Gordon Allport
The Individual and his Religion

Perhaps the most striking fact about subjective religion is the contrast between its essential simplicity when, well-formed, it is playing its part in the economy of the personal life, and its extreme complexity in the process of forming. It is a rich pudding, smooth and simple in its blend, but intricate in ingredients.


It is unfortunate that limitations of vocabulary force psychological analysis to treat emotion and reason, affection and cognition, as if they were separate provinces of mental life. From the point of view of the concrete functioning of the human mind nothing could be more false than is this division. In reality every emotional state is freighted with knowledge. Take two such elementary passions as terror and anger. The distinction between them, odd though it seems, is largely cognitive in character, for the bodily changes in both are virtually identical. In terror we know we are trapped; in anger we figure we have a fighting chance. Though the cognitive ingredients are swiftly and subtly marshaled, no emotion is devoid of them. Conversely, even our most crystal clear moments of logical reasoning would not take place at all unless they were sustained by present motivation (that is to say, by some state of desire).


All our life is biased in the direction of obtaining simplified perceptions and categorical meanings.


For the individual's religion is usually regarded by others as his own business and, so far as others care, can easily remain egocentric, magical and wish-fulfilling. Hence, in probably no region of personality do we find so many residues of childhood as in the religious attitudes of adults.


Discussions of religion are usually marked by the assumption that the beliefs of the writer are superior to all other varieties of belief.


Shall we then define the mature religious sentiment as a disposition, built up through experience, to respond favorably, and in certain habitual ways, to conceptual objects and principles that the individual regards as of ultimate importance in his own life, and as having to do with what he regards as permanent or central in the nature of things?


While we guard against overestimating the consistency and completeness of the mature religious sentiment, we may nonetheless list the attributes that mark it off from the immature sentiment. By comparison, the mature sentiment is (1) well differentiated; (2) dynamic in character in spite of its derivative nature; (3) productive of a consistent morality; (4) comprehensive; (5) integral; and (6) fundamentally heuristic.


So far as science is concerned, he knows well that his own religious faith is unlikely to rival it in clarity nor, in all points, equal it in validity; but it shall—and this is his point of insistence—it shall surpass it in adequacy.


Yet, even from the psychological point of view, we see that the ground covered by any secular interest, however vital, falls short of the range that characterizes a mature religious sentiment which seems never satisfied unless it is dealing with matters central to all existence.


The religion of maturity makes the affirmation "God is," but only the religion of immaturity will insist, "God is precisely what I say He is."


To fashion an integral pattern is the task of a lifetime—and more.


It is characteristic of the mature mind that it can act wholeheartedly even without absolute certainty. It can be sure without being cocksure. We are not positive that we shall be alive tomorrow but it is a good hypothesis to proceed on. We are not certain that the social agencies of our big cities are decreasing the margin of suffering and evil in our midst, but it seems like a probability worth backing.


We may then say that the mature religious sentiment is ordinarily fashioned in the workshop of doubt. Though it has known intimately "the dark night of the soul," it has decided that theoretical skepticism is not incompatible with practical absolutism.


Perhaps the very insistence of religion in this matter is in part responsible for the "tenderness tabu" that has descended upon psychology.


What language other than religious can represent to a disturbed patient the mysterious forces that he feels? When imagination and emotion run wild, the symbols of religion seem most nearly adequate to the task of rationalization that faces any patient suffering from a catastrophic change in personality.


Most of the conflicts that cause damage to mental health—and here again psychology and religion agree—have to do with courses of conduct the individual regards as impulsively desirable and those he regards as morally obligatory.


Like all other ingredients of personality, conscience is expected to keep pace with the individual's age and experience. It helps to relate the person to reality as he now conceives it. It is a present guide to conduct, and as such, serves an important function in the economy and health of an adult life... Functionally autonomous of its roots, it is now arbiter of adult values.


The fact that Christian doctrine, for example, may be accepted in a supine manner by some people, neither invalidates the doctrine nor prevents its wholehearted acceptance by an individual who in the course of his quest discovers its relevance to the totality of his own life-experience.


Humor pushed to its extreme is cynicism, and as such is not compatible with true integration of personality.


Integration does not require a completed view of life. In fact, completed achievements leave us hollow and at loose ends. It is only the unfinished tasks that integrate and motivate.


Hence the integration of experience with sentiment can in only small part be met by the timely intervention of adults. Throughout the whole of life this integration is a personal quest. Even the wisest of persons who may have a well-thought-out thoroughly mature solution, cannot pass it on like a well-wrapped package to another.


Unless the individual doubts he cannot use his full intelligence, and unless he uses his full intelligence he cannot develop a mature sentiment.


Thus atheism is not always the antithesis of religion, especially if it betrays deep interest in the goings-on of religion. People are often called atheists, and often call themselves so, for no other reason than that they do not believe in a generally approved definition of God.


The hypotheses of science are ordinarily confirmed by the successful predicting of limited happenings, while faith must locate the whole gamut of concrete happenings within a moral, aesthetic, and cosmological order. It must assign a prominent place to the personal factor which science seeks to exclude, and top it all with a congruent theology. The pyramid is higher; the strain is greater; the tests applied will inevitably be less rigorous and markedly different in type. By comparison, the verifications of the scientist are clean and easy. He chooses certainty in preference to adequacy. Religion can never pretend to rest its case on certainty, but only on the legitimacy of its effort to find reasonable certitude within the domain of adequacy.


The third possibility is a ceaseless struggle to assimilate the scientific frame of thought within an expanded religious frame. A person with a mature religious sentiment characteristically attempts this course, and though he seldom succeeds perfectly, he continues to affirm the ultimate possibility of so doing. Under no circumstances will he side-step or disparage the scientific mode of doubting, but under no circumstances will he allow it to curtail the range of his curiosity or aspiration.


The difficulty arises from the fact that religion has to use many of the same signs as science does. Images based upon space and time seem about all that are available. The ascension is a literal rising up to heaven; the end of the world is a definite event in time; hell is downward; heaven a glittering corridor on high. It was William James who said that in religious thinking we make use of such poor symbols as our life affords.


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