Religion & Sex - Studies in the Pathology of Religious Development
by Chapman Cohen
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Published October 1919

Printed by MORRISON & GIBB LIMITED, Edinburgh














In spite of all that has been done in the way of applying scientific principles to religious ideas, there is much that yet remains to be accomplished. Generally speaking science has only dealt with the subject of religion in its more normal and more regularised forms. The last half-century has produced many elaborate and fruitful studies of the origin of religious ideas, while comparative mythology has shown a close and suggestive relationship between creeds and symbols that were once believed to have nothing in common. But beyond these fields of research there is at least one other that has hitherto been denied the attention it richly deserves. When the anthropologist has described those conditions of primitive culture amid which he believes religious ideas took their origin, and the comparative mythologist has shown us the similarities and inter-relations of widely separated creeds, religious beliefs have yet to submit to the test of a scientific psychology, the function of which is to determine how far the same principles apply to all phases of mental life whether religious or non-religious. Moreover, in addition to the normal psychical life of man, there is that vast borderland in which the normal merges into the abnormal, and the healthy state into a pathologic one. That there is a physiology of religion is now generally admitted; but that there is also a pathology of religion is not so generally recognised. The present work seeks to emphasise this last aspect. It does not claim to be more than an outline of the subject—a sketch map of a territory that others may fill in more completely.

From another point of view the following pages may be regarded as an attempt more completely to apply scientific principles to religious beliefs. And it would be idle to hope that such an attempt could be made without incurring much hostile criticism. In connection with most other subjects the help of science is welcomed; in connection with religion science is still regarded as more or less of an intruder, profaning a sacred subject with vulgar tests and impertinent enquiries. This must almost inevitably follow when one has to face the opposition of thousands of men who have been trained to regard themselves as the authorised exponents of all that pertains to religion, but whose training fails to supply them with a genuine scientific equipment. It should, however, be clear that an attitude of hostility to science, veiled or open, cannot be maintained. Mere authority has fallen on evil days, and in all directions is being freely challenged. There is increasing dislike to systems of thought that shrink from examination, and to conclusions that cannot withstand the most rigorous investigation. And if science really has anything of value to say on this question it cannot be held to silence for ever. Sooner or later the need for its assistance will be felt, and the self-elected authority of an order must give way. It is, moreover, impossible for science with its claim, sometimes avowed, but always implied, to cover the whole of life, to forego so large a territory as that of religion. For there can be no reasonable question that religion has played, and still plays a large part in the life of the race. Whatever be the nature of religion, science is bound either to deal with it or confess its main task to be hopeless.

Whether or not it is possible to apply known scientific principles to the whole of religion will be a matter of opinion; but the attempt is at least worth making. So much that appeared to be beyond the reach of science has been ultimately brought within its ken, so many things that seemed to stand in a class by themselves have been finally brought under some more comprehensive generalisation, and so become part of the 'cosmic machine,' that one is impelled to believe that given time and industry the same will result here. And it should never be forgotten that one aspect of scientific progress has been the taking over of large tracts of territory that religion once regarded as peculiarly its own; and just as psychology and pathology were found to hold the key to an understanding of such a phenomenon as witchcraft, so we may yet realise that a true explanation of religious phenomena is to be found, not in some supernatural world, but in the workings of natural forces imperfectly understood.

The defences set up by theologians against the scientific advance may be summarised under two heads. It is claimed that the 'facts' of the religious life belong to a world of inner experience, to a state of spiritual development which brings the subject into touch with a super-sensuous world not open to the normal human being, and with which science, as ordinarily understood, is incompetent to deal. In essence this is a very old position, and contains the kernel of 'mysticism' in all ages, from the savage state onward. This position involves a very obvious begging of the question at issue. It assumes that all attempts to correlate religious phenomena with phenomena in general have failed, and that all future attempts are similarly doomed to failure. Of course nothing of the kind has been shown. On the contrary, the aim of the present work is to show that no dividing line can be drawn between those states of mind that have been and are classed as religious, and those that are admittedly non-religious. For various reasons I have dealt almost entirely with those conditions that are admittedly pathological, but I believe it would be possible to prove the same of all normal frames of mind and emotional states. Any human quality may be enlisted in the service of religion, but there are none that are specifically religious. It is a pure assumption that the religious visionary possesses qualities that are either absent or rudimentary in other persons. Human faculty is everywhere identical although the form in which it is expressed differs according to education, the presence of certain dominating ideas, and the general influence of one's environment. To admit the claim of the mystic is to surrender all hope of a scientific co-ordination of life. It is quite fatal to the scientific ideal and involves the re-introduction into nature of a dualism the removal of which has been one of the most marked advantages of scientific thinking.

Moreover, whatever views we may hold as to the ultimate nature of 'mind' the dependence of all frames of mind upon the brain and nervous system is now generally accepted. We may hold various theories as to the nature of mind, we may, with the late William James, treat the brain as merely a 'transmissive' organ, but even on that assumption—on behalf of which not a shred of positive evidence has been offered—the frames of mind expressed are determined by the nervous mechanism, and thus the laws of mental phenomena become ultimately the laws of the operation of the nervous system. The 'facts' of the religious life thus become part of the facts of psychology as a whole. Its 'laws' will form part of psychological laws as a whole, and religious experiences must be handed over for examination and classification to the psychologist who in turn relies for help and understanding on various associated branches of science.

Closely allied to the claim of the 'mystic' that his experiences bring him into touch with a world of super-sensuous reality, is the attempt to prove that science is incapable of dealing with anything but "in the first place, the endless ascertainment of facts and the physical conditions under which they occur, and in the second place to the criticism of error." Well, no one denies that it is part of the work of science to ascertain facts, or even that its work consists in ascertaining facts and framing 'laws' that will explain them. But why are we to limit science to physical facts only? All facts are not physical. If I have a head-ache, the unpleasant feeling is a fact. If I feel hot or cold, angry or pleased, think one thing ugly or another beautiful, my feelings are as much 'facts' as anything else that exists. Nay, if I fancy I see a ghost, or a vision, these also are 'facts' so far as my mental state at the time is concerned. So also are my beliefs about all manner of things, and often the most important facts with which I am connected. Facts may be objective or subjective. They may exist in relation to all minds normally constituted, or they may exist in relation to my own mind only; or, yet again, they may exist only in relation to certain states of mind, but they do not, nevertheless, cease to be facts.

Now the business of science is to collect facts—all facts—classify them, and frame generalisations that will explain their groupings and modes of operation. It talks of the facts of the physical world, the facts of the biological world, the facts of the psychological world, and so forth. This last group comprises all sorts of feelings and ideas, beliefs and experiences. Some of these facts it calls false, others it calls true—that is, they are true when they hold good of all men and women normally constituted, they are not true when they hold good of isolated individuals only, and can be seen to be the product of misinterpreted experience, or arise from a derangement—permanent or temporary—of the nervous system. But true or false they remain facts of the mental life. They must be collected, grouped, and explained exactly as other facts are collected, grouped, and explained. They fall within the scope of science, to be dealt with by scientific methods.

There is really no escape from the position that so far as religious 'facts' are parts of mental life, religion becomes logically a department of psychology. The substantial identity of all mental facts is quite unaffected by their being directed to this or that special object. As mental facts they are part of the material that it is the work of science to reduce to order. And as mental facts religious phenomena are seen to follow the same 'laws' that govern mental phenomena in general. It is perfectly true that we cannot test and measure the material of psychology with the same definiteness and accuracy that the chemist applies to the subject-matter of his department; but that may be due to want of knowledge, or to the extreme complexity and variability of the matter with which we are dealing. And if it were true that the same tests could not be applied in psychology that are applied elsewhere, this would be no cause for scientific despair. It would only mean that fresh tests would have to be devised for a new group of facts, as every other science has already, as a matter of fact, created its own special standard of value.

The second of the two lines of defence consists in the bold assertion that the religious interpretation of subjective phenomena is itself in the nature of a true scientific induction. The methods of science are not repudiated, but welcomed. But it is argued that the non-religious explanation of religious phenomena breaks down hopelessly, while the religious explanation fully covers and explains the facts. If this were true, nothing more remains to be said, and we must accept this dualistic scheme, however repugnant it may be to orthodox scientific ideas. But is it true? Is it a fact that the non-religious explanation breaks down so completely? Hitherto the course of events has been in the contrary direction. It is the religious explanation that has, over and over again, been shown to be unreliable, the non-religious explanation that has been finally established. Insanity and epilepsy, once universally ascribed to a supernatural order of being, have been reduced to the level of nervous disorders. All the phenomena of 'possession' are still with us, it is only our understanding of them that has altered. And before it is admitted that the phenomena described as religious can never be affiliated to the phenomena described as non-religious, it must be shown—beyond all possibility of doubt—that their explanation in terms of known forces is impossible. As I have said in the body of this work, the question at issue is essentially one of interpretation. The 'facts' of the religious life are admitted. Science no more questions the reality of the visions of the medieval mystic than it questions the visions of the non-mystic admittedly suffering from neural derangement. The crucial question is whether we have any good reason for separating the two, and while we dismiss the one as hallucination accept the other as introducing us to another order of being? I do not think there is the slightest ground for any such differentiation, and I have given in the following pages what I conceive to be good reasons for so thinking. And I hope that the fact of the explanations there offered running counter to the traditional one will not prevent readers weighing with the utmost care the proofs that are offered.




Accepting Professor Tylor's famous minimum definition of religion as "the belief in Spiritual Beings," it is safe to say that religious belief constitutes one of the largest facts in human history. No other single subject has occupied so large a share of man's conscious life, no other subject has absorbed so much of his energy. In very early stages of culture religious belief is universal in the fullest sense of the word. It shapes all primitive institutions; it dominates life from the cradle to the grave, and creates a shadow-land beyond the grave from which the dead continue to influence the actions of the living. At a later stage of culture we see a distinction being drawn between the natural and the supernatural, the secular and the spiritual, and the beginning of an antagonism that is still with us. Of all antagonisms conceived by the brain of man this is the deepest and the most irreconcilable. Each feels that the growth of the other threatens its own supremacy, with the result that advance from either side has been contested with the greatest obstinacy and determination. And although it is true that at present the supernatural is very largely "suspect," it is still powerful. Nor is its influence confined to the lower strata of European society. It has very many representatives among the higher culture, disguised it may be under various pseudo-philosophic forms. Altogether we may say that the supernatural has never been without its "cloud of witnesses." At all times there have been individuals, or groups of individuals, who have believed themselves, and have been believed by others, to be in touch with another order of existence than that with which people are normally in contact. And apart from these specially favoured persons, the wide vogue of the belief in good and evil portents, in lucky and unlucky days, the attraction of the "occult" in fiction and in fact, all serve as evidence that belief in the supernatural is still a force with which one has to reckon.

To what causes are we to attribute the persistence of this belief in the supernatural? It is useless replying that its persistence is evidence of its truth. That clearly begs the whole question at issue. Mere social heredity will doubtless count for much in this direction. Men do not start their thinking afresh with each generation. It is based upon that of preceding generations; it follows set forms, and is generally influenced by that network of ideas and beliefs into which we are born and from which none of us ever completely escapes. Still that is hardly enough in itself to account for the persistence of supernaturalism. Assuming that originally there existed what was accepted as good evidence for the existence of a supernatural, it is hardly credible that every subsequent generation went on accepting it merely because one generation received evidence of its existence. As organs atrophy for want of exercise, so do beliefs die out in time for want of proof. Some kind of evidence must have been continually forthcoming in order to keep the belief alive and active. It is not a question of whether the evidence was good or bad. All evidence, it is important to bear in mind, is good to some one. The "facts" upon which thousands of people were put to death for witchcraft would not be considered evidence to anyone nowadays, but they were once accepted as good ground for conviction.

What kind of evidence is it, then, that has been accepted as proof of the supernatural? Or, to return to Tylor's definition of religion, seeing that the belief in spiritual beings has persisted in every generation, upon what kind of evidence has this belief been nourished? Various replies might be given to this question, all of which may contain some degree of truth, or an aspect of a general truth. In the present enquiry I am concerned with one line of investigation only, one that has been strangely neglected, but which yet, I am convinced, promises fruitful results. In other directions it has been established that a great aid to an understanding of the human organism in times of health is to study its activities under conditions of disease. Abnormal psychology is now a recognised branch of psychology in general, and a glance through almost any recent text-book will show that the two form parts of a natural whole. The normal and the abnormal are in turn used to throw light on each other. And it appears to the present writer that in the matter of religious beliefs a much clearer understanding of their nature, and also of some of the conditions of their perpetuation, may be gained by a study of what has happened, and is happening, in the light of mental pathology.

To some, of course, the bare idea of there being a pathology of religion will appear an entirely unwarrantable assumption. On the other hand, the scientific study of all phases of religions having made so great headway it is hoped that a larger number will be prepared for a discussion of the subject from a point of view which, if not quite new, is certainly not common. Of course, such a discussion, even if the author quite succeeds in demonstrating the truth of his thesis, will still leave the origin of the religious idea an open question. For the present we are not concerned directly with the origin of the religious idea, but with an examination of some of the causes that have served to perpetuate it, and to trace the influence in the history of religion of states of mind, both personal and collective, that are now admittedly abnormal or pathological in character. The legitimacy of the enquiry cannot be questioned. As to its value and significance, that every reader must determine for himself.

One may put the essential idea of the following pages in a sentence:—Given the religious idea as already existing, in what way, and to what extent has its development been affected by forces that are not in themselves religious, and which modern thought definitely separates from religion?

Under civilised and uncivilised conditions we find religious beliefs constantly associated with various forces—social, ethical, and psychological. Very seldom is there any serious attempt to separate them and assign to each their respective value; nor, indeed, is the task at any time an easy one. The difficulty is made the greater by the way in which writers so enlarge the meaning of "religion" that it is made to include almost everything for which one feels admiration or respect. This practice is neither helpful nor accurate. Human nature under all aspects of intellectual conviction presents the same fundamental characteristics, and a definition to be of value, while of necessity inclusive, must also be decisively exclusive. It must unite, but it must also separate. And many current definitions of religion, while they may bear testimony to the amiability of those who frame them, are quite destitute of scientific value. In any case, the association of the religious idea with non-religious forces is a fact too patent to admit of denial; and the important task is to determine their reciprocal influence. In actual life this separation has been secured by the development of the various branches of positive thought—ethics, psychology, etc., all of which were once directly under the control of religion. What remains to be done is to separate in theory what has already been separated in fact, with such additions as a more critical knowledge may suggest as advisable.

Far more suggestive, however, than the association of religion with what we may call the normal social forces, is its connection with conditions that are now clearly recognised as abnormal. From the earliest times we find the use of drugs and stimulants, the practice of fasting and self-torture, with other methods of depressing or stimulating the action of the nervous system, accepted as well-recognised methods of inducing a sense of religious illumination, or the feeling that one is in direct communion with a supernatural order of existence. Equally significant is the world-wide acceptance—right up to recent times—of purely pathological states as evidence of supernatural intercourse. About these two sets of facts there can be no reasonable doubt. Over and over again we can observe how the promptings of disease are taken for the voice of divinity, and men and women who to-day would be handed over to the care of the physician hailed as an incarnation of deity. In modern asylums we find one of the commonest of delusions to be that of the insane person who imagines himself to be a specially selected instrument of deity. In such instances the causal influence of pathological conditions is admitted. On the other hand, we have belonging to the more normal type the person who claims a supernatural origin for many of his actions and states of mind. And between these two extremes lie a whole series of gradations. They exist in all stages of culture, and it is difficult to see by what rule of logic or of experience one can say where the normal ends and the abnormal begins. If we assume the inference of the normal person concerning the origin of his mental states to be correct, it seems difficult to deny the possibility of those of the insane person having a similar origin, although distorted by the influence of disease. If, on the other hand, we say the insane person is wholly wrong as to the origin of his mental states, may we not also assume that the normal person has likewise erred as to the cause of his emotions or ideas?

Two considerations may be urged in support of this conclusion. In the first place, there is the fact of the fundamental identity of human qualities under all conditions of their manifestation. It is too often assumed—sometimes it is explicitly claimed—that one with what is called "a strong religious nature" possesses some quality of mind absent or undeveloped in those of an opposite type. This assumption is quite unwarrantable. The religious man is marked off from the non-religious man, not by the possession of distinct mental qualities, but solely by holding different ideas concerning the cause and significance of his mental states. There is no such thing as a religious "faculty," but only qualities of mind expressed in terms of the religious idea. If I am conscious of a strong desire to work on behalf of the social betterment of my fellows, I may account for this either by attributing it to having inherited a nature modified by generations of social intercourse, or on the hypothesis that I am an instrument in the hands of a superhuman personality. But in either case the qualities manifested remain the same. Love and hatred, fear and courage, honesty and roguery, with all other human qualities, may be expressed in terms of religion, or they may be expressed in non-religious terms. It is the cause to which they are attributed, or the object to which they are directed, that marks off the religious from the non-religious person.

The second point is that the whole issue arises on a conflict of interpretations. If I question the reality of the visions or states of illumination experienced by Santa Teresa, I am not questioning that, so far as the saint herself was concerned, these states of exaltation were real. All mental states—whether arising under normal or abnormal conditions—are quite real to those who experience them. The visions of the hashish-eater are real, while they last; so are those of the victim of delirium tremens. All I question is their genuineness as corresponding to an objective reality. Over the mind of the subject these visions may exercise an absolute sway. As to their occurrence, he or she is the final and absolute authority. There can be no question here. But when we proceed from the occurrence of these visions to the question of their causation, then we are on entirely different ground. Here it is not a question of their genuineness, or of their power, but a question of how we are to interpret them. The honesty and singlemindedness of these "inspired" characters may be admitted, but honesty or singlemindedness is no guarantee of accuracy. We do not need to ask whether the peasant girl of Lourdes experienced a vision of the Madonna, but we do need to ask whether there was anything in her mental history, social surroundings, or nervous state that would account for the vision. All the "facts" of the religious life may be admitted; the sole question at issue is whether an adequate interpretation of at least some of them may not be found in terms of a purely scientific psychology.

Taking, then, the religious idea as already existing, the following pages will be devoted to an examination of the extent to which this idea has been associated with forces and conditions that were plainly pathological. In very many individual cases it will not be difficult to trace a vivid sense of the supernatural to the presence of abnormal nervous states, sometimes deliberately induced, at other times arising of themselves. And it is a matter of mere historical observation that such individual cases have operated most powerfully to strengthen the belief in the supernatural with others. The example of Lourdes is a case in point. All Protestants will agree that the peasant girl's vision was a sheer hallucination. And yet there can be no question that this vision has served to strengthen the faith of many thousands of others in the nearness of the supernatural. And it needs but little effort of the imagination to realise how powerful such examples must have been in ages when medical science was in its infancy, and the more subtle operations of the nervous system completely unknown.

This question, I repeat, is distinct from the much larger and wider enquiry of the origin of religion. A fairly lengthy experience of the capacity of the general mind for missing the real point at issue prevents my being too sanguine as to the efficiency of the most explicit avowal of one's purpose, but the duty of taking precautions nevertheless remains. And in elaborating an unfamiliar view of the nature of much of the world's so-called religious phenomena, the possibility of misconception is multiplied enormously. Still, a writer must do what he can to guard against misunderstanding, and in the most emphatic manner it must be said that it is not my purpose to prove, nor is it my belief, that religion springs from perverted sexuality, nor that the study of religion is no more than an exercise in pathology. Nothing is further from the writer's mind than so essentially preposterous a claim. Neither sexuality, no matter how powerful, nor disease, no matter how pronounced, can account for the religious idea. That has an entirely separate and independent origin. This should be plain to anyone who has but a merely casual acquaintance with the history of religion. It is, however, a very different thing to enquire as to the part played in the history of religion by morbid nervous states or perverted sexual feeling. That is an enquiry both legitimate and desirable; and it is one that promises to shed light on aspects of the subject otherwise very obscure. And certainly, if so-called religious feelings do not admit of explanation in terms of a scientific psychology, nothing remains but to recognise religion as something quite apart from normal life, to hand it over to the custody of word-spinning "Mystics," and so surrender all possibility of a rational understanding of either its nature or its history.

In saying what I have concerning the probability of misconception, I have had specially in mind the attack made by the late Professor William James on what he called the "medical materialists." In that remarkable piece of religious yellow-journalism, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Professor James says of those who take up the position that a great deal of what has been accepted by the world as religious inspiration or exaltation can be accounted for as the products of disordered nervous states or perverted sexual feeling, "We are surely all familiar in a general way with this method of discrediting states of mind for which we have an antipathy. We all use it in some degree in criticising persons whose states of mind we regard as overstrained. But when other people criticise our own exalted soul-flights by calling them 'nothing but' expressions of our organic disposition, we feel outraged and hurt, for we know that, whatever be our organism's peculiarities, our mental states have their substantive value as revelations of the living truth; and we wish that all this medical materialism could be made to hold its tongue." Again, "Few conceptions are less instructive than this re-interpretation of religion as perverted sexuality.... It is true that in the vast collection of religious phenomena, some are undisguisedly amatory—e.g. sex deities and obscene rites in polytheism, and ecstatic feelings of union with the Saviour in a few Christian Mystics. But then why not equally call religion an aberration of the digestive functions, and prove one's point by the worship of Bacchus and Ceres, or by the ecstatic feelings of some other saints about the Eucharist?" Or, seeing that the Bible is full of the language of respiratory oppression, "one might almost as well interpret religion as a perversion of the respiratory function." And if it is pointed out that active interest in religion synchronises with adolescence, "the retort again is easy.... The interest in mechanics, physics, chemistry, logic, philosophy, and sociology, which springs up during adolescent years along with that in poetry and religion, is also a perversion of the sexual instinct."[1]

Excellent fooling, this, but little else. I do not know that anyone has ever claimed that religion took its origin in sexual feeling, or that this would alone provide an explanation of historical religion. All that anyone has ever urged is that a deal of so-called religious feeling, past and present, can be shown to be due to unsatisfied or perverted sexual feeling—which is a very different statement, and one of which the truth may be demonstrated from Professor James's own pages. But between saying that certain feelings are wrongly interpreted in terms of an already existing idea, and saying that the idea itself is nothing but these same feelings transformed, there is an obvious and important difference. In every case the religious idea is taken for granted. Its origin is a quite different subject of enquiry. But once the idea is in existence there is always the probability of evidence for its truth being found in the wrong direction. The analogy of the digestive and respiratory organs is clever, but futile. The belief that much which has passed for religious feeling is perverted sexuality is not based merely upon the language employed. The language is only symptomatic. The terminology of respiration and digestion when used in connection with religion is frankly and palpably symbolic. That of sexual love is as often frankly literal, and can be correlated with the actual state of the person using it. Digestion and respiration must go on in any case; but it is precisely the point at issue whether with a different sexual life these so-called religious ecstatic states would have been experienced. When we find religious characters of strongly marked amorous dispositions, but leading an ascetic life, using toward the object of their adoration terms usually associated with strong sexual feeling, it does not seem extravagant to find here a little more than what may be covered by mere symbolism. Would the medieval monk have been tempted by Satan in the form of beautiful women had he been happily married? Would Santa Teresa or Catherine of Sienna have used the language they did use to express their relations to Jesus had they been wives and mothers? Such questions admit of one answer, which is, in its way, decisive. Professor James admits that modern psychology holds as a general postulate "there is not a single one of our states of mind, high or low, healthy or morbid, that has not some organic process as its condition."[2] The 'medical materialist' can ask for no more than this. But this being granted, on what ground are we to be forbidden finding in these same organic processes the condition of the visions and ecstatic states with which The Varieties of Religious Experience is so largely concerned?

Again, it may be granted that adolescence brings with it an awakening of the whole mental life, not of religion alone. But the analogy goes no further, and, in any case, it begs the question. The full significance of the connection will be seen when we come to deal with initiation in primitive times and conversion in the modern period. At present it suffices to point out that the interest in art, in science, in literature, in sociology, are ends in themselves, and one need go no further than the developing mental life for an explanation. But the essential question here is whether this growing life can or cannot find complete satisfaction quite apart from religion. A developing interest in the larger social life is common to all, and to some extent this is secured by the pressure of forces that are simply inescapable. On the other hand, an interest in religion only exists with some, and then it may usually be traced to a conscious direction of their energies. Moreover, those who show no special interest in religion evince no lack of anything—save in religious terms. In every respect they exhibit the same mental and emotional qualities as their fellows. The only discernible difference is that while in the one case adolescent nature is expressed in terms of religion, in the other case it is expressed in terms of a larger social life.

The question here might be put thus: Given a generation not taught to express its growing life in terms of religion, could adequate and satisfactory expression be found in the social life to which adolescence is unquestionably an introduction? Many would answer unhesitatingly, yes. They would argue that what are called the religious feelings, are normal social feelings exploited in the interests of the religious idea. They would deny that there is any such thing as a religious quality of mind. Any mental quality may be directed to a religious end, but all may find complete expression and satisfaction in a non-religious social life. This is the real question at issue, and yet Professor James never once, in the whole of his 500 pages, addresses himself to it.

Apart from sex, there is the important question of the relation between abnormal and morbid nervous states and religious illumination. How far has the one been mistaken for the other? To what extent have people accepted the outcome of pathological conditions as proofs of intercourse with an unseen spiritual world? There is no doubt that among uncivilised people this is usually, if not invariably, the case. And our knowledge of the relations between the nervous system and mental states—imperfect as it still is—is so recent, that it is not surprising that fasting, self-torture, solitary meditation, etc., because of the states of mind to which they give rise, have been universally valued as aids to the religious life. Dr. D. G. Brinton says:—

"When I say that all religions depend for their origin and continuation directly upon inspiration, I state an historic fact. It may be known under other names, of credit or discredit, as mysticism, ecstasy, rhapsody, demoniac possession, the divine afflatus, the gnosis, or, in its latest christening, 'cosmic consciousness.' All are but expressions of a belief that knowledge arises, words are uttered or actions performed not through conscious ideation or reflective purpose, but through the promptings of a power above or beyond the individual mind."[3]

The connection between very many, at least, of these inspirational moods and pathological states is too obvious to be ignored. Professor James admits that "we cannot possibly ignore these pathological aspects of the subject." His notice of them, however, reminds one of the preacher who advised his hearers to look a certain difficulty boldly in the face—and pass on. No serious attempt is made to deal with them. A huge mass of "religious experiences" is thrown at the reader's head without any adequate explanation. It is a glorified revival meeting in an expensive volume. The testimony of a crowd of religious enthusiasts of all ages is accepted at practically face value. Thus, a religious writer who experiences the fairly common feeling of exaltation during a storm at sea, and explains his carelessness of danger as resulting from his "certainty of eternal life,"[4] is gravely cited as evidence of the working of the religious consciousness. What, then, are we to make of those who experience a similar feeling, but who are without the certainty of eternal life? The declaration of St. Ignatius that a single hour of meditation taught him more of the truth of "heavenly things than all the teachings of the doctors" is given as evidence of mystic illumination.[5] So with numerous other cases. We are even informed that "nitrous oxide and ether, especially nitrous oxide, when sufficiently diluted with air, stimulate the mystical consciousness in an extraordinary degree."[6] There seems no reason why the same claim should not be made on behalf of whisky. If one were not assured to the contrary, one might conclude that Professor James wrote this volume to poke fun at the whole tribe of mystics and their followers.

The use made by Professor James of his long list of cases is the more remarkable, since he quite correctly points out that there are no religious feelings, only feelings directed towards a religious end. But if this be so, how are we justified in taking the accounts of religious visionaries as correct descriptions of the nature of their own mental states? Clearly, we need a study of these cases quite apart from the mystical interpretation of them. Instead of a study Professor James presents us with a catalogue—useful from a documentary point of view, but useless to any other end. And he is so averse to subjecting his examples to analysis that, when the extravagance of certain cases are glaring, he warns us that it is unfair to impute narrowness of mind as a vice of the individual, because in "religious and theological matters he probably absorbs his narrowness from his generation."[7] Granted; only one would like to know what reason there is for not deriving virtues as well as vices from the same source? And, deeper enquiry still, may not the religious interpretation itself be a product of the special environment of the period?

The study of religious phenomena from the point of view above indicated is of first-rate importance. But although much has been said, parenthetically and inferentially, on the subject by various writers, the enquiry has never been exhaustively or systematically pursued. This is not due to any lack of material; that is abundant among both savage and civilised peoples. Perhaps it is because, while it has been considered permissible to point out that certain individuals have mistaken their own morbid states for evidence of divine illumination, too much ill-will would have been aroused had the powerful part played by this factor in religious development as a whole been pointed out. Still less admissible would it have been to point out, as will be done in succeeding chapters, that the deliberate culture of abnormal states of mind has been a part of the ritual of religions from the most primitive to the most recent times. In this connection it is worth noting that a very clear and shrewd essay on the connection between love and religious devotion by Isaac d'Israeli, which appeared in the first issue of the Miscellanies of Literature, was quietly eliminated from subsequent editions.

My purpose, therefore, is to give Professor James's query—"Under just what biographic conditions did the sacred writers bring forth their contributions to the holy volume? and what had they exactly in their several individual minds, when they delivered their utterances?"[8]—a wider scope. What are the conditions, biographic and social, under which certain persons have imagined themselves, and have been believed by others, to be specially favoured with divine illumination? The majority of people, it may safely be said, are conscious of no such experience. In what respect, then, do the favoured few differ from their fellows? Must we assume that by some rare quality of natural endowment, or by some unusual development of faculty, they are brought into touch with a wider and deeper reality? Or are we to seek a less romantic explanation with the aid of known tendencies and forces in human nature? And, further, as this minority are not conscious of divine illumination all the time, what is it that differentiates their normal state from their abnormal condition?

These are pertinent questions, and demand answer. But no answer of real value will be found in ordinary religious writings. Rhapsodical eulogies of religion tell us nothing; less than nothing that is useful, since theories that obtain in such quarters are based upon the absolute veracity of the phenomena under consideration. We may gather from this direction what religious people say or do, but not why they say or do these things. A description of the states of mind of religious people, such as is given by Professor James, is interesting enough, but it is their causation that is of fundamental importance. And their causation is only to be understood by associating them with other and more fundamental processes. Within recent years psychology owes much of the advance made to a closer study of the physiology of the nervous system, and if genuine advance is to be made in our understanding of religious phenomena we must adopt the same plan of investigation. We do not, for example, understand the nature of demoniacal possession by a mere collation of cases. It is only when we put them side by side with similar cases that now come under the control of the physician, and associate them with certain peculiar nervous conditions, and a particular social environment, that we find ourselves within sight of a rational explanation. Without adopting this plan we are in the position of one trying to determine the nature of a locomotive in complete ignorance of its internal mechanism. Yet this is precisely the position of the professional exponent of religion. As a student the budding divine has his head filled with historic creeds, and texts, and dogmas, and doctrines, none of which can possibly tell him anything of the real nature of religion. On the contrary, they act as so many obstacles to his acquiring real knowledge in later life. And it is a striking fact that while the professional astronomer, biologist, or physicist each adds to our knowledge of the subject that falls within his respective department, we owe little or nothing of our knowledge of the nature of religion to the professional theologian.

To put the whole matter in a sentence, the study of religion must be affiliated to the study of life as a whole. If possible, we must get at the determining factors that lead one person to expend his energy on religion and see supernatural influence in a thousand and one details of his life, while another person, with apparently the same mental qualities, finds complete satisfaction in another direction, and is conscious of no such supernatural influence. It is scientifically inadmissible to posit a "religious faculty" organically ear-marked for religious use. Something of this kind is evidently in the minds of those who explain Darwin's agnosticism as due to atrophy of his religious sense, consequent on over-absorption in scientific pursuits, and who also argue that the "religious faculty," like a physiological structure, increases in efficiency with use and atrophies with disuse. There is no reason for believing that, had Darwin been profoundly religious, his mental qualities would have been different to what they were. They would have been expressed in a different form, that is all. As I have already said, there are no such things as specifically religious qualities of the mind. There may be hope or fear or love or hatred or terror or devotion or wonder in relation to religion, but they are precisely the same mental qualities that meet us in relation to other things. The old "faculty" psychology is dead, and the religious faculty must go with it.[9] Mental qualities may be roused to activity in connection with a belief in the supernatural, or they may be expressed in connection with mundane associations. Even the belief in the supernatural is only an expression of the same qualities of mind that with fuller knowledge result in a scientific generalisation. Whatever be the exciting cause, mental qualities themselves remain unchanged.

In the present enquiry we are not concerned with a disproval of the religious idea, but with an examination of the conditions of its expression; less with the varieties of religious experience than with the nature of its manifestations. How far may religious experience be explained as a misinterpretation of normal non-religious life? To what extent have pathological nervous states influenced the building up of the religious consciousness? There can be no question that the last-named factor is an important one. This is admitted by Professor James in the following passage:—

"You will in point of fact hardly find a religious leader of any kind in whose life there is no record of automatisms. I speak not merely of savage priests and prophets, whose followers regard automatic utterance and action as by itself tantamount to inspiration, I speak of leaders of thought and subjects of intellectualised experience. St. Paul had his visions, his ecstasies, his gifts of tongues, small as was the importance he attached to the latter. The whole array of Christian saints and heresiarchs, including the greatest, the Bernards, the Loyolas, the Luthers, the Foxes, the Wesleys, had their visions, voices, rapt conditions, guiding impressions, and 'openings.' They had these things because they had exalted sensibility, and to such things persons of exalted sensibility are liable."[10]

The fact is unquestionable, but the question remains, In what sense were these people exalted? Did their exalted sensibility really bring them into touch with a form of existence hidden from persons of a coarser fibre? Or did it belong to a class of cases which in a more violent form comes within the province of the physician? The subjects, says Professor James, "actually feel themselves played upon by powers beyond their will. The evidence is dynamic; the god or spirit moves the very organs of their body.... We have distinct professions of being under the direction of a foreign power, and serving as its mouthpiece." Of course we have, but for diagnostic purposes such professions are quite valueless. What these people are conscious of, and all they are conscious of, is a series of feelings of a more or less unusual kind. Equally convinced was the medieval demoniac that a spirit moved the very organs of his body. Equally convinced is the modern spiritualist medium that his body is controlled by a disembodied spirit. It is not a question of the actuality of certain states, but of their origin. The intense conviction of the subject of the seizure is, as evidence, quite irrelevant. The subjective state is always real, whether it belongs to a saint in ecstasy or a drunkard in delirium tremens. There are no states of mind more "real" while they last than those due to opium or hashish. But it is never suggested that this is evidence of their veracity. In such cases the testimony of a skilled outsider is of far greater value than the conviction of the visionary. We are bound to appeal to Paul, and Loyola, and Fox, and Wesley to know what their feelings were, because here they are the supreme authorities. But we must consult others to discover why they experienced these feelings. An illusion is no more than a false interpretation of a real subjective experience; although many are inclined to treat the rejection of the interpretation as equivalent to a charge of imposture or deliberate lying.

It is also a matter of demonstration that these religious experiences are strictly determined by environmental conditions. Thousands of Christians have been favoured with visions of Jesus or of the Christian heaven in their dying moments. Millions of Jews and Mohammedans have lived and died without any such experience—the very persons to whom, from an evidential point of view—such visions would be most useful. The spiritual experience is determined by the pre-existing religious belief. When belief in a personal devil was general, visions of Satan were common. The evidence for personal conflicts with Satan is of precisely the same nature and strength as is the evidence for intercourse with deity. When the belief in Satan died out, visions and conflicts with him ceased. How can we discriminate between the two classes of cases? Why should the testimony of a great Christian character that he is conscious of intercourse with deity be more authoritative than the testimony of, perhaps, the same person on other occasions, of conflict with a personal devil? Moreover, visions and a sense of contact with a super-normal world are not peculiar to the religious character. It is a common feature of a general psychopathic condition. Medical works are filled with such instances. And it is only to be expected that when the psychopath is of a deeply religious nature the affection will find a religious expression. What is clearly needed is an explanation that will cover the phenomenon as it appears in both a religious and a non-religious form.

We may take as illustrative of what has been said the following case as given by Dr. W. W. Ireland. It is that of a Berlin bookseller who placed on record a clear description of his impressions while in ill-health, and which entirely ceased on recovery. His delusions mostly took the form of human figures; of these he says:—

"I saw, in the full use of my senses, and (after I had got the better of the fright which at first seized me, and the disagreeable effects which it caused) even in the greatest composure of mind, for almost two months, constantly and involuntarily, a number of human and other apparitions—nay, I even heard their voices. For the most part I saw human figures of both sexes; they commonly passed to and fro, as if they had no connection with each other, like people at a fair where all is bustle. Sometimes they appeared to have business with one another. Once or twice I saw amongst them persons on horseback, and dogs and birds; these figures all appeared to me in their natural size, as distinctly as if they had existed in real life, with the several tints on the uncovered parts of the body, and with all the different kinds and colours of clothes."[11]

Here we have the case of a man who was under no misconception as to the nature of his visions. But it is safe to say that had he been of a less practical and analytic turn of mind, had he been, moreover, deeply interested in religious matters, we might have had an altogether different presentation of the facts.

In the next instance, also given by Dr. Ireland, we have a religious explanation given of somewhat similar experiences:—

"A poor woman complained to me that she was continually persecuted by the devils who let loose at her all sorts of blasphemies, and, indeed, all the worse the more she exerted herself not to attend to them; but often, also, when she was talking and active. She had already been to a clergyman who should exorcise the devil, and who had judiciously directed her to me. I asked in which ear the devil always talked to her. She was surprised at the question, which she had never started for herself, but now recognised that it always occurred in the left ear. I explained to her that it was an affection of the ear which now and then occurs, but she was doubtful."[12]

Here we have a distinctly physical affection ascribed to supernatural agency. In this case the inference is promptly corrected by the physician. But given a different environment, an atmosphere permeated with a belief in the supernatural, an absence of adequate scientific advice, and the more primitive explanation is certain to prevail. In the next instance—that of Martin Luther—we have just this conjuncture of circumstances, with the inevitable result. Writing of his experience in 1530, Luther says:—

"When I was in Coburg in 1530, I was tormented with a noise in my ear, just as though there was some wind tearing through my head. The devil had something to do with it.... When I try to work, my head becomes filled with all sorts of whizzing, buzzing, thundering noises, and if I did not leave off on the instant I should faint away. For the last two or three days I have not been able to even look at a letter. My head has lessened down to a very short chapter; soon it will be only a paragraph, then only a syllable, then nothing at all. The day your letter came from Nuremberg I had another visit from the devil.... This time the evil one got the better of me, drove me out of my bed, and compelled me to seek the face of man."[13]

There is no need to quote more of this class of cases, at least for the present. Their name is legion. One could, in fact, construct an ascending series of cases, all agreeing in their symptom, and differing only in the explanation offered. The series would commence with the explanation of a possessing spirit, and end with that of a deranged nervous system. Ignorant of the nature, or even of the existence, of a nervous system, primitive man explains abnormal mental states as due to a malignant spirit. Martin Luther, George Fox, or John Bunyan, living at a time when the activity of evil spirits was a firmly held doctrine, attribute their infirmities to satanic influence. We are in the true line of descent. To-day we have with us every one of the phenomena on which the satanic theory rested, but they are described, and prescribed for, in medical works instead of manuals of exorcism. The supernaturalist theory gives way to that of the expert neurologist. The exorcist is replaced by the physician. Instead of expelling an intruding demon, we have to repair a deranged system. We cannot argue that while these affections remain constant in character their causes may have been different in other ages from what they are now. That is pure absurdity. To claim that the religious mystic is in moments of exaltation brought into contact with a "deeper reality" is to invite the retort that one might make a similar claim on behalf of the inmates of a lunatic asylum. We cannot, with any pretence to rationality, accept the verdicts of both the neurologist and the exorcist. If we agree that certain states of mind to-day have their origin in neural disorder, on what ground can we believe that similar mental states occurring a thousand or two thousand years ago were due to supernatural stimulation? We may be told that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy. This may be true, and while it is an observation that would not occur to a fool, it needs no supreme wisdom for its excogitation, and as generally used it is an excuse for idle speculation and grotesque theory. Far more useful is the lesson, sadly needed, that there are few things in heaven or earth that will not yield their secret to a method of investigation that is sanely conceived and diligently employed.

The utter uselessness of accepting at its face value anyone's explanation of the nature of his subjective experience, is well shown by the once universal belief in witchcraft. If there is a single belief on behalf of which a mass of apparently unimpeachable evidence could be produced, it is this one. It has run its course throughout the whole world. It is still accepted by probably half the human race. In our own country eminent men, not alone theologians, but doctors, lawyers, statesmen, and men of letters, have given their solemn testimony in its favour. Thousands of people have been bewitched, and their symptoms described by thousands of others. More remarkable still, those accused have often enough confessed their guilt. Every possible corroboration has been given to this belief, and yet it is now scouted by educated persons all over the civilised world. Even religious teachers accept the explanation that these witchcraft cases were due to distinctly pathological conditions, and to the power of suggestion operating upon uninformed minds during an unenlightened age. But communications with spiritual beings rest on no better foundation than communication with Satan. Whether the alleged illumination be diabolic or angelic, the evidence for either, or both, is the same. The testimony of a man like the Rev. R. J. Campbell that he is conscious of a divine influence in his life is of no greater value than that of the medieval peasant who felt himself tormented by Satan. The one person is no better authority than is the other on such a topic. Both are the heirs of the ages, inheritors of a superstition that goes back to the most primitive ages of mankind, only modified in its expression by the culture of contemporary life.

There is nothing new under the sun, and human nature remains substantially unchanged generation after generation. All the phenomena on which the belief in witchcraft was based, remain. Cases of delusion are common, and the power of suggestion is an established fact in psychology. All that has happened is this: taking the facts on which the belief was based, modern science has shown them to be explainable without the slightest reference to the supernatural. And this is the principle that must be applied in other directions. Old occurrences must be explained in the light of new knowledge. This is the accepted rule in other directions, and it is of peculiar value in relation to religious beliefs. To know what religious people have thought and felt and said gives us no more than the data for a scientific study of the subject. To know why they thought and felt and spoke thus is what we really need to understand. But if we are to do this we must relate phases of mind that are called religious to other phases of a non-religious character. I believe it is quite possible to do this. From medical records and from numerous biographies it is possible to parallel all the experiences of the religious mystic. We can see the same sense of exaltation, the same conviction of illumination, the same belief that one is the tool of a superior power. Take, as merely illustrative of this, the case of J. Addington Symonds, as narrated by Professor James, who cites it as an example of a "mystical experience with chloroform." Symonds tells us that until he was twenty-eight years of age he was liable to extreme states of exaltation concerning the nature of self. (It is worth while pointing out that Sir James Crichton-Browne expresses the opinion that Symonds's higher nerve centres were in some degree enfeebled by these abnormal states.) In addition to this confession he placed on record an interesting experience while under the influence of chloroform. He says:—

"After the choking and stifling had passed away, I seemed at first in a state of utter blankness; then came flashes of intense light, alternating with blankness, and with a keen sense of vision of what was going on in the room around me, but no sensation of touch. I thought that I was near death; when suddenly my soul became aware of God who was manifestly dealing with me, handling me, so to speak, in an intense personal reality. I felt him streaming in like light upon me.... I cannot describe the ecstasy I felt. Then, as I gradually awoke from the influence of the anaesthetic, the old sense of my relation with the world began to return, the new sense of my relation to God began to fade.... Only think of it. To have felt for that long dateless ecstasy of vision the very God, in all purity, tenderness, and truth, and absolute love, and then to find that I had after all had no revelation, but that I had been tricked by the abnormal excitement of my brain."

With a slight variation of expression this confession might have come direct from the lips of the most pronounced mystic. There is no question of the intense reality of the experience. That was as vivid as anything that ever occurred to any saint in the calendar. Still, no one will dream of claiming that the way to get en rapport with the higher mysteries is by way of a dose of chloroform. The distinction here is that Symonds knew and described the cause of his experience. And no one will question that the phrase "tricked by the abnormal excitement of my brain" covers the ground. Of course, there is always the easy retort that saints and mystics did not use chloroform to produce their visions. True, but chloroform is not the only agent by means of which a person may be thrown into an abnormal state. Other means may be used; and as a matter of fact, the use of herbs and drugs, as methods of producing ecstatic states, have obtained in religious ceremonies from the most primitive times. As we shall see later, tobacco, hashish, coca, laurel water, and similar agents have been largely utilised for this purpose. And when this plan is not adopted—although very often the two things run side by side—we find fasting and other forms of self-torture practised because of the abnormal conditions produced.

It is not argued or implied that in all this there was of necessity deliberate imposture. That would imply the possession of greater knowledge than actually existed. But it was known that ecstatic states followed the use of certain drugs, or were consequent on certain austerities, and they were valued because they were believed to bring people into communion with a hidden spiritual world. In this way there has always been going on a more or less deliberate culture of the supernatural, in more primitive times by crude and easily recognisable means, later by methods that are more subtle in character and more difficult of detection. But the method of inducing a sense of "spiritual" illumination by means of practices alien to the normal life of man remains unchanged throughout. The collation of the conditions under which mystical states of mind are experienced among savages with similar experiences among the higher races, proves at once that this statement contains no exaggeration of the facts.

The continuity of the phenomena is, indeed, of profound significance, and is too often ignored. It is often asserted that we have to explain the lower by the higher, and we can only understand the significance of religion in its lower forms by bearing in mind the higher manifestations. This is sheer fallacy. In nature the higher develops out of the lower, of which it is compounded. In biology, for example, it is now generally conceded that the secret of animal life lies in the cell. This may be modified in all kinds of directions, the resulting organic structure may be of the utmost complexity, but the basis remains unchanged. So, too, with a great deal of so-called religious phenomena. The story is not only continuous, but the same elements remain unchanged with only those modifications initiated by a changed environment. And just as we are driven back to the cell to explain organic structure, so for an understanding of the phenomena under consideration we must study their primitive elements. Analysis must precede synthesis here as elsewhere.

A survey of the subject is not at all exhausted by a study of abnormal conditions, so far as these have entered into the life of religion. There still remains the study of perfectly normal frames of mind that are misinterpreted and diverted into religious channels. The importance of this will be seen more clearly when we come to deal with the subject of conversion. That "conversion" is a phenomenon of adolescence is now settled beyond all reasonable doubt. Statistics are conclusive on this point. But the advocate of revivalism quite misses the true significance of the fact. Current religious literature is full of quite meaningless chatter concerning the change of view, the larger and more unselfish activities, that arise as a consequence of conversion. There is really no evidence that the changes indicated have any connection with conversion. All that does happen can be more simply and more adequately explained as resulting from physiological and psychological changes in terms of racial and social evolution. The whole significance of adolescence lies in the bursting into activity of feelings hitherto dormant, and the quickening of a desire for communion with a larger social life. The individual becomes less self-centred, more alive to, and more responsive to the claims of others; he displays tendencies towards what the world calls self-sacrifice, but which mean, in the truest sense, self-realisation. That these changes are often expressed in terms of religion is undeniable. This, however, may be no more than an environmental accident, quite as much so as was the case when epilepsy was explained in terms of possession.

So far as one can see, there are no feelings or impulses characteristic of adolescence that could not receive complete satisfaction in a rationally ordered social life. To-day it usually happens that the strongest expressed influences brought to bear upon the individual are of a religious kind, with the result that adolescent human nature is most apt to express itself in religious language. It must always be borne in mind that we are all as dependent upon our environment for the form in which our explanation of things is cast, as we are for the language in which we express those ideas. The whole enquiry opened is a very wide one, with which I can only deal parenthetically. It is really an enquiry as to how far the religious theory of human nature rests upon a wrong interpretation of perfectly normal feelings, or to what extent supernaturalistic ideas are perpetuated by the exploitation—innocent exploitation, maybe—of man's social nature. It is extremely probable that a deeper knowledge, a more accurate analysis of human qualities, will disclose the truth that man is a social animal in a much more profound sense than has usually attached to that phrase, and the expression of these qualities in terms of religious beliefs, or in terms of non-religious beliefs, is wholly determined by the knowledge current in the society in which he moves.

I conclude this chapter with one more attempt to avoid misunderstanding. For purposes of clarity it will be necessary to consider various factors out of relation to other factors. But it should hardly need pointing out that in actual life such a separation does not obtain. The organism functions as a whole; each part acts upon and is acted upon by every other part. Life in action is a synthesis, and one resorts to analysis only for the purpose of more adequate comprehension. It is not, moreover, pretended that any one of the factors described in the following pages will explain religion, nor even that all of them combined will do so. The origin of the religious idea is a quite different enquiry, and is adequately dealt with in the writings of men like Tylor, Frazer, Spencer, and other representatives of the various schools of anthropologists. My present purpose is of a more restricted kind. It is that of tracing the operation of various processes, some normal, but most of them abnormal, that have in all ages been accepted as evidence for the supernatural. That the religious idea has been associated with these processes, and that for multitudes they have served as strong evidence of its truth, cannot be denied. And an examination of this aspect of the history of religion ought not to be ignored, however unpalatable such a study may be to certain supersensitive minds.


[1] Varieties of Religious Experience, pp. 11-3.

[2] Varieties, p. 14.

[3] Religions of Primitive Peoples, p. 50.

[4] Page 288.

[5] Page 410.

[6] Page 387.

[7] Page 370.

[8] Varieties, p. 4.

[9] "The hypothesis of faculties ... must be regarded as productive of much error in psychology. It has led to the false supposition that mental activity, instead of being one and the same throughout its manifold phases, is a juxtaposition of totally distinct activities, answering to a bundle of detached powers, somehow standing side by side, and exerting no influence on one another. Sometimes this absolute separation of the parts of mind has gone so far as to personify the several faculties as though they were distinct entities."—Sully, Outlines of Psychology, p. 26.

[10] Varieties, p. 478.

[11] The Blot upon the Brain, p. 4.

[12] The Blot upon the Brain, p. 16.

[13] Cited by Dr. Ireland, p. 49.



Ever since the time of Aristotle it has been an accepted truth that man is a social animal. Not only is individual human nature such that it craves for intercourse with its kind, but it can only be effectively understood in the light of those thousands of generations of associated life that lie behind us all. As an isolated object, considered, that is, apart from his fellows, man is more or less of a myth. At any rate, he would not be the man we know and so may well be left out of account. Man as we know him is essentially a member of a group; he is a part of a really organic structure inasmuch as the characteristics of each part are determined by its relations to the whole, and the characteristics of the whole determined by a synthesis of the qualities of the parts.

But while there is agreement in the fact, there is a considerable divergence of opinion as to its nature. What is the nature of this fact of sociability? What is the character of the force that binds the members of a group so closely together? By some, the cause of sociability is found in the pressure exerted upon all by purely external forces. The need for protection, it is said, drives human beings together, and thus in course of time the feeling of sociability is developed. This seems much like mistaking a consequence for a cause. It certainly leaves unanswered the question Why should people have drawn together in the face of danger? Most certainly collective action strengthens the capacity for defence; and it also increases the certainty of obtaining the means of subsistence. Such consequences furnish a justification, so to speak, of group life, but they disclose neither its nature nor its cause. And most certainly they do not bring us into touch with the fundamental qualities of human society. The need for food, shelter, or protection will not differentiate the gregarious from the non-gregarious forms of life, nor the social from the merely gregarious. All forms of life require food, protection, and shelter; they are part of animal economics. There is nothing specifically human about them.

We may reach what I conceive to be the truth in another way. Environment is to-day almost a cant word. It is very largely used, and, as one might expect, largely misunderstood. Without actually saying it in so many words, a vast number of people seem to conceive the environment as consisting of the purely material surroundings of man. This is to overlook a most important fact. Even in the lowest stages of human society, where man's power over natural forces is of the poorest kind, it is not an exact statement of the case, and it is profoundly untrue when we take society in its higher developments. If we take the lowest existing savage race we find that its attitude towards life, what it does, and what it refrains from doing, is the product of a certain mental attitude, which is itself the outcome of a number of inherited ideas and customs. A number of white people, placed in exactly the same material environment and faced with exactly the same external circumstances, bring a different psychological inheritance into play, and act in an entirely different manner. If we transport a Chinaman into England, or an Englishman into China, we find that both of them possess the same biological and material needs whether in their native country or elsewhere. Yet this community of needs does not make the Chinaman a member of English society, nor an Englishman a member of Chinese society. They are one in virtue of certain broad human characteristics; they are divided by certain qualities characteristic of their special groups. Each society is marked by the possession of certain psychological characteristics—a number of specific beliefs and emotional developments—without which its distinctive group character disappears. This is true of groups within the State; it is true of the State as a whole; it is true, on the most general scale of all, of the race.

In other words, the distinguishing feature of human society is the possession of a psychological medium. The adaptations that the human being must make are mainly of a psychological character. Their form may be partly determined by external conditions, but this does not affect the general truth. Whether we take man in a civilised or in an uncivilised state we find the important thing about him to be his relations to his fellows. He is not merely a member of a tribe or a society, but he thinks that society's thoughts, he feels their emotions, his individual life is an expression of the psychical life of the group to which he belongs. And his transactions with nature are an expression of the ideas and beliefs current in the society of which he is a part.

The recognition of this truth was one of the outstanding contributions of Herbert Spencer to the science of sociology. Whereas other writers had stressed the power of the environment, as a purely material thing, in shaping human institutions, Spencer placed chief stress upon the emotional and intellectual life of primitive man as determining their beginnings. He showed how man's feelings and beliefs about himself, and about his fellows, and about the world of living forces with which he believed himself to be surrounded, were the all-important factors of social evolution. And the subsequent history of society has been such that scientific sociology is very largely the study of the growth and elaboration of an essentially psychical environment. The lower animal world—except so far as we allow for the operation of instincts—has, broadly, only the existence of other animals and the physical surroundings for its environment. With man it is vastly different. Owing primarily to language, the environment of the man of to-day is made up in part of the ideas of men who lived and died thousands of years ago. The use of clothing and the invention of tools would alone make mind a dominant fact in human life. But apart from these things, the great fact of social heredity, in virtue of which one generation enjoys the acquired culture of preceding generations, and without which civilisation would have no existence, is a great and dominant mental fact. Our institutions, our customs, are transmitted to us as so many psychic facts. Every new invention, every fresh culture acquisition, is helping to strengthen and broaden the psychical environment of man. Each newcomer is born into it; it moulds his nature and determines his life, as his own career and his own acquisition help to mould the life of his successors. Whether the phenomena be simple or complex, whether we are dealing with man in a civilised or in an uncivilised state, there is no escape from the general truth that man is everywhere under the domination of his mental life.

So far as this enquiry is concerned, we need only deal with one aspect of the psychological medium in which primitive human life moves. And so far as primitive mankind seeks to control the movements of social life, there can be no question that this is done under the impulsion of that class of beliefs which we call religious. The operation of religious belief in savage society is neither spasmodic nor local. It is, on the contrary, universal and persistent. It influences every event of daily life with a force that the modern mind finds very difficult to appreciate. In almost every action the savage feels himself to be in touch with a supersensual world of living beings that exert a direct and inescapable influence. And any study of human evolution that is to be of real value must take this circumstance into consideration to a far greater extent than is usually done. Professor Frazer, dealing with the origin of various social institutions, rightly observes that "we are only beginning to understand the mind of the savage, and therefore the mind of our savage forefathers who created these institutions and handed them down to us," and warns us that "a knowledge of the truth may involve a reconstruction of society such as we can hardly dream of." He also warns us that we have at all times, in dealing with social origins, to "reckon with the influence of superstition, which pervades the life of the savage and has contributed to build up the social organism to an incalculable extent."[14]

In emphasising this it must not be taken to imply that because social institutions and human actions are in primitive times moulded by religious beliefs, they stand to them in a relation of complete dependence. It only means that the psychological medium is of such a character that supernaturalistic reasons are found for doings things that are susceptible to a totally different explanation. The facts of life are expressed in terms of supernaturalism. Birth, marriage, death, social cohesion, leadership, health and disease, are all natural facts, and the mere play of social selection determines the weeding out of practices that are sufficiently adverse to tribal well-being to threaten its security. But in primitive times all these facts are allied with religious beliefs, and to the primitive mind the religious belief becomes the chief feature connected with them. As a matter of fact, this is far from an uncommon feature of social life to-day. The amount of supernaturalism current is still very large; and one still finds people explaining some of the plainest facts of social life in terms of supernaturalistic beliefs. It is all part of the truth that man is always under the domination of the psychological forces.

This being granted, the enquiry immediately presents itself, How comes it that the facts of social life should be expressed in terms of supernaturalism? Why do these facts not immediately present themselves in their true nature? To answer this question one must bear in mind a yet further truth. This is that the explanation which man offers to himself or to others of phenomena must always be in terms of current knowledge. A modern called upon to explain a storm, an eclipse, or a disease, does so in terms of current physical or biological science. This is done in virtue of a mass of prepared knowledge, slowly accumulated by preceding generations, and which forms part of his social heritage. Primitive man likewise explains things in terms of current knowledge, but in his case the amount of reliable information is of a very scanty and generally erroneous description. The inherited knowledge which enables a modern schoolboy to start life with what would have been an outfit to an ancient philosopher, had yet to be created. Instead of finding, as we find, tools ready to hand, replies prepared to questions that may arise, primitive mankind must create its own tools and prepare its own answers. And in consequence of this the social environment, which at all times determines the form of man's mental output, is with primitive man radically different from our own. But however the form varies there is agreement on this one point—in both cases phenomena are explained in terms of known forces; the reasoning of each is determined by the knowledge of each. The laws of mental life remain the same in all stages of culture. The brain functions identically whether we take the savage or the scientist. In a general way the savage intelligence is as rational as that of a modern thinker. The difference is dependent upon the accuracy and extent of the information possessed by each. Hence the vital difference in the conclusions reached. Hence, too, the dominance of supernaturalism in primitive times.

The great distinction between primitive and scientific thinking may be expressed in a sentence—the modern mind explains man by the world, primitive thought explained the world by man. In the one case we move from within outward, in the other from without inward. We are not now concerned with semi-metaphysical idealistic theories that would reduce the "whole choir of heaven and furniture of earth" to the creation of mental activity, but with the plain, understandable truth that the human organism is fashioned by the environment in which it dwells. And there is amongst those capable of expressing an authoritative opinion—an agreement supported by evidence that has simply nothing against it—that the world of primitive man is overpoweringly animistic. In the absence of that mass of scientifically verified knowledge which forms part of our social heritage, humanity commences its intellectual career by endowing natural forces with the qualities possessed by itself. The forces conceived are living ones. They are to be dreaded exactly as human beings are to be dreaded; to be appeased or circumvented by the same methods that man applies to his fellows. The problem before the savage is thus a very real one. In essence it is the problem that is ever before humanity—that of subjugating forces to its own welfare. Primitive man is not, however, concerned with the elaboration of theories; nor is he consumed with vague 'spiritual yearnings.' His difficulty is how to control or placate those invisible but very real powers upon which he believes everything depends. He would willingly ignore them if he could, and would cheerfully dispense with their presence altogether if he believed that things would proceed as well in their absence. But there they are, inescapable facts that have to be reckoned with.

The general outlook of the primitive mind is well put by Miss Mary Kingsley in the following passage:—

"To the African the Universe is made up of matter permeated by spirit. Everything happens by the direct action of spirit. The thing he does himself is done by the spirit within him acting on his body ... everything that is done by other things is done by their spirit associated with their particular mass of matter.... The native will point out to you a lightning-stricken tree and tell you that its spirit has been killed. He will tell you, when the earthen cooking pot is broken, it has lost its spirit. If his weapon fails him, it is because someone has stolen its spirit or made it weak by means of his influence on spirits of the same class.... In every action of his life he shows you how he lives with a great spirit world around him. You see him before he starts out to fight rubbing stuff into his weapon to strengthen the spirit that is in it; telling it the while what care he has taken of it.... You see him leaning over the face of the water talking to its spirit with proper incantations, asking it when it meets an enemy of his to upset his canoe and destroy him.... If a man is knocked on the head with a club, or shot by an arrow or a bullet, the cause of death is clearly the malignity of persons using these weapons; and so it is easy to think that a man killed by the falling of a tree, or by the upsetting of a canoe in the surf, or in a whirlpool in the river is also a victim of some being using these things as weapons. For a man holding this view, it seems both natural and easy to regard disease as a manifestation of the wrath of some invisible being, and to construct that intricate system which we find among the Africans, and agree to call Witchcraft, Fetish, or Juju."[15]

Miss Kingsley is here dealing specifically with West Africa, but her description applies in a general way to uncivilised people all over the world. There is much closer resemblance between the beliefs of uncivilised peoples than between civilised ones, because the conditions are much more alike. And under substantially identical conditions the human mind has everywhere reached substantially identical conclusions. The philosophy of the savage is simple, comprehensive, and, given the data, logical. He does not divide the world into the natural and the supernatural; it is all one. At most, he has only the seen and the unseen. The supernatural, as a distinct category, only appears when a definite knowledge of the natural has arisen to which it can be opposed. He has no such distinction as that of the material and the immaterial; so far as he thinks of these things, the invisible is only a finer form of the visible. Of one thing, however, he is perfectly convinced, and this is that he is at all times surrounded by a host of invisible agencies to which all occurrences are due, and with whom he must come to terms. Even death wears a different aspect to the primitive mind from that which it presents to the modern. To us death puts a sharp and abrupt termination to life. To the primitive mind death involves no such ending.[16] Death is no more of a break than is sleep; and at all times the conception of an annihilation of personality requires a marked degree of mental power. So with the savage—the 'dead' man simply goes on living. He may be incarnated in some natural object, or he may simply go on living as one of the innumerable company of tribal ghosts. But he remains a force to be reckoned with, and the need for dealing with these ghostly personages is one of the ever-present problems of primitive sociology, and brings us very near the beginnings of all religious beliefs and ceremonies—if it does not form their real starting-point.

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