James Henry Leuba.

The belief in God and immortality; a psychological, anthropological and statistical study online

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A Psychological, Anthropological
and Statistical Stud-g


Professor of Psychology in Bryn Mawr College

Author of " A Psychological Study of Religion ;

its Origin, Function and Future."





291 vS4 A

Copyright, 191C

Copyright, 1921

Open Court Publishing Co.





God, the soul, and immortality constitute, accord-
ing to general opinion, the great framework of re-
ligion. In an earlier book I have considered the
origin, the nature, the function, and the future of
the belief in what I have called "personal" gods.
The present volume is, in the main, a similar study
of the belief in personal immortality. Chapters one
to five treat of the origin, the nature, and the func-
tion of that belief. They show in particular that
two quite different conceptions of personal immor-
tality have been successively elaborated; and that
the modern conception is not a growth from the
primary belief, but an independent creation, differ-
ing radically from it in point of origin, in nature,
and in function. Whereas the primary belief was
forced upon men irrespective of their wishes as an
unavoidable interpretation of certain patent facts
(chiefly, probably, the apparition of deceased per-
sons in dreams and in visions), the modern belief
was born of a desire for the realization of ideals.
The first came to point to an exclusively wretched
existence, and prompted men to guard against the
possible danger to them arising from ghosts; the
second contemplated from the first endless continua-
tion in a state of completed or increased perfection,
and incited the living to ceaseless efforts in order to
make themselves fit for that blessed consummation.

The effort that has been made to justify at the
bar of reason the modern belief in immortality by



providing metaphysical proofs of it, is considered
in chapter five. From a survey of these "proofs"
it is evident that the longer v^e strive to demonstrate
its truth, the more obvious becomes our failure. We
shall see that even firm believers in immortality
have had to come to this opinion.

Deductive reasoning having failed, an attempt
is now being made to demonstrate personal immor-
tality by methods acceptable to science. This effort
— mainly the work of the Society for Psychical Re-
search — is summarily described and appraised in
the last chapter of Part I.

It would of course be most helpful, both to scien-
tific students of religion and to ministers of it, did
there exist definite information regarding the pres-
ent diffusion of cardinal religious beliefs among the
civilized nations. Heretofore most divergent opin-
ions have prevailed ; and it has been possible neither
to prove nor to refute them, since the statistics of
belief so far attempted have no actual statistical
value whatever. In Part II, the present status in the
United States of the beliefs in God and immortality
is shown as it appears from extensive statistical
inquiries in which the usual fatal defects of statisti-
cal researches in the field of religious beliefs have
been avoided. These inquiries have yielded results
of considerable significance; we are now for the
first time in a position to make certain definite state-
ments, valid for entire groups of influential persons,
namely, college students, physical scientists, biolo-
gists, historians, sociologists and economists, and
psychologists. We have been able not only to com-



pare these groups with each other but also the lower
classes of students with the higher, and the more
eminent persons of the other groups with the less
eminent. It appears, with incontrovertible evi-
dence, that in each one of these groups the more dis-
tinguished fraction includes by far the smaller
number of believers. This, taken in connection with
a study of the factors of belief, leads to important
conclusions regarding the causes of disbelief. I
hope that despite the widespread and, I must admit,
on the whole justifiable distrust of statistics of be-
lief, no reader will pass a summary judgment upon
mine until he has examined them with some care.

The numerous and extraordinarily varied com-
ments made by those who answered the author's
questionnaire, as well as by those who refused to
answer it, provide data of especial value for the psy-
chology of belief and for an understanding of the
present situation of the Christian religion. Not only
in Part II, but throughout the book, I have cited
typical, concrete instances in profusion. By thus
following a practice common in descriptive sciences,
I have, I trust, kept close to reality and avoided the
theoretical and empty character from which so
many works on religion suffer.

In a third and last part are presented certain
facts and considerations bearing upon the utility of
the beliefs in a personal God and in immortality,
from which it appears that, so far at least as the
United States and other equally civilized countries
are concerned, the enormous practical importance
customarily ascribed to these beliefs does not



correspond to reality. Since the study of origins
and motives shows that the attributes which
make gods and life after death precious to mankind
are derived from social experience, it is evident that
the loss of these beliefs would involve the loss not of
anything essential, but only of a particular method
(that of the present religions) of maintaining and
increasing among men certain values created and
discovered in social intercourse. What the real
losses would be, and whether they might be compen-
sated or even turned to gain, constitute the chief
topics of the concluding section.

It is often urged that studies of origins and mo-
tives do not yield information bearing upon the
probable truth of beliefs. This opinion should be
corrected. When the methods of philosophy are im-
potent to determine " truth," our only recourse is
to a verification by experience, as in the case of
scientific hypotheses, and to a study of origins and
motives. There are circumstances where acquaint-
ance with the origin of a belief bring down to a

vanishing point the probability of its truth.


A word of explanation is probably necessary in
order to prevent misunderstanding of the scope of
this study. My investigation of immortality bears
upon " personal immortality " only. I take this
term in its ordinary acceptation, i. e., as meaning
a continuation after death (with or without body)
of the consciousness of personal identity. Similarly,
I am concerned, as in my earlier book, only with
that conception of the divine which I have qualified



by the term " personal." My purpose does not
oblige me to define the meaning I attach to that
difficult word when applied to gods, further than to
say that it designates beings with whom can be
maintained the relations implied in all the historical
religions in which a God or gods are worshipped,
i. e., direct intellectual and affective relations. A
personal God as here understood is therefore not
necessarily an anthropomorphic, but certainly an
anthropopathic being.

Few words are used in as wide and ill-defined a
meaning as " god," for few are willing to forego the
prestigeous advantage belonging to its use; and so
it has come to pass that a term owing its primary
meaning to its connection with historical religions
has come to be used in another meaning. The con-
ception of Ultimate Reality as it is found in the phi-
losophy of Absolute Idealism, and by it called God,
is no more adequate to the expectations of any ex-
isting form of worship than the alchemist's con-
ception of matter is adequate to the work of modern
science.' The confusion of these two meanings
should not be tolerated, not even though it should
prove impracticable to limit the use of the term
" god " to its original significance. That this con-
fusion is in fact tolerated, and even, it seems, en-

^ That the gods of metaphysics are not the gods of re-
ligion, is clearly acknowledged by Arthur Balfour in his last
book (Theism and Humanism, Gifford Lectures for 1914,
page 35, 36). I quote: "It is God according to religion,
and not the God according to metaphysics, whose being I
wish to prove. . . . When I speak of God, I mean some-
thing other than an Identity wherein all differences vanish,
or a Unity which includes but does not transcend the differ-
ences which it somehow holds in solution. I mean a God



couraged, is not due only to the lack of a sufficently
clear realization of the essential difference existing
between the gods of the historical religions and the
** gods " of metaphysics, but in an equal measure
perhaps to an unwillingness to admit an unwelcome
truth. There are devoted Christians who appar-
ently prefer living in intellectual dishonesty to rec-
ognizing that the God whom they worship has no
existence in their philosophy.

It hardly need be said here that the abandonment
of the belief in a personal God and in personal im-
mortality, though it involved the disappearance of
the existing religions, need not bring to an end re-
ligious life. Religion is not to be identified with its
present forms. The faith of the ancient Hebrews,
which looked only to the continuation of the nation,
refutes sufficiently the opinion according to which
the immortal individual soul is a tenet necessary to
all religions. While original Buddhism, which de-
nies the existence of a personal God, and Comte's
Religion of Humanity, which includes among its
articles of faith neither personal God nor soul,
demonstrate the possible independence of religion
from the belief in a personal God. The sources of
religious life, its fundamental realities, lie deeper

whom men can love, a God to whom men can pray, who takes
sides, who has purposes and preferences, whose attributes,
however conceived, leave unimpaired the possibility of a per-
sonal relation between Himself and those whom He has cre-

For a demonstration of the correctness of this distinction,
see chapter XI, especially pages 245 to 254, of my earlier
book, A Psychological Study of Religion; Its Origin, Function
and Future. — Macmillan, 1912.



than the conceptional forms in which they find ex-

To regard this book as merely destructive because
it offers no sufficient ground for belief in immor-
tality, and because the statistics presented demon-
strate an alienation from beliefs present in all the
historical religions (Comtism and original Buddh-
ism excepted) and provide reasons for anticipating
a continuous decrease of these beliefs, would be to
overlook its essential results, namely, the analysis
both of the fundamental motives and of the sec-
ondary causes which have led to the formation of
the primary belief in immortality, to its subsequent
displacement by the modern belief, and which at
the present time prompt many of those most sensi-
tive to moral values to seek elsewhere than in the
continuation of the identity of the Ego the satisfac-
tion of spiritual needs. To uncover the deeper
sources from which spring the varied forms of our
religious life, even w^hen this involves laying bare
the uncertainty or inadequacy of old and widely ac-
cepted convictions, cannot with justice be character-
ized as a merely destructive performance. Rather
should it be regarded, from a practical point of view,
as tending to accomplish a threefold good: the de-
liverance of man from a devitalizing fear of imagi-
nary disastrous consequences that are to attend the
loss of these beliefs; his inspiration with renewed
confidence in the reliability of the forces by which
he feels himself urged onward, however ignorant of
their nature he may otherwise be; and his enrich-



ment with information useful for the wise guidance
of his efforts at reconstructions when reconstruction
shall have appeared imperative.

Parts II and III may be read independently of
Part I, but the full weight of the investigation will
not be felt by those who have omitted the first part.

I take pleasure in acknowledging here the valu-
able assistance received from Miss Edith Orlady in
the preparation of this book.



The first edition of this book, published in 1916
by Sherman, French & Co., was exhausted in the
course of a little more than a year. That firm hav-
ing gone out of business, the Open Court Pub-
lishing Company have undertaken the publication
of the new edition. The book remains practically
what it was; the changes that have been made are
few and none of them of much importance.

9fC «)C SjC •(* ^ n* V

My main purpose in writing this second preface
is to remove two misunderstandings. It seems,
however, worth while to append brief notes upon the
reception given to this book, for they indicate with
some precision how far we are from having achieved
the degree of intellectual freedom on which we com-
monly pride ourselves. Even among men devoted to
the advancement of science, the weight of tradition
remains a powerful hindrance to the quest and the
diffusion of religious knowledge.

The first of the misunderstandings to which I
have alluded, arose about the main generalization
of Part I. I attempted there to demonstrate that,
leaving the Hindoo world out of reckoning, there
are two conceptions of survival after death that
differ radically from each other both with regard
to their origin and their function. The older — the
Primary — is apparently universal among non-civil-
ized societies; the other — the Modern — took shape



when and where the Primary belief was dying out,
It was dying out at the beginning of the historical
period among the nations established around the
eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea.

The motives that led to the appearance of the
Primary Conception of survival are experiences
having for the savage the validity of ordinary sense
perception ; he sees, hears, and *' feels " the presence
of ghosts. His belief in them is not, therefore, the
product of aversion to annihilation and of yearn-
ings for moral self-realization; that man survives
as a ghost is a fact accepted by him on the same
kind of ground as the existence of natural objects.
Quite otherwise was it with the origin of the Mod-
ern Conception ; it had to be won out of the depths
of man's moral experience; it is a child of craving
for rationality, for justice, and for happiness.

Neither the reality nor the importance of this
distinction between a Primary and a Modern Con-
ception of continuation after death has been de-
nied; but some of my critics were of the opinion
that I have emphasized unduly the difference when
I have described it as " radical ". According to
them, I have not given sufficient recognition to cer-
tain motives for belief that are common to the two
forms ; for instance, the desires for the continuation
of a sympathetic relation with the departed and for
one's own happiness in the future life. These critics
have forgotten, it seems, that under the heading
'* The Life of Ghosts and Their Relation to the Liv-
ing; the Primary Paradise " (pp. 15-24, especially 20



ff), I have described and illustrated, briefly it is
true but quite definitely, the presence among some
savages of these very motives, i. e., of motives of the
Kmd to which the Modern belief owes its origin. I
did not affirm that these two classes of motives —
pseudo-perceptions or deductions from observed
facts and moral yearnings — had never been present
together so as to produce a composite conception.
On the contrary, I drew attention to the paradisiacal
elements in certain primitive beliefs in the here-
after. But I insisted that these two kinds of motives
are entirely different in nature, that they need not
be present together, and that as a matter of fact the
Primary motives gave to the early conception its
dominant character.

I had also to take into account an historical fact
of great significance, namely, the final form assumed
by the early belief in survival after death among the
nations from which the western world has derived
its civilization, i. e., the nations situated around the
eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, Egypt, Baby-
lonia, Palestine, and Greece. At the beginning of
the historical period, before the Modern Conception
had taken shape, the hereafter was pictured among
these nations as the abode of inactive, ineffective,
and unhappy shades. With them, the living main-
tained no sympathetic relation whatsoever; dread
or repugnance only was felt by the living for the
fate in store for them. There is, thus, incontroverti-
ble evidence that in so far as the countries in which
the Modern Conception arose are concerned, the
influence of desire upon the idea of the hereafter,



apparent here and there among savages, was finally
eliminated ; and that the conception of the future life
became the expression exclusively of what I have
called the Primary motives. It does not therefore
seem an exaggeration to describe as '* radical '' the
difference in origin and in function existing between
the repulsive and depressing Primary belief and the
glorious and inspiring Modern belief.


The second explanation I wish to make refers to
the statements of belief in God and immortality
used in preparing the statistics. If these statements
brought out the facts ivhich they were intended to
bring out, they must be regarded as adequate. That
they did not bring out other facts is irrelevant,
however important these other facts might be. I did
not want to find out what proportion of the mem-
bers of the several classes selected for investigation
(American physical scientists, biological scientists,
historians, sociologists, psychologists, and college
students of non-technical departments) believed in
the Absolute of Bradley or in that of Royce, or in
Bergson's Elan Vital, or in RashdalPs limited God,
or in any other of the God-conceptions known to
philosophers. Had I entertained that purpose, I
should have failed; for, probably not one in a hun-
dred of the men belonging to the classes named
would have been in a position to answer the finely
discriminating questions that would have been nec-
essary. My purpose had reference not to philosophy
but to religion as it actually exists among us in its
organized forms; i. e., I desired to determine with



some degree of accuracy the percentages of believ-
ers and of non-believers (disbelievers and doubters)
in personal immortality and in a God able and, under
certain undetermined conditions, willing to act upon
man or nature or both, at man's desire, request,
or in accordance with his desert.

The profound significance to the existing religions
of the statistical inquiry reported in Part II of this
book needs no demonstration. Christian worship,
in all its varieties, the Unitarian not excepted, im-
plies the direct, intellectual and affective communi-
cation of man with God, in the definite form which
communication takes between man and man : i. e.,
an exchange of ideas and feelings and an expression
of desires and intentions accompanied by the con-
viction that God may grant request or desire,
whether it be a change of weather, a cure of disease,
or a deliverance from moral evil. Abandonment of
that direct personal relation would so materially
transform the existing religions as to make them
unrecognizable. It would usher in a new epoch in
the religious history of mankind. If this be true,
the statistics point indeed to things momentous.

What form religion can take when this personal
relation with God is given up, is not one of the prob-
lems I set myself to answer. Some hints may be
found, however, in my earlier volume and in Part
III of the present one. An increasing number of
religious leaders, writing from what they regard as
the " Christian " point of view, are as a matter of
fact endeavoring to formulate a religion in which




the traditional Christian God is exchanged for a
God-belief in agreement with present knowledge.
The practices of minimizing differences, accentuat-
ing agreements, and of pouring new wine into old
bottles — practices that have always been approved
as strategically valuable — leaves the average church
attendant unaware of the distance to which these
leaders have really strayed from established creeds
and worship. It is not apparent that the leaders
themselves realize their position. Because their
new view leaves standing the Christian virtues, they
speak as if no essential change had taken place in
their religion and as if none need take place in their
worship ! Such a person is a Unitarian minister who
declared, in a published address inspired by these
statistics, that *' the popular conception of * direct '
answer to prayer " is " no test of the Christian faith
of the present day ". He may be right in that
affirmation ; many make it. But then, why continue
the use of prayer books and hymnologies, every line
of which implies the ** popular conception " ?

Professor James B. Pratt does not misrepresent
Professor Ames in writing, " I fear the religious
reader of The Psychology of Religious Experience *
will find cold comfort after all when he learns that
the only God who exists is just human society's
longings and ideals and values, and that He cannot
even mean anything more than that '\ ' For Pro-
fessor Ames, religion is " the consciousness of the

A book by Professor Edward Scribner Ames.
The Religious Consciousness, p. 208.



highest social values *\ Social-mindedness is re-
ligious mindedness. " All moral ideals are relig-
ious in the degree in which they are expressions of
great vital interests of society." " It would be no
exaggeration to say that all ceremonies in which
the whole group co-operates with keen emotional
interests are religious/' ' To use " religion '' in
that way is to transform its meaning beyond all

Professor Pratt's own opinion may be gathered
from these words, " Objective worship of the sort
that aims to please the Deity is a thing of the past.
The modern man cannot even attempt to participate
in it without conscious hypocrisy." Nevertheless,
according to him, objective worship remains pos-
sible in the form of '' reverence, combined perhaps
with consecration and a suggestion of communion,
which most thoughtful men must feel in the pres-
ence of the Cosmic forces and in reflecting upon
them. Such was the attitude of Spinoza and Her-
bert Spencer." ' Is reverence for the Cosmic forces
the emotional attitude that inspired the creeds and
the prayer books? Did Spinoza and Spencer find it
possible to join in the accepted Christian public
worship? We are here far away from Christian

Other distinguished writers on the psychology of
religion, unwilling to do away with traditional
prayer, say in substance, ** God acts through His

' Edward Scribner Ames, the Psychology of Religious Ex-
perience, pp. 10, 285-287, 72.

* The Religious Consciousness, 1920. Page 308.



laws. Man's own natural response to his prayer is
God's way of answering him " — which means that
the natural effect of one's belief upon one's thoughts
and emotions is God's answer. Thus understood,
the result of prayer can be said to be a "divine an-
swer " only at the risk of utter confusion.

The word *' reconstruction " is on the lips of
everybody. A primary condition of religious recon-
struction is a sufficiently widespread realization that
the crumbling religious structures in which we are
still dwelling have ceased to keep us spiritually
warm. Those who are acquainted with the social
sciences realize that the disbelief of the present, re-
garding the central assumption of the organized
religions (a God in direct relation with man), is of
a different temper from the disbelief of the past.
It has gained the quality belonging to things firmly
established, the quality which attaches, for instance,
to the doctrine of evolution since Darwin's labors.

Another condition of effective religious recon-
struction is a widespread establishment of the con-
viction that belief in the traditional God is not a
primary source of spiritual worth and moral in-

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Online LibraryJames Henry LeubaThe belief in God and immortality; a psychological, anthropological and statistical study → online text (page 1 of 23)