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Lecture IV: Naturalists of Religious Experience

In the last lecture we saw that the study of the religions of the less sophisticated peoples by those social anthropologists who had truly got to know their subjects—and not just evolved theories about them from their arm-chairs—has shown that the outstanding character of such elementary faiths is a feeling of being in touch with some Power beyond the self from which, with suitable approaches, they can draw help and confidence in their daily life. This field is certainly one important source from which to gather contributions towards the natural history of religious experience which I have suggested must be the forerunner of any attempt to build a more scientific Natural Theology. What other sources can we seek?

“What better source could there be than the Bible?” Christians will ask. It is indeed true that the various sacred writings which in their different ways provide the basic inspiration for one or other of all the great religions of the world are each a mine of material for such a natural history. There is no need to stress the reality of this. Let me just give a few examples to show the universality of this sense of dependence on a spiritual Power. Apart from the example—the supreme example for Christians—of the New Testament, where in the literature of the world will we find man’s realization of Divine assistance more beautifully expressed than in The Book of Psalms?

Create in me a clean heart, O God;

And renew a right spirit within me.

Cast me not away from thy presence;

And take not thy holy spirit from me.

Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation;

And uphold me with thy free spirit.

Psalm 511

O God, thou art my God; early will I seek thee:

My soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee

In a dry and thirsty land, where no water is;

To see thy power and thy glory,

So as I have seen thee in the sanctuary.

Because thy lovingkindness is better than life,

My lips shall praise thee.

Thus will I bless thee while I live;

I will lift up my hands in thy name.

Psalm 632

Or what of this early Stoic saying:

Lead me, O God, and I will follow, willingly if I am wise, but if not willingly I still must follow.

Or this from Epictetus:

Do with me henceforth as thou wilt. I am of one mind with Thee, I am Thine. I decline nothing that seems good to Thee. Send me whither Thou wilt. Clothe me as Thou wilt. Will Thou that I take office or live a private life, remain at home or go into exile, be poor or rich, I will defend Thy purpose with me in respect of all these.

Or if we turn to the Bhagavad-Gita of Hinduism we find:

God is seated in the hearts of all.


Take our salutations, Lord, from every quarter,

Infinite of might and boundless in your glory,

You are all that is, since everywhere we find you …

Author of this world, the unmoved and the moving,

You alone are fit for worship, you the highest.

Where in the three worlds shall any find your equal?

Or again from the Sikhs, the dissenters from Brahmanical Hinduism, we find the following:

There is but one God, whose name is true, the Creator, devoid of fear and enmity, immortal, unborn, self-existent, great and bountiful. (From the Japji)


God is in my heart, yet thou searchest for him in the wilderness.

(From the Granth)

Or take the writings of the Sufi poets of Islamic mysticism in Persia as exemplified by Jalalu D-Din Rumi:

What pearl art Thou, that no man may pay the price?

What doth the World offer, which is not a gift from Thee?

What punishment is greater, than to dwell afar from thy Face?

Torture not thy slave, tho’ he be unworthy of Thee!

Volumes towards a natural history of religion could be filled from such sources; no one will deny the force of the apparent spiritual power of the great pioneers and leaders in the many different faiths. The last five examples are all taken from that beautiful anthology God of a Hundred Names: Prayers of Many Peoples and Creeds collected and arranged by Barbara Greene and Victor Gollancz. Another great collection of such sources is, of course, Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy. Rudolf Otto in his celebrated book Das Heilige, or The Idea of the Holy in the English edition, to which I shall be making a fuller reference in the next lecture, writes concerning some modern views on the origin of the early church as follows:

Misapprehension of this is only possible if, attempting a one-sided approach to the phenomenon of the origin of the Christian Church, we try to reconstruct the facts solely by the methods of scholarship, and out of the material afforded, by the staled feelings and blunted sensibility of our present-day artificial civilization and complex mentality. It would be an advantage if, in addition to these methods, an attempt were made to frame a less abstract intuition of the genesis of original and genuine religious communities with the aid of living instances of the thing as it may still be found today. It would be necessary for this to seek places and moments at which even today religion shows itself alive as a naïve emotional force, with all its primal quality of impulse and instinct. This can still be studied in remote corners of the Mohammedan and Indian world. (p. 157)

and a little lower down he emphasizes the point further in a footnote:

It is astonishing that the main problem of Gospel criticism, viz., how the collection of “Logia” arose, is not studied in this still-living milieu. It is even more astonishing that the logia-series were not long ago elucidated from the closely corresponding milieu of the “Sayings of the Fathers” (Ἀποφθέγματα τῶνΠατέρων) from the Hadith of Muhammed, or from the Franciscan legends. And a particular striking case of the same thing is the collection of the Logia of Räma-Krishna, which has grown to completion in our own day and under our very eyes.

Many may feel, however, that such examples are too exceptional, too abnormal, to provide a good basis for a more general account of the religious attributes of man. There is perhaps no more valuable study in this field than the great pioneer work of William James, forming his Gifford Lectures of 1901 and ‘02: The Varieties of Religious Experience, a study in Human Nature; surely this will always remain one of the classic foundations for the natural history we are seeking. I shall devote a large part of this lecture to discussing his observations and findings, but before I do so, I want to look at and give priority to the work of a still earlier pioneer who set out to do just what Lord Gifford advocated, to apply the scientific method to the study of man’s religious behaviour. This is Professor Edwin Diller Starbuck who published his The Psychology of Religion, an Empirical Study of the Growth of Religious Consciousness in 1899.

This work of Starbuck’s is important historically, in being, I believe, the very first attempt at such a scientific treatment of religion3. It is also most closely linked to the later study by William James, which, although undoubtedly the greater, should not completely overshadow the originality of the former. William James wrote a preface to Starbuck’s book, and his own study is based, to a large extent, upon the material collected by Starbuck; in the foreword to his Gifford Lectures James gives first place among his acknowledgements as follows: “My thanks for help in writing these lectures are due to Edwin D. Starbuck, of Stamford University, who made over to me his large collection of manuscript material,” and throughout his work he draws extensively upon those examples.

The writings of these two men, Starbuck and James, illustrate so exactly the scientific treatment of religion for which I am arguing, and give such excellent examples that I shall quote them both extensively. The very opening of Starbuck’s book would have made an excellent beginning for my own first lecture, had I not reserved it for here. He begins his introductory chapter thus:

Science has conquered one field after another, until now it is entering the most complex, the most inaccessible, and, of all, the most sacred domain—that of religion. The Psychology of Religion has for its work to carry the well-established methods of science into the analysis and organisation of the facts of the religious consciousness, and to ascertain the laws which determine its growth and character.

It will be a source of delight to many persons, and of regret to others, that the attempt is at last made to study the facts of religion by scientific methods. Those who believe that law reigns, not only in the physical world but in the mental and spiritual—in other words, that we live in a lawful universe—and who believe, furthermore, that we are helped in becoming lawful creatures by comprehending the order that reigns, will hail this new development with gladness. Those, on the other hand, who hold conceptions which separate sharply the spiritual realm from the mundane, who acknowledge law and the consequent validity of science in the one, but set the other under the control of voluntary and arbitrary decrees, will look on a scientific study of religion with distrust and suspicion. In fact, during the years that these studies in the psychology of religion have been in progress the warning has often been given in good faith that we are entering upon a hopeless quest. The ways of God, it is said, are beyond human comprehension. “The wind bloweth where it listeth and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh or whither it goeth; so is everyone that is born of the Spirit,” is the oft-repeated quotation …

Let us understand each other in the beginning. We proceed on the assumption that this is a lawful universe; that there is no fraction of any part of it which is not entirely determined and conditioned by orderly sequence; that the laws which determine every event, no matter how mysterious, are ascertainable and thinkable, provided we have time, patience and wisdom enough to unravel them. The growth of science has been a growth of the recognition of law.

… It is scarcely questioned at the present time that all our mental processes follow an orderly sequence. We go one step further, and affirm that there is no event in the spiritual life which does not occur in accordance with immutable laws. The study of religion is today where astronomy and chemistry were four centuries ago. The world has been taken away from the oracle, alchemist, astrologer and petty gods, and given over to the control of law. Another four hundred years may restore to law the soul of man, with all its hopes, aspirations and yearnings.

He emphasizes that his study is an entirely empirical one on “the line of growth in religion in individuals and an enquiry into the causes and conditions which determine it.” His method is to analyze a vast number of records which he obtained as answers to a somewhat elaborate questionnaire sent out to a large number of people.

Now before proceeding to his results let us look at William James’s attitude to this method, for his early reactions were ones which may well be those of the majority who first consider them. To begin with he was most sceptical of their possible validity; upon a closer examination, however, he was converted to a full appreciation of their value. His remarks are particularly appropriate in relation to our theme; I quote from his preface to Starbuck’s book dated 1899:

Many years ago Dr. Starbuck, then a student in Harvard University, tried to enlist my sympathies in his statistical inquiry into the religious ideas and experiences of the circumambient population. I fear that to his mind I rather damned the whole project with my words of faint praise. The question-circular method of collecting information had already, in America, reached the proportions of an incipient nuisance in psychological and pedagogical matters. Dr. Starbuck’s questions were of a peculiarly searching and intimate nature, to which it seemed possible that an undue number of answers from egotists lacking in sincerity might come. Moreover, so few minds have the least spark of originality that answers to questions scattered broadcast would be likely to show a purely conventional content. The writers’ ideas, as well as their phraseology, would be the stock-in-trade of the Protestant Volksgeist, historically and not psychologically based; and, being in it one’s self, one might as well cipher it all out a priori as seek to collect it in this burdensome, inductive fashion. I think I said to Dr. Starbuck that I expected the chief result of his circulars would be a certain number of individual answers relating peculiar experiences and ideas in a way that might be held as typical. The sorting and extracting of percentages and reducing to averages, I thought, would give results of comparatively little significance.

But Dr. Starbuck kept all the more resolutely at his task, which has involved an almost incredible amount of drudging labour. I have handled and read a large proportion of his raw material, and I have just finished reading the revised proofs of the book. I must say that the results amply justify his own confidence in his methods, and that I feel somewhat ashamed at present of the littleness of my own faith.

The material, quite apart from the many acutely interesting individual confessions which it contains, is evidently sincere in its general mass. The Volksgeist of course dictates its special phraseology and most of its conceptions, which are almost without exception Protestant, and predominantly of the Evangelical sort; and for comparative purposes similar collections ought yet to be made from Catholic, Jewish, Mohammedan, Buddhist and Hindoo sources…

But it has been Dr. Starbuck’s express aim to disengage the general from the specific and local in his critical discussion, and to reduce the reports to their most universal psychological value. It seems to me that here the statistical method has held its own, and that its percentages and averages have proved to possess genuine significance…

James ends his preface by saying that Dr. Starbuck “has broken ground in a new place, his only predecessor (so far as I am aware) being Dr. Leuba in his similar but less elaborate investigation in volume VII of the American Journal of Psychology (1896).4 The examples ought to find imitators and the enquiry ought to be extended to other lands and to populations of other faiths.”

As the title of Professor Starbuck’s book indicates, his study is essentially one of the growth of religious consciousness and the greater part of it is a comparison between the emotional feelings of those who during adolescence undergo a sudden conversion and those who undergo a more gradual religious development without any such dramatic metamorphosis. While the study deserves special mention for its pioneer character in the scientific treatment of religious experience it must not detain us too long, for we are more concerned with the general nature of the religious attributes of man than with a detailed study of its development. Nevertheless there is much of interest for us in this volume in spite of that further limitation to which William James refers: i.e. that the data reviewed are all collected as a result of questionnaires distributed among Protestant Christians.

In the case of conversion what comes out so clearly is the organization of life about a new centre which brings with it two important results: the lifting up of the personality into greater significance and the sense of newness with which the whole world of objects is viewed—a sense of having discovered reality. The person involved appears to have a new feeling of the possession of things and participation in them. Here are a few examples of answers given by those who have undergone conversion. The questionnaire was answered by students of university age but each records the approximate age at which he or she considered that conversion took place:

Girl, at 14: I attended church and engaged in prayer with a new feeling. The Bible was more precious and prayer a comfort and joy.

Girl, at 12: Before, I had studied for praise; now because it was a duty. I had prayed at night; now I went to God at any time. I began to reflect on the Bible and to perform acts of self-denial. All these things were now part of me.

Boy, at 18: I loved to read the Bible now. Its truths were so interesting which before had been insipid.

Boy, at 15: For a long time I tried to realize my ideal, quite different from the silken Christianity of today.

The striking feature about so many of these quotations, as Starbuck says, is the way in which things are lifted up above a dead level of commonplaceness—or how a new ego has emerged into a clearer consciousness, feeling a relation existing between it and its spiritual environment. But as he points out, there is also a curious anomaly. Whilst the new life appears to show the self—the me—becoming a point of reference for a larger world of experience, it is also bound up with what seems like a contrary trait: a process of self-forgetfulness and a sympathetic outgoing. This process of unselfing as Starbuck calls it is seen in the following examples of answers:

Boy, at 15: The chief change was in my inmost purpose. I was no longer self-centred. The change was not complete, but there was a deep undercurrent of unselfishness.

Girl, at 12: The change made me very affectionate, while before I was cold to my parents.

Boy, at 14: I felt it my duty after that to be polite and sympathetic. My enemies were changed to friends.

Boy, at 18: My motive to chase worldly riches was changed to that of saving others. I even made mistakes through altruism.

He goes on to show how, in classifying the facts of the changed relation to the world, they fell into three groups depending on the object of attachment: to persons, to nature, and to God or Christ. Of the first such examples as “I began to work for others; immediately I was anxious that all should experience the same”; or “I felt for everyone, and loved my friends better;” or “I felt everyone to be my friend”, etc. In relation to nature: “I had a special feeling of reverence towards nature;” “I seemed to see God’s greatness in nature” etc. In relation to God or Christ: A girl of 11: “God was not afar off; he was my Father and Christ my Elder Brother;” a girl of 14: “Fear of God was gone; I saw He was the greatest Friend one can have;” a boy of 14: “I felt very near to my God;” a boy of 15: “I felt in harmony with everybody, and all creation and its Creator.” He summarizes these results in a table showing the percentage of cases in which a changed relation to God, nature and persons was mentioned as a result of conversion as follows:

  Females Males
Desire to help others 28 28
Love for others 42 42
Closer relation to Nature 31 34
Closer relation to God 43 43
Closer relation to Christ 6 4

It is seen how remarkably similar are the results for the two sexes. Starbuck points out that these percentages express the lowest possible estimate since they represent only the number of cases in which the phenomenon was sufficiently prominent to receive explicit mention. Those feeling a closer relation to God form nearly fifty per cent of the cases if we add those specifically mentioning Christ; it seems reasonable to do this when we remember that those asked were definitely in a Christian community so that the majority would regard Christ as equal to God. It is interesting that a third of them felt the closer relation to Nature; Otto refers to this in his study of the numinous and we shall consider it in the next lecture.

It is clear from the table, as he says, “that in a large per cent of cases an immediate result of conversion is to call the person out of himself into active sympathy with the world outside.” In passing, to illustrate further the beginnings made by Starbuck towards a scientific treatment of religious phenomena I reproduce in Fig. 1 his graph showing the relative frequency of the occurrence of conversion for male and female subjects of different ages. In the population examined the curves suggest that on an average conversion tends to occur a little earlier among girls than among boys, but that, while the number of cases recorded for the two sexes is approximately equal, the phenomenon among girls appears to be nothing like so regular a phase in development as it is with boys; it is likely, indeed, that in female adolescence there are more complex physiological conditions relating to it than in boys.

Let me now quote a few passages from Starbuck:

How does this principle of conversion as an unselfing harmonize with the equally obvious one of conversion as the sense of the new worth of the self? In the first place, the attachment to the world of nature and of spiritual truth grows out of the condition, doubtless, that the new life is a centre of activity, and it must seek an object of its expression. We have seen that the new personality is not only an activity, but a conscious activity… In the second place, it appears that the outcrops of self-appreciation and of altruism are two aspects of the same thing, in the same way that self-exaltation and humility may be two manifestations of one underlying condition. If the thing which comes up in consciousness is the fact of the new powers and freedom, the result obtains that the personality feels its worth and exults in its new life. Consciousness may, on the contrary, be directed to the larger life, of which it has become an organic part, and feel most vividly its otherness. It is therefore a matter of selection and emphasis of two things intimately bound together… From the standpoint of development, the essential thing under these two aspects of the new life is the breaking of the shell that has bound the self in its narrow limits, the emerging into the life of the social whole, the going out lovingly and sympathetically as a factor in society, the reaching out into, and becoming one with, the Power that Makes for Righteousness, in short, the bursting the limits of self and being born into a larger life. This expresses itself directly in the altruistic impulses of conversion.

Fig. 1. Professor Starbuck’s graph showing the relative number of religious conversions which took place among boys and girls of different ages according to the information given him by university students.

Is not the phrase “becoming one with the Power that Makes for Righteousness” reminiscent of the finding of the social anthropologists regarding the development of religion among the more primitive peoples of the world which we discussed in the last lecture?

Following his treatment of the phenomenon of conversion Starbuck has a corresponding study of religious development which does not involve any such sudden change. He shows that this gradual-growth type is usually just as definite as that of the conversion type. The persons concerned are generally as capable of self analysis, but for them there are no sudden crises which mark the disappearance of an old life and the beginning of a new one. Nevertheless there are points in their development which they recall as being those when definite religious awakenings began; as Starbuck says “conversion is not a unique experience but has its correspondences in the common events of religious growth.” I can again best summarize his findings by reproducing his curves in my fig. 2; they show the relative frequency of the different ages given by students as those at which their religious awakening took place.

Fig 2. Professor Starbuck’s graph comparing the religious awakening of boys and girls other than by sudden conversion. The figures represent years of age.

I must now leave Starbuck with only the barest reference to his further analysis of adult religious feelings which I can express by a reproduction of one of his tables:

Feelings Female per cent Male per cent
Dependence 27 36
Reverence 25 37
Oneness with God, Christ, etc. 27 29
Faith 17 23
Blessedness 13 13
Peace 7 4
Unclassified 14 20
None 5 1

and a final quotation in which he summarizes his findings:

It is safe to say, provided the cases we are studying are typical, that the line along which religion grows, when represented in terms of feeling, is expressed as dependence, reverence, sense of oneness with God, and faith. These feelings represent the religious attitude which is not only carried over from childhood to maturity, but which increases with advancing years. They all express relation between the self and the larger life outside. This bears out the conclusions reached … while discussing the nature of religious beliefs; both feelings and beliefs indicate that the bottom truth of religion is that which centres about the relationship of the human being with God.

This pioneer work of Starbuck’s has been followed by a number of other statistical treatments; I would particularly mention the relatively recent book Religious Behaviour by Dr. Michael Argyle in 1958. This last study, while leading up to a discussion of the different psychological theories of religious behaviour, is more of an ecological treatment of activities than an analysis of religious experiences. These again make valuable contributions to our future science but of a different kind; they are not so much concerned with the various emotional elements but with the effects they have upon the behaviour of people considered as members of the social community. He treats all his data statistically with many tables to demonstrate his findings and often illustrating them by graphs. Another type of contribution to our natural history which might be mentioned here is the book Puzzled People: a study in popular attitudes to religion, ethics, progress and politics in a London Borough prepared for the Ethical Union by Mass Observation; whilst this is not a strictly scientific study, being mainly a review of many anecdotal reportings of the opinions of citizens who were asked various questions, it does present one with an all too clear picture of the appalling state of ignorance and indifference concerning religious ideas and doctrines in an average sample of the modern urban community. It is in striking contrast to the study by Starbuck of a predominantly Christian university community.

After this little digression I come now to the views of William James, especially as expressed in his Gifford Lectures The Varieties of Religious Experience. I have already hinted that I regard this as perhaps the greatest single contribution yet made in the scientific spirit to the natural history of man’s religious life. It is true that much of it deals with the more abnormal side of man’s religious development—too much some may say—yet it cannot be too strongly emphasized that in the realm of religious behaviour we do come across much that is abnormal and we must learn to recognize it. However quite apart from these examples, which I shall not deal with here, he sketches out a broad chart of the field to be covered by our natural history and comes to some quite definite conclusions. How can I, in just part of one lecture, hope to cover more than a tiny fragment of what he gave us in twenty lectures? I cannot, of course, do more than very briefly stress those parts of his work and views which I think are likely to be of greater importance for a future natural theology.

A great deal of his book is taken up by a review of many testimonies of religious experience by a great variety of people. I will only quote two of these, just as examples of the kind of material he is dealing with, and then I shall try to convey the impressions he has gained, from his extensive study, of man’s religious nature. I quote from two statements expressing the sense of God’s presence; they came from the large collection which he took over from Professor Starbuck. The first one is from a man aged forty-nine, and about it James says “probably thousands of unpretending Christians would write an almost identical account.”

God is more real to me than any thought or thing or person. I feel his presence positively, and the more as I live in closer harmony with his laws as written in my body and mind. I feel him in the sunshine or rain; and awe mingled with a delicious restfulness most nearly describes my feelings. I talk to him as to a companion in prayer and praise, and our communion is delightful. He answers me again and again, often in words so clearly spoken that it seems my outer ear must have carried the tone, but generally in strong mental impressions. Usually a text of Scripture, unfolding some new view of him and his love for me, and care for my safety. I could give hundreds of instances, in school matters, social problems, financial difficulties, etc. That he is mine and I am his never leaves me, it is an abiding joy. Without it life would be a blank, a desert, a shoreless, trackless waste.

The second example is from a man of twenty-seven who writes:

God is quite real to me. I talk to him and often get answers. Thoughts sudden and distinct from any I have been entertaining come to my mind after asking God for his direction. Something over a year ago I was for some weeks in the direst perplexity. When the trouble first appeared before me I was dazed, but before long (two or three hours) I could hear distinctly a passage of Scripture: “My grace is sufficient for thee.” Every time my thoughts turned to the trouble I could hear this quotation. I don’t think I ever doubted the existence of God, or had him drop out of my consciousness. God has frequently stepped into my affairs very perceptibly, and I feel that he directs many little details all the time. But on two or three occasions he has ordered ways for me very contrary to my ambitions and plans.

In circumscribing his field of enquiry James says that different psychologists and philosophers try to specify just what kind of entity religion is: one allies it to the feeling of dependence, another derives it from fear, another connects it with sex, or the feeling of the infinite and so on. Such many different ways of conceiving it should make us doubt if it can really be one specific thing, and once we are prepared to treat the term “religious sentiment” as a collective term, one embracing many sentiments which may be aroused in alternation, we see that it contains nothing of a psychologically specific nature. Whilst we speak of religious love, religious fear, religious awe, or joy and so forth, they are only man’s natural emotions directed to a religious object: for example he says “religious awe is the same organic thrill we shall feel in a forest at twilight or in a mountain gorge; only this time it comes over us at the thought of our supernatural relations.” (I shall be discussing this and related emotions in the next lecture.) It is the same with all sentiments which may be called into play in the lives of religious persons. Whilst religious emotions, as states of mind made up of a feeling plus a specific sort of object, are psychic entities distinguishable from other concrete emotions, there is, he says “no ground for assuming a simple abstract ‘religious emotion’ to exist as a distinct elementary mental affection by itself, present in every religious experience without exception.” Then he says:

As there thus seems to be no one elementary religious emotion, but only a common storehouse of emotions upon which religious objects may draw, so there might conceivably also prove to be no one specific and essential kind of religious object, and no one specific and essential kind of religious act.

He goes on to say that he will be ignoring entirely the institutional branch of religion, saying nothing of ecclesiastical organization and as little as possible about systematic theology, but will confine himself to personal religion pure and simple. Whitehead’s famous definition of religion as “what the individual does with his own solitariness”5 reflects the attitude which James expressed a quarter of a century earlier:

Religion, therefore, as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.6

James draws a contrast between the emotional moods of the stoic and the Christian. He says that when Marcus Aurelius reflects upon the eternal reasons at the back of things there is a “frosty chill” about his words which one only rarely finds in Jewish and never in Christian religious writings. Compare, he says, the Roman Emperor’s “If gods care not for me or my children, here is a reason for it,” with Job’s cry “though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.” For the stoic the anima mundi is there to be respected and submitted to, “but the Christian God is there to be loved.” There are Christian saints who have fed on humiliation and privation and the thought of suffering and death, growing in happiness as their outward state becomes more intolerable. “No other emotion than religious emotion” he says “can bring a man to this peculiar pass.” (I shall be considering the question of the possible relation between religious masochism and the more erotic deviation in Lecture VII.) It has been objected by some, as I have already hinted, that James dwells too much on the more abnormal examples of religious experience; however, on this he says “when we ask our question about the value of religion for human life, I think we ought to look for the answer among these more violent examples rather than among those of a more moderate hue.” I will now quote two passages which I regard as particularly significant for our understanding of the importance of religion in the pattern of human behaviour:

For when all is said and done, we are in the end absolutely dependent on the universe; and into sacrifices and surrenders of some sort, deliberately looked at and accepted, we are drawn and pressed as into our only permanent positions of repose. Now in those states of mind which fall short of religion, the surrender is submitted to as an imposition of necessity, and the sacrifice is undergone at the very best without complaint. In the religious life, on the contrary, surrender and sacrifice are positively espoused: even unnecessary givings-up are added in order that the happiness may increase. Religion thus makes easy and felicitous what in any case is necessary; and if it be the only agency that can accomplish this result, its vital importance as a human faculty stands vindicated beyond dispute. It becomes an essential organ of our life, performing a function which no other portion of our nature can so successfully fulfil. From the merely biological point of view, so to call it, this is a conclusion to which, so far as I can now see, we shall inevitably be led, and led moreover by following the purely empirical method of demonstration which I sketched to you in the first lecture…7

Were one asked to characterize the life of religion in the broadest and most general terms possible, one might say that it consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto. This belief and this adjustment are the religious attitude in the soul.8

After discussing a number of examples of the feeling of God’s close presence such as the two I have already quoted (p. 94) he goes on to discuss “the convincingness of these feelings of reality.” They are, he maintains, as convincing to those who have them as any direct sensible experience can be and are usually much more convincing than “results established by mere logic ever are.” He discusses the opposition in philosophy between such mysticism and rationalism. After praising the rationalistic system for giving us among other good things the fruits of physical science, he says, “Nevertheless, if we look on man’s whole mental life as it exists … we have to confess that the part of it of which rationalism can give an account is relatively superficial.” Whilst rationalism has the prestige of being able to challenge you for proofs, “chop logic with you and put you down with words … it will fail to convince or convert you if your dumb intuitions are opposed to its conclusions.”

If you have intuitions at all [he says] they come from a deeper level of your nature than the loquacious level which rationalism inhabits. Your whole subconscious life, your impulses, your faiths, your needs, your divinations, have prepared the premises, of which your consciousness now feels the weight of the result; and something in you absolutely knows that that result must be truer than any logic-chopping rationalistic talk, however clever, that may contradict it.9

He then goes on to say that rationalism is as inferior in founding belief as it is when arguing against it. All the earlier literature which seemed a century ago to demonstrate rational proofs of God’s existence “today does little more than gather dust in libraries.” Our generation no longer believes in the kind of God it argued for:

Whatever sort of a being God may be, we know today that he is nevermore that mere external inventor of “contrivances” intended to make manifest his “glory” in which our greatgrandfathers took such satisfaction, though just how we know this we cannot possibly make clear by words either to others or to ourselves.

James goes on to discuss what he calls the “religion of healthy-mindedness” in its various forms of which Mrs. Eddy’s Christian Science is one. He stresses that to be effective an idea must come to the individual with the force of a revelation. The gospel of healthy-mindedness, he says, has come as a “revelation to many whose hearts the church Christianity had left hardened.” It is the force of faith, enthusiasm and, above all, of novelty that are the prime agencies of these movements. If ever the mind cure should become official, respectable, and intrenched, these elements of suggestive efficacy will be lost. “The church knows this well enough” he says “with its everlasting inner struggle of the acute religion of the few against the chronic religion of the many, indurated into an obstructiveness worse than that which irreligion opposes to the movings of the Spirit.”10 He goes on to give examples of a number of such mind-cures and points out that while they are trivial instances they demonstrate a method of experiment and verification; it makes no difference whether you regard the patients as deluded victims of their imagination or not, the fact that they seemed to themselves to have been cured by the experiments tried was enough to make them converts to the system. Whilst one must be of a certain mental mould to get such results it would surely, he says, “be pedantic and overscrupulous for those who can get their savage and primitive philosophy of mental healing verified in such experimental ways as this, to give them up at the word of command for more scientific therapeutics.” He now asks “What are we to think of all this? Has Science made too wide a claim?” And there follows a passage we should do well to ponder on:

I believe that the claims of the sectarian scientist are, to say the least, premature. The experiences which we have been studying … (and a great many other kinds of religious experiences are like them) plainly show the universe to be a more many-sided affair than any sect, even the scientific sect, allows for… Primitive thought, with its belief in individualized personal forces, seems at any rate as far as ever from being driven by science from the field today. Numbers of educated people still find it the directest experimental channel by which to carry on their intercourse with reality.11

He goes on to discuss the opposite condition to that of the “healthy-mindedness”, that which he calls “the sick soul”. He reminds us that the same facts may inspire quite different emotional feelings in different persons or at different times in the same person; and then he points out that “there is no rationally deducible connection between any outer fact and the sentiments it may happen to promote” for they have their source in quite another sphere of existence “in the animal and spiritual region of the subject’s being.” If we try to conceive ourselves as stripped of all the emotions which the world now inspires and try to imagine it as it exists purely by itself without any favourable or unfavourable comment it will, he says, be almost impossible for us “to realize such a condition of negativity and deadness.” The whole universe would be “without significance, character, expression or perspective.” He then says this:

Whatever of value, interest, or meaning our respective worlds may appear endued with are thus pure gifts of the spectator’s mind. The passion of love is the most familiar and extreme example of this fact. If it comes, it comes; if it does not come, no process of reasoning can force it. Yet it transforms the value of the creature loved as utterly as the sunrise transforms Mont Blanc from a corpse-like grey to a rosy enchantment; and it sets the whole world to a new tune for the lover and gives a new issue to his life. So with fear, with indignation, jealousy, ambition, worship. If they are there, life changes. And whether they shall be there or not depends almost always upon non-logical, often on organic conditions. And as the excited interest which these passions put into the world is our gift to the world, just so are the passions themselves gifts,—gifts to us, from sources sometimes low and sometimes high; but almost always non-logical and beyond our control.12

Giving examples of the state of the sick soul and long extracts from Tolstoy and Bunyan he points to the important fact that they could and did find something welling up within them by which such extreme sadness could be overcome. Tolstoy does well “to talk of it as that by which men live”, he says, “for that is exactly what it is, a stimulus, an excitement, a faith, a force that re-infuses the positive willingness to live, even in the full presence of the evil perceptions that erewhile made life seem unbearable.”13

James has a long discussion of conversion and we see what prominence he gives to the pioneer work of Starbuck; I will quote from this mainly to emphasize the importance of the Starbuck-James combination as a contribution to our young theological science. It is clear how highly James thought of his forerunner:

Now there are two forms of mental occurrence in human beings, which lead to a striking difference in the conversion process, a difference to which Professor Starbuck has called attention. You know how it is when you try to recollect a forgotten name. Usually you help the recall by working for it, by mentally running over the places, persons, and things with which the word was connected. But sometimes this effort fails: you feel then as if the harder you tried the less hope there would be, as though the name were jammed, and pressure in its direction only kept it all the more from rising. And then the opposite expedient often succeeds. Give up the effort entirely; think of something altogether different, and in half an hour the lost name comes sauntering into your mind, as Emerson says, as carelessly as if it had never been invited. Some hidden process was started in you by the effort, which went on after the effort ceased, and made the result come as if it came spontaneously. A certain music teacher, says Dr. Starbuck, says to her pupils after the thing to be done has been clearly pointed out, and unsuccessfully attempted: “Stop trying and it will do itself!”

There is thus a conscious and voluntary way, and an involuntary and unconscious way in which mental results may get accomplished; and we find both ways exemplified in the history of conversion, giving us two types, which Starbuck calls the volitional type and the type by self-surrender respectively.14

After discussing these two types at some length he says:

Dr. Starbuck gives an interesting, and it seems to me a true, account—so far as conceptions so schematic can claim truth at all—of the reasons why self-surrender at the last moment should be so indispensable… [He] seems to put his finger on the root of the matter when he says that to exercise the personal will is still to live in the region where the imperfect self is the thing most emphasized. Where, on the contrary, the subconscious forces take the lead it is more probably the better self in posse which directs the operation. Instead of being clumsily and vaguely aimed at from without, it is then itself the organizing centre…

… One may say that the whole development of Christianity in inwardness has consisted in little more than the greater and greater emphasis attached to this crisis of self-surrender. From Catholicism to Lutheranism, and then to Calvinism; from that to Wesleyanism; and from this, outside of technical Christianity altogether, to pure “liberalism” or transcendental idealism, whether or not of the mind-cure type, taking in the mediaeval mystics, the quietists, the pietists, and quakers by the way, we can trace the stages of progress towards the idea of an immediate spiritual help, experienced by the individual in his forlornness, and standing in no essential need of doctrinal apparatus or propitiatory machinery.

Psychology and religion are thus in perfect harmony up to this point, since both admit that there are forces seemingly outside of the conscious individual that bring redemption to his life. Nevertheless psychology, defining these forces as “subconscious”, and speaking of their effects as due to “incubation”, or “cerebration,” implies that they do not transcend the individual’s personality; and herein she diverges from Christian theology, which insists that they are direct supernatural operations of the Deity. I propose to you that we do not yet consider this divergence final, but leave the question for a while in abeyance …15

Now James touches on what I believe to be the most important issue for a natural theology—do these forces which play so important a part in man’s religious life belong only to his sub-conscious mind or do they indicate some extra-sensory contact with some Power beyond the self? We shall be considering this problem in a number of other lectures; and James returns to it in his final chapter after some three hundred more pages in which he discusses mysticism and then the more psychological and philosophical aspects of his subject. In this one lecture, in which I am mainly concerned with the evidence for the reality of religious experience, I cannot follow his philosophical discussions further; I must proceed at once to his final conclusions:

Disregarding the over-beliefs [he writes] and confining ourselves to what is common and generic, we have in the fact that the conscious person is continuous with a wider self through which saving experiences come, a positive content of religious experience which, it seems to me, is literally and objectively true as far as it goes. If I now proceed to state my own hypothesis about the farther limits of this extension of our personality, I shall be offering my own over-belief…

The further limits of our being plunge, it seems to me, into an altogether other dimension of existence from the sensible and merely “understandable” world. Name it the mystical region, or the supernatural region, whichever you choose. So far as our ideal impulses originate in this region (and most of them do originate in it, for we find them possessing us in a way for which we cannot articulately account), we belong to it in a more intimate sense than that in which we belong to the visible world, for we belong in the most intimate sense wherever our ideals belong. Yet the unseen region in question is not merely ideal, for it produces effects in this world. When we commune with it, work is actually done upon our finite personality, for we are turned into new men, and consequences in the way of conduct follow in the natural world upon our regenerative change. But that which produces effects within another reality must be termed a reality itself, so I feel as if we had no philosophic excuse for calling the unseen or mystical world unreal.

God is the natural appellation, for us Christians at least, for the supreme reality, so I will call this higher part of the universe by the name of God. We and God have business with each other; and in opening ourselves to his influence our deepest destiny is fulfilled. The universe, at those parts of it which our personal being constitutes, takes a turn genuinely for the worse or for the better in proportion as each one of us fulfils or evades God’s demands. As far as this goes I probably have you with me, for I only translate into schematic language what I may call the instinctive belief of mankind: God is real since he produces real effects.16

In a final postscript James says the same thing but in more philosophic terms; I quoted from this in the last lecture of my former series. The whole tenor of his massive study points to the reality of man’s contact with a Power beyond the conscious self; of this he gives innumerable examples. “I am so impressed” he says in his postscript “by the importance of these phenomena that I adopt the hypothesis which they so naturally suggest. At these places at least, I say, it would seem as though transmundane energies, God, if you will, produced immediate effects within the natural world to which the rest of our experience belongs.”

It is upon this pioneer natural history of religion of James and Starbuck that we must build; I bracket them together as Darwin and Wallace are linked in biological natural history. Just as their work sprang from the consideration of a large collection of records of experience from a great variety of people, so must our future studies be based upon the analysis of similar collections.

Here I would like to draw attention to a very remarkable flood of such material that is now flowing into the world. It is frankly Christian in nature, but by no means denominational; agnostics may feel that such evidence is too partisan, but surely we can allow for the bias of the Christian outlook which, of course, provides the overtones to these testimonies. Whatever interpretation we are inclined to put on them when we first look at them, whether we regard them as examples of illusion or not, they do provide abundant evidence that a large number of people certainly do feel themselves to be in contact with some greater Power beyond themselves. I refer to the examples which are given in a bi-monthly publication called the Crusader issued by Brother Mandus, of The World Healing Crusade, at the International Sanctuary at Blackpool. Whilst the major theme is the acknowledgement of health cures in answer to prayer, the overwhelming impression is a record of a substantial body of people who feel a Divine presence.

It matters not, I believe, under which creed such experiences are felt. They are facts of man’s natural history and deserve a great deal more careful analysis and study. It had been my original intention to devote some time in this course of lectures to such a study, presenting a large number of examples for discussion; on second thoughts, however, I think it better merely to point to such sources of material and use my time rather for mapping out the extensive field of study which must go to this building of a more natural theology. Researches into the nature of religious experience from the analysis of records must be a major work in itself; a mere sketch will serve little purpose beyond calling attention to the need for more work in this field, and I hope this one lecture is sufficient to make the point.

I would like briefly to compare with the views of James, those of another psychologist, Sir Frederic Bartlett, who was giving the Riddell Memorial Lectures in 1950, nearly half a century after James’s Gifford Lectures; I gave part of this quotation in the final lecture of my first series. He incidentally speaks of this natural history we are discussing. He says:

I must side-step the whole story of the slow growth of the belief systems of religion. They are a consequence of the necessity that whatever is reached through the religious experience should find its place in our everyday world. There is therefore in the strict sense a natural history of their growth, and I do not think that this has ever yet been properly depicted.

But now see what he says in regard to what he calls, in a heading, “The Power of Religious Action”:

Beyond all this there is the power which is alleged to belong to actions that claim a religious sanction. As has been said over and over again this power claims to come either from some vast and perhaps impersonal order which is free from the limitations of the world of ordinary perception and the senses, or from a personal source which has none of the hampering limitations of humanity. Whichever way it is thought of, the claim is that actions are made humanly possible, which, in any purely natural series of cause and event, would not occur, or would occur only now and then. I confess that I cannot see how anybody who looks fairly at a reasonable sample of actions claiming a religious sanction can honestly refuse to admit that many of them could not occur, or at least that it is highly improbable that they would occur in the forms in which they do, if they were simply the terminal points of a psychological sequence, every item in which belonged to our own human, day to day, world. I am thinking not of the dramatic and extraordinary actions which people who write books about religion mostly seem to like to bring forward. They are rare any way. I remember the ways of life of many unknown and humble people whom I have met and respected. It seems to me that these people have done, effectively and consistently, many things which all ordinary sources of evidence seem to set outside the range of unassisted humanity. When they say “It is God working through me”, I cannot see that I have either the right or the knowledge to reject their testimony.17

I will now quote two passages from Dr. L. P. Jacks’s Hibbert Lectures of 1922 published under the title of Religious Perplexities:

Religion is a power which develops the hero in the man at the expense of the coward in the man. As the change proceeds there comes a moment when the cowardly method of reasoning, with its eye on safety, ceases to dominate the soul. At the same moment the heroic element awakes and looks with longing towards the dangerous mountain-tops. Thenceforward the man’s reason becomes the organ of the new spirit that is in him, no longer fettered to the self-centre, but mounting up with wings as an eagle. (p. 20)

And again, later, is a passage which I quoted in an abridged form18 in the final lecture of my first series, but which I now give in full:

All religious testimony, so far as I can interpret its meaning, converges towards a single point, namely this. There is that in the world, call it what you will, which responds to the confidence of those who trust it, declaring itself, to them, as a fellow-worker in the pursuit of the Eternal Values, meeting their loyalty to it with reciprocal loyalty to them, and coming in at critical moments when the need of its sympathy is greatest; the conclusion being, that wherever there is a soul in darkness, obstruction or misery, there also is a Power which can help, deliver, illuminate and gladden that soul. This is the Helper of men, sharing their business as Creators of Value, nearest at hand when the worst has to be encountered; the companion of the brave, the upholder of the loyal, the friend of the lover, the healer of the broken, the joy of the victorious—the God who is spirit, the God who is love. (p. 70)

At this point let me refer back to the views of the social anthropologists which we discussed in the last lecture; we see how well their evidence fits in here. I would particularly remind you of two quotations: that paragraph from Durkheim on p. 69 beginning “Our entire study rests …”, and that from Malinowski on p. 75 beginning “The substance of all religion …”

I will end this lecture with one further example of the evidence we may collect towards our natural history from a great variety of writings; this is taken from an address recently given by Mrs. (now Baroness) Mary Stocks to the World Congress of Faiths entitled “The Religion of a Heretic”. She says:

… Is there something that comes to meet us? Beatrice Webb’s answer, as recorded in her autobiography carries us straight into the realm of religious faith. “For my own part”, she writes “I find it best to live as if the soul of man were in communion with a superhuman force which makes for righteousness. Like our understanding of nature through observation and reasoning, this communion with the spirit of love at work in the universe will be intermittent and incomplete, and it will frequently fail us. But a failure to know and a fall from grace is the way of all flesh.

Beatrice Webb was conscious of experiencing a sense of reverence or awe—an apprehension of a power and purpose outside herself—which she called “feeling” and which was sometimes induced by appreciation of great music or corporate worship. But her experience went further than this nebulous fleeting “feeling”—because as a result of it she achieved a religious interpretation of the universe which satisfied and upheld her and enabled her to seek continuous guidance in prayer—and this without compromising her intellectual integrity. Reason told her how—it could not tell her why—only faith in an ultimate purpose could tell her why. And with that purpose she said she could put herself in touch, and find new strength through prayer. How it happened, she said, she did not know.

Now that is a big step forward from rationalism, and once it is taken (as I take it in company with Beatrice Webb) it opens up a great expanse of undiscovered country—the territory that lies beyond reason—and includes what those who have explored it have discovered—or thought they had discovered by extrasensory perception…19

This attribute of man which we are discussing appears to have a profound significance. If it is something real, something that can be developed, as so many who have the experience tell us that it can, then it is surely of paramount importance. What more exciting field of human natural history could there be than the collection and study of evidence that may throw more light on the nature of this experience?

  • 1.

    From The Bible designed to read as Literature, edited and arranged by Ernest Sunderland Bates.

  • 2.

    From The Bible designed to read as Literature, edited and arranged by Ernest Sunderland Bates.

  • 3.

    See, however, footnote on p. 87.

  • 4.

    I shall be referring to Leuba’s work later on (p. 213); whilst he had slightly the priority of publication, it is likely that Starbuck, who had two papers in the same journal in 1897, began his study before Leuba, for as he says in his preface he read his first paper on the subject in 1890 and gave two lectures to the Harvard Religious Union in 1894 and 1895.

  • 5.

    Religion in the Making, 1926.

  • 6.

    The Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 31.

  • 7.

    loc. cit., p. 51.

  • 8.

    loc. cit., p. 52.

  • 9.

    loc. cit., p. 73.

  • 10.

    loc. cit., p. 113.

  • 11.

    loc. cit., p. 122.

  • 12.

    loc. cit., p. 150.

  • 13.

    loc. cit., p. 187.

  • 14.

    loc. cit., p. 205.

  • 15.

    loc. cit., pp. 209–11.

  • 16.

    loc. cit., pp. 115–17.

  • 17.

    Religion as Experience, Belief, Action (p. 35), Oxford University Press, 1950.

  • 18.

    I regret that in the version quoted on p. 286 of The Living Stream dots were not inserted to indicate where it was abridged.

  • 19.

    World Faiths, no. 60, July 1964.

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