The Privatisation of Religion

The engagement of psychology with religion is, on the whole, the history of the privatisation of religion and the reconfiguration of religion in terms of the private, psychological self. This shift in religious understanding has, unwittingly in some cases, and intentionally in others, played into the hands of a neoliberal ideology of

It has removed the social dimension of religion and created a spirituality of the self – of the consuming self. The history of psychology and religion since the 1890s has been one where religious ‘experience’ has become an individual event and where the boundaries of the self have been reinforced. Building on Protestant notions of the self in relation to God – and thus continuing longer historical processes of individualisation from the Reformation – the early psychologists of religion located the significance of religion within individual experience. Religious experiences, predominantly Christian in nature, were internalised as private events. Religious conversion could now be seen as related to changes during puberty and adolescence, God could be seen as a projection of infant fantasies, mysticism could be reconfigured as the pursuit of ‘altered states of consciousness’ and religious practices became represented as manifestations of inner psychical processes rather than as social forms of expression. While this method of analysis provided many insights into the internal world of human subjectivity, it also created a distorted picture of the ‘religious’ world as a whole. It not only created a set of experiences understood to be constitutive of religious experience, as opposed to other experiences, it also falsely assumed that you could separate the individual from the social. As Erich Fromm (1978: 52) has shown in his own correlation of religion, psychology and society: ‘The history of religion gives ample evidence of this correlation between social structure and kinds of religious experience.’

The psychologisation of religion – turning religion into a psychological
event – is then an ideological process through which an
internal economy of the self is set above an external economy of social
relations. This internal economy of religion found in psychology
mirrored the economy of self-interest dominating the western world.
In this sense, the history of western psychology cannot be separated
from the history of western capitalism. The privatisation of religion
through psychology provided the platform for later markets exploring
the private world of spiritualities to flourish. The historical process
of this transformation is complex and is part of the wider separation
of the social and individual at the turn of the twentieth century. While
it is too simple to see sociology as the space for left-wing thinking and
psychology as the space for right-wing thinking, there are nonetheless
important features of these disciplinary domains that played into
ideological structures beyond their own purview. To understand how
the privatisation of religion in psychology was taken up by neoliberal
capitalism in the late twentieth century requires us briefly to sketch
some of the key theoretical moments in this history.

William James and the Privatisation of Mysticism
One of the key thinkers to set the agenda for the psychology
of religion was undoubtedly William James (1842–1910) and his
seminal work The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). In this book,
James established a psychological framing of religion, and even
though he was aware of the limitations of his method, and clearly
outlined the ‘arbitrary’ and provisional nature of his approach, those
who followed him almost universally fashioned religious experience
in his terms, but without the caveats. While James talked of ‘patternsetters’
within religious traditions, he did not realise that he would

become a ‘pattern-setter’ for understanding religious experience in
the twentieth century, shaping ‘New Age’ jargon and providing
the mechanisms for rethinking religion in terms of individual
private experience. James, influenced by Protestant readings of
religious experience and his father’s Swedenborgian heritage, was the
originator of modern psychological conceptions of spirituality. He
openly acknowledged that he ignored the social dimensions of
religion and gave priority to states of mind and inner feelings.
While James cannot be held responsible for the later utilisation of his
thinking, the approach he adopted was captured by later generations
enjoying the benefits of free-market spirituality, which celebrated the
At the outset we are struck by one great partition which divides the
religious field. On the one side of it lies institutional, on the other
personal religion . . . I propose to ignore the institutional branch
entirely, to say nothing of the ecclesiastical organization, to consider as
little as possible the systematic theology and the ideas about gods
themselves, and to confine myself as far as I can to personal religion
pure and simple . . . Religion, therefore, as I now ask you arbitrarily to
take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of
individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to
stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.
(James, 2002: 28–30, our underlining.)
One of the key moments in the privatisation of religion that James
established was the construction of mysticism in terms of private,
intense feelings. The history of mysticism, as later scholars have shown
(Jantzen, 1995; King, 1999a), does not support these psychological
renderings of experience, but James’s ‘restriction’ of the term (which
he openly acknowledged as a restriction for the purposes of analysis)
created the modern construction of mysticism as a private, intense
The words ‘mysticism’ and ‘mystical’ are often used as terms of mere
approach, to throw at any opinion which we regard as vague and vast
and sentimental, and without a base in either facts or logic . . . So, to
keep it useful by restricting it, I will do what I did in the case of the word
‘religion’, and simply propose to you four marks which, when an
experience has them, may justify us in calling it mystical for the
purpose of the present lectures . . . 1. Ineffability . . . 2. Noetic quality
. . . 3. Transiency . . . 4. Passivity . . . These four characteristics are
sufficient to mark out a group of states of consciousness peculiar
enough to deserve a special name and to call for careful study. Let it
then be called the mystical group.
(James, 2002: 294–5, our emphasis)
After James and the spiritualists, the focus on states of consciousness
came to dominate the psychology of religion and paved the way for a
spirituality of inner consciousness. James, of course, did not bring
about this transformation single-handedly, it was the development of
his work by his followers, such as James Pratt (1875–1944) and, more
specifically, a later generation of scholars including Gordon Allport
(1897–1967) and Abraham Maslow (1908–70), who propagated
an individualised understanding of religion within North American
culture. It would be wrong to assume that these thinkers deliberately
developed a psychology of religion for capitalism. It is rather the case
that their psychology emerged in a context of a North American
economic climate that celebrated the individual pursuit of wealth.
Psychological ideologies flourished in such conditions. Maslow’s
psychology, for instance, did not reflect the Two-Thirds World or the
land of his parents in Eastern Europe. Rather, it was the psychology
of an affluent society that could separate out a hierarchy of needs
where ‘spirituality’ could be separated from the basic needs of finding
food, shelter and water to live. The cumulative effect of this was the
emergence of a religious experience tailored for wealthy individuals
rather than for social justice. Religious experience, in part at least,
reflects the economic conditions in which it emerges, and psychology
provided one of the mechanisms of individualisation that bridges
religion and capitalism in a neoliberal world.
The privatisation of religion was not just a North American
phenomenon, although it received its greatest support in that culture,
it was part of the wider western psychological world. Sigmund Freud
(1856–1939) and Carl Jung (1875–1961) also brought religious
experience into the inner world, although arguably they were also
struggling with anthropological baggage and collective processes.
Freud and Jung in many ways reflect the problems of establishing a
psychology of religion separate from other disciplines, as both men
ventured into the tensions of the social and psychic, with ideas of an
‘archaic heritage’ (Freud) and a ‘collective unconscious’ (Jung). They
nonetheless both provided psychological models for a later generation
of thinkers who reduced everything to a private, psychic reality and an
individualised market of ‘New Age’ consumers. Jung, for example,
directly linked the spiritual with the psychical world.
To me, the crux of the spiritual problem of today is to be found in the
fascination which psychic life exerts upon modern man. If we are
pessimists, we shall call it a sign of decadence; if we are optimistically
inclined, we shall see in it the promise of a far-reaching spiritual
change in the Western world. At all events, it is a significant
(Jung, 1984: 251)
It was however the development of humanistic psychology in the USA
that had the greatest impact in forging the modern, privatised sense
of spirituality. Humanistic psychology, or ‘Third Force’ psychology
as it is sometimes known, sought to overcome the negative features
of behaviourism and psychoanalysis in a move that captured the
optimism of North American self-expression. As Don Browning
(1987: 64) has suggested: ‘The cultural power and attractiveness of
humanistic psychology are partially explained by its continuity with
significant strands of individualism that have characterised American
Humanistic psychology later evolved into transpersonal psychology,
or what has become known as ‘Fourth Force’ psychology, completing
the cycle of turning religion into a consumer product of the self
and shaping a spirituality for the market. Transpersonal psychology
maintains some of the technical language of religion, but locates such
experiences in human potential and states of consciousness. It plays
with ideas of transcendence, awareness and the spiritual, but frames
them as psychological not religious questions. This is a long way from
William James’s careful enquiry and, in the slow process of dislocating
the institutional, the social and the traditional disciplines
of religion, a new configuration of ‘spirituality’ has been created.
Spirituality is now a private, psychological event that refers to a whole
range of experiences floating on the boundary of religious traditions.
The very difficulty with defining spirituality, as we saw in the last
chapter, reflects this gathering together of varied experiences and
trends, such as transpersonal psychology. The lack of specificity allows
it to be effective in the marketplace and reduces its concern for social
ethics and cultural location. While transpersonal psychology seeks
to go ‘beyond ego’ it still reinforces the private state of consciousness
and often uncritically reflects the values of individualism rather than
the wider social domain (Lee and Marshall 2003). Transpersonal
psychology rarely becomes transformative of the social, even though
there were trends to correct some of the aspects of an individualistic
psychology. In transpersonal psychology spirituality emerges as a
product of religious fragmentation and eclecticism, hidden in the
psychological structures of individualism. It is a box without content,
because the content has been thrown out and what is left is a set
of psychological descriptions with no referent. There is no referent
because, in order to substantiate the ideas, one requires an explanatory
cosmology that makes sense of the individual’s place in the world and
not a market brand name or a set of abstract ideas extracted from older
traditions. Transpersonal psychology, despite its considerable promise
as an antidote to psychological individualism, provides little evidence
of an orientation to the collective. The interiorised transcendence that
its proponents tend to offer does little to challenge structural violence
and inequality and does little more than provide another avenue
for inventing the self in capitalist society. Anthony Sutich’s early
definition of ‘transpersonal psychology’ reflects this privatisation of
the spiritual.
The emerging ‘Fourth Force’ (Transpersonal Psychology) is concerned
specifically with the scientific study and responsible implementation of
becoming, individual and species-wide meta-needs, ultimate values
unitive consciousness, peak experiences, B values, ecstasy, mystical
experience, awe, being, self-actualisation, essence, bliss, wonder,
ultimate meaning, transcendence of the self, spirit, oneness, cosmic
awareness, individual and species-wide synergy, maximal
interpersonal encounter, sacralization of everyday life, transcendental
phenomena; cosmic self, humor and playfulness; maximal sensory
awareness, responsiveness and expression; and related concepts,
experiences and activities.
(Sutich, 1969: 77–8)

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