Book Review: Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences

(Penguin Books, 1976, ISBN 0 14 00 4262 8) By Abraham H. Maslow

It is with some degree of pleasure that I renewed my acquaintance with Abraham H. Maslow through reading again his collection of essays en­titled RELIGION, VALUES AND PEAK-EXPERIENCES (Penguin Books, 1976). Although written originally to be delivered in lecture-format in the heady days of the Sixties, I found many of Maslow’s themes to have contemporary relevance and significance.

A brief glance at the table of contents warns the reader that this work is going to demand a degree of concentration way beyond that required by pulp fiction and pop psychology. With essay titles such as: Dichoto­mised Science and Dichotomised Religion and Organisational Dangers to Trans­cendent Experiences, the academic tone of the language of the text becomes an added to challenge to that of understanding the substance of the text. And yet there is much to reward the reader who pursues the thought-pro­cesses of each lecture.

Essentially this is a collection of essays which examines the connections between religion, science, mystical experience, cognition and values. In his Introduction, Maslow outlines how the concept of “values” has been appropriated by the organised churches in order to “put their peculiar meaning on it.” (Maslow’s italics) He wanted to take them back. Indeed, to this writer, that’s the central theme of each essay – redefining in humanistic terms that which has traditionally belonged to the realm of mysticism, religion, magic and the supernatural. Even in terms of language alone, words which normally refer to God or religion, Maslow argues, can be used by non-theistic people to describe subjective experiences. He rejects the notion that organised religion should be accepted as the only source or custodian of virtues and values, arguing instead that truth should inform the selection process by which we “choose between the many value possibilities which clamour for belief.”

The central point of the essay called Dichotomised Science and Dicho­tomised Religion is that new developments in psychology are forcing a change in the philosophy of science. This change is so great, Maslow posits, that even basic questions concerning religion can now fall within the scope of a widening interpretation of science. By seeing religion and science as natural opposites, knowledge and values were also viewed as separate concepts. Yet it is interesting today to see that scientific develop­ment in the world of genetic engineering, for instance, has become the focus of moral and ethical questioning. Continuing with the central theme of his Introduction, Maslow now sees that the problems of values, ethics, spirituality and morals have to be taken away from the jurisdiction of the institutionalised churches and become instead the “property” of a new type of humanistic science. This will involve redefining both religion and science in order to accommodate basic value questions which until now have been unsatisfactorily answered.

In The “Core-Religious” or “Transcendent Experience”, Maslow examines what he calls “the intrinsic core, the essence” of high religion, namely, “the private, lonely, personal illumination, revelation or ecstasy of some acutely sensitive prophet or seer.” He calls such ecstasies “peak-experiences or “transcendent experiences”. Because all of these mystical, or peak-experiences are the same in essence, Maslow hypothesises that all religions are the same in their essence, and always have been. As humans, we have the capacity to become “peakers”. But because some devote their energies in the direction of the materialistic, the mechanical or the purely rational, they tend to become “non-peakers”. When the symbols, rituals and words become concretised, the real meaning is lost and religion is diminished as a result. Thus, in most world religions, one finds the split between the “peakers” (the mystics) and the “non-peakers” (those who rely on concretised symbols and rulings). Unfortunately, those who never become “peak-experiencers” are denied the use of such experiences for their “personal therapy, personal growth, or personal fulfilment.” With the pace of life of the Nineties and the unstoppable drive towards materialism and con­sumerism, the need for personal space and quality time for the self has never been greater. The world needs more “peakers” to promote a more enlightened vision for the future.

Maslow returns to the theme of religion in Organisational Dangers to Transcendent Experiences. He argues that “religionising” one part of life only serves to secularise the rest of it. By contrast, “serious” people can “religionise” any part of the day or any part of life. Non-theists and agnos­tics can also have “peak-experiences” since these experiences are no longer dependent on belonging to an organised church or accepting con­cretised formulae of creed. He further states that familiarisation and repetition, while producing comfort and security, also lowers the “inten­sity and richness of consciousness.” While words can be repeated mind­lessly, they may not touch the intrapersonal depths. Thus organised religion may fail to be the force for positive personal development that ideally it should be, because people have not fully understood or experienced the real meaning behind ritual, symbol and ceremony.

In the short chapter called Hope, Scepticism and Man’s Higher Nature, Maslow describes the predicament of many modern intellectuals who deplore the undermining of spiritual values when belief in God or the hereafter is rejected. The absence of values results in “rootlessness, value pathology, meaninglessness, existential boredom, spiritual starvation, etc.” Many people are now caught in this situation of valuelessness which can lead to adverse consequences for the individual. Psychotherapy can meet and address some of the symptoms of this value-hunger.

Science and the Religious Liberals and Non-Theists has as its central hypo­thesis the fact that “mystery, ambiguity, illogic, contradiction, mystic and transcendent experiences may now be considered to lie well within the realm of nature.” In throwing out religion, some nineteenth-century thinkers went too far in that they threw out too much. The value-vacuum which resulted from this can be addressed in terms of humanistic psychology and psychotherapeutic approaches. Maslow the turns to the question of Value-Free Education. If educationalists reject the value systems as enshrined in religion and encourage a value-free schooling for young people, they lose sight of the consequences of this kind of education, i.e., conflict and confusion. By emphasising information and technology, both morally neutral in themselves, they exclude the fact that the application of such knowledge and technology can have moral and ethical perspectives which must be addressed. Distinguishing “good” from “bad” leads us to distinguish the consequences or end-values of human actions. If we are clear about our value structures, we will be equally clear about the kind of education needed to realise human fulfilment. Maslow sees that as educa­tion becomes more based on natural and scientific knowledge instead of on custom, tradition and unexamined beliefs, both science and organised religion need to be redefined in order to provide “ultimate values”.

In concluding, Maslow states that everything that can be defined as characteristic of the religious experience, for example, awe, powerlessness, the sacred, humility, elation, rapture, awareness of limits, etc. – all of these can be accepted by clergymen and atheists alike. Disagreement lies only in the cause, interpretation or concept of these experiences. He suggests that theologians and scientists are moving closer and closer together in their conception of the universe having some kind of integration, as growing and evolving, and therefore as having some kind of meaning. Whether people call this “God”, “Order” or “Force” really makes little difference since they are all talking about the same essential thing.

He puts a final rhetorical question: “What is the practical upshot of all these considerations?” The answer is most relevant to our own rapidly changing educational environment and so I will quote it in full. “We wind up with a rather startling conclusion, namely, that the teaching of spiritual values, of ethical and moral values does (in principle) have a place in education, perhaps ultimately a very basic and essential place, and that this in no way needs to controvert the American separation between church and state for the very simple reason that spiritual, ethical and moral values need not have anything to do with any church. Or perhaps, better said, they are the common core of all churches, all religions, including the non-theistic ones. As a matter of fact, it is possible that precisely these ultimate values are and should be the far goals of psychotherapy, of child care, of marriage, the family, of work, and perhaps of all other social institutions.”

At a time when our own society is undergoing relentless and funda­mental change, when the values enshrined in a traditional concept of church are being rigorously questioned and even rejected, when it seems that scientific and technological advancement will ultimately lead to environmental disaster, Abraham H. Maslow’s Religions, Values and Peak-Experiences is a publication with contemporary significance.

Aidan J. Herron

Aidan is involved in education and has published several books on sex and relationship development: “So You want to Know?”, “Girlfacts/Boyfacts” and “Sex Lines” all published by Poolbeg.