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RELIGION IN TERMS OF SOCIAL 
CONSCIOUSNESS 



EDWARD SCRIBNER AMES 
University of Chicago 



As a working conception of religion I offered some years ago 
this statement, "consciousness of the highest social values." 1 
By consciousness was meant appreciation and the active 
attitude of supporting and perpetuating. There was no 
expectation of bringing all students of the subject to agreement 
upon that definition, but it is surprising to see how varied 
and lively the disagreement has been. Much of it has been 
due to neglecting the word "highest" and not a little to 
different uses of the term "social." 

Among the recent critics of this conception is Professor 
James B. Pratt, whose book The Religious Consciousness was 
the most important contribution of last year to the psychology 
of religion. His treatment of "society" and the "social" is 
not always easy to understand. A comparison of different 
passages suggests that the difficulty of understanding him 
springs from a conflict in his own thought. After defining 
religion as "the serious social attitude" toward the Determiner 
of Destiny, he remarks that he uses the word social with con- 
siderable misgiving. He asserts that the religious attitude 
has only a "faint touch" of the social quality and in a merely 
incipient way. His general psychological position is respon- 
sible for this. That view is of the older individualistic type 
in which the individual is represented as in possession of 
certain instincts from birth the expression and direction of 
which are largely due to the influence of society. Having 
made sure of this individualistic equipment to begin with, 

1 The Psychology of Religious Experience (ioio). 

264 



RELIGION IN TERMS OF SOCIAL CONSCIOUSNESS 265 

Professor Pratt becomes quite enthusiastic concerning the 
value of social experience. "Once we have recognized the 
original psychical endowment of the individual, the influence of 
society in making him what he is can hardly be exaggerated" — 
society "to some extent genuinely constitutes him." 

Professor Pratt here follows William James whose view of 
the instincts was formulated before the development of recent 
important conceptions of social psychology in this field. 
James enumerated a list of instincts belonging to the individual 
as if they were separate, discrete functions. Later investiga- 
tors are dropping the notion of specific instincts. They speak 
of impulsive tendencies and attitudes as phases of complex 
organic behavior. Moreover, these tendencies are conceived 
as elicited and conditioned by social experience. In this view 
human nature is always and thoroughly social, involving the 
interaction of social stimulus and response. Thought, of the 
most private character, becomes a conversation between 
the different "selves" within the imagination. These selves 
are developed through participation in social relations, and 
consciousness is itself an interplay of roles gathered from 
intercourse with one's fellows. The force of this position may 
be emphasized by trying to imagine what would happen in the 
oft-conjectured situation of an infant left absolutely alone 
and yet maintaining life to years of maturity. We have no 
reason to suppose he would possess any human traits. It is 
not justifiable to assume that such a being would possess a 
"rational nature." But positing for him only the normal 
brain and nervous system of the human animal and the 
ordinary social medium, the infant becomes rational and 
sympathetic and civilized. The individual is not then to be 
set off against society, nor counted simply as one unit which 
may be associated with similar units to produce an aggre- 
gate called society. The mind and "soul" are social through 
and through. The individual is real enough, but his reality 
is within the social situation. Professor Pratt does not take 



266 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION 

seriously enough the following words which he quotes with 
approval from Professor Cooley: "A separate individual is 
an abstraction unknown to experience, and so likewise is 
society when regarded as something apart from individuals." 

In the definition religion is identified with the highest social 
consciousness — not with social consciousness in general. By 
"highest" is meant the most intimate and vital phases of the 
social consciousness. This highest social consciousness is not 
the same in all peoples and times, but every people and every 
time have a scale of values in which certain interests are felt 
to be the most important. These constitute their religious 
values. There is here suggested an index to the religion of 
any race in any stage of development. To discover the 
religion of the natives of Australia, examine their ceremonials 
and their social organization and find what they are most 
concerned about. The same method is reliable for studying 
the religions of India and the United States. It is of course 
recognized that modern society is complex and really consists 
of many groups. The religion of any group in American 
life is found when the deepest common interests of that group 
are discovered. So far as we have a national religious life it 
may be seen in those most dominant concerns of the whole 
people. Some observers think our God is Mammon. Some 
think it is Efficiency. Some think it is Democracy. But the 
truth is that the national consciousness of this country is not 
sufficiently unified and homogeneous as yet to afford clear 
and convincing evidence of what is the highest American social 
consciousness. And for that very good reason we are in a 
profound transition period attended with much confusion as 
to what our religion is or should be! 

This suggests why religion is identified in modern society 
with morality. 1 Religion is older than critical, reflective 

1 J. H. Leuba, in " The Meaning of 'Religion,' " Journal of Philosophy, February 3, 
1021, objects to this use of the term religion. It is hardly a greater change, however, 
than in the word "government" to denote democracy as well as monarchy. 



RELIGION IN TERMS OF SOCIAL CONSCIOUSNESS 267 

morality; but when the highest social values are lifted out of 
the realm of custom, religion tends to become identified with 
the more consciously chosen ideals. Superstition and magic 
atrophy and the rationally appraised and experimentally 
evaluated focus attention. Morality is enlarging into social 
idealism in the modern world and this social idealism is 
precisely the quality of religion. 

Other criticisms may be met by pointing out that the 
conception of religion in terms of the highest social conscious- 
ness affords a new and fruitful view of the meaning of God. 
It is interesting to note that Professor Pratt defines religion as 
"the serious and social attitude of individuals or communities 
toward the power or powers which they conceive as having 
ultimate control over their interests and destinies." That is 
a good definition. It may be used with entire satisfaction by 
one who identifies religion with the ideal social values. These 
values are embodied in different objects according to the life- 
habits and political organization of the group. For the Malay 
rice is the god; for the American Indian, corn; for the Aino, 
the bear; for the primitive Hebrew, the sheep. For the later 
Hebrew, God is in the form of a man and a king. Whatever 
the symbol, the substance of the idea of God, the objective 
reality, is the Spirit of the group whose awesome will is enforced 
through the commandments of social custom. Social approval 
and social ostracism are the flaming swords which guard the 
sanctities of life both in savage and in civilized communities. 

Professor Pratt calls this conception of God "subjective," 
but it certainly is not subjective in the sense of being individu- 
alistic. And it is obviously not a "mere" idea — occurring 
simultaneously in the heads of a number of men. It is the 
Determiner of Destiny, to use his favorite expression. An 
analogous case may be found in the familiar use of "Alma 
Mater" to designate an institution of learning. Is the Alma 
Mater a mere idea ? Is it a fiction ? Is it subjective ? Has 
it not all the reality of the college buildings, the faculties, 



268 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION 

donors, students, and the social influence which flows through 
the whole body of traditions ? Viewed in this way, an alumnus 
may have perception of his Alma Mater, may derive help 
from her in the form of recommendations, may sing praises to 
her and be responsive to her will and thought. Hearing a 
company of students singing, a spectator might wonder 
whether they thought there actually was a particular woman 
to whom their songs were addressed. But he who should 
decide that the Alma Mater was therefore unreal and merely 
subjective would also be mistaken. Professor Pratt insists 
that his definition includes among the religious many an 
atheist (p. 5). Such an admission raises serious questions 
concerning the nature of the Determiner of Destiny. At least 
the highest social values do not admit of their negation on the 
part of those who are religious. To be antisocial is far deeper 
heresy than to be atheistic with reference to the Determiner 
of Destiny as often conceived! 

Another misapprehension with reference to the social 
appears in the conception of its relation to the cosmos or nature. 
Durkheim and Cornford have shown that the cosmos is 
socially determined. 1 They hold that for primitive races the 
notions of space, time, force, motion, and material objects, 
are conditioned and comprehended within the social. Here, 
to be sure, arises all the array of conflicting metaphysical 
theories. But nevertheless the realist who prefers to insist 
that the order of nature and material objects exist independ- 
ently of the social medium precisely as he conceives them 
assumes the burden of proof. That is supposed to have been 
shown long ago by Immanuel Kant. For him nature is 
phenomenal. The sociologists of the Durkheim school have 
given an empirical psychological account of the way in which 
nature is conformed to the notions and attitudes of the social 
group. What, in these scientific days, is regarded as an 

1 Durkheim, Elementary Forms of the Religious Life; Cornford, From Religion to 
Philosophy. 



RELIGION IN TERMS OF SOCIAL CONSCIOUSNESS 269 

independent material order appears in their writings as a 
complex of social concepts — collective representations. This 
does not make nature subjective in the sense of reducing it to 
images in the brains of men. It only points out that objects 
as known are objects of social usage and convention. They 
are matters of value and not only matters of fact. 

The crux of the problem largely concerns the doctrine of 
creation and the enigmatic question of bare existence. The 
picture of a Deity fashioning the worlds and all that in them is, 
is so vivid that few realize that it has little if any place in a 
genuinely scientific view of the world. The idea of the begin- 
ning of matter and of life is an abstract metaphysical question 
probably beyond the possibility of any real answer. The kind 
of answer which the mind frames is a poetic, imaginative 
account cast in the mold of the prevailing culture. Primitives 
tell marvelous tales of how a giant rabbit or beetle or kangaroo 
or a very anthropomorphic god created all things out of dust 
or mist. All such stories bear the marks of the social group 
from which they arise. They gain religious significance in so 
far as they aid in maintaining taboos and in magnifying 
reverence for the totem deities. This poetry and imagery of 
the evaluating social consciousness continues in chastened and 
elevated forms, as in the writings of Dante and Milton, to 
serve social, idealistic ends, but it is not to be mistaken for 
literal representation of "things in themselves." 

The practical attitude of the modern social spirit toward 
nature illustrates still more impressively that nature is instru- 
mental for the great ideal ends of religion. Instead of an 
external, providential order before which man is dumb and 
submissive, nature has become increasingly flexible and sub- 
servient to social requirements. We no longer regard disease 
as the visitation of the wrath of God upon men for their sins. 
We look for the causes and elicit by experimentation from 
nature herself means of prevention and cure. Nature has 
been changed so that some diseases no longer occur. She is 



270 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION 

made to yield crops where formerly all was desolation. New 
species of plants have been grown. Unimagined highways 
have been opened in the air and over seas and through the 
mountains. Human beings have made nature serve their 
social needs by marvelous means of communication and by 
wonderful devices for preserving records of experience in the 
printed page and in pictures. Miracles have been performed 
upon the human body and others are in preparation. The 
mind itself is in the making through better understanding of 
methods of education. 

The sense of participating in a social experience of this 
character and magnitude is not lacking in genuine religious 
significance. It generates an impressive mystical quality and 
furnishes the elements of a vital and reasonable faith. The 
finest devotional moods, including prayer and meditation, are 
vitalized and refined. The meaning of God as the Common 
Will and the Great Companion furnish conceptions of the 
divine which are at once intimate and commanding.