TLDR: Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences

A summary of A. H. Maslow’s 1964 book.

You know those books that just speak to you? That put into words that which you felt at some deep level, but didn’t have the words to perfectly describe? A. H. Maslow’s Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences is one of them for me. I thought it would be interesting to write up a summary, in case it resonates with others the way it did with me.

(Galen Rowell, Himalayas)

I included the book’s Appendix A in its entirety as a supplement. It gives an excellent description of what peak-experiences are, which will be important later:

Appendix A: Religious Aspects of Peak-Experiences

Maslow’s central idea here is that science and religion have become separated from each other, and as a result have become worse versions of themselves. He envisions a new kind of science that integrates the useful aspects of science and religion into one framework, giving us a more complete description of reality.

“As always, dichotomizing pathologizes (and pathology dichotomizes). Isolating two interrelated parts of a whole from each other, parts that need each other, parts that are truly "parts" and not wholes, distorts them both, sickens and contaminates them.”

On science:

“[The separation between science and religion] permitted nineteenth-century science to become too exclusively mechanistic, too positivistic, too reductionistic, too desperately attempting to be value-free. It mistakenly conceived of itself as having nothing to say about ends or ultimate values or spiritual values.”

“Such an attitude dooms science to be nothing more than technology, amoral and non-ethical (as the Nazi doctors taught us). Such a science can be no more than a collection of instrumentalities, methods, techniques, nothing but a tool to be used by any man, good or evil, and for any ends, good or evil.”

“[The exclusion of the sacred and the transcendent from the jurisdiction of science] makes impossible in principle the study, for instance, of certain aspects of the abstract: psychotherapy, naturalistic religious experience, creativity, symbolism, play, the theory of love, mystical and peak-experiences, not to mention poetry, art, and a lot more (since these all involve an integration of the realm of Being with the realm of the concrete).”

“One could say that the nineteenth-century atheist 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.”

“The theory of science which permits and encourages the exclusion of so much that is true and real and existent cannot be considered a comprehensive science. It is obviously not an organization of everything that is real. It doesn't integrate all the data. Instead of saying that these new data are "unscientific," I think we are now ready to turn the tables and change the definition of science so that it is able to include these data.”

On religion:

“This dichotomizing of knowledge and values has also pathologized the organized religions by cutting them off from facts, from knowledge, from science, even to the point of often making them the enemies of scientific knowledge. In effect, it tempts them to say that they have nothing more to learn.”

“[Dichotomized religion] 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.”

“Such a split-off religion generates split-off and partial definition of all necessary concepts. For example, faith, which has perfectly respectable naturalistic meanings, as for example in Fromm's writings, tends in the hands of an anti-intellectual church to degenerate into blind belief, sometimes even "belief in what you know ain't so." It tends to become unquestioning obedience and last-ditch loyalty no matter what. It tends to produce sheep rather than men. It tends to become arbitrary and authoritarian.”

“What happens to many people, especially the ignorant, the uneducated, the naive, is that they simply concretize all of the symbols, all of the words, all of the statues, all of the ceremonies, and by a process of functional autonomy make them, rather than the original revelation, into the sacred things and sacred activities. That is to say, this is simply a form of the idolatry (or fetishism) which has been the curse of every large religion.

On “Religious Liberals and Non-Theists”:

“In their revolt against the organized, institutionalized churches, they have unwittingly accepted the immature and naive dichotomy between traditional religion (as the only carrier of values), on one hand, and, on the other, a totally mechanistic, reductionistic, objectivistic, neutral, value-free science.”

“They stress rational knowledge and are uneasy with the irrational, the anti-rational, the non-rational, as if Freud and Jung and Adler had never lived. So they know nothing officially of a subrational unconscious, of repression, or of defensive processes in general, of resistances to insight, of impulses which are determinants of behavior and yet are unknown to the person himself.”

What then, could be a path forward? Maslow views peak-experiences as an essential part in whatever it ends up being (where a peak-experience is this transcendent, religious experience more thoroughly described in Appendix A).

Religion ought to promote peak-experiences and encourage exploration and mystery. People should be free to “discover, develop and retain [their] own religion” instead of blindly adhering to symbols, words, ceremonies, etc while not actually having any religious experiences of their own.

On the other hand, science and education should not shy away from values — to focus on what ought to be in addition to what is. In addition, education specifically should focus on self-actualization.

You might be wondering then, which oughts should these institutions focus on? Well…

“Perhaps my most important finding was the discovery of what I am calling B-values or the intrinsic values of Being. When I asked the question, "How does the world look different in peak-experiences?", the hundreds of answers that I got could be boiled down to a quintessential list of characteristics which, though they overlap very much with one another can still be considered as separate for the sake of research. What is important for us in this context is that this list of the described characteristics of the world as it is perceived in our most perspicuous moments is about the same as what people through the ages have called eternal verities, or the spiritual values, or the highest values, or the religious values. What this says is that facts and values are not totally different from each other; under certain circumstances, they fuse. Most religions have either explicitly or by implication affirmed some relationship or even an overlapping or fusion between facts and values. For instance, people not only existed but they were also sacred. The world was not only merely existent but it was also sacred.”

A list of Maslow’s B-values (from Wikipedia):

  • Truth: honesty; reality; nakedness; simplicity; richness; oughtness; beauty; pure, clean and unadulterated; completeness; essentiality

  • Goodness: rightness; desirability; oughtness; justice; benevolence; honesty

  • Beauty: rightness; form; aliveness; simplicity; richness; wholeness; perfection; completion; uniqueness; honesty

  • Wholeness: unity; integration; tendency to one-ness; interconnectedness; simplicity; organization; structure; dichotomy-transcendence; order

  • Aliveness: process; non-deadness; spontaneity; self-regulation; full-functioning

  • Uniqueness: idiosyncrasy; individuality; non-comparability; novelty

  • Perfection: necessity; just-right-ness; just-so-ness; inevitability; suitability; justice; completeness; "oughtness"

  • Completion: ending; finality; justice; "it's finished"; fulfillment; finis and telos; destiny; fate

  • Justice: fairness; orderliness; lawfulness; "oughtness"

  • Simplicity: honesty; nakedness; essentiality; abstract, essential, skeletal structure

  • Richness: differentiation, complexity; intricacy

  • Effortlessness: ease; lack of strain, striving or difficulty; grace; perfect, beautiful functioning

  • Playfulness: fun; joy; amusement; gaiety; humor; exuberance; effortlessness

  • Self-sufficiency: autonomy; independence; not-needing-other-than-itself-in-order-to-be-itself; self-determining; environment-transcendence; separateness; living by its own laws

Dunno about you, but it’s quite fascinating to me that there exists a set of values that people roughly converge on, regardless of which religion or culture they happen to be a part of. This seems to suggest that not only does there exist an objective morality, but that it’s quite specific and accessible. These values also seem to line up quite closely with Carse’s notion of the infinite game from his book Finite and Infinite Games (perhaps a topic for some other time).

I’m not quite sure what to make of all this yet, only that it feels important and should be investigated more thoroughly.

Let me know your thoughts!

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