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Lecture VII: Roots In Animal Behaviour

In my last lecture, I was reviewing some of the current ideas on the relationships between psychology and religion; I was speaking as an observer from the outside and not with any expert knowledge of psychology. I now want to take another aspect of religion which also has a close relation with some of the results of psychological research but which fundamentally is nearer to my own zoological field. It is more as a biologist that I wish to speak in this lecture.

In my former course, and in an earlier lecture in the present series, I have emphasized how close man is to the rest of the animal kingdom—separated mainly by the emergence of explicit knowledge and culture which the coming of speech made possible. Our civilization looked at against the background of the earth’s history is so very recent in geological time; it occupies so minute a fraction of the whole of life’s two thousand million years of existence that we must recognize that the culture of man is somewhat like a veneer superimposed upon our more basic animal nature. Because of this, the findings of the modern experimental study of animal behaviour are not only of interest to the psychologist; they are, I believe, important also for the natural theologian. They appear to throw light on certain aspects of religious behaviour and particularly upon a supposed connection between sex and religion which has caused some psychologists and others to question the validity of religion as a whole; we must therefore examine the matter carefully.

The very idea that religion and sex should be thought of as in any way connected may appear to some, especially those who have not read very widely in biology, to be an almost outrageous suggestion. As an introduction to what I want to say on this subject, I will ask you to allow me to repeat some of the things I said in the first and the last lectures of my earlier course. I began that series by sketching in outline the nature of the long evolution of life, the living stream as I called it. We see that it is actually made up of a great number of separate channels representing the past histories of the different species of animals and plants; going back in time we see how these subsidiary streams have diverged one by one from common ancestral sources which further back have sprung from still older common stocks. New lines are continually opening up as new opportunities are presented by the ever changing environment; likewise many lines come to an end in extinction as they cannot adapt themselves to the new conditions. Each of these streams of life, except those just on the verge of extinction, are made up of a vast number of individuals. It is populations, of course, which evolve, not individuals. It is, however, the individuals, each genetically slightly different (except identical twins), which by their very differences provide the physical mechanism for the population changes that constitute the process of evolution. It is because some kinds of individuals tend to be biologically more successful than others, i.e. to give rise on the average to a greater number of surviving offspring than other kinds, that the general nature of a stock of animals gradually changes or, as we say, evolves.

We thus see that the continual production of new individuals is essential, not simply to keep life existing, but to provide the necessary changes to make evolution work. We likewise see the necessity for bodily death; without death and the constant replacement of individuals the whole process would be impossible, and life, if it was not changing, would be unable to maintain itself in the face of a continually altering environment. Individual death is the price of progress, and indeed, in animals, of race survival. But let us look not at death, which is the negative side of the picture, but at birth, the creation of the essential new material. Only the production of new kinds of bodies can enable the living stream to cope with new kinds of conditions. Among very primitive forms of life new individuals may be formed by the simple process of one creature dividing into two and these again undergoing binary fission and so on; or again others may give rise to new ones by just budding off small parts of themselves which grow into new fully formed individuals. Such forms of generation, however, are only giving rise to new members which have a similar genetic constitution to that of their parents; any change must await the odd chance mutation which is a relatively rare event. How the process of sex arose we have no idea; it must have occurred very early in the history of life for it is the predominant form of reproduction throughout the whole of the plant and animal kingdoms. Once sex had been evolved it provided the mechanism for the continual reshuffling of the genetical material at each generation by the fusion of the female egg and male sperm cells. The hereditary counters—the genes, the DNA code material—from two individuals are thus combined together; but this is not all, in the method of forming the sex cells which are to produce the next generation, evolution has produced a remarkable mechanism which provides the maximum possible reassortment of the different parental genes. Sexual attraction in bringing male and female together is one of the most important elements of behaviour in the whole process of evolution.

We ourselves are part of this stream of life. In the first lecture of my former series, when I described the nature of this stream, I said we were like little eddies in its flow, eddies caused by the fusion of little genetic currents which meet and then split apart again in our children. We individuals, I said, are little eddies caused by love. Whilst, of course, not all love is sexual, such love, or sexual attraction if you prefer so to call it, in the animal world, is, as we have just reminded ourselves, one of the greatest forces in the mechanism of creation.

Other forms of love are important in the process too; among the higher vertebrates such as birds and mammals, parental and filial love may be vital for the successful rearing of the broods. I know that as a biologist I should be expected at least to put the word love in inverted commas or better speak of filial or parental attachment; as you will have gathered, however, I do not believe that the coming of speech and the initiation of explicit thinking has either created consciousness or so completely altered man’s fundamental animal nature that we can suppose his emotions are very different from those of his mammalian relations. Our own love of life and adventure may also be a development of that exploratory sense of curiosity found in the animal kingdom.

Then there is what some of us call the love of God. I expressed the view in the last lecture that this devotional feeling—felt as if directed towards a person—may well have had its form moulded, as most psycho-analysts believe, from that of our child-parent love relationship. But this, I insisted, need not rule out the reality of the something we feel in contact with in the universe; far from it, while we feel it to be of a personal nature, we at the same time recognize that this is almost certainly a naïve childish way of expressing what is really a vastly more profound relationship than any we can as yet understand. It is a relationship with that which, in those words of L. P. Jacks (quoted on p. 105) “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 …” It is the something which, as we saw in lecture III, primitive man, in all parts of the world, has felt in touch with; and it is the something at the heart of all the religions of the world. “Religion” said Malinowski, “makes man do the biggest things he is capable of.” To my mind this feeling of being in touch with something beyond the self is as much a reality—a biological reality in being a part of the living process—as any other form of love; and like other kinds it is not recorded by the physical senses, but is a psychical element awaiting to be further revealed by a more natural, a more penetrating, psychological theology. It is obviously fruitless to speculate upon what we can never find out; I may, however, just say a word in that direction if only to express my sense of our oneness with the animal world. It would not surprise me, could we know it, if this experience of an emotional contact with something greater than the self, which we are only just beginning to express with difficulty in words, was seen to be a development of some animal feeling of joy; it might perhaps (to be more wildly speculative still) be associated with some subconscious psychical source of behavioural “know-how” shared in some extrasensory way betweeen members of a species.

May not all forms of love be related? Some may be shocked at this, yet, as I said in my very first lecture1, I think it is not out of harmony with the findings of biblical scholars. In that greatest of all mines of evidence of man’s evolving religious experience, the Bible, we see striking and significant changes in the meanings and use of the words for love. We see, for example, in the Old Testament, the change in emphasis of the Hebrew word ahebh from that of sexual love to that of the love of righteousness; or again in pre-Biblical Greek we see the transition from the sensuous eros, through the friendly love of philia to the agape, the predominant love in the New Testament2.

As I said at the end of my last course of lectures, it should not alarm us if it is found that in some way the spiritual power of the Universe is linked with what we have seen to be one of the greatest forces in the mechanism of organic evolution: sex. If that should be so, it would not be so much the worse for the spirit, but so much better for sex—that thing of love and beauty which has inspired the poets and artists. Just as the passions of sex may be turned to evil and made base, so may those of religion become twisted, sometimes into unspeakable cruelty. There can be no doubt that there are some elements in religion which appear to have a close parallel with those of sex. The desire for self-sacrifice and self-abasement, so frequently found associated with a devotion to God, has merged from time to time into the practice of self-torture—as in the flagellants of the Middle Ages—a practice which is well known, in the psychology of the abnormal, to be a sexual deviation. There are these two forms of sexual distortion—sadism and masochism—which in some curious way have from time to time become entwined into religious behaviour. Aldous Huxley vividly portrayed the terrible masochistic passions in the strange half-Christian half-heathen religion that lingered on in the “native reserve” of the future in his Brave New World. To many this seems such an unsavoury subject that it should be left alone except for discussion in books on abnormal psychology; others are so appalled when they realize the ghastly horrors that have been carried out in the name of religion in the past, as in the tortures under the Inquisition, that they suspect that all religion is really in the nature of such a mental perversion. These are charges that any natural theology must consider to the full; certainly no true natural history of religion can ignore them.

It is from the study of animal behaviour that we get an insight into the way in which two opposite types of action—aggression and submission—have become incorporated into the sexual life of many species. When we see how this has come about we shall have a better understanding of the nature of these two, active and passive, forms of human behaviour; and this should help us in turn to appreciate a little better their relationship to some religious actions. For this reason I will devote part of this lecture to animal natural history.

It is unfortunate that the term “behaviourist” should have been applied to a particular school of biology (or psychology) that sought to interpret the behaviour of man and animals entirely in mechanistic terms and relied almost exclusively upon observations made on the reactions of animals to various stimuli applied under the artificial conditions of the laboratory. These so called “behaviourist” researches received their name before the development of quite a different kind of behaviour study—one which should not be confused with them; this is the investigation of the behaviour of animals living under natural conditions which has developed to become a new branch of biology now called ethology.

This new approach is very recent and has largely come into being through the pioneer work of Dr. Konrad Lorenz and Dr. Niko Tinbergen who have converted such studies from being anecdotal natural history into a true science. They have brilliantly shown that, by altering one condition at a time, or by introducing models to represent, say, a predatory or a courtship situation, it is possible to analyse their animals’ reactions in a strictly experimental fashion whilst maintaining them in their normal natural surroundings.

These studies have shown us that the two complementary kinds of reaction between members of the same species—aggressive and submissive—have been developed again and again in the course of evolution as among fish, birds and mammals. Such behaviour may occur for example between rival males in relation to competition for breeding or feeding territory, or between different members in a social hierarchy, as among gregarious primates, or in a female society as in the peck order among hens; we then see in many species the same kind of reactions being incorporated into courtship behaviour, with the females usually taking the more submissive röle.

Frequent conflict between rival members of the same species, if fought out to the death, would be harmful for the race; natural selection has consequently favoured patterns of behaviour which normally prevent this fatal outcome. In its simplest form it would amount to no more than attack and retreat. The owner A of a piece of territory, which he has taken possession of, at once adopts a threat posture towards the interloper B who now retreats back into his own territory; now if A invades the territory of B, then B will threaten A who now in turn retreats. Dr. Tinbergen illustrated this with a very simple experiment with sticklebacks. Males A and B had built nests at opposite ends of an aquarium and defended their respective territories. He now enclosed each male in a glass tube and placed them side by side in the territory of A. At once A tries to attack B, and B in its tube turns away from A and tries to flee; he now moves the two tubes over to the other end of the aquarium into the territory of B and at once the behaviour patterns are reversed, B tries to attack and A turns away and tries to flee.

We see just the same kind of behaviour in many species of birds in regard to the area they have claimed exclusively as theirs for the gathering of food to feed their young; the males defend their territory by driving off other males who may try to trespass on it. Actual fighting, however, rarely occurs; the attacking male usually adopts certain postures which at once have the effect of intimidating his adversary. The robin for example displays his red breast, which, writes Dr. Lack, “is stretched and so held that the intruding robin sees as much of it as possible.” The threat is certainly effective. “The intruding robin usually departs almost at once, and rarely does the attacking bird have to change from posturing to direct attack to achieve this.” The exhibition of the red breast suffices. “Just as its song is a war cry”, says Lack, “so its red breast is war paint, both helping to prevent a fight coming to blows.” Another example is the curious forward threat posture of the black-headed gull, described by Dr. Tinbergen, in which the bird adopts a crouching position with its neck and open beak stretched forward in a menacing attitude. The male stickleback, I should also have said, has a special threat posture, “standing” vertically on its head in the water with its sharp spines erected.

When actual fighting between rival males does occur under natural wild conditions it rarely ends in one killing the other; generally one, before it has been too severely damaged, will decide it has had enough and will flee. Only with animals kept in captivity where flight is impossible do we get the unusual occurrence of an animal killing another of its own kind. Now in a number of species, particularly among birds and mammals, instead of escape a curious act of appeasement has developed, the opposite of threat; it is a surrender which at once has the effect of stopping the fight. Dr. Konrad Lorenz in his charming book King Solomon’s Ring gives a number of examples. Let me quote his dramatic account of an encounter he saw between two wolves in the Whipsnade Park.

An enormous old timber wolf and a rather weaker, obviously younger one are the opposing champions and they are moving in circles round each other, exhibiting admirable “footwork”. At the same time, the bared fangs flash in such a rapid exchange of snaps that the eye can scarcely follow them. So far, nothing has really happened. The jaws of one wolf close on the gleaming white teeth of the other who is on the alert and wards off the attack. Only the lips have received one or two minor injuries. The younger wolf is gradually being forced backwards. It dawns upon us that the older one is purposely manoeuvring him towards the fence. We wait with breathless anticipation what will happen when he “goes to the wall”. Now he strikes the wire netting, stumbles … and the old one is upon him. And now the incredible happens, just the opposite of what you would expect. The furious whirling of the grey bodies has come to a sudden standstill. Shoulder to shoulder they stand, pressed against each other in a stiff and strained attitude, both heads now facing in the same direction. Both wolves are growling angrily, the elder in a deep bass, the younger in higher tones, suggestive of the fear that underlies his threat. But notice carefully the position of the two opponents; the older wolf has his muzzle close, very close against the neck of the younger, and the latter holds away his head, offering unprotected to his enemy the bend of his neck, the most vulnerable part of his whole body! Less than an inch from the tensed neck-muscles, where the jugular vein lies immediately beneath the skin, gleam the fangs of his antagonist from beneath the wickedly retracted lips. Whereas, during the thick of the fight, both wolves were intent on keeping only their teeth, the one invulnerable part of the body, in opposition to each other, it now appears that the discomfited fighter proffers intentionally that part of his anatomy to which a bite must assuredly prove fatal. Appearances are notoriously deceptive, but in his case, surprisingly, they are not!

Another example he gives is the fighting of turkeys. I will quote again:

If a turkey-cock has had more than his share of the wild and grotesque wrestling-match in which these birds indulge, he lays himself with outstretched neck upon the ground. Whereupon the victor behaves exactly as a wolf or dog in the same situation, that is to say, he evidently wants to peck and kick at the prostrated enemy, but simply cannot; he would if he could but he can’t! So, still in threatening attitude, he walks round and round his prostrated rival, making tentative passes at him, but leaving him untouched…

… Whatever may be the reasons that prevent the dominant individual from injuring the submissive one, whether he is prevented from doing so by a simple and purely mechanical reflex process or by a highly philosophical moral standard, is immaterial to the practical issue. The essential behaviour of the submissive as well as of the dominant partner remains the same:

the humbled creature suddenly seems to lose his objections to being injured and removes all obstacles from the path of the killer, and it would seem that the very removal of these outer obstacles raises an insurmountable inner obstruction in the central nervous system of the aggressor.

Now, as I have already said, in the courtship of many birds and mammals we get elements of both aggression and submission forming parts of the mating ritual with the female usually taking the more passive röle. Both Lorenz and Tinbergen have rightly stressed that we must at present be extremely cautious in attempting to link human behaviour with that of animals. We must not jump to conclusions; we must first make far more detailed observations of human reactions on the lines of the modern ethologists’ animal studies before we try to make any exact comparisons or interpretations. Nevertheless the widespread development of both aggression and submission in the animal kingdom and its frequent incorporation into mating behaviour shows us that we need not be surprised at both these aspects appearing in the sexual life of man. Having noted this we should not forget that to begin with the act of appeasement was, more fundamentally, developed as one of submission to an acknowledged superior3. This I think is significant for our special interest as we shall presently see.

Psychologists tell us that there is nearly always a mixture of these two tendencies, aggression and submission, in any individual, and moreover that there are traces of each in nearly everyone. It is only in extreme cases that they may take a prominent place in the sexual life of a married pair as when we get the horrifying cases of a wife-beating husband or, on a lighter note, the wife who yearns romantically for the rough treatment of a “caveman” and is disappointed at the mildness of her husband. It is, however, in individuals who, for one psychological reason or another, have developed abnormally in regard to their sexual relations, that we may find sexual pleasure itself being sought either from aggressive action, cruelly inflicting pain on another, or its reverse, experiencing pleasure by submission to inflicted pain. These are the two forms of sexual deviation known respectively as sadism and masochism. Any form of sexual deviation is repugnant to the normal mind so that the discussion of this subject is almost taboo. It happens, however, that very serious attacks have been made upon some phases of religious practice, and particularly upon certain aspects of Christianity, by those who maintain that much of it is really a form of masochism in psychological disguise. We must certainly consider these charges.

Before going any further let me give some definitions and brief explanations of these two opposite forms of behaviour. Because they usually occur together, they have, by some psychologists, been classed under the one heading of Algolagnia. Havelock Ellis in his Psychology of Sex (1933) says “Algolagnia is a convenient term (devised by Schrenck-Notzing) to indicate the connection between sexual excitement and pain without reference to its precise differentiation into active and passive forms.” “Sadism” he says “is generally defined as sexual emotion associated with the wish to inflict pain, physical or moral, on the object of the emotion. Masochism is sexual emotion associated with the desire to be physically subjugated or morally humiliated by the person arousing the emotion.” It is particularly, but not entirely, in respect to the moral humiliation phase of it that the link with religion may come in. Dr. Clifford Allen in the most recent authoritative work A Textbook of Psychosexual Disorders (1962), after saying that Sado-masochism is a complex condition which may conveniently be divided into its two parts, goes on to say: “It must be realized, however, that such a division is never found in nature and that there is always a certain admixture of both conditions in clinical cases. It is believed”, he says, “that sadism is the primary state and that masochism is produced secondary to it.” He defines sadism as “the obtaining of sexual pleasure from acts of cruelty”, and says, “this appears to shade off from apparently non-sexual cruelty to obvious sadism.”

Freud believed that both elements occurred in what he called the erotic life of the early infant period. Professor Valentine, however, in his book The Psychology of Early Childhood, which I quoted in my last lecture to show that his direct observations on infants did not support Freud’s contention of a prominent early sexual phase, writes as follows:

The sadistic element is said by Freud to be the other most prominent feature in this early infantile period—“The impulse to mastery, which easily passes over into cruelty”. But if, as we have seen reason to believe, there is a relatively independent impulse of aggression or pugnacity, an extreme form of this may well appear to take the form of cruelty for its own sake with no sexual significance whatever. We may recall that this impulse is so lively sometimes in apparently normal children that there is mere play at pugnacity and aggression. An outlet is found without any external stimulus.

Now let us consider the way in which these impulses have been thought to have a bearing upon religion. I will quote again from the Rev. Dr. Lee’s book Freud and Christianity which I discussed in my last lecture; it is well first to cite the views of one who is definitely a Christian. You may remember that he fully accepts the Freudian position of dividing the mind into the three elements: the subconscious id full of repressed impulses, the authoritative and partly subconscious super-ego which keeps control of the id and acts as the conscience, and thirdly the fully conscious, reasoning self, the ego, which in a sense is between the two. Here is how Dr. Lee sees these influences at work; I quote a continuation of the extract which I gave on p. 148 repeating at the beginning a few sentences already given. He was describing you may remember, the type of Christianity which concentrates on developing a sense of sin and unworthiness:

By cultivating a sense of sin and strengthening the dominance of the Super-ego, the Ego is made to feel its guilt and unworthiness more intensely. But the more guilty the Ego feels the more strongly the Super-ego attacks it, thereby further increasing the feeling of guilt. So the circle goes on until the Ego is almost paralysed from undertaking novel action. The only brake on the process is obtained through penances and mortification, even to the extent of self-inflicted pain. By accepting these the Ego is able to regain some of its self-esteem, for they are the token of its obedience to the Super-ego. Further, since in this type of character there is usually a strong masochistic (enjoyment of suffering) tendency in the unconscious, the Id gets satisfaction from the suffering and its pressure on the Ego is reduced in other directions. The masochistic tendency in the Id is matched by the aggressive sadistic component of the Super-ego, so that this severe self-discipline produces a considerable libidinal pleasure and is not simply a moral achievement. The more the dominance of the Super-ego grows the more it reverts to its non-moral pre-Oedipus character. Fasting and mortification and self-denial are often regarded as the sign of holiness. Psychoanalysis shows that they readily become perversions of the Id and a crippling of the Ego that renders the personality unable to cope with the problems of life. It forces a retreat from life to a hermitage or convent. It is not a religion for this world. It is an escape from this world, its interests and its works, into the other world.

There can be no doubt, I think, that both sadism and masochism, whether interpreted in terms of the Freudian system or not, have played an occasional part in the history of the religious life, but this does not to my mind destroy the validity of all religion.

There are certainly some who think that this masochistic-sadistic streak suggests that the whole practice of religion is nothing more than a form of deviation. This view was vigorously put forward by Dr. David Forsyth, F.R.C.P., who was Senior Physician to the Psychological Clinic of the Ministry of Pensions, in his Presidential Address to the Psychiatry Section of the Royal Society of Medicine in London in 1934. He tells us that the Society refused to print his address in its Proceedings; he says this in the preface to his book Psychology and Religion, which he subsequently published to present his case in full. We may also note that in his preface, among the acknowledgements, he says “I am specially beholden to the writings of Sir James Frazer and Professor Freud, which are the stimulus to the whole book.” We discussed, you may remember, the influence of Frazer’s theories upon Freud’s ideas in the last lecture (p. 145). I will quote a passage from Forsyth’s book (his p. 149). Some will certainly find it very shocking and may feel that I should not give public utterance to what they can only regard as blasphemy. Let me say, before I quote it, that, for the reasons I shall give, I believe that his emphasis is false. Why need I quote it at all then, when it may hurt the feelings of many? I think we must consider it just because it is a view that is, I believe, being held by an increasing number of people who imagine it to be sound psychology. A natural theology must face the issue. If our faith in a spiritual reality is strong we should not be afraid. We must grasp the nettle and examine it, if we are to get at the truth; in doing so I think we shall destroy some of its sting. Dr. Forsyth writes as follows:

The masochistic enjoyment of suffering is exhibited in the widespread habit of self-denial, including poverty, fasting, and sexual abstinence. The whole custom of religious penance comes in this category. To a more unmeasured degree masochism is indulged in the innumerable kinds of self-mortification practised by many Christians, Indian fakirs, and others, from wearing hair-shirts next to the skin to submitting to tortures and revolting degradations. To cite only a few of the many in Christian history, we have the extraordinary austerities practised by St. John of the Cross, the loathsome penance of St. Catherine of Genoa, the deliberate quest of the repulsive by St. Francis …

Masochism comes to full flower in the spirit of the martyr, and the acme of masochism is reached in martyrdom itself, when the greatest of self-sacrifices, that of life, may be sought and enjoyed—all the more, often enough, for its added concomitants of torture and suffering …

Just as the teaching of Mahomet is … essentially sadistic, so is the teaching of Christ essentially masochistic. The spirit of self-sacrifice which permeates Christianity, and is so highly prized in the Christian religious life, is masochism moderately indulged. A much stronger expression of it is to be found in Christ’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. This blesses the poor, the meek, the persecuted; exhorts us not to resist evil but to offer the second cheek to the smiter; and to do good to them that hate you and forgive men their trespasses. All this breathes masochism, and nothing about it is sadistic. While Mahomet was virile and sadistic, Christ was gentle and masochistic …

Many people will indeed feel that this statement, as it stands, is outrageous; yet I am sure that no doctor with a psychiatric training would deny that some acts of humiliation and the self-infliction of pain could be anything other than a masochistic impulse. This perhaps comes as a shock most strongly to those who have never even recognized the existence of these latent tendencies. The enforcement of celibacy in the early church, with its suppression of any normal sexual outlet, no doubt helped to make acts of penance, self-mortification and severe physical discipline a general practice. A tradition had become established that this was the way to create a zealous and dedicated personality. There was then no psycho-analysis to show the hidden springs of repressed sexual impulses. These unconscious elements, I think, almost certainly accounted for some of this behaviour but by no means all. Now a deeper acquaintance with psychopathology shows us that there are two quite distinct forms of so-called masochism. One of them, although showing effects very like those produced by the other, is now realized to be in fact far removed from sex. The distinction between them has been well made by Dr. Clifford Allen in his Textbook of Psychosexual Disorders to which I have already referred. He sharply divides the religious form, which he calls Moral Masochism, from the more usual kind which he calls Erotogenic Masochism and there can also be distinguished a third, Feminine kind; indeed he reminds us that Freud himself had pointed out that of these various kinds the former is the most distant from sex. He quotes Freud as follows:

The third form of masochism, the moral one, is chiefly remarkable for having loosened its connection with what we recognize to be sexuality. To all other masochistic sufferings there still clings the condition that it should be administered by the loved person; it is endured at his command; in the moral type of masochism this limitation is dropped. It is the suffering itself which matters; whether the sentence is cast by a loved or by an indifferent person is of no importance; it may even be caused by impersonal forces or circumstances, but the true masochist always holds out his cheek wherever he sees a chance of receiving a blow.

Then he himself (Dr. Allen) goes on to say:

It is possible that numerous psychiatrists would refuse to recognize this latter as a real perversion (i.e. sexually connected) …

For some unknown reason moral masochism appears to be commoner in the East than in Europe or America. The fakirs who lie on beds of nails, who thrust skewers through their cheeks, who hold an arm in one position until it withers, and so on are all examples of moral masochism. The history of every religion is redolent of it and perhaps it is because the Orient is more favourable for moral and mystical speculation than the Occident that it appears there. Significantly, where excessive mysticism is favoured it reappears—e.g. the Jesuits still practise flagellation.4

Now that we have seen that it has been suggested that there are these two distinct types of masochism, one sexual and the other not, let me return to our animal behaviour studies for a moment. We saw that among animals in general the submissive act, whether or not it might later become incorporated into mating behaviour, was first of all developed in relation to defeat in fighting with members of the same species: as when a wolf turns its head to offer its most vulnerable target to its victor or when a turkey prostrates itself on the ground. It may well be that acts of submission in man were developed primarily in relation to defeat in conflict. Konrad Lorenz would certainly seem to hold this view.

And what is the human appeal for mercy after all? [he asks] Is it so very different from what we have just described? The Homeric warrior who wishes to yield and plead mercy, discards helmet and shield, falls on his knees and inclines his head, a set of actions which should make it easier for the enemy to kill, but, in reality, hinders him from doing so. As Shakespeare makes Nestor say of Hector:

Thou has hung thy advanced sword i’ the air,

Not letting it decline on the declined.

Even to-day, we have retained many symbols of such submissive attitudes in a number of our gestures of courtesy; bowing, removal of the hat, and presenting arms in military ceremonial.5

He goes on, however, to say that in human history, even among Homer’s heroes, the appeal for mercy did not always work! And a little later, no doubt being a little fanciful, he says:

The worker in comparative ethology does well to be very careful in applying moral criteria to animal behaviour. But here, I must myself own to harbouring sentimental feelings; I think it a truly magnificent thing that one wolf finds himself unable to bite the proffered neck of the other, but still more so that the other relies upon him for this amazing restraint. Mankind can learn a lesson from this, from the animal that Dante calls “labestia senza pace”. I at least have extracted from it a new and deeper understanding of a wonderful and often misunderstood saying from the Gospel which hitherto had only awakened in me feelings of strong opposition: “And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other.” (St. Luke VI, 26.) A wolf has enlightened me: not so that your enemy may strike you again do you turn the other cheek toward him, but to make him unable to do it.

As a religious feeling in man, that of being in contact with some power greater than the self, developed and gave rise to various rites of worship, it would be natural for the submissive act, originally one of appeasement to a superior person, to be incorporated; it would become one of paying homage to the mysterious power which had now become personified through the transfer to it of the emotional feelings of the child-parent, love-fear, relationship. In saying this, need I remind you from what I said in the last lecture that I do not intend to belittle in any way the reality of this Power which not only for psychological reasons has this character of personality, but which in some extraordinary way, as I shall discuss in lecture x, appears to reciprocate the personal approach.

We see in the history of Christianity the change from belief in a jealous, fearful, angry God of the early Old Testament days to the Heavenly Father, the loving and helpful God, as taught by Jesus. The submissive acts which were appeasement, now became acts of adoration and devotion. Such acts of worship, I would submit, can in no way be likened to a sexual deviation. The argument of Forsyth, and those who think like him, is, I believe, based upon a confusion over the different kinds of masochism; that of the moral kind should be given quite a different name from the ugly one it bears. I am not denying, as I have indicated, that there has been some sadism and erotic masochism in religious history; that, however, is quite a different matter from believing that all forms of Divine worship and adoration are derived from a sexual deviation.

The part played by this moral “masochism” in the development of Christianity in Europe is well illustrated in one of the essays by Lord Gifford which were privately printed by some of his friends after his death and to which I have previously referred. I doubt if he had any idea of the real psychological basis of such discipline. I quote from his moving study of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. He begins by painting for us the mediaeval scene:

The middle ages! What strange scenes and pictures do not the words recall? The fortalice of the half-savage Baron and the mean huts of his degraded serfs. The proud pomp and spiritual power of the haughty churchman, before which the strength of kings, and the might of feudalism was fain to kneel. The chivalry of Europe drained time after time to furnish forth the armies of the Crusaders. Religious excitements and revivals passing like prairie fires over Europe, and compared with which modern revivals, even the wildest, seem but the coldest marsh gleams…

… at twenty-two years of age, in youthful manhood, after full and long consideration, Bernard renounced his inheritance and fortune, renounced his nobility of birth and every title of distinction, and stood penniless and barefoot, a candidate for admission at the gate of the monastery of Citeaux. The form of entering Citeaux was this. The applicant had to wait four days in an outer cell or guest-chamber before he was received by the Chapter. On entering he prostrated himself before the lectern, and was asked by the Abbot what he wanted. He replied,—“God’s mercy and yours.” The Abbot then explained to him the hardships of their life and the severity of their discipline, and again inquired if he still persevered in his intention. If the candidate answered in the affirmative, the Abbot said,—“May God, who has himself begun a good work, himself accomplish it.” This ceremony was repeated on three successive days, and on the third the intrant was passed to the cells of the novices and began the year of his probation.

… I ask you to reflect on that wonderful state of society where the educated and upper classes had only two careers open to them, that of the soldier and that of the priest. To be a gentleman in those days meant to be a warrior, and they were almost constantly fighting, besieging each other’s castles or being besieged in their own, following my Lord of Burgundy or my Lord of Avignon or some other feudal suzerain in their endless wars. It was a fierce world. No wonder gentle natures were glad to quit it: … to seek a haven of shelter, where during this short life they may say their prayers, and then lie down in peace to sleep, in death.

Bernard had selected the monastery of Citeaux as his retreat in preference to many others which would gladly have received him, because of the extreme severity of its rules and discipline. There was at hand the opulent and lordly Clugny, where, cushioned in purple state, luxurious monks regaled themselves with the richest dainties and the rarest wines. But penance and mortification were Bernard’s aim, and he added to the austerities of the Cistercian rule voluntary mortifications and additional vigils which almost cost him his life.

After this digression let us return for a moment to the study of animal behaviour and have a look at what may, I believe, be an illuminating analogy: one which may possibly help us to appreciate the nature of man’s religious behaviour in more biological terms. Again let me say I do not feel that this should make us think any the less of religion; if it is a good analogy it would just be telling us something more about its evolution. I believe it is conceivable that the religious emotions and actions of man in relation to this power beyond the self, i.e. his devotional feelings towards the personification of this power, may not be unlike the devotion of a dog to his human master; and further that they may have arisen in a somewhat similar fashion. I came to this idea from further passages in Konrad Lorenz’s King Solomon’s Ring. I quote as follows:

The really single-hearted devotion of a dog to its master has two quite different sources. On the one side, it is nothing else than the submissive attachment which every wild dog shows towards his pack leader, and which is transferred, without any considerable alteration in character, by the domestic dog to a human being. To this is added, in the more highly domesticated dogs, quite another form of affection. Many of the characteristics in which domestic animals differ from their wild ancestral form arise by virtue of the fact that properties of body structure and behaviour, which in the wild prototype are only marked by some transient stages of youth, are kept permanently by the domestic form. In dogs, short hair, curly tail, hanging ears, domed skulls and the short muzzle of many domestic breeds are features of this type. In behaviour, one of these juvenile characters which has become permanent in the domestic dog, expresses itself in the peculiar form of its attachment. The ardent affection which wild canine youngsters show for their mother, and which in these disappears completely after they have reached maturity, is preserved as a permanent mental trait of all highly domesticated dogs. What originally was love for the mother is transformed into love for the human master.

I must not become too biological, but it is worth pointing out that, as Bolk6 has shown us, man himself displays many youthful characters compared with the earlier primate stock. I need not go into details in support of this, as it is well documented in the biological literature7; one such character is our prolonged period of childhood giving greater opportunities of learning and allowing a larger growth of brain by the delayed fusion of the sutures of the skull. What I am about to suggest is, of course, entirely speculative; it is this. It seems to me possible that man, who, like the dog, has juvenile characters, e.g., this prolonged period of childhood and a strong child-parent affection, may, also like the dog, have transferred part of the submissiveness which he had shown to his tribal leader, together with his filial affection, to a new master—one of a very unusual kind. This “new master”, a supposed invisible being, is imagined by primitive man to account for the “something” real beyond the self which he felt himself to be in touch with; the something which he called by various names such as mana, wakan, or God when he was able, with the coming of speech, to discuss with his fellow beings this strange feeling of the numinous. It would be an idea which would develop over a period of time in man’s early culture, perhaps alongside the internalization of authority which Waddington has pictured in his The Ethical Animal and which we discussed in lecture II. Whilst it is only a suggestion of a possible origin of this important human trait, the not unsimilar devotion in the dog shows that such a transfer is in fact biologically possible.

Now Lorenz makes a very interesting observation about the attachment of a dog to his master;

The “sealing of the bond”, the final attachment of the dog to one master, is quite enigmatical. It takes place quite suddenly within a few days, particularly in the case of puppies that come from a breeding kennel. The “susceptible period” for this most important occurrence in the whole of a dog’s life is, in Aureus dogs, between eight and eighteen months, and in Lupus8 dogs round about the sixth month.

One must not attempt to press an analogy or parallel too far; but it should be observed, I think, that here, in an animal, we see something occurring at a phase in development which is not altogether unsimilar to the almost sudden “conversion” that occurs in the religious life of many human adolescents. Be that as it may, the faithfulness, love and devotion of a dog for his master or mistress shows us the same elements that make up the essentials of man’s attitude to his personal God. The nature of God remains for us a great mystery; we realize that the conception of a parent-like Person is but a childish notion, to help us to have some idea of a much greater truth we cannot yet understand. By experience—as recorded in many examples in lectures III and IV—we (those who are religious) feel help in our lives as if from a person; some power for a fuller life comes to us in response to a confidence we place in this strange element when we make an approach as if to a person. This is the power that William James speaks of as “objectively true”. “Disregarding the over-beliefs, and confining ourselves to what is common and generic”, he says, “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.” It is the power which, in L. P. Jacks’s words: “can help, deliver, illuminate and gladden the soul … the companion of the brave … the God who is spirit, the God who is love.”

The point on which I want to end this discussion is this: the act of submission to this Power is nothing to be ashamed of. It is indeed a blasphemy to speak of it as if it were only a form of sexual deviation. I do not think it likely, either, that it is just a sublimation. We should not be dismayed to realize that it is in part related to an act of filial love; whilst that no doubt provides the personal element, it is also, perhaps equally, in part related to the love of beauty in nature which may suddenly strike us to the depths. It is an act of devotion to some fundamental element beyond the self which we may rightly call God. And this mystery, I believe, is as much a part of the natural world as is the psychic side of animal life; it is part of the biological system, and as important as sex. If in our private lives, or in a place of worship, we feel we can approach this hidden Power with a greater sense of divine reverence in a physical act of obeisance, as on our knees, we should not, I believe, feel it to be a childish act. Religion is not rational, it is essentially emotional; if it is to be real and to work, it must be as deep and sincere as human love. Without such sincerity, or emotion, faith if you like, it makes no response at all; with the right approach, however, lives can be transformed, seemingly impossible tasks achieved, and the drabness of the world turned to joy. Religion is at the heart of civilization.

  • 1.

    i.e. of my first series The Living Stream (p. 39).

  • 2.

    See the volume on Love by Quell and Stauffer, 1933 (translated by J. R. Coates, 1949) from Kittel’s Theologisches Wörtenbuch zum Neuen Testament.

  • 3.

    It is true that the origin of sex in evolutionary history is far older than fighting between members of the same species; nevertheless appeasement behaviour in courtship display is only found among the vertebrates and the more highly developed invertebrate animals.

  • 4.

    A little further in the text he adds the following: “Perhaps it is not surprising that the Jesuits, which are the only sect to practise flagellation, were founded by St. Ignatius, who developed various ‘exercises’ which obviously have an obsessional compulsive basis.”

  • 5.

    King Solomon’s Ring, p. 196.

  • 6.

    L. Bolk, Das Problem der Menschwerdung, Jena, 1926.

  • 7.

    Well summarized in Sir Gavin de Beer’s Embryos and Ancestors, Oxford, 1940.

  • 8.

    The terms Aureus and Lupus refer to two main types of dogs: the former, according to some authorities, having more jackal “blood” and the latter more wolf “blood” in their ancestors (a theory of origin by no means generally accepted).

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