Psychology and Comparative Religion

Psychology and Comparative Religion

Comparative religion is the classification and comparison of different religions or of different forms of the same religion.

Its aim is to determine the precise beliefs of such and such a people or sect. It is therefore on the one hand anthropological, as involving the comparison of different human types, and on the other psychological, as determining the religious beliefs of this or that individual considered as a member of a certain class, sect, or nation. Comparative religion or religious anthropology is therefore not really to be distinguished from the Psychology of Religion.

If we ask what constitutes psychology and distinguishes it from other sciences, we cannot answer merely that psychology is the study of the mind or soul. The philosophical sciences,—logic, ethics, and so forth,—attempt to study the mind ; and they are not psychological. Nor can we say (as some psychologists say) that this is the reason of their unsatisfactory character ; for these sciences exist on their own basis, and it is no criticism of one science to point out that it is not a different one. Again, we cannot define psychology as the study of conduct ; because that title is already claimed by ethics.

From these philosophical sciences psychology is distinguished not by its subject but by its method.

The method peculiar to psychology may perhaps be described as follows. The psychology of knowing differs from logic or the philosophical theory of knowledge in that it treats a judgment—the act of knowing something—as an event in the mind, a historical fact. It does not go on to determine the relation of this mental event to the “ something ” known, the reality beyond the act which the mind, in that act, apprehends.

Such a further investigation would be metaphysical in character and is therefore avoided by psychology. Now this formula can be universalised, and thus gives us the definition of psychological method. Take the mental activity as a selfcontained fact ; refuse, so far as that is possible, to treat of its metaphysical aspect, its relations with real things other than itself ; and you have psychology.

Thus in scientific thought as studied by logic we have a judgment in which the mind knows reality : psychology, treating the judgment as a mere event, omits its reference to reality, that is to say, does not raise the question whether it is true. † In religion, we have people holding definite beliefs as to the nature of God. Psychology studies and classifies those beliefs without asking how far they correspond with the real nature of God. In conduct generally we have certain actions, individual or social, designed to attain the ends of morality, utility, or the like ; psychology will study these actions without asking whether they are right or wrong, but taking them merely as things done. In general, the characteristic of psychology is the refusal to raise ultimate questions. And since that is so, it is plainly not in a position to offer answers to them: or rather, in so far as it does offer answers these rest on an uncritical and quite accidental attitude towards the problems.

For instance, the psychology of religion, consisting as it does in the collection of beliefs about God without determining their truth, evidently does not aim at discovering what God is and which opinions give the best account of his nature. The psychology of religion, therefore, unlike the philosophy of religion, is not itself a religion ; that is, it has no answer of its own to the question “What is God ? ” It has, in fact, deliberately renounced the investigation of that question and substituted the other question, “What do different people say about him? ”

Of course a religious psychologist may be willing to offer an answer of his own to the first question. But in so far as he does that he is abandoning the psychology of religion and falling back on religion itself ; changing his attitude towards religion from an external to an internal one. When I describe the attitude of psychology as “ external ” my meaning is this.

There is an air of great concreteness and reality about psychology which makes it very attractive. But this concreteness is really a delusion and on closer inspection vanishes. When a man makes a statement about the nature of God (or anything else) he is interested, not in the fact that he is making that statement, but in the belief, or hope, or fancy that it is true.

If then the psychologist merely makes a note of the statement and declines to join in the question whether it is true, he is cutting himself off from any kind of real sympathy or participation in the very thing he is studying—this man’s mental life and experiences. To take an example, a certain mystic says, “God is a circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. ” The psychologist, instead of answering, “Of course, ” or, “Really ? ” or, “ I don’t quite see what you mean, ” replies, “That is an example of what I call the Religious Paradox. ”

The mind, regarded in this external way, really ceases to be a mind at all. To study a man’s consciousness without studying the thing of which he is conscious is not knowledge of anything, but barren and trifling abstraction. It cannot answer ultimate questions, because it has renounced the attempt ; it cannot enter into the life it studies, because it refuses to look with it eye to eye ; and it is left with the cold unreality of thought which is the thought of nothing, action with no purpose, and fact with no meaning.

Psychology and Comparative Religion

Psychology and Comparative Religion

These objections against the ideal of religious psychology or of the science of comparative religion only hold good so long as, from such collections of opinions, the philosophical impulse towards the determination of their truth is completely excluded. And the fact that this impulse is never really absent is what gives religious value to such studies.

Indeed, this impulse alone gives them scientific value ; for some degree of critical or sympathetic understanding is necessary before the bare facts can be correctly reported. It is notorious that the unintelligent observer cannot even observe. It is only owing to surreptitious or unconscious aberrations from its ideal of “ objectivity ” that psychology ever accomplishes anything at all.