Maslow’s Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences

Maslow’s Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences is a heavy read, one that doesn’t lend itself very well to short blog entries. I’m certainly no authority on Malsow’ work, but the book has inspired me to explore these ideas further in books I’ll be reading soon.

Luckily, the book includes both a preface, written several years after the book was written, and an Introduction which help to clarify his ideas. The Preface provides the clearest statement of the book’s purpose I found:

If I were to summarize both the book and my remarks in this Preface in a few words, I would say it this way: Man has a higher and transcendent nature, and this is part of his essence, i.e., his biological nature as a member of a species which has evolved. This means to me something which I had better spell out clearly, namely, that this is a flat rejection of the Sartre type of Existentialism, i.e., its denial of species-hood and of a biological human nature, and its refusal to face the existence of the biological sciences. It is true that the word Existentialism is by now used in so many different ways by different people, even in contradictory ways, that this indictment does not apply to all who use the label. But just because of this diversity of usage, the word is now almost useless, in my opinion, and had better be dropped. The trouble is that I have no good alternative label to offer. If only there were some way to say simultaneously: “Yes, man is in a way his own project and he does make himself. But also there are limits upon what he can make himself into. The ‘project’ is predetermined biologically for all men; it is to become a man. He cannot adopt as his project for himself to become a chimpanzee. Or even a female. Or a baby.” The right label would have to combine the humanistic, the transpersonal, and the transhuman. Besides, it would have to be experiential (phenomenological), at least in its basing. It would have to be holistic rather than dissecting. And it would have to be empirical rather than a priori, etc., etc.

It seems strange to me to have to argue that man has a “higher and transcendent nature” because I don’t think I’ve ever felt otherwise, despite rejecting traditional religions, perhaps because of my father’s Christian Science background. I’ve always felt it was my responsibility to live up to my ideal self, even though it never seemed quite possible to do so. My family expected nothing less of me. On the other hand, I’m not sure I ever thought of it as part of my “biologic nature.”

I also agree with Maslow that religion’s rejection of scientific truths did play a big part in my turning away from establish religion:

When all that could be called “religious” (naturalistically as well as supernaturalistically) was cut away from science, from knowledge, from further discovery, from the possibility of skeptical investigation, from confirming and disconfirming, and, therefore, from the possibility of purifying and improving, such a dichotomized religion was doomed. It tended to claim that the founding revelation was complete, perfect, final, and eternal. It had the truth, the whole truth, and had nothing more to learn, thereby being pushed into the position that has destroyed so many churches, of resisting change, of being only conservative, of being anti-intellectual and anti-scientific, of making piety and obedience exclusive of skeptical intellectuality— in effect, of contradicting naturalistic truth.

I cannot understand how anyone can accept a literal translation of the Bible. Faced with the choice of accepting “religious truths” or scientific truths, the choice was obvious, at least to me.

I’ve always had a scientific bent. I was creating chemical compounds and launching rockets by the time I entered high school. Though I chose not to pursue science as a career, it’s always been a vital part of my life. That said, I’ve often been critical of the effects that science has had on our world.

Let me try to say it in still another way. One could say that the nineteenth-century atheist [i.e. scientist] had burnt down the house instead of remodeling it. He had thrown out the religious questions with the religious answers, because he had to reject the religious answers. That is, he turned his back on the whole religious enterprise because organized religion presented him with a set of answers which he could not intellectually accept-which rested on no evidence which a self-respecting scientist could swallow. But what the more sophisticated scientist is now in the process of learning is that though he must disagree with most of the answers to the religious questions which have been given by organized religion, it is increasingly clear that the religious questions themselves-and religious quests, the religious yearnings, the religious needs themselves-are perfectly respectable scientifically, that they are rooted deep in human nature, that they can be studied, described, examined in a scientific way, and that the churches were trying to answer perfectly sound human questions. Though the answers were not acceptable, the questions themselves were and are perfectly acceptable, and perfectly legitimate.

As a matter of fact, contemporary existential and humanistic psychologists would probably consider a person sick or abnormal in an existential way if he were not concerned with these “religious” questions.

I remember thinking that Pirsig got it right in Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, probably not too surprising since he became dissatisfied with science and became an English Professor because he was looking for a truth that he thought he could not find through science. As much as I trust logic, and the scientific method, I don’t trust science unless it’s accompanied by values. In fact, I would even go so far as to argue that the environmental disaster we find ourselves in the middle of is largely due to scientific hubris.

Of course, if I’d read, and believed, this argument by Maslow,

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 ex- cellent and what is not (excellence generally being under- stood 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 De Kooning, 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?

I might have been less eager to become an English major, for I’m afraid he’s largely correct. Modern literature, at least post-Hemingway, post Steinbeck, seems much better at exposing what’s wrong with society than it does at inspiring the reader to affirm new values.

Faced with such choices, no wonder so many people cling desperately to old values, even if they only half believe them.

4 thoughts on “Maslow’s Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences

  1. “Though the answers were not acceptable, the questions themselves were and are perfectly acceptable, and perfectly legitimate.”

    I haven’t read the writings of Maslow. This book sounds like one I’d read, especially because I found somewhere else that Maslow admired the writings of Williams James.

  2. Yes, I’ve seen Maslow compared to William James as having explored religious topics as a part of psychology.

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