In discussing the need for religion, I use the words “origin and nature” deliberately, because the conjunction of these two words seems to me to mask a fallacy which it is important to bring to light. The fallacy is to assume that to lay bare the origins of a thing is tantamount to describing its present nature.
C. E. M. Joad

by C. E. M. Joad

Boldness, amounting frequently to audacity, has thus far been the principal trait of the philosophical writing of Cyril Edwin Mitchison Joad. Born in England in 1891 and educated at Oxford, he spent a number of years in the civil service, first under the Board of Trade and then in the Ministry of Labor. But since 1930 he has been head of the department of philosophy and psychology at Birkbeck College, the University of London. He has written a volume upon the United States, The Babbitt Warren, which is far from a happy effort. Among his other books are Common Sense Ethics; Common Sense Theology; A Guide to Modern Thought; and Is Christianity True? His views upon the evolution of religion may usefully be compared with the writings of the more impressive English rationalists of an older generation, Leslie Stephen and Henry Sidgwick. In especial they offer a parallel, so far as they go, with Sidgwick’s great work on the evolution of ethics (Outlines of the History of Ethics), which after forty years is still full of interest.

In discussing the need for religion, I use the words “origin and nature” deliberately, because the conjunction of these two words seems to me to mask a fallacy which it is important to bring to light. The fallacy is to assume that to lay bare the origins of a thing is tantamount to describing its present nature.

That this is very far from being the case, I shall try to show; yet we more often assume that it is, especially if we are of a scientific turn, than we are commonly aware, and the assumption is nowhere more prevalent than in regard to religion. By most of us, indeed, it is not even realized that an assumption is involved. We take it for granted that to demonstrate that religion began as witchcraft, totemism, or exogamy is to prove that it is in essence no more than witchcraft, totemism, and exogamy now, although we should never dream of asserting that the fact that the savage can only count on the fingers of one hand, coupled with the demonstration that arithmetic began with and developed from such counting, invalidates the multiplication table. To show how a belief arises is not to describe, still less to discredit it, and, unless we are to deny to religion the kind of growth which we are prepared to concede to other expressions of the human spirit, it is obvious that there must be more in the religious consciousness today than in the savage fears and flatteries from which it may be shown to have arisen. And, if there is, it will be for just that “more” that an account of religion in terms of its origin and history- will fail to make provision. The point is of importance because the interpretation of religion in terms of its origin is often used to prove that religion is not a permanent and necessary need of the human spirit; savage in inception, it will, it is urged, disappear when we have finally left our savagery behind us. Religion, it is often said, belongs to the childhood of the race, and will one day be outgrown, together with war and other savage habits, such as the habit of imprisoning men for punishment and animals for show, or the habit of decking the bodies of women with fragments of stone, lumps of metal, and portions of dead birds.

For myself, I do not hold this view, and I shall try to show the fallacy latent in the mode of reasoning upon which it rests. For the present, let us see what the explanations of religions in terms of origin involve.

They are advanced chiefly by anthropologists, who visit remote Melanesian islands for the purpose of observing the religious practices of the natives. Recording them, they conclude that primitive religion is the offspring of human fear and human conceit; it springs from the desire to propitiate the alien forces of nature, to invest human life with significance in face of the vast indifference of the universe, and to secure the support of an immensely powerful and ferocious personage for the individual, the tribe, or the nation. This general attitude to religion, by ascribing it to a subjective need of human nature, robs it of objective validity. Religion, if this account is correct, is not a revelation of reality, but a symptom of a state of mind; it is an expression of what man is like. To say that there is God is not to say anything more than that we need to think that there is, and the need is in no sense a guarantee of the existence of that which satisfies it. Thus the great religions of the world are not theology, but psychology; witnesses, not to the attributes of God, but to the inventive faculty of man. God is not a real being; He is the image of man, projected, enlarged, upon the empty canvas of the universe.

This view of religion as subjective expresses itself in different forms, according to the nature of the primitive feelings upon which it lays stress. I will take three as examples.

(1) The argument from man’s feeling of loneliness and insecurity may be summarized as follows: Human life is immensely insignificant. It is an accidental development of matter, the chance product of forces, an accident unplanned and unforeseen in the history of the planet. A casual and unwanted passenger, it struggles across a fundamentally alien and hostile environment, in which the material and the brutal on all sides condition and determine the spiritual and the vital. One day it will finish its pointless journey with as little noise and significance as, in the person of the amoeba, it began it. Until this consummation occurs, man will fare naked and forlorn through an indifferent universe, a puppet twitched into love and war by an indifferent showman who pulls the strings. His destiny is swayed by an inescapable fate; his fortunes are at the mercy of an irresponsible chance. He is a mere target for the shafts of doom.

These things we know; yet the knowledge is intolerable to us. We cannot bear to be without significance in the universe; we long to feel that we count, that somehow and to something we matter. And so we invent an immensely powerful and important personage called God, to whom we matter enormously.

By making ourselves important to a person who is Himself so enormously important, we achieve the desired significance, and the more powerful God is conceived to be, the more significant do we, His chief concern, become. So tremendously does He care about us that He has made the material universe for our benefit, this world rightly regarded being merely a school for human nature, in which it is trained and educated for life elsewhere; while by making Him in our own image we secure His special interest in the human race. The creation of the brute beasts to sustain our bodies and obey our orders is a token of that interest.

Interested as He is in the human species as a whole, He is quite specially interested in the particular race, nation, or tribe to which we happen to belong; so that, whatever the quarrel upon which the nation or tribe may happen to be engaged, it may rest assured of His support, since He is guaranteed to take the same view of the rights and wrongs of it as we do ourselves.

Among polytheistic peoples this concept causes no difficulty; each has its own deity or set of deities, and the strongest gods win. But where there is one God, and only one, who sustains the worship and is the repository of the prayers of opposed nations, the zeal of His adherents tends to place the Almighty in a dilemma. *

To God the embattled nations sing and shout,
“God strafe England” and “God save the King,”
God this, that, and God the other thing.
“Good God!” said God, “I’ve got my work cut out.”

But it is easy to provide for God’s solution of the difficulty by invoking His omnipotence.

Interested in the nation or tribe to which we happen to belong, He is quite specially interested in ourselves; interested in and favorable toward, assisting us against those who seek to humiliate us, and generally discomfiting our enemies. This is a world in which the good man is notoriously oppressed, while the wicked flourish like a green bay tree. The arrangement offends our sense of justice, and, what is more, since we are good men ourselves, it is unfair to us personally. Very well, then, we invent another world in which the good man flourishes eternally and the bad one is eternally punished. Thus the fundamental rightness of things is vindicated, and we incidentally benefit in the process.

But in order that the system may work, it is necessary that the good man and the bad man should be under continual observation, that neither the unrequited goodness of the one nor the unchastised badness of the other may go unregistered. This function is admirably performed by the vertical or upstairs God. Thoughtfully accommodated with an abode in the skies, a position admirably adapted for purposes of espionage, He keeps a dossier of each individual, recognizing in us the worth that others unaccountably fail to recognize, and observing the wickedness and hypocrisy of those whom the world equally unaccountably exalts. These things are carefully noted, and in the next world all is made right. Immensely important, admired and envied — for are we not the favored children of Omnipotence? we live happily ever afterward; scorned and hated, our enemies are convincingly humiliated. Assuredly an admirable arrangement! It is difficult, to see how it could be improved upon. But God is essential to its proper working, and God flourishes accordingly.

God, then, on this view, is at once the product of human terror and the prop of human pride. He comforts our wretchedness, calms our fears, gives us an assurance of justice, and makes us feel important. “Religious ideas,” says Freud, “have sprung from the same need as all the other achievements of culture; from the necessity for defending oneself against the crushing supremacy of nature.”

(2) But though Freud recognizes one of the sources of religion in man’s subjection to the forces of nature, he finds its chief root in his relationship to society. Hence his main account of the origin of religion is rather different from that just summarized.

This account will be found in Freud’s book, The Future of an Illusion, which appeared in 1928. It is not very original, but it is typical of a certain attitude to religion, and may be taken as fairly representative of the view of many educated people, especially psychological and scientific workers today. Freud proceeds upon the basis of what is, in effect, a social contract theory of the origin of society. This theory is admirably stated early in the second book of Plato’s Republic. Essential to it is the conception of primitive man as a completely non-moral animal; as such his natural inclination is to get his own way at all costs, without thought of the consequences to his neighbors. If his neighbor’s wife attracts him, he makes off with her; if his neighbor annoys him, he knocks him on the head. Thus every man has, as Glaucon puts it in the Republic, a natural tendency to do injustice to his fellows. Admirable in theory, this system, or lack of system, has one serious drawback in practice; the right of every man to do injustice to his neighbors carries with it a corresponding right on the part of his neighbors to do injustice to him. He is one, but his neighbors are many, with the result that, where his hand is against every man and every man’s hand is against him, he tends to get the worst of the bargain. His existence is intolerably insecure, he must be perpetually on his guard, and he has no secure enjoyment of his possessions. In the days before society was formed man’s life, as the philosopher Hobbes puts it, was “nasty, brutish, and short.” Finding the situation intolerable, men ended it by making a compact known as the social contract.

The compact was to form society. Consenting to live in society, man surrendered his natural right to do what he pleased to his fellows, on condition that they made a similar concession as regards himself. Social relations were regulated by public opinion, which later crystallized into law, and man for the future restrained his natural instincts lest he incur the social displeasure of his fellows. Thus was society formed, and from its formation springs the system of inhibitions and restraints which men call morality. To act morally is the reverse of acting naturally and implies a victory over the “natural man”; we obey the law, and keep our hands off our neighbor’s wife and property, not because we are by nature moral, but in fear of the penalties with which society has prescribed actions which violate the contract upon which it was formed. In other words, we do right only through fear of the consequences of doing wrong. Remove this fear of con- ‘sequences, as, for example, by endowing the individual with the gift of invisibility at will, and the social man would immediately relapse into the natural man, with the result that no property would be safe, no wife inviolable. The conclusion is that morality, which is simply the habit of acting in a manner of which other people approve, is not natural to man; on the contrary, it runs counter to his natural interests, frustrates his natural desires, and requires him to surrender his natural rights.

Now, man is not born social. He only becomes so at the cost of suffering and repression. Every child is born “natural,” endowed with an egotism that bids him tyrannize over his world. Seeking to impose his imperious will upon his environment, he is surprised when his environment fails to respond, pained when it begins to resent. For a creature who starts with this “natural” endowment the business of growing up into a social adult who knows the lawful limits that must be set upon his desires is, it is obvious, a formidable one — so formidable that, according to Freud, it is seldom more than partially achieved, and never achieved without suffering and injury. To assist him in the difficult process of social adjustment the individual invokes the aid of religion. Hence the essence of religion, according to Freud, is compensation. It is compensation for man’s loneliness in face of the vast indifference of the universe; it is also, and more importantly, compensation for the renunciations which he must undertake at the bidding of society.

Wherein (asks Freud) lies the peculiar virtue of religious ideas? We have spoken of the hostility to culture produced by the pressure it exercises and the instinctual renunciations that it demands. If one imagined its prohibitions removed, then one could choose any woman who took one’s fancy as one’s sexual object, one could kill without hesitation one’s rival or whoever interfered with one in any other way, and one could seize’what one wanted of another man’s goods without asking his leave: how splendid, what a succession of delights life would be!

Forgo these delights, we must, if we are to achieve civilization. And, forgoing them we demand that the gods shall reward us for our sacrifice. Hence religion is the force that reconciles man to the burden of civilization. It is the most important of the compensations that civilization offers to its citizens; so important that only by offering it does civilization become possible. When we have learned as by second nature to refrain from incest, murder, torture, and arson, when we “pass right along the car, please,” adjust our dress before leaving, and take our places at the end of the queue, without thinking whether we want to do these things or not, the external restrictions which society imposes have become instinctive habits, the primitive child has become the civilized adult, and social adjustment has been achieved. But achieved only by the aid of religion. Had we no God to whom to turn for comfort and consolation, to whom to tell the unfulfilled wishes and thwarted ambitions, to whom to pray for fortitude to suffer and strength to forbear, the task would be too great for us.

With the very dawn of consciousness, the need for a father confessor makes itself felt.

Thus little by little I became conscious where I was, and to have a wish to express my wishes to those who could content them; and I could not; for the wishes were within me and they without; nor could they, by any sense of theirs, enter within my spirit.

Thus St. Augustine, who proceeds to tell how he sought and found in God the confidant whom the world denied.

Nor is it only from others that we need a refuge. There is the riot of our desires, there are the prickings of our consciences; there is the sting of remorse. For, though manhood is-achieved, the adjustment to society is not yet complete; still, though with decreasing vigor as the individual grows older and society more civilized, the natural man raises his head and rebels. When the rebellion comes into the open, when we refuse to pass down the car, take the head of the queue, or insist upon our inalienable privilege of driving upon the right-hand side of the road, society has little difficulty in quelling us. There are policemen, there are law courts, there are prisons, there are even scaffolds. But sometimes the rebellion stays underground, or, though it comes to the surface, goes undetected.

Against these hidden revolts society must protect itself, and evolves accordingly a system of espionage. There is a spy within the individual citadel itself, a spy in the service of society. This is our old Victorian acquaintance, the conscience, the policeman of society, stationed within the individual to see that social interests are duly observed. Directly we go wrong — directly, that is to say, we cease to act in a way of which society approves — conscience begins to nag. Like a dog that does not stop us from passing, but that we cannot prevent from barking, conscience voices the disapproval of society. The voice of conscience is an unpleasant one, causing us grave discomfort, and in extreme cases driving us to madness. Some refuge from the stings of conscience we must find, and we duly find it — in religion. Stricken by remorse, we demand that our sins be forgiven us. Who can forgive sin but God? Fouled by our sins of wrongdoing, we demand to be made clean. How can we be cleansed save by bathing in the blood of Jesus? And so we come to a new function of religion, a new use for God. Again religion takes the form of an insurance. We deny ourselves the minor luxuries, abstain from the grosser forms of vice, and submit to a little boredom on Sunday, and in return we are guaranteed against discomfort from the stings of conscience in the present and possible discomfort at the hands of the Almighty in the hereafter.

In all these ways and in many others religion seeks to compensate us for the strain and stress of living in society.

Freud traces the gradual evolution of religion to perform this function and the success with which it has, in fact, performed it. He distinguishes various stages in the growth of religion, determined by the nature of the need which at each successive stage it has been chiefly invoked to satisfy. Initially, the chief use of the gods is to protect man from the capriciousness of nature; but, as man progressed, the discoveries of science introduced order into disorder, and substituted law for caprice. At the same time, the growing complexity of civilization increases the strain of social adjustment. Less needed in the physical world, God becomes an indispensable refuge for the harassed soul of man. Thus history records a decline in the physical and a growth in the moral attributes of the gods.

In the course of time the first observations of law and order in natural phenomena are made, and,therewith the forces of nature lose their human traits. But men’s helplessness remains, and with it their father-longing and the gods. . . . And the more autonomous nature becomes and the more the gods withdraw from her, the more earnestly are all expectations concentrated on the third task assigned to them and the more does morality become their real domain. It now becomes the business of the gods to adjust the defects and evils of culture, to attend to the sufferings that men inflict on each other in their communal life, and to see that the laws of culture, which men obey so ill, are carried out. The laws of culture themselves are claimed to be of divine origin, they are elevated to a position above human society, and they are extended over nature and the universe.

Thus Freud records the progress of religion, and summarizes the different functions which it performs. Nor is Iris account singular. On the contrary, it is one to which, with minor modifications, most psychologists and anthropologists would subscribe. The more we learn about our mental, the more we learn about our bodily natures, the more, it is said, do we lay bare the roots of religion in the fundamental needs of our natures. Psychologists derive the doctrine of original sin from the sense of man’s impotence in the face of chance and destiny; physiologists from the transgressions of his passionate body against the taboos of society. From our infancy we walk between a fear and a fear, between ruthless nature and restricting culture, crying, like Bunyan’s Pilgrim, “What shall I do to be saved?” And demanding salvation at all costs, we create God to save us.

Thus religion is the consolation of mankind, and as such its appeal is universal.

(3) But we now come to a more limited, but scarcely less important, function which religion has played in the history of man. To its successful performance of this function its growth and vigor in more modem times is mainly attributable. .

There are evils which are the common heritage of all men; they are death, disease, the ingratitude of man to man, the malevolence of destiny. These are no respecters of persons, and bear with impartial severity upon us all. But there are others which do not belong to the essential conditions of human life, but are incidental to the way in which man has chosen collectively to organize his life. For men, equal in the eyes of God, are far from equal in the eyes of society. There are, and always have, rulers and ruled, oppressor and oppressed, rich and poor; according to many authorities, there always will be. Society, moreover, is based upon force, which its rulers employ to maintain and perpetuate the inequalities on which they thrive. To make their task easier they invoke the assistance of religion. For religion is not only a means of reconciling the individual to society; it is also, and more particularly, a device for inducing the poor and oppressed to tolerate the particular order of society which impoverishes and oppresses them. Thus religion becomes the instrument of the rich and the bridle of the poor. How is the oracle worked?

It is significant, in the first place, that most religions extol the virtues appropriate to slaves — namely, meekness, humility, unselfishness, and contentment — and censure as the vices of pride and presumption the virtues of courage, originality, and independence, and that passionate resentment at injustice and wrong which are characteristic of those who aspire to rise above their servitude. The Christian religion goes further, and makes a virtue of poverty. It is only, we are assured, with the greatest difficulty that the rich man shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven, which opens its gates to the humble and needy. Poverty and insignificance are not, therefore, as they appear to be, and as the world insists on regarding them, disabilities to be avoided at all costs; they are passports to celestial bliss. . . .

As it has pleased Him to call ninety-nine out of every hundred of us to an extremely lowly state, religion, in so far as it is taken seriously, assists in keeping us where we are. Assists whom? Those who benefit by our remaining where we are — namely, our rulers. For the governing classes have been quick to seize the chance religion has offered them of not only subduing their inferiors, but of representing their subjection as a positive asset to their subjects. Ever since an early governing-class realist slipped the parable about Lazarus into the text of the Gospel of St. Luke, the priest and the parson, seeking to persuade the poor that it was only by remaining poor that they would go to Heaven, have been able to produce good scriptural backing for their propaganda. The poor, on the whole, have been only too ready to agree, and have gladly embraced the promise of celestial bliss in the next world as a compensation for the champagne and cigars they were missing in this one. Since the celestial bliss was known to be of indefinite continuance, while the champagne and cigars could not last at most for more than a beggarly fifty years (as a matter of fact, they often lasted less, God having from time to time seen fit to punish the excesses of the worldly by dulling their palates and depriving them of their appetites in the present as an earnest of His intentions for the future; more recently, of course, He has added . cancer to the list of penalties), the poor — it is obvious — have the best of the bargain. If it has ever occurred to them to wonder why the rich and powerful should recklessly jeopardize the chances which they have so freely proffered and warmly recommended to their poorer brethren, they may possibly have comforted themselves with the reflection that quem deus vult perdere prius dementit.1 Possibly, but not probably, for, on the whole, the poor and oppressed have been too much engaged with their poverty and oppression to reflect upon the motives of their betters.

Religion, from this point of view, is a gigantic social hoax, a hoax which has been, on the whole, remarkably successful; so much so, indeed, that from time to time one or another of the rulers of mankind, franker or more secure than the rest, has not scrupled to show how the trick was worked. Thus Napoleon, a notorious skeptic, taxed with the protection which he afforded to a religion in which he did not believe, and stoutly refusing to be drawn into anti-Christian or anticlerical legislation:

“What is it,” he asked his critics, “that makes the poor man think it quite natural that there are fires in my palace while he is dying of cold? that I have ten coats in my wardrobe while he goes naked? that at each of my meals enough is served to feed his family for a week? It is simply religion, which tells him that in another life I shall be only his equal, and that he actually has more chance of being happy there than I. Yes, we must see to it that the floors of the churches are open to all, and that it does not cost the poor man much to have prayers said on his tomb.”

Napoleon was right. The poor have a need for religion which the rich do not feel, and it is not surprising, therefore, to find that, while skepticism and atheism have on occasion flourished among the rich, religion has uniformly been embraced with eagerness by the poor. The growth of disbelief in governing-class circles, while it may have evoked the censure of society — the rich have always thought it prudent to keep up religious observances — has rarely called down the penalties of the law. Thus governing-class writers of the eighteenth century, Gibbon, Voltaire, or the Encyclopaedists, for example, who were notoriously irreligious or hostile to religion, went comparatively scathless. Naturally, since they wrote for the educated upper, not for the ignorant lower, classes. Most of the early rationalists, again, were academic people whose books were too difficult or too dull to command a popular circulation. Excepting Woolston, they escaped . unpunished. But Peter Annett, a schoolmaster who tried to popularize free thought and held forth on the village green, was sentenced to the pillory and hard labor in 1763. “If we take the cases in which the civil authorities have intervened to repress the publication of unorthodox opinions during the last two centuries,” says Professor Bury, “we find that the object has always been to prevent the spread of free thought among the masses.” . . .

In the nineteenth century, as the danger to society from the new proletariat first made itself felt, the beliefs of the governing classes, it is interesting to note, become more pronounced as their religious example becomes more edifying. It was most important that the wage slaves of the industrial revolution should learn to know God, and in knowing Him to respect their betters. Their betters, then, should show them the way. This they proceeded to do. . . .

That the position remains radically unaltered is shown by the following dialogue between Cusins and Undershaft from Shaw’s Major Barbara, a dialogue which has become a classic.

Cusins (in a white fury): Do I understand you to imply that you can buy Barbara?
Undersiiaet: No; but I can buy the Salvation Army.
Cusins: Quite impossible.
Undershaet: You shall see. All religious organizations exist by selling themselves to the rich.
CtrsiNS: Not the Army. That is the church of the poor.
Undershaft: All the more reason for buying it.
Cusins : I don’t think you quite know what the Army does for the poor.
Undershaft: Oh yes, I do. It draws their teeth: that is enough for me — as a man of business —
Cusins: Nonsense! It makes them sober —
Undershaft : I prefer sober workmen. The profits are larger.
Cusins : — honest —
Undershaft: Honest workmen are the most economical.
Cusins : — attached to their homes —
Undershaft: So much the better: they will put up with anything sooner than change their shop.
Cusins: —happy —
Undershaft: An invaluable safeguard against revolution.
Cusins : — unselfish —
Undershaft: Indifferent to their own interests, which suits me exactly.
Cusins : — with their thoughts on heavenly things —
Undershaft (rising): And not on trade unionism nor socialism. Excellent.
Cusins (revolted): You really are an infernal old rascal.

Summing up, we may note that this conception of the special function of religion as the instrument of the rich and the bridle of the poor follows logically from its main social function considered above. I have already summarized Freud’s account of religion as man s compensation for the renunciations which society demands of him. This may be described as the general social function of religion. It is the part which religion has been called upon to play in the lives of tribal and civilized men, because they live in tribes and societies. But in addition to the general there is a special social function of religion, which is to render the inequalities of society tolerable to the masses. Civilization, requiring of the many poor far greater instinctive renunciations than it demands of the rich, has given them far fewer material compensations. It is essential, therefore, if they are to acquiesce in a state of society which on the material side demands so much while giving so little, that they should receive some compensation of the spirit, a compensation which brings comfort in the present and gives hope for the future. Such compensation is afforded by an ingeniously devised and richly satisfying religious system, which, while making a virtue of humility, feeds the fires of self-esteem, lest, revolting against their insignificance, the poor and the many should turn against society and destroy it. This, then, is one of the functions which religion, and especially the Christian religion, has performed in civilized societies; it has taken the revolutionary sting from poverty and blunted the edge of present discontent with promises of future well-being. Performing this function, religion has been sedulously exploited and used by the rich as an instrument of class domination. God, it has been found, is cheaper than a living wage. Very well, then, let us invest in Him! Religion is a show to keep the poor amused. Very well, then, let us build churches in the slums! For this reason socialists have tended to be hostile to religion, and the Bolshevik government veers between reluctant toleration and covert persecution.

I have endeavored briefly to summarize a number of different accounts of the origin, the growth, and the function of religion. These accounts dominate the modern psychological and sociological treatment of the subject, which is, on the whole, markedly hostile to religion. There are, admittedly, differences on points of detail, and different writers put the emphasis differently according to the purposes which their account is intended to serve and the aspect of religion with which it is chiefly concerned. But all the accounts which I have summarized are in fundamental agreement in interpreting religion on subjectivist lines.

On this one fundamental point they concur. When faced with the question, “Why is there religion?” they answer unanimously, “Because man wants it.” When asked, “Whence does religion rise?” their reply is, “From the needs of man’s nature.” Pressed for an explanation of its authority and appeal, they represent it as a “rationalization of his instinctive wishes.” Thus all these accounts are in their different ways subjectivist. They affirm that religion enables man to accommodate himself to this world, that it expresses a human need, and that it is, therefore, pleasant and consoling; they do not say that it represents an objective fact, that it points forward to a different world, and that it is therefore true. With most of what they assert I am largely, if not entirely, in agreement. I think that the interpretations they give of the origin of religion in terms of the needs which it fulfills, and of the ground of its appeal in terms of the wishes that it rationalizes, are in the main true. But I do not think that they are complete. They are, that is to say, interpretations in terms of origin only, and they take no account of the conception of end or purpose. They ask how religion began and why it flourished; they do not ask what it may become. Both conceptions are, I am convinced, necessary to an adequate description of the status of religion in the present, and a reasoned estimate of its chance of survival in the ‘ future.

Now, I shall consider the reasons for including in our survey an account of religion in terms of what it may become.

If a thing’s nature is exhibited only in its complete development, a complete account of its nature can be given only in terms of that development. Thus, to describe its nature as it is now, we must seek to estimate its future; so only can we hope to understand the tentative beginnings and premonitory stirrings that foreshadow it. A thing reflects its past, no doubt, and to understand it we must know its past; but it also foreshadows its future, and to understand it we must seek to forecast its future; and we must do this not only as a disinterested exercise in prophecy, but because the future in part determines and renders intelligible the present. It follows that, adequately to understand a growing and developing thing, we must take into account not only the origins from which it sprang, but the goal which it may be seeking to achieve. We must think of it not only as determined from behind by its past, but determined from in front by its future. We must, in a word, introduce the notion of purpose.

Our conclusion is in accordance with, indeed it is demanded by, the teaching of evolution. Life, we are agreed, changes; it evolves. If the changes which evolution implies are real changes — and if they are not, everything that exists must have existed always, and time and growth and movement are illusions — then at any given stage in the growth of a living organism the organism must be different from what it was at the preceding stages. But it not only changes; it develops, and in saying that it develops we are implying that at each stage it is not only different from but also more than it was before. Consider, for example, the case of the growing human body. The matter of which a living body is composed, beginning as a microscopic speck of protoplasm, ends as a many-millioned colony of cells. These cells are highly organized, and specialized for the performance of different functions. Some are marshaled to carry on the work of the nervous system; others to form the engines we call muscles; others, again, serve the comparatively lowly purpose of bone-levers. Instruments of incredible delicacy, the eye and the ear, are evolved; yet the whole complex mechanism of a living human body is developed from a particle of living matter smaller than the finest pinhead. Now, either these complex cells and organs were present in the pinhead to begin with, or they were not. If they were not, then they are literally new; there was, that is to say, a time when they were not, and we are entitled to say that there is more in the present state of the body than there was in its origin.

What is true of the life of the body is true also of that of the mind. Knowledge which is literally new comes into the world. An engineer knows how to build a bridge, a mathematician understands the differential calculus. Either this knowledge and this understanding are new in the sense that there was a time when no mind possessed them, or they are not. If they are not, then they existed in some form when the earth was populated by amoebas. A similar argument may be applied to any other planet upon which life has appeared, the conclusion being that there is nothing new under the sun. Thus change is unreal, since whatever is always has been, and evolution is an illusion. If they a,re new, then there was a time when the universe knew them not; in other words, they have appeared from nowhere, since there is nowhere outside the universe, and evolved out of nothing. Granted, then, that the fact of growth implies the coming into being of new elements, that there may be more in a thing’s present state than there was in its ingredients or its origin; granted further that this is true of the human mind or spirit, why should we deny its application to expressions of the human spirit, to art, for example, to science or to religion? To art and to science, indeed, we apply it readily enough; but what of religion? Why should we arbitrarily exclude religion from the operation of the laws of growth and development? For it is high time to apply these considerations to the subject of this article. Applying them, we assert that religion can no more receive an adequate interpretation in terms of its origin alone than can any other growing and developing thing. This is not to say that the interpretation in terms of origin is inappropriate, but merely that it is not complete; it is not complete because the religious consciousness is more than the ingredients from which it has emerged.

It is also more than the psychological machinery which is involved in its emergence. Psychoanalysts are fond of pointing out that religion is sublimated emotion. Primitive lusts, social maladjustments and misfits, and unacknowledged desires are mixed together in an unholy brew of which the religious consciousness is the distilled essence. The ingredients exposed, it is somehow implied that their outcome is discredited. Erroneously, for to lay bare the assorted and possibly disreputable elements of which the religious consciousness may have been compounded is not to show that they are that consciousness; the theory of sublimation, if it means anything at all, means, in fact, that they are not.

I assert that an account of the origin, the history, and the psychology of religion, interesting as it is to the anthropologist, the historian, and the psychologist, is not an account of religion, and that arguments derived from it cannot, therefore, be used to discredit or to dispose of religion. Were it not for the fears of the savage and the social maladjustments of the citizen, religion admittedly would be very different from what it is. But, originating in the stress of human need and flowering on the dunghill of human emotions, the religious consciousness rises above its origins and transcends its machinery. The mechanism, I repeat, is other than its product.

In its account of religion, and not of religion alone, psychoanalysis makes the mistake of identifying, and therefore confusing, the unconscious trends of our nature with their conscious outcrop. Unmasking the malevolence of our unconscious wishes, analysts exhibit the ingenuity with which they are sublimated to appear honorable; they succeed; but they also exhibit the efficiency with which they are sublimated so that they are indeed honorable. One day, no doubt, psychoanalysts will succeed, if they have not done so already, in reducing the sense of duty to something else, probably to something discreditable, but this would not explain away the sense of duty any more than the successful reduction of matter to electricity explains away matter, or of religion to the needs and desires of which it can be shown to be a sublimation explains away religion.

For this reason criticisms of religion urged by psychoanalysts, valid up to a point, are valueless beyond it. It is not that they are not true, but that they are incomplete.

If religion does, in fact, derive from the sources previously mentioned, if it has fulfilled the needs and served the purposes enumerated, then it still fulfills those needs and serves those purposes now. If it is the product of human fear, and the projection of human vanity, then it will still reassure man’s nervousness and flatter his egotism. But while it still sustains the role which it has sustained through the ages, it will no longer sustain that role alone. It will both do more and be more, and the “more” that it does and is will receive adequate interpretation, in so far as it can be interpretated at all, not in terms of the origin and history of religion, but in terms appropriate to its future and its goal. Admittedly, we do not know its future and we can only dimly guess its goal. But of this at least we may be sure: that in the confused complex of tendencies — social and individual, inherited and acquired, instinctive and intellectual — in the vaguely felt aspirations and the scarce acknowledged faith, the sense of spiritual loneliness and the need of spiritual communion, that go to make up’what is called religion today, there will always be present an element to which the Freudian, or the anthropological, or the social, or any similar account of the appeal and functions of religion will not only not apply, but which it will completely falsify. I say an element, but there is no need to limit my assertion to one. Religion in the past has been a rope of many strands; it is not likely to grow simple and single in the future. Let us, then, say provisionally that there are two or, perhaps, three aspects or phases of the religious consciousness which none of the subjectivist explanations in terms of the origin and past of religion can explain, and which can be understood only in terms of what religion may become. These aspects we must try to separate from the rest, and, having separated, use as the point of departure for our account of the religion of the future.

To answer the question whether religion is a permanent and necessary growth of the human spirit, and whether as such it will have a future, it is sufficient to point out that there are such aspects. Requiring interpretation in terms of the future rather than the past, it is clear that, as man advances in the path of evolution, they will become more prominent and definite than they are today. Religion, therefore, in so far as it contains them, will not die out. . . .

In conclusion, let us summarize the results at which we have arrived. When we have to deal with growing and developing things, with living organisms, with the institutions in which they are organized, and the activities in which they find expression, the explanation of their present state in terms of their origin is inadequate. This statement is true both of morals and of religion. To say that the moral consciousness arose because it promoted tribal efficiency, or that the religious consciousness arose because it promoted cosmic comfort, tells us something but not everything about the moral or the religious consciousness now. To understand them as they are now we must judge them not only by their roots but by their fruits, looking not only to what they have been, but to what they may become. The mind, in short, is Janus-like; it looks forward as well as backward, bearing upon it at any given moment traces not only of what it has been, but what it may become. . . .

The conclusion is that there is more in a complex product like the religious consciousness than can be adequately explained by a reference to its origin. This “more” will be a pointer to the future, and we must try, therefore, to disentangle it from the rest, in order to estimate the prospects of religion in the future.


1 “Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.”

From The Present and Future of Religion, by C. E. M. Joad. The Macmillan Company, publishers.


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