The Sad Religion

Talking of the great religions that enslave men’s thoughts, Spiritualism rarely comes to mind. Nevertheless, it has more devotees than any minority; and, if you reckon all the half-convinced and the non-practitioners, probably as many as most branches of orthodox Christianity.

Nobody knows even approximately the number who believe in spirits. There is no demarcation between Spiritualism and the ordinary religious beliefs: most Spiritualists are simply Christians with special interest in the after-life. Virtually every town or suburb of any size has a Spiritualist Church, but there is also a good deal of séance-holding in front rooms, as well as occasional mass demonstrations of clairvoyance in the larger cities. There are two Spiritualist journals, and the older-established of these, Psychic News (Two Worlds is the other one), claims a circulation of 25,000.

In the last few years popular interest in Spiritualism has grown considerably. The reason hardly needs pointing out. It was, in fact, the 1914-18 war that set the Spiritualist movement on its feet; J. Arthur Hill’s Spiritualism, published in 1913, testifies that numbers then were “not very great.” For the truth is that Spiritualism is a sad religion which has sprung from the disconsolation and loneliness of the bereaved; its sustainers have been not Lodge, Crookes, Wallace and the rest, but the dead of two wars and their widows.

Leaving aside the anthropological aspects (though the medium’s ancestry goes back to Plato and his kinship to the ju-ju man), the modern Spiritualist movement can be said to have begun in America in the eighteen-forties. A Methodist household astonished New York State with rapped-out messages from the dead; and, though the daughters later confessed to cracking their toe-joints, table-rapping spread like wildfire through the eastern states. A few years later the first “spirit medium,” D. D. Home, left America to tour half the world.

And again, it is not difficult to see that the background to this was the tremendous growth of industrialism and all its consequences, in which the depression of 1837 had left its mark. Jack London was to find “the congested labour centres of the eastern states, where men were small potatoes and hunted the job for all they were worth . . . I saw the workers in the shambles at the bottom of the Social Pit.” There is hardly a difference between Spiritualism in its origins and the hopeful, near-hysterical revival movements which fed upon the degradation of the nineteenth-century working class.

Several of the early Spiritualist leaders were clergymen: the Reverend Moses, for example, who had a large part in founding various Spiritualist bodies. It is not surprising, when one thinks of the miracles and apparitions to which orthodox Christianity commits them. Indeed, spirits are part of almost every religion in the world. Even the Catholic Church, which condemns Spiritualism, does so only on the ground that the Spiritualists’ spirits come from the Devil; within Catholicism there is belief in visions, miracles, poltergeists and every kind of long-leggity beasty.

The Society for Physical Research was founded in 1882. Some of the early Spiritualists left or would have nothing to do with it, disapproving of any proposal to investigate their claims. The only real question for the Society, however, was the degree of supernatural activity, and by 1913 it was made up of people who shared beliefs in telepathy and, in the words of Hill’s book, “the existence and agency of disembodied minds.” The voluminous Proceedings of the S.P.R. read, as Fitzgerald remarked in the Socialist Standard in the nineteen-twenties, “like the minutes of a gathering of intoxicated persons,” and to think of them as scientific enquiries is ludicrous: D. H. Rawcliffe, in The Psychology of the Occult, comments scathingly on the Society’s methods of investigation.

The history of Spiritualism is, in fact, a pitiful chronicle of frauds and gullibility (at the time of writing, a Sunday paper is featuring yet another medium’s “revelations”). The biographer of Houdini, the great illusionist, relates how he was continually sought after by Spiritualists and embittered by the attempt to trick him cheaply at a séance arranged by Conan Doyle. It is easy to discredit Spiritualism and easier still to make fun of it; really, it is not funny at all. For every fraud, charlatan or ectoplasm-pedlar there has to be a lonely, unhappy or even deranged person. The once-eminent scientist who thought he walked arm-in-arm with a spirit named Katie, and the aged Blatchford listening to his dead wife, are sad figures.

Most Spiritualist meetings are not hauntings, however. They consist usually of hymns and an address, followed by “clairvoyance ” by a medium who professes to see and pass the messages from dead people. “I am talking to airman who was killed in the war; is there anybody here? There is. He says his name is—is it John? James? His name is James, he says. He has a message for his sister. A lady, at any rate. He says he saw you not long before he died in a place where there were some trees. Do you understand that? You do. He wants to tell you everything will be alright . . . ” and so on. It is often done with considerable skill in observation and deduction, and it is not surprising that some people are strongly impressed.

The more spectacular spirit manifestations are brought forth at séances: ectoplasm, rappings, trumpet-blowing, levitation and apparitions. Not uncommonly, too, Spiritualists have individual encounters with the spirits. If it all sounds ridiculous, it is not much more so than some of the Catholic visions and the Anglican taboos; and the high-water mark for Methodists and many hot-gospel addicts is the religious “experience” — a blinding flash of revelation which takes all kinds of forms.

Why, one wonders, are they not all prosecuted and locked up under the Witchcraft Act? That has occasionally happened to over-ambitious mediums (more often, however, they have been brought to court for bilking wealthy clients at the spirits’ instigation). For one thing, as has been said, the Spiritualist cult does not hold anything which is foreign to Christian beliefs. Its basis is a simple belief in God, and it holds a strong line of respectable Christian morality.

Indeed, Spiritualism always holds an element of hopefulness for the Christian churches, if it were true, if the spirit-world could be incontrovertibly proved, the effect would be a field-day for Christianity generally. Thus, though some churchmen (Dean Inge was one) pooh-pooh Spiritualism, more keep “an open mind”— i.e., hope for something useful to come out of it. Dr. Winnington Ingram, the late Bishop of London, believed that people would be “exactly the same five minutes after death as five minutes before” and would “still take great interest in the world we have left” (Sermon at St. Lawrence. Jewry, quoted in Hill’s Spiritualism),

If is worth mentioning, in this connection, that the “extra-sensory perception” experiments of recent years are only new attempts to prove the unprovable basic fallacy of Spiritualism: that the mind is a thing in itself. The Churches have watched just as hopefully, for the same reasons. It is a curious proof, in fact, of the materialist case—that mind and consciousness are effects of material causes—which the bishops hope somehow to see disproved by the roll of a dice.

It is often argued that if Spiritualism provides comfort and solace to people who might not otherwise find them, there can be not much harm and possibly a lot of good in it Rawcliffe, who attacks every form of spirit belief in The Psychology of the Occult, says this. “Religious spiritualism, for many, transforms the facts of death and suffering into something which does not hurt quite so much. It often helps the individual to adjust himself to the problems of life, compensates for frustrations, and provides a seemingly logical justification to existence.”

Put like that, the social rôle of Spiritualism sounds unobjectionable and even praiseworthy; but, of course, it isn’t that at all. The same might be said of the great religious movements of the last century, from Wesley’s onwards. Stimulating hope in the after-life, they provided a shield against existence for millions to whom existence was hell—and thereby made them submissive and unquestioning to the miseries they should have fought. The real question is not how to make up for suffering and frustration, but whether most of the suffering need exist at all.

The coercion of Spiritualism is as great as that of any other religious form: the conception of a “great cloud of witnesses” watching the believer is, as Hill (himself a member of the S.P.R.) puts it, “a moral lever of immense power.” Though there is no laid-down body of doctrine and instruction as to personal and social conduct, the implications are clear enough. The effect, after all, is the important thing. People with their eyes fixed upon the next world are not likely to concern themselves too much about this one.

All the world’s religions serve the interests of their respective ruling classes—the cult of spirits in Japan as well as Christianity in the western world. In its smaller way. Spiritualism contributes to the same end: the making of a submissive working class. Perhaps more than any other, however, its existence and nature point to the need not to accept, but to end as speedily as possible the conditions from which unhappiness and suffering grow. Only a sad, sad world could produce such a sad religion.


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