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Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences
Abraham H. Maslow
Chapter I. Introduction
Some time ago, after the Supreme Court decision on prayer in the public schools, a so-called patriotic women's organizationI forget which onebitterly attacked the decision as antireligious. They were in favor of "spiritual values," they said, whereas the Supreme Court was destroying them.
I am very much in favor of a clear separation of church and state, and my reaction was automatic: I disagreed with the women's organization. But then something happened that set me to thinking for many months. It dawned on me that I, too, was in favor of spiritual values and that, indeed, my researches and theoretical investigations had gone far toward demonstrating their reality. I had reacted in an automatic way against the whole statement by the organization, thereby implicitly accepting its erroneous definition and concept of spiritual values. In a word, I had allowed these intellectual primitives to capture a good word and to put their peculiar meaning to it, just as they had taken the fine word "patriotic" and contaminated and destroyed it. I had let them redefine these words and had then accepted their definitions. And now I want to take them back. I want to demonstrate that spiritual values have naturalistic meaning, that they are not the exclusive possession of organized churches, that they do not need supernatural concepts to validate them, that they are well within the jurisdiction of a suitably enlarged science, and that, therefore, they are the general responsibility of all mankind. If all of this is so, then we shall have to reevaluate the possible place of spiritual and moral values in education. For, if these values are not exclusively identified with churches, then teaching values in the schools need not breach the wall between church and state.
The Supreme Court decisions on prayer in the public schools were seen (mistakenly, as we shall see) by many Americans as a rejection of spiritual values in education. Much of the turmoil was in defense of these higher values and eternal verities rather than of the prayers as such. That is to say, very many people in our society apparently see organized religion as the locus, the source, the custodian and guardian and teacher of the spiritual life. Its methods, its style of teaching, its content are widely and officially accepted as the path, by many as the only path, to the life of righteousness, of purity and virtue, of justice and goodness, etc.
This is also true, paradoxically enough, for many orthodoxly positivistic scientists, philosophers, and other intellectuals. Pious positivists as a group accept the same strict dichotomizing of facts and values that the professional religionists do. Since they exclude values from the realm of science and from the realm of exact, rational, positivistic knowledge, all values are turned over by default to non-scientists and to non-rationalists (i.e., to "non-knowers") to deal with. Values can be arbitrarily affirmed by fiat only, they think, like a taste or a preference or a belief which cannot be scientifically validated, proven, confirmed, or disconfirmed. Therefore, it appears that such scientists and such philosophers really have no argument either for or against the churches; even though, as a group, they are not very likely to respect the churches. (Even this lack of respect is, for them, only a matter of taste and cannot be supported scientifically.)
Something of this sort is certainly true for many psychologists and many educators. It is almost universally true for the positivistic psychologists, the behaviorists, the neo-behaviorists, and the ultra-experimentalists, all of whom feel values and the life of value to be none of their professional concern, and who casually renounce all consideration of poetry and art and of any of the religious or transcendent experiences. Indeed, the pure positivist rejects any inner experiences of any kind as being "unscientific," as not in the realm of human knowledge, as not susceptible of study by a scientific method, because such data are not objective, that is to say, public and shared. This is a kind of "reduction to the concrete," to the tangible, the visible, the audible, to that which can be recorded by a machine, to behavior.
The other dominating theory of psychology, the Freudian, coming from a very different compass direction winds up at a similar terminus, denying that it has anything much to do with spiritual or ethical values. Freud himself and H. Hartman (28) after him say something like this: "The only goal of the psychoanalytic method is to undo repressions and all other defenses against seeing unpleasant truth; it has nothing to do with ideologies, indoctrinations, religious dogmas or teaching a way of life or system of values." (Even Alan Wheelis (89), thoughtful and probing though he may be, comes to a similar conclusion.) Observe here the unwitting acceptance of the unexamined belief that values are taught, in the traditional sense of indoctrination, and that they must, therefore, be arbitrary, and also that they really have nothing to do with facts, with truth, with discovery, with uncovering the values and "value-hungers" that lie deeply within human nature itself.
And so official, orthodox, Freudian psychoanalysis remains essentially a system of psychopathology and of cure of psychopathology. It does not supply us with a psychology of the higher life or of the "spiritual life," of what the human being should grow toward, of what he can become (although I believe psychoanalytic method and theory is a necessary substructure for any such "higher" or growth psychology (70)). Freud came out of nineteenth-century, mechanistic, physical-chemical, reductionistic science; and there his more Talmudic followers remain, at least with respect to the theory of values and everything that has to do with values. Indeed this reductionism goes so far sometimes that the Freudians seem almost to say that the "higher life" is just a set of "defenses against the instincts," especially denial and reaction-formation. Were it not for the concept of sublimation, that is what they would have to be saying. Unfortunately, sublimation is so weak and unsatisfactory a concept that it simply cannot bear this huge responsibility. Thus, psychoanalysis often comes perilously close to being a nihilistic and value-denying philosophy of man. (It is fortunate that any really good therapist in practice pays no attention to this philosophy. Such a therapist often functions by an unconscious philosophy of man which may not be worked out scientifically for another century. It is true that there are interesting and exciting developments in psychoanalysis today, but they are coming from the unorthodox.) It must be said to Freud's credit that, though he was at his poorest with all the questions of transcendence, he is still to be preferred to the behaviorists who not only have no answers but who also deny the very questions themselves.
Neither are the humanistic scholars and artists of any great help these days. They used to be, and were supposed to be, as a group, carriers of and teachers of the eternal verities and the higher life. The goal of humanistic studies was defined as the perception and knowledge of the good, the beautiful, and the true. Such studies were expected to refine the discrimination between what is excellent and what is not (excellence generally being understood to be the true, the good, and the beautiful). They were supposed to inspire the student to the better life, to the higher life, to goodness and virtue. What was truly valuable, Matthew Arnold said, was "the acquainting ourselves with the best that has been known and said in the world." And no one disagreed with him. Nor did it need to be spelled out that he meant knowledge of the classics; these were the universally accepted models.
But in recent years and to this day, most humanistic scholars and most artists have shared in the general collapse of all traditional values. And when these values collapsed, there were no others readily available as replacements. And so today, a very large proportion of our artists, novelists, dramatists, critics, literary and historical scholars are disheartened or pessimistic or despairing, and a fair proportion are nihilistic or cynical (in the sense of believing that no "good life" is possible and that the so-called higher values are all a fake and a swindle).
Certainly the young student coming to the study of the arts and the humanities will find therein no inspiring certainties. What criterion of selection does he have between, let us say, Tolstoy and Kafka, between Renoir and DeKooning, or between Brahms and Cage? And which well-known artists or writers today are trying to teach, to inspire, to conduce to virtue? Which of them could even use this word "virtue" without gagging? Upon which of them can an "idealistic" young man model himself?
No, it is quite clear from our experience of the last fifty years or so that the pre-1914 certainties of the humanists, of the artists, of the dramatists and poets, of the philosophers, of the critics, and of those who are generally inner-directed have given way to a chaos of relativism. No one of these people now knows how and what to choose, nor does he know how to defend and to validate his choice. Not even the critics who are fighting nihilism and valuelessness can do much except to attack, as, for instance, Joseph Wood Krutch does (40, 41); and he has nothing very inspiring or affirmative to suggest that we fight for, much less die for.
We can no longer rely on tradition, on consensus, on cultural habit, on unanimity of belief to give us our values. These agreed-upon traditions are all gone. Of course, we never should have rested on traditionas its failures must have proven to everyone by nowit never was a firm foundation. It was destroyed too easily by truth, by honesty, by the facts, by science, by simple, pragmatic, historical failure.
Only truth itself can be our foundation, our base for building. Only empirical, naturalistic knowledge, in its broadest sense, can serve us now. I hesitate to use the word "science" here, because this itself is a moot concept; and I shall be suggesting later in this essay an overhauling and redefinition of science that-could make it capable of serving better our value purposes, to make it more inclusive and less excluding, more accepting of the world and less snobbish about its jurisdictions. It is in this broader sense, which I shall be sketching out, that sciencemeaning all confirmable knowledge in all its stages of developmentbegins to look capable of handling values.
Especially will our new knowledge of human nature probably give the humanists and the artists, as well as the religionists, the firm criteria of selection, which they now lack, to choose between the many value possibilities which clamor for belief, so many that the chaos may fairly be called valuelessness.
Footnotes1. As a matter of fact, this identity is so profoundly built into the English language that it is almost impossible to speak of the "spiritual life" (a distasteful phrase to a scientist, and especially to a psychologist) without using the vocabulary of traditional religion. There just isn't any other satisfactory language yet. A trip to the thesaurus will demonstrate this very quickly. This makes an almost insoluble problem for the writer who is intent on demonstrating that the common base of all religions is human, natural, empirical, and that so-called spiritual values are also naturally derivable. But I have available only a theistic language for this "scientific" job.
Perhaps I can get out of this terminological difficulty in another way. If you look up the words "sacred," "divine," "holy," "numen," "sin," "prayer," "oblation," "thanksgiving," "worship," "piety," "salvation," "reverence," the dictionary will most often tell you that they refer to a god or to a religion in the supernatural sense. Now what I want to say is that each and all of these words, and many other "religious" words, have been reported to me by non-theistic people in their effort to describe particular subjective happenings in "non-religious" (in the conventional sense) peak-experiences and illuminations. These words are the only words available to describe certain happenings in the natural world. This vocabulary is the language of a theory which people have had about these subjective happenings, a theory which is no longer necessary.
I shall, therefore, use these words, since I have no others to use, to refer to subjective happenings in human beings without necessarily implying any supernatural reference. I claim that it is not necessary to appeal to principles outside of nature and human nature in order to explain these experiences. (back)
2. This is an especially fantastic notion in the context of this lecture because human behavior is so often a defense against motives, emotions, and impulses. That is, it is a way of inhibiting and concealing them as often as it is an expression of them. Behavior is often a means of preventing the overt expression of everything I'm talking about, just as spoken language can also be. How then can we explain the quick spread of that theory-bound, sectarian, question-begging phrase: "The behavioral sciences"? I confess that I cannot. (back)
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