Anna Louise Strong.

A consideration of prayer from the standpoint of social psychology online

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the gronp. And these ceremonies receive the au-
thority and social reinforcement of the group. They
are group-activities. The gods to whom they appeal
are the ''high gods" of a tribe, and care for the
tribe's interests. The members of the tribe have,
however, desires which do not concern the good of
the group and which may even be hostile to the wel-
fare of some other member. In these desires they
do not receive the authority and social reinforce-
ment of the group. In other words, they cannot
appeal to the gods who care for the tribe; they
cannot make use of the ritual and prayer in which
the tribe takes part as a whole.

Thus there arises a distinction between the wider
social ends, attained by the religious rites of the
tribe, and the narrower ends of individual desires.
The former of these are the ends which with later
discrimination come to be known as ethical and re-
ceive the authoritative sanction of the ethical re-
ligions. For the latter there are two ways open.
They seek their fulfillment either through perform-
ances which become recognized as "magical" and
so inimical to the purpose of the more "social" re-
ligion, or through the creation of lesser gods who


are not so indifferent to individual desires as are the
gods of the tribe, and who may therefore be bribed
for individual ends. These methods ran into each
other; ''magical" practices of all kinds are carried
on in connection with the lesser gods; and on the
other hand, one religion is apt to stioinatize as
"magic" the dealings with gods of other religions.
Thus the early Christians did not deny reality to
the gods of Greece and Rome, but considered thorn
demons whom it was unlawful to worship.

These two methods of supplying the individual
with satisfaction for his more partial ends, while
not absolutely distinguished, are yet in some par-
ticulars different. The use of magic has always im-
})lied a distinct conflict with the religious authority
of the time. The attitude of the author of I Samuel
toward Saul's consultation of the Witch of Endor'
and that of the Middle Ages toward the black art
are examples of this. Saul could no longer obtain
the favor of the god of his people; he resorted to
magic. And magic was a distinct affront to the re-
ligion of his nation.

The second method, the method of polytheism, is
found in connection with less ethical religions, and
does not imply a moral affront to the chief gods of
the people. It seems more a matter of economic
convenience that the gods who care for the interests
of the whole tribe should not be bothered with small

I Samuel 28.


affairs. Thus Hirata, the exponent of Shintoism,
writes :^

''The gods are not to be annoyed by greedy peti-
tions, for the Mikado offers up petitions daily for
his people, which are far more effectual than those
of his subjects." Many religions contain the con-
ception of a god too high to be of use in the affairs
of men, supplemented by a host of lesser gods who
serve the needs of the day. Such is the Shang-Ti
of the Chinese, who is worshipped by the emperor
alone, but who is supplemented by local deities, an-
cestral spirits, domestic gods, and gods of particular
callings. Such is also Mawu, the chief god among
the Ewe-speaking peoples on the west coast of
Africa, who, A. B. Ellis declares,- is ignored by the
natives as too great and distant; for "to the native
mind, a god that works no evil to man and is indif-
ferent to his welfare", as this high god of the sId.^
is supposed to be on account of his greatness, ''is
one that it would be a work of supererogation to ap-
pease, while there are so many others who either
work evil and have to be appeased or are special
guardians and have to be lauded". It is worth
noting that the natives commonly identify the new
god of the Tuissionaries with this Mawu, and take the
message of the missionary as meaning in essence
that Mawu does really interfere in the affairs of men
and hence requires worship. When this claim is ap-

• Qr.otod in Griffis. "The Rolifjions of .Japan." p. 87.

■ A. B. Ellis. "Ewe-Speaking Peoples of the West Coast," p. 34.


l)arently contradicted by the results of their ex-
perience in trying to get certain favors from Mawu,
they are apt to relapse into their former belief in
his indifference. They have simply added a god
to the number of gods they must placate, and then
dropped him again after due trial. Thej^ have not
in such cases reached any more developed stage of
religious consciousness by any careful distinction
of the place of God in experience.

Psychologically, a religion of many gods for the
many different desires gives extreme emi)hasis to
the element of difference in the selves constantly
arising in the stream of consciousness, but fails to
give any emphasis on the side of unity. Psycho-
logically it is correct to say that there is a diiferent
self for every new locality and every new kind of
crisis. Whether it is equally correct to give a re-
ligious value to all of these selves is a matter of
ethics rather than of psychology. Ethically the criti-
cism of such a type of religion would be that it
focussed attention on and gave religious value to
activities indii^'ereiit or even hostile to the highest
social ends.

For these lesser deities are not, in most cases,
used for moral support and encouragement; they
are used for all sorts of trivial ends, even less worthy
than the afore-mentioned coat of the revivalist. And
they are so used with more logical justification than
in the case of the revivalist. For the conce])tion of
a Ood univei'sal enough to be vitally interested in


the fate of all men, would naturally operate to ex-
clude foolish and irrelevant petitions. It may, as
in the case of the Ewe-speaking peoples already
noticed, entirely remove petition to and interest in
such a god. Or, if the idea of God has sufficient
vitality, the prayer mfxy remove for the time being
the desire for the trivial things for which the peti-
tioner feels it foolish to pray. But, at any rate,
such a conception identifies religion with the ethical
side of man's nature, the more inclusive social side.

But in the case of the lesser gods of a polytheistic
religion there is no such ethical appeal. x\nd this is
just because they are identified with the needs of a
small particular self out of the many selves which
make up the individual. Hence while the so-called
ethical religions change their conception of God with
the developing conception of society, always striv-
ing to find the highest unity, the most inclusive so-
cial self, the worship of many minor deities misses
the powerfully compelling ethical force of a wide
social self and finds in its connection with immediate
desires an emotional and psychological compensa-
tion for this loss.

In the case of a child brought up under the influ-
ence of an ethical religion, this discrimination ar-
rives more easily, being given to it largely ready-
made. It may even come so early that the other
kind of discrimination, the scientific, never arises
at all. Thus the child may cease to pray for '^ma-
terial" objects not because he finds that his prayer


is useless, but because even before maldng that dis-
covery he comes to have a sense of shame in *' both-
ering God with such little things". This is the
explanation of the shame felt by tlie college girls
already mentioned in their prayer for success in
examinations. The prayer "worked" beautifully;
the criticism of its use was not scientific but ethical.

Other girls have told the writer that they some-
times prayed for success in athletic contests. But
here the ethical criticism came still more forcibly
into play. They were demandinsi:, at least implicitly,
the defeat of another. And they had not the sublime
confidence of David which could assume that the god
of battles was inevitably on his side. As one girl
said: "I don't dare ask any more that the other
team mav be beaten, but I ask that our team mav
play its best, and," with a slight laugh, "I guess I
rather hope the other team will forget to ask."

The same attitude of ethical discrimination came
out in a discussion with another girl concerning the
eflficacy of prayer. ''T have asked for all kinds of
things," she said, *'and T have usually got them, as
far as I remember, but T always feel so horribly
ashamed afterwards to think that T bothered God
with such t]-ifles. T don't do it much now." Dis-
crimination had apparently come in her case, not
because of a recognized inadequacy of prayer in any
department of life, but because with moral growth
there came a sense of shame in the use of a social
relation as means to a trivial end.


St. Teresa admirably illustrates the attitude takeu
by the developed religious consciousness towards
such trivial petitions, — trivial from the ethical point
of view: "I laugh and grieve," she says, "at the
things people come to ask our prayers for. The}"
should rather beg of God that he would enable them
to trample such foolery under their feet.'" Never-
theless she finds a value in their turning to God, even
under such circumstances. So her convent accepts
the prayers and offers them, though "I am per-
suaded our Lord never heard me in these matters,
— for persons even request us to ask His Majesty
for money and revenues".

With this ethical distinction between the things
which may properly be asked and those which may
not, we naturally pass to the consideration of the
more discriminating t>^es of prayer. Ethically, this
attitude points to a clearer and higher conception
of the moral ideal ; practically, it undoubtedly means
the loss of a certain power which might produce
results. For the ethical and the scientific discrim-
inations do not exactly coincide here. Practically,
prayer and the confidence resulting therefrom would
be of very distinct use in the winning of a basket-
ball game; but the ethically developed consciousness
would be very careful in making such a use of it.
This loss of practical power mav doubtless be com-
pensated by a growth in self-confidence due to a

^ St. Teresa, "The Way of Perfection," p. 4.


more intimate and organized knowledge of the means
needed for the desired resnlt; — in the examination,
by a conscious realization of the value of calm and
confidence and by a consciously acquired self-control,
and in the game, by a conscious realization of the
need of courage and self-reliance and the application
of that knowledge.

Whether the loss is made good or not, the fact
remains that in all cases in which a desired result
may be obtained by an effect on the individual con-
cerned, prayer is a means of decided efficiency. And
this leads to the discussion of the more discriminat-
ing types of prayer, in which the use of prayer as
a means is gradually limited to just this kind of an



"VVe have said that prayer is a social relation be-
tween two selves arising simultaneously in con-
sciousness, having for its end the establishment of
a wider, more complete self. This definition has not
seemed to hold entirely in the case of the immature
consciousness, because, with more mature discrim-
ination, we no longer identify our "selves" with
the type of things there prayed for. There has been
a progressive limitation of the field to which the
imaginative social process may apply. Yet, even
for the adult consciousness, the line between the
personal and the impersonal is a shadowy one. So,


although as we saw at the close of the last section,
prayer is gradually confined, as the worshipper be-
comes more discriminating, to the establishment of
a completer self, yet there are several types of
prayer more or less widely employed at the present
day, which lie on the border between the primitive
prayers and the completely social prayers. Some
of these were mentioned at the close of the last sec-
tion, bnt they are varied and numerous enough to
deserve special consideration before we turn to the
prayers which confessedly aim at the development
of a self. For the prayers to be next considered do
not, from one standpoint, aim at such a development.
They are rather prayers for so-called "objective"
results. Among them may be counted the prayers
of those suppliants already noticed, whose material
petitions St. Teresa bewailed, declaring with a scien-
tific skepticism rather remarkable in a woman noted
for her reliance on prayer: "I am persuaded my
Lord never heard me in such matters. ' "

In an article by F. 0. Beck,- dealing with the re-
sults of a questionnaire on the subject of prayer,
only five per cent of the respondents, all of whom
habitually prayed, claimed that "objective" answers
to prayer, that is, answers which affected conditions
outside the subject, were possible. This is very
instructive, as showing the extent to which the re-
ligious consciousness is willing to confine the results

^ "The Way of Perfection." p. 4.

- Amer. Jour, of Rel. Psych, and Education, I, 1906, p. 107.



of prayer to an effect ii])on the individual who prays.
If the respondents had been children, without doubt
a greater proportion would have been observed.
Yet this doubt in the objectivity of prayer-answers
is not due to a general decrease of l>elief in the
efficacy of prayer, on account of numerous trials
which have failed. For most of the respondents, to
judge from the answers given, were people of strong
religious conviction. The doubt rei)resents rather,
as we have maintained, a gradual distinction of the
field in which prayer may appropriately be applied
as a means.

Even in the cases referred to as objective answers
to prayer, we shall see that there was a social rela- \/

tion employed as means and a social end attained.
But while the social nature of the means was recog-
nized, the social nature of the end was not so recog-
nized. The result was said to have taken place in
the world ''outside the self". We shall see, how-
ever, that this supposition is due to lack of psycho-
logical analysis. The result took place first in a
social form, producing a new self, which had there-
fore inevitably a new environment.

We have already noticed, in the case of the exam-
ination and the basket-ball game, one division of
such prayers, — those in w^hich a more confident self
was established. There are other cases which come
under this head. And we must notice that in the
attainment of any end, the part played by confidence
is enormous. First in its effect on the person con-


cerned, next in its effect upon others. We call to
mind the case of George Miiller,' and others like
him, who let the Christian world know of their needs,
of the missionary character of their work, and of
their complete dependence on prayer to furnish all
their necessities. The fact of their trust makes the
strongest kind of an appeal, — not only their trust in
God, but also in the willingness of the Christian
world to help. Such confidence it is almost impos-
sible to disappoint. Even in cases in which the
external knowledge of the prayer is lacking, confi-
dence, in its direct effect upon the person concerned
and its indirect effect through him on others, is the
strongest assurance of success.

In addition to the fact that prayer induces a sub-
jective attitude well qualified to bring about new
objective results, it also induces an attitude ready
to interpret to its own end those results which it did
not bring about. Sensations from without can only
come into a consciousness prepared to receive them
and can only be arranged in the forms which that
consciousness furnishes. This is of course a com-
monplace both in philosophy and psychology'.
Events which to one mind will be interpreted in
scientific terms will to another be interpreted in
aesthetic, to another in religious terms. Thus Rob-
ert Lyde, an Englishman who lived in the good old
days when God was a god of battles and favored

' "The Life of Trust : Being a Narrative of the Lord's Dealing^
with George Miiller." New Amer. edi., Crowell, New York.


individual ]^arties, makes a religious statement of
events which a modern writer would relate from an
entirely different standpoint. He tells of an en-
counter with two Frenclimen in which one of them
lifted a weapon against him:^ "Through God's
wonderful providence it either fell out of his hand
or he let it drop. And at this time the Almighty
God gave me strength enough to take one man and
throw him at the other's head," — thus effectually
disposing of both. A ])erfectly coherent account of
an incident, in terms which, however foreign to our
method of organization of the same facts, are never-
theless true for their own particular purpose, — that
of giving an account of exactly what happened to
the consciousness and experience of the man Robert

But it is not only in the terms used that the sub-
jective attitude affects the material received into
consciousness. There may be a vital difference in
the effect and use of the same material. To a per-
son confidently expecting the intervention of a good
God in certain difficulties, and a person expecting
the worst possible outcome, or merely doubting what
the outcome may be, the same objective stimuli may
be })roductive of widely differing results. When a
person goes through the world, as does the char-
acter in a modern novel, ''The Dawn of a Tomor-
row", in the confident expectation of "Good's com-

* Arber's English Garland. Vol. 7, p. 440.


ing, good's coining", and the firm determination
to interpret whatever happens as good, or at least
as possessing the potentialities of good, if she can
make use of them; her prayer for "good things"
is certain to be answered, as far as her own inter-
pretation of her life is concerned, and that is, in the
last analysis, all we have to deal with here. He
who can sav with Marcus Aurelius : ' ' Oh, Universe,
all that Thou wishest, I wish," is quite certain to
obtain his wishes. But this is carrying us away
already from the use of prayer for definite external
objects into the conscious applica.tion of it in the
attainment of a larger self.

Prayers which reach their end through the estab-
lishment of a strongly confident self will be taken up
again in the consideration of the more highly ethical
prayers, where the confidence is in matters purely
ethical. Here we will next consider a type of cases
in which the effect of the prayer relation is not a
general expansion of the self in the manner just
considered, but an increase of the power of the self
along some very specific line. The relation arising
between the me, or self of immediate desire, and the
alter, which is in this case a temporarilj^ dissociated
part of the stream of consciousness, brings to the
solution of the problem associations which the me
was incapable of arousing.

One incident will show the type of prayer here
meant. A college girl related this experience to the
writer: She had lost her physics note-book and


the time of examination was approaching. She let
it go till the last minute, ho])ing to tind it. Then
being in some concern, she made it a matter of
prayer, saying: "If it is Yonr will that I try the
examination without this book as a punishment for
my carelessness, very well ; I will do my best that
way. But it wouUl make things much easier if T
could find it," She immediately felt an im])ulse to
go to n certain store in the village. She reasoned
with herself, saying: "I haven't been there for
over a month. 1 remember distincth^ the last time
I was there and that was before I lost the book."
The imjiulse continued, and taking it as an answer
to her i)rayer, she went. As she entered, a clerk
approached her with the book, saying: "You left
this here ten days ago, and T could not send it, not
knowing your address." Then and not till then the
memory of a s})ecial visit made to the store by an
unusual road, flashed across her mind. But that
memory had been latent all the time in the subcon-
scious activities of her self, ])otent enough to induce
action, but not strong enough to come to conscious-
ness in the shape of definite recollection. The fact
that the impulse appeared with the relinquishment
of the conscious striving is also significant as show-
ing a characteristic of subconscious action. Tt is
like the remembering of a name ])y giving up the
strenuous effort for it or the attainment of sleep
by ceasing the arduous pursuit of it. These latter
achiovoments arc not given a religious sanction, but


the psychological process is the same. The strenu-
ously striving self of momentary desire and the self
of long-established habit are the two selves con-
cerned in this relation. But the two selves are not
completely connected, hence the appearance of mu-
tual isolation. In this case, however, a conscious
and reflective connecting of the two selves as part
of one self followed in the recollection which came
after the girl had entered the store. Such a con-
scious establishment of connection does not always

In the history of prayer there are probably many
cases of the kind just described, in which a mere re-
liance on the laws of subconscious activity does the
work, and in which the alter is not necessarily of
any higher ethical value than the me. For the self
to which petition is made for specific objective ends
of a material kind is not necessarily the highest
moral self. It is never, in fact, upon its high moral
aspects that the emphasis is being laid at the time
of petition. It is merely a more powerful, more
adequate self upon which the me relies. It is, in
the cases just mentioned, the self of organized habit
in relation to some particularly desired event. We
should hesitate to call it "the subconscious self",
lest we should seem to postulate some continuously
existing being containing in itself all organized hab-
its and containing them all equally. It is rather a
self made up, not of all organized habits, but of
certain particular organized habits. Which habits


these are, which part of the subconscious activities
here function together as a self, depends on the par-
ticuhir problem in hand.

One more large department of prayer must be
noted, before we pass to a consideration of the com-
pletely social type, — the use of prayer for the cure
of disease. We might indeed consider this use of
prayer as coming under the completely social type,
in which prayer is recognizably used for the estab-
lishment of a wider self. In that case we should
be considering disease as an affection of the "self",
and the end to be achieved through prayer as per-
fect "wholeness" in eveiy particular. Bnt there is
in this field so much confusion between the use of
"self" to designate the entire psycho-physical or-
ganism and its use for an organization of purposes
and desires quite sharply discriminated from the
"body", that it seems best to treat these cases by
themselves, as cases in which the distinctions of
personal and impersonal means and personal and
impersonal ends are not yet clearly made.

Prayer for the cure of disease has been almost
universally practised in primitive religions. This
is not remarkable, since ])rayer, including under
this head ceremony as well as verbal statement, was
used for ever>^ variety of crisis. Nor is it surpris-
ing that prayer should have been used for this pur-
pose long after its undiscriminating application to
many other kinds of problems ceased; for this is a
more unusual problem and one less susceptible, in


the state of primitive science, of coming under uni-
form treatment. But that prayer should have con-
tinued to our own day as a recognized means of
treatment for physical ills, is somewhat more re-
markable, and would seem to indicate some closer
causal connection than one is apt to assume at first
sight. Luther^ believed in prayer for the sick; he
reports that it had in his own experience saved
three lives, his own, his wife's and a friend's, at a
time when they were ''nigh unto the very gates of
death", St. Augustine^ reports the cure of a tooth-
ache. Almost every religious leader who has, as all

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Online LibraryAnna Louise StrongA consideration of prayer from the standpoint of social psychology → online text (page 3 of 7)