and (3) processes of reasoning. There is another recent work, Religion and the New Psychology (1924), by a surgeon, N. B. Harman, but the title is rather misleading. It is a small collection of essays, and only the first deals with religion and psychology. The author, however, as far as he goes, is sound. The new psychology, he says, throws no special light on religion.

I agree entirely with Thouless, and I think that the reader will on reflection, merely adding that the consciousness of moral conflict seems to me only a rare and occasional ingredient in religion, and that these emotional experiences generally follow the religious attitude rather than help to engender it. In the religious life at least the emotions do not seem to any great extent to be influenced by the subconscious. They are provoked and sustained by definite conceptions of gods and goddesses, definite beliefs about life and the future, or by the images, ritual, music, hymns, etc., used in the cult. There is nothing specific in the emotions. They are the ordinary human emotions of joy, sorrow, hope, fear, reverence, love, etc., and, in proportion to the intensity or vividness with which the believer realizes or visualizes his beliefs, they arise as spontaneously as do the emotions of a young mother in regard to her first child.

Hence, although there is a very common practice of regarding this emotional life of the believer as his "religious life" in a special sense, you have only to consider it to see that it contains nothing specifically religious except the ideas or objects to which the emotions refer. It is only in the exceptional cases, which I study in the next chapter, that psychological analysis may discover points of special interest. A nun's love of Jesus, for instance, or a young monk's love of Mary may very well have a strong subconscious sexual coloring. In the overwhelming majority of believers the emotions are normal and have no specific religious or sexual meaning. What requires explanation, in other words, is the belief. Given the belief, the emotions follow as naturally as anger follows an injury, or gratitude follows a generous act, or hope and enthusiasm follow the acceptance of an economic creed.

And the factors of the belief are really only two in the mass of believers—tradition and reasoning—and in the case of the overwhelming majority only one, tradition. Parents, priests, and "the herd" make each new citizen of the world religious according to the pattern of the region in which he is born. I have in very ignorant parts of Europe, where everybody belonged to the Greek Church and most of the people never heard of any other, tried the effect of introducing the idea of skepticism. I do not mean that I tried to argue against religion, but merely to ascertain what would be the reaction of these people if I said that I was a skeptic and that half the people of my city were skeptics. The only effect was a dumb, almost pained, stupefaction. They were not really interested. It was a sort of outrage on their respect for tradition. They regarded me as a group of beavers or ants might regard an individual that by some freak did not follow the traditional ways. Such people—and they are at least four-fifths of the religious believers of the world—inherit their religion just as automatically as they inherit their code of etiquette or cooking or music. The authority of tradition explains entirely the fact that they believe—the emotional religious life then follows of itself—and back of tradition and its enforcement are the priesthoods.

Personal experiences count in the psychology of their religion only because they already believe. For ages man believed that the summer's crop, the rain supply, the fertility of the cattle, depended upon the gods, and this gave him a bias toward religion; but, obviously, the belief is the primary thing. Personal reasoning, on the other hand, has very little to do with religion in this largest class of worshipers. The world seems to them, in such dull gleams of reflection as they have, to be quite in harmony with their religion. The prosperity of the wicked and suffering of the good will be put right in the next world, and so on. Doubt never occurs to the overwhelming majority, and reason is not invoked to allay it. The stream of religious tradition flows placidly on.

The general truth of this, and the points at which variations begin to appear, can be seen best in America by studying the colored people. I have seen a body of colored worshipers in chapel, and have seen just the same frenzy at a political meeting for the abolition of the color-line and even in moving picture theaters, when Tom Mix or Duck Jones or Rin Tin Tin dashed upon the screen at the critical moment to save the heroine. I have listened for an hour to those chants or hymns which the colored folk of the south compose, and which give the finest expression of colored piety. The emotions are just the same as in courtship or politics. The objects of the emotions differ, and are provided solely by tradition, maintained chiefly in their own interest by preachers. And in the same colored population you see where the religion based solely on tradition passes into a religion based partly on personal experience. In the towns the colored folk hear skepticism, and the preachers buttress their faith for them with naive versions of the usual "Proofs." Once, at a colored meeting in Chicago, where my friend, Bishop Brown poured into his audience some scathing shots at orthodox Christianity, I noticed that large numbers even of the women shrieked with the same joy that they had once felt in chapel.

From that point, when the worshiper begins to reason, you get an increasing amount of personal element in the religion. Most people must know, however, that the great majority even of white believers in an educated country never reason, never need to reason, about religion. Today the "proofs" are provided with religion itself. The preacher adopts an apologetic tone occasionally, and slays Atheists, Modernists, Protestants, Catholics, or any type of opponent, and not one in five hundred of his audience will take the trouble to check his words. Reflect on the Fundamentalist's veneration for the Word of God. It is just a blind acceptance of tradition and priestly authority in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred.

In short, it is only a very small minority of religious worshipers whose religion offers any material for psychological study. In the overwhelming majority of cases a set of statements are planted in the young mind, and, as they are accepted by the whole community, they remain unchallenged. They are beliefs, or statements, accepted on authority. Where there is a variety of religions or sects, the diversity may provoke the believer to reflect, but as a rule his own sect has a literature so unblushingly mendacious that he never carries the inquiry beyond his own church. His religion as belief requires no analysis; and in so far as it is emotional, it has no special elements. Love of Jehovah, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, or the Bab is the same emotion as was once love of Ishtar or Tammuz or Zeus, and is now the love of friend or parent.