Pratt survey on religious belief
Pratt survey on religious belief

A number of commentators have argued that in the last half century Christianity has declined in the West and a more generic belief in the supernatural has taken its place. According to this narrative, religion has declined and spirituality has increased.

Though there are problems with some of these arguments, in general I am persuaded by them. The question that arises for me, however, is this: If traditional religiousness is declining, where are these once-religious-now-spiritual people getting their ways of thinking about God, spirit, the afterlife, and related ideas? Out of what raw materials are they fashioning new beliefs about the transcendent realms of ghosts, gods or souls? One place, I think, is science.

At the turn of the twentieth century, many Europeans and Americans sensed that older traditions had failed them. That feeling accelerated during and after the Great War. When he filled out this survey in 1904, William James was helping one of his graduate students, James Bissett Pratt, who put this survey together as part of his doctoral research. James Pratt and many others were aware that older foundations for belief were crumbling and they experimented with ways of using psychology to understand what was authentically religious. Eventually they produced normative conclusions about the best ways to worship and the most healthy types of belief. Their recommendations were hard on traditional, institutional religions, and this became increasingly true by the middle of the twentieth century. They concluded that when old-time religious concepts were updated and made less superstitious, these concepts would become more believable.

James and his students also turned to psychological studies of religion to understand the nature and sources of belief and put its power on display. Attuned to matters relating to individual religion, these questionnaires themselves suggested that the essence of religion lay in the self. In the survey reprinted here, Pratt indicates that “personal experience” was more important than second-order “philosophical generalizations” that were removed from the vital sources of the religious self. In his earlier surveys of conversion, another student of William James, Edwin Starbuck, made the same move. And James also did the same thing in his 1901-2 Varieties. Pratt’s interpretive investment in personal experience is clear right at the beginning: he believes that religious institutions, rites and communities are less important. The essence of the thing to be surveyed—the essence of right religion—is inner experience.

James’s answers reflect some of the ways that religion was being torn down and spirituality built up in its place during this particular era. Did he believe in God because the Bible or some other more traditional source of religious knowledge told him so? Did he base his faith and life on the Bible? “No. No. No. It is so human a book that I don’t see how belief in its divine authorship can survive the reading of it.” Even prayer, a more traditional religious act, is forfeited here in favor of something else, perhaps study or discussion or analysis of religious experiences. Prayer made him feel “foolish and artificial.”

For James the most reliable source of religious knowledge was located in the inner stuff of emotions, will-power, and desire. He believed God existed because he felt a need for God. “I need it so that it ‘must’ be true.” He believed God existed because he needed a “more powerful ally of my own ideals.” He also believed in God (in a “dimly (real)” way) because he sensed the presence of a germ within him that responded to other peoples’ dramatic religious experiences. He didn’t have them himself, but he was thrilled to see that others did. The testimony of others he says here “is so strong that I am unable to pooh-pooh it away.” There was an emotional power behind the breathless way he and his students collected and shared thousands of these first-hand accounts. All of it was scientific proof for God and spiritual things.

James did not initiate the shift from religion to spirituality, though I think his life and indeed this questionnaire are emblematic of that shift in its earlier stages. After all, was not the shift from a robust institutional religiousness to a more individualistic spirituality inherent in Protestantism from the beginning? The older Protestant critique was a lot like James’s: get rid of inessential, outer religious forms and cling to inner, “spiritual” essentials—faith alone! James’s work was merely an extension of the paring down of religion that Protestants performed centuries before he came along.

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