Anna Louise Strong.

A consideration of prayer from the standpoint of social psychology online

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is not found to ''work", or because there is a gradu-
ally growing sense of shame in connection with such
a use. These two methods of discrimination we shall

call the scientific and the ethical.


The child and the primitive man do not make such
distinctions. The prayers they use are not, from
our standpoint, the most effective means to the end
desired. Yet even here they are perhaps as effi-
cient and direct a means as any means present to the
consciousness of the child or the primitive man.
His science is as undiscriminating as his religion;
he has as yet no thorough correlation of means and
ends. And even for the adult the distinction be-
tween personal and impersonal is not at all com-
X)letely made. There are fields which are still
claimed for both concepts, — especially the field of
therapeutics. In fields of this type we occupy much
the same position as that occupied by the primitive
man in regard to all his activities. We try now one
means, now another; prayer is sometimes efficient,
sometimes not; and we do not know precisely when
or how it is going to prove efficient.

Meantime another form of discrimination is con-
stantly going on with regard to prayer. Certain
needs are seen to be the needs of a partial self,
others of the larger, unlimited ''social" self. And
when, as in the case of an ethical religion, the alter
is given the value of the highest, most inclusive self
conceivable, there arises a sense of shame in the
employment of a relation with such an alter for the
attainment of trivial ends. We shall trace the grad-
ual growth of this discrimination in the next section.

The completely discriminating forms of prayer
vary almost infinitely. But they may be conven-


iently classified accord'mg to tlie predominance in
them of one or the other of the two tendencies in
every social relation. One of these is a tendency to
take into consciousness the largest amount of social
content possible, to rest in the experience itself; the
second is the tendency to hurry as quickly as possi-
ble into action. The first of these we shall call the
contemplative or ''aesthetic" tendency; the second
the practical or "ethical" tendency.

Prayers of adoration, of meditation, of joy in the
greatness of God, come under the first head. "Thou,
Lord, art from everlasting to everlasting", is a
form of adoration in which the narrower finite self
finds joy in the contemi)lative sharing of a wider,
a mightier, an infinite life. In prayers of this type
the me aims to lose itself completely in a sympa-
thetic participation in the life of the alter,- in such
a way as to give u]) entirely all thought of an ac-
tivity or problem of its own. This form is seen, at
its extreme, in the Buddhist meditations, the aim of
which is complete forgetfulness of the finite self.
It is seen in less extreme forms in all types of j'e-
ligious-cTsthetic absorption; it is seen when the
psalmist\ after mentioning with much lamentation
his own trials, finds comfort in the fact, not that
Jehovah will deliver him, but that Jehovah is mighty
in Israel, and will ultimately win the day in the
succeeding generations. Such prayer finds its chief

iPs. 102.



end in the prayer-state, in the enlargement of the
self through the contemplative sharing of a wider
life, and in the peace, rest and joy therefrom result-

At the other extreme from this type is a form of
prayer-relation which is more exclusively practical.
Prayer is sought for assistance in some moral aim,
either for the sake of giving enough incentive to
carry the action through, or in order to furnish an
ethical test in the decision between various possi-
ble lines of action. Kant illustrates this ethical em-
phasis in prayer when he declares that religion is
useful chiefly as giving divine authority to the moral
imperative. Just beyond the position occupied by
Kant we reach the extreme at which prayer ceases
to be a recognizablv social relation, and hence ceases
to be prayer as such. We reach this extreme, as we
have previously suggested, by a loss of social con-
tent in the alter. A similar extreme may also be
reached in the case of the "aesthetic" type of prayer,
by loss of content in the me.

The prayers of the typical religious consciousness
vary between these two extremes. At the limit either
of aesthetic contemplation or of moral action, there
ceases to be any mentally recognized relation of
selves, and we find accordingly that the average re-
ligious person will deny religious content to these
extremes. Yet they are merely the limiting forms
of the same relationship observed in prayer, and


result from the exclusive emphasis on one or the
other of the two tendencies in any social relation.

We have seen, then, that prayer is a social rehi-
tion arising in consciousness, and that the result of
this relation is the establishment of a wider self.
We have seen that as the growing consciousness
learns to distinguish between personal and imper-
sonal means and ends, and between the needs of a
partial self and those of a completely social self,
these distinctions are a])])lied in the use of prayer.
And we have seen, finally, that even in the completely
discriminating type of prayer there are manifest
two tendencies, leading respectively to two extremes ,
between which ])rayers may vary infinitely. We
shall proceed to take up a general survey of the dif-
ferent forms of prayei', beginning, in section two,
with the undiscriminating reactions of the immature
consciousness, passing, in section three, to types of
])rayer in which gradual discrimination is at present
taking place, and finally, in the remaining sections,
to a consideration of the completely social forms of




Prayer is, then, as we have seen, a social relation
which has as aim the attainment of a wider, less
partial self, — a more confident self, a self more
strong to endure, a self of larger sympathies, a more


truly ethical, more completely social self. This is
the need, the ''problem" of the religious conscious-

But in the beginnings of religion, as we should
expect from the vaguer, less discriminating type of
earlier consciousness, there was no marked division
between religious needs and needs of any kind. Irv-
ing King has shown this in his thesis, "The Diifer-
entiation of the Religious Consciousness". All ac-
tivities might partake of the religious character;
none were religious in the modern sense of the term.
Ceremonies which might be called either religious or
magical or artistic, and which have indeed been
classed as all three, were performed at the recog-
nized crises of life. Birth, the attainment of ma-
turity, marriage, and death, were the recognized
crises in the life of the individual; while seed-time
and harvest or the expeditions of hunting and war-
fare marked tribal crises which demanded cere-
monial preparation of a religious nature.

What is true of primitive races in this connection
is also true of the child. The child who attaches
any really vital meaning to the term God, makes use
of that meaning in order to satisfy any need that
can possibly occur to him. This fact is somewhat
obscured, as might be expected, from the way in
which religious education is given to children. The
child may learn to repeat the conventional formula
that we must pray to God ''to make us good". But
any one who attempts to discover just what the


child means in this connection, finds a striking blank-
ness of content. The words are words and are sel-
dom exchangeable, even for other words, unless
the teacher himself has furnished one or two handy
synonyms. The child does not distinguish his re-
ligious needs from other needs. He has therefore
no specifically religious needs. He wants some-
thing, and he makes use of any and every means he
can think of; prayer is one of those means. And
prayer is a means not very alien to the general
content of his mental life, which is made up largely
of personal ideas, to be influenced in "personal"
ways. He will use in prayer the same kind of whin-
ing entreaty, or the same attempts at bargaining,
which mark his attempts to control other personal
forces. "Please, God, please let" such and such a
thing happen, or "I won't ask for anything else for
a long time if I can just have this", or "I'll do thus
and so, if you will do thus and so", are types of en-
treaty which the writer has heard in the spontaneous
parts of the evening prayers of several children.
The child in the tale who said: "Please, God. take
care of cousin Ann now, but we don't need you any
more here, for mother's come home", showed the
exact kind of need which he felt, and the exact kind
of a being which he posited to satisfy that need.
God as a person had for him the same function that
other persons, more especially one other person, had;
there was as yet no distinction between religious
needs and the other needs of life.


Nor is this state of mind confined to children. It
finds a very dogmatic expression in a certain type
of adult religious consciousness. It is here some-
times due to a rather disorganized feeling that God
should pervade all the life; yet it must not be con-
fused with the more organized, rational expression
of that same feeling which will be treated later.
There is a difference between the conscious appli-
cation of ethical and religious values to common ex-
perience, which comes after an analysis of conscious-
ness and is the result of a will to m^ake experience
ethically and religiously valuable; and the unthink-
ing confusion between religious needs and any other
kind of needs. It is only such confusion which could
lead to the attitude of mind of a revivalist whom I
heard relate the manner in which God gave him, in
answer to prayer, a particular suit of clothes which
he wanted but could not afford. He saw the sample
in the store: he haggled over the price; he decided
that he could not get it; he went away and prayed
about it ; he came back and found that a suit of the
same material had just been returned and that he
could have it for a price well within his means; he
tried it on and "by the Providence of God" it fitted.
In hearing this tale as an example of the ''way in
which God provides for all the wants of his chil-
dren", a religious person of the more completely so-
cial type is conscious of a feeling of disgust at what
seems to him irreverence; while the psychologist


notes simply the undiscriminating childisliness of
the position.

There is, then, for the immature consciousness, no
clear distinction of the j&eld in which prayer shall
be considered both effective and appropriate. So
that from the standpoint of the adult we are apt to
wonder at a blindness which could find the means
employed effective, — at least effective enough to
warrant its continued application.

We must, however, notice one thing at once, look-
ing at the matter from the standpoint of the con-
sciousness which made the prayers.

If prayer did not always prove an adequate means
to the attainment of the desired end, neither did any-
thing else. The primitive man's science was not
more efficient than his religion. He had no definitely
organized system of means and ends; if the need
was urgent he tried every kind of means he could
think of, until one of them apparently "worked."
If he distinguished between the personal and im-
personal at all, he did not distinguish so carefully
but that he felt himself able to use impersonal means
to accomplish directly personal results, and vice
versa. Thus, on the one hand, he might use a potion
to procure the love of his hesitating mistress, or
oil the other hand, he might use verbal petition
as a means of obtaining rain. The distinctions be-
tween personal and impersonal, material and spir-
itual, are distinctions which do not exist at all
levels of consciousness. They have been slowly


evolved and are even now not made with definite-
ness. Or perhaps it would be more exact to say
that in the case of some problems we have
reached a fair degree of organization in the use of
these differences, while in the case of other prob-
lems we either do not choose to raise the distinc-
tion, because other distinctions are more fruitful for
our purposes, or else we are unable to raise it, and
make it adequately definite. The discussions con-
stantly going on with regard to the amount of effect
which faith may have on bodily ailments, and, from
the other side, the amount of relief which physical
means can "minister to a mind diseased" prove
that even the most thorough generalizations of
science have given us as yet no final system of means
and ends, completely organized.

With a more primitive type of consciousness, the
organization of cause and effect was of course even
looser. When a man wanted a thing, he went through
all kinds of contortions, mental and physical, to ob-
tain it. And if he got it, he felt it necessary to go
through as many of those contortions as he could
remember, every time he wanted it again. The
omission of the most trifling accompaniment of his
first success was held to vitiate the whole perform-
ance. Thus, in the snake dance of the Moqui In-
dians, designed to bring rain, the slightest variation
from the prescribed ritual, a ritual extending over
many days, makes necessary the repetition of the
ceremony. And if the rain does not come, the most


natural conclusion is that tliore has been some un-
noticed omission of an important element. This is
the immediate conclusion in all cases in which an
expected sequence does not occur; the scientist in
his laboratory, failing to get the expected reaction,
inevitably assumes that the means he used in this
case, though apparently the same as the means used
in the case when the reaction did follow, must in
reality have varied from it in some unnoticed but
important particular. He repeats the sequence with
increased care ; so did the Indian. And the discrimi-
nation which the scientist consciously seeks and the
Indian gropes for, comes gradually to both.

The primitive lack of discrimination appeared in
many views of the cause and effect relation. Fre-
quently it is quite possible to trace the line of as-
sociation. Thus, as Josiah Tyler relates:^ "One of
the first missionaries to the Zulus was accustomed to
take his overcoat to the religious service whenever
there was a probability of rain. A drought having
come he was importuned by no means to leave be-
hind his 'rain-producing garment' ". Frequently,
moreover, the various activities associated with the
attainment of a given end, contained one or more
elements which were really significant. The Malay
preparation for an elephant hunt, which consisted in
smearing the body with four kinds of aromatic
leaves and uttering a charm in the process, luas

' Josiah Tyler, '"Forty Years Among the Zulus," p. lOG.


efficacious in destroying the scent of the approach-
ing hunters.

The same thing is true of the prayers of the child.
Prayer is one of many means he employs toward
the desired end. If he gains the end, he is not likely
to try the experiment next time of leaving out any
of the factors in his previous success in order to
satisfy a theoretical curiosity as to which factor
produced the result. The theoretical curiosity is
not so strongly developed as this would implj^ . And
the child usually does succeed, — in time, and after
he has tried enough variety of means. If he does
not succeed, it is because his attention has wandered
olf to fields and pastures new. In other words, the
times when his prayer preceded a success remain
in his mind more than the times in which his jirayer
preceded a failure, and this for the reason that the
problems which were important enough to hold his
attention were important enough to hold his efforts,
and thus eventually to reach a satisfactory solu-

So prayer is, for the immature consciousness, one
of many elements in an undiscriminating attempt
to solve a problem. It is used to obtain the satis-
faction of many kinds of desires. Sometimes it
works; sometimes it does not; for some things it
works especially well, and for others not so well.
But how is the child to know the cause of its work-
ing when it works, and the cause of its failing when
it fails, analyzing in each case the psychological ele-


ments which make the pra.yer efificacions for some
things and not for others! Such isolation of the ele-
ments of a causal seciuence, is one of the highest
achievements of an advanced science, and even as
yet has proved possible only in a limited sphere,
which sphere becomes for us, it is worth noting, oio'
sphere of the impersonal.

The beginnings of this scientific discrimination
come when the causal relation between the prayer
and the result is broken in one of two ways. Either
the prayer does not bring the result or the result
comes without the prayer. The latter of these two
events is likely to occur only in matters of little
importance. For in important matters, the experi-
ment of omitting any elements of a hitherto suc-
cessful sequence is not likelj^ to be tried. But occa-
sions come, in these important matters, when the
desired result is not forthcoming. And on such oc-
casions different sorts of experiments are tried.
The sequence may be repeated more carefully, as in
the case of the Snake dance alreadv mentioned; or
the sequence may be varied. The gods may even be
deliberately changed, if they have not given the
desired result. Thus in the case of the tutelary
deities of China, "when the sacrificial victims are
perfect, the corn in the vessels pure, the sacrifices
at their proper times, and yet there arises drought
or flood, then the tutelary spirits may be changed".^

' Faber, "Mind of Mencius," p. 72.


This is a beginning of a discrimination which takes
the form of a restriction of the place in which cer-
tain gods may be effectively used.

A similar limitation of the power of the gods is
found in the tribal nature of many of the deities.
Thus, among the Ewe-speaking peoples, the gods are
supposed to be completely "indifferent to acts of
sacrilege on the parts of Europeans, which they
avenge with death when committed by natives".^
Some such assumption has been found necessary to
account for the fact, evident enough in their experi-
ence, that the Europeans do not suffer from these
acts of sacrilege, and cannot be made so to suffer,
either through fear of the god, or through fear of
the vengeance of the priest.

A similar discrimination between the things which
God is likely to perform and those that he is not,
took place in the experience of a small boy of my
acquaintance. He had been brought up with a sense
of the extreme closeness of the relation of God to
the minute events of daily life. One day, in a fit
of exasperation he uttered the word, "Damn". He
ran into the house, terror-stricken. When he grew
calm enough to tell his tale to his mother, he added:
"I thought God was going to strike me dead, as he
used to do with people in the Bible. But he didn 't ' '.
He had begun to discriminate, and to set certain
spheres of life aside as not exposed to direct divine

^ A. B. Ellis, "Ewe-Speaking Peoples of the West Coast," p. 81.


interference. Such an experience, if the incident in
question involves a large enough part of life to make
a strong impression, might easily lead to a total
rejection of the hypothesis of any God at all, unless
he is furnished by some older person with a ready-
made distinction which answers his purpose.

But such a rejection is not likely to happen at
once. It takes an event of great emotional signifi-
cance to upset the habits already formed. There
are so many possible ways of explaining exceptions;
and their number is multiplied a hundred-fold when
personal factors enter into the problem. Moreover,
it is a psychological commonplace that that which
we expect to see is much more easily taken into our
minds than that which we do not expect, and that
which accords with our habitual methods of classi-
fication is much more easily held there than that
which does not. So it usually requires many in-
stances of God's non-interference to induce the child
to make radical changes in his point of view.

Then, too, both in the case of the primitive man
and in that of the child, there are certain types of
problem in which ])rayer has a very real effect. They
are the types which, partly on this very account and
through this very means, are distinguished later as
the social and personal problems. A Zulu exercises
certain charms against the life of a certain man; he
lets the man know of it; and the man actually does
die. For the Zulu, and we must confess for the an-
thro]iologist also, though in a different way, the


death is the result of his enemy's prayer. Cere-
monies for the sake of healing may also be classed
with those for the sake of destroying.

Besides those religious rites which produced their
effect through their influence on the mind of an-
other person, there are those which reached the de-
sired end by affecting the mind of the worshipper
himself. And here the result is even more certain.
We find accounts of it especially, in dealing with
primitive society, in the preparations for war. By
ceremonies which were as religious as anything else
the tribe did, and religious too in the same sense,
however far a war-dance may seem from religion
to the twentieth century mind, the tribe worked it-
self up to a pitch of frenzied self-confidence which
made failure almost impossible. Naturally the other
tribe might do the same. But in this case, fate was
on the side of the most "religious", granting that
the numbers were fairly equal, since they were the
most fearless and ferocious.

In the case of the child, also, discrimination comes
slowly for the same reason, namely, that prayer
seems successful in many of the cases in which he
uses it, and hence justifies itself for him. He prays
for a thing and lets his parents know of his prayer;
he gets what he prays for, as they do not want to
disappoint his faith. Or he goes to school and comes
to his first examination. He prays that he may not
fail. The calm of mental assurance produced by
such a prayer is of course the best possible guar-


antee of success. So entirely does prayer seem to
justify itself in such matters as these that I have
even known many college girls who confessed, al-
though with a little shame, that they always prayed
for success in examinations. Prayer for such things
is so efficient that when discrimination finally comes,
as it usually does in the higher types of the religious
consciousness, it is likely to be based, not on the
scientific criterion of efficiency, but on the ethical
criterion of value, which we shall next ]n-oceed to

So far, then, this much seems evident: that for
the immature consciousness there is no clear dis-
tinction between the ends for which prayer and
other religious means may ap))ropriately be em-
ployed, and those for which it may not. Nor is
there any such discrimination in the case of any
other means. And since the use of religious cere-
monies seemed to justify itself as much as the use
of any other means known, scientific discrimination,
that is, a discrimination that would restrict the re-
ligious means to a certain type of problems on the
ground of recognized inefficiency in other types,
came very si owl v.

Another form of discrimination was, however, also
taking place. Irving King, in liis thesis ^'The Dif-
ferentiation of the Religious Consciousness", speaks
of it as the discrimination between magic and re-
ligion. But this seems only one aspect of the entire
distinction between activities necessary for the at-


tainment of the widest, most social self, and those
necessary for the attainment of some partial self.

Certain needs are found to be especially import-
ant for the tribe as a whole. The ceremonies for
their attainment are performed by the entire group,
or later by a priest or medicine man representing

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Online LibraryAnna Louise StrongA consideration of prayer from the standpoint of social psychology → online text (page 2 of 7)