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NEU - Leuba Entry

NEU - Leuba Entry

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Tom Flynn (Ed.)  Amherst, NY:  Prometheus Books, 2007.Pages 487-489.   Entry by Frank L. PasqualeLEUBA, JAMES H.
(1868–1946), American psychologist.James H. Leuba was born in Neuchatel, Switzerland,where early skeptical reaction to Calvinist doctrineand behavior prompted a lifelong interest in understandingreligious experience. After receiving a bachelor’sdegree from the University of Neuchatel, Leubamoved with his family to the United States. He earneda doctorate in psychology at Clark University under G.Stanley Hall, with a dissertation on the psychology of religious conversion. He spent his entire academic careeras professor and, for a time, chairman of the departmentof psychology at Bryn Mawr College.
Body of Work.
Leuba’s approach to the studyof religious experience was resolutely naturalistic andempirical, carefully reasoned and forthright. This earnedhim intermittent critical reactions from religious colleaguesand apologists throughout his career. While his lastingreputation rests upon seminal studies of beliefs in a personalGod and immortality in the United States, the balanceof his work deserves equal, if not greater, attention.In
The Psychological Origin and the Nature of Religion
(1909) and
A Psychological Study of Religion
(1912), Leuba sounds several themes that frame his lifelongview of religious experience. To maintain clarity aboutthe subject, religion is delimited to “that part of humanexperience in which man feels himself in relation withpowers” of a “psychic,” divine, or supernatural nature.He rejected the utility of definitions of “religion” thatencompass “anything that is of considerable value toman.” Religious experience is viewed as a complex,natural, functional, and in certain forms dysfunctionalmeans of meeting basic human needs. Leuba was criticalof attempts to reduce religion to a single dimension. Inits internal aspect, religion involves “willing, feeling,and thinking” aimed at the gratification of human“needs, desires, and yearnings.” In its external aspect, itinvolves practices, rites, ceremonies, and institutions.Leuba vigorously combated the view that, due to itsclaimed supernatural content, religious experience fallsoutside the purview of science. He insisted that since
religious consciousness is a psychological process, it isaccessible to empirical inquiry: “
[T]he gods of religionare inductions from experience
, and are therefore properobjects of science.” Leuba could not be persuaded “thatdivine personal beings . . . have more than a subjectiveexistence.” At the same time, religion arose from naturalpsychological processes to meet human needs. It shouldbe “looked upon as a functional part of life, as that modeof behavior in the struggle for life in which use is madeof powers characterized . . . as psychic, superhuman, andusually personal.”Leuba offers compelling, if speculative, accounts of the likely origins of religious beliefs. Ideas of ghosts,nature-beings, and gods emerge from a wide range of psychological processes, including altered states of consciousness (such as trances, dreams, apparitions, andhallucinations), prescientific perceptions of striking naturalphenomena, and the human penchant for attributing purposiveagency to “explain” natural events. Throughouthis work, Leuba was critical of religious ideas at oddswith scientific knowledge and moral progress. In thisconnection, he was consistently critical of selectedaspects of Christian monotheism (such as a personalrelationship with God). The closing chapter of 
The Belief inGod and Immortality: A Psychological, Anthropological,and Statistical Study 
(1916) is an eloquent essay on theindependence of moral knowledge from religious belief and the threats to moral progress posed by certain religiousforms (see ETHICS AND UNBELIEF).In
The Belief in God and Immortality 
, Leubareported on the first of his statistical surveys of (un)belief in a personal God and immortality amongAmerican scientists, historians, college students, andothers (see SCIENCE, UNBELIEF WITHIN). Thanks inpart to a general replication of his surveys of scientistsin the 1990s by Edward J. Larson and Larry Witham,Leuba’s findings remain in the public eye. He found,for example, that fewer scientists overall were believersthan “doubters” or “disbelievers” in a personal God (42percent in 1914, declining to 30 percent in a subsequentsurvey in 1933). Belief in immortality was slightlymore prevalent, but also showed a decline from 49 percentin 1914 to 33 percent in 1933. Also, believers inboth a personal God and immortality were substantiallyrarer among “elite” compared with “lesser” scientists,and among social scientists compared with physical or
biological scientists.In
The Psychology of Religious Mysticism
(1925),Leuba provided an extensive and detailed analysis of thevaried forms, causes, and perennial allure of altered andecstatic states (see RELIGIOUS AND MYSTICAL EXPERIENCES).Drawing from extensive historical source materials,his unflinching naturalistic analysis drew criticalreaction. His view that associations of God or the divinewith the “immediate” content of mystical experienceresult from post hoc cognition, rather than direct“knowledge” of such realities, contrasted with WilliamJames’s greater propensity to allow that the apparentimmediacy of such associations may offer evidence of their referent truth. The fact that Leuba’s work hasremained obscured in the shadow of James’s “The Willto Believe” and
The Varieties of Religious Experience
isnoteworthy and regrettable.In
God or Man? A Study of the Value of God toMan
(1933) and
The Reformation of the Churches
(1950;published posthumously), Leuba recapitulated his mainthemes and looked to the future of religion, humanneeds, and moral progress. Throughout his career, heheld that religious ideas and forms at odds with scientificknowledge or moral progress would gradually be supplanted(the secularization hypothesis). Rather than acomplete eclipse of religious by scientific or secularworldviews, Leuba foresaw forms of experience andbehavior that preserve some of the functional benefits of religion in harmony with scientific knowledge. Herepeatedly cited Felix ADLER’s ETHICAL CULTURE asone possible model for such future “religion”retaining asense of the “spiritual,” a natural and consequence-basedmoral approach, and due regard for scientific inquiry andknowledge. He spoke hopefully about the early promiseof philosophical HUMANISM. However, he held “noexpectation . . . of a rapid transformation of all thechurches,” noting that “fundamentalist churches are farfrom having been outgrown by all the people,” a “religiousrear guard will remain with us for a long while,”and that “intellectual and moral progress is distressinglyslow.” The whole of Leuba’s body of work and its centralmessages deserve renewed attention and reappraisal.

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