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D-Day for God?

The horrors of the Second World War led many in the west to conclude that God was dead. And, as religious belief declined, millions began to turn to drugs, rock music and the psychiatrist's couch

Worshippers inside the Duke Street Baptist Church in Richmond, Surrey, listening to a service in 1954. (Photo by Bert Hardy/Picture Post/Getty Images)
Published: February 22, 2014 at 10:16 pm
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This article was first published in the February 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine


Later this year we shall be marking anniversaries of two world wars. Friday 6 June is the 70th anniversary of D-Day, and July sees nothing less than the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. Is there anything new to say about these momentous events? Well, yes there is, as I am going to argue here. One of the more enduring – if indirect – legacies of the two world wars is that they played havoc with our religious beliefs. Because of them, we are at sixes and sevens over whether we believe in God or not, and not only in Britain. A lot of us don’t know whether we believe in anything anymore.

Both world wars were followed by a marked acceleration in secularisation, in the west at least. In the 1920s, and again in the late 1940s and the 1950s, not only did fewer people go to church, but their attitudes towards authority, premarital sex, the need for virginity in a wife and the legitimacy of contraception were transformed.

It is not hard to see why. The millions who had suffered senseless killing or needless injury – the horror in the trenches, the unfathomable cruelties of the Holocaust, the destructive power of the atomic bomb – were now asking questions of God. Where was he on the western front? How could he have countenanced Auschwitz or Nagasaki? Many reached the same conclusion as the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had in the 19th century: God was dead.

Soldiers returning from abroad, after years away from home, sharing dangers with comrades their own age, were bound to be more experienced, knowing and permissive than their parents. But there was more to it than that.

In the wake of the Second World War, even the churches realised that they were losing ground, and this was because of a quite different but parallel phenomenon – the growth of depth psychology. This happened on both sides of the Atlantic (the Nazis had reluctantly allowed Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, to emigrate from Vienna to London in 1938), but at first psychotherapy spread more widely in the United States than in Europe.

In America, where the churches were further from Rome and Canterbury, religious leaders conceded more readily that faiths could learn from the new psychology.

One of those leaders, Joshua Loth Liebman, may not be remembered today as much as other writers of the time. But his book Peace of Mind, published in 1946, topped The New York Times bestseller list for 58 weeks, a record. It was to prove a watershed.

A Boston-based rabbi, Liebman began by drawing attention to the shortcomings of both religion and psychology. Many religious books, he argued, only made people feel more guilty and sinful while many psychology books made people feel abnormal, as if they were ‘case histories’. His aim, he said, was to explain what modern psychology had discovered about human nature, over and above what religion said.

Religion was “prescientific”, he conceded, formulated before the psychological revolution. For all its achievements, religion had been responsible “for many morbid consciences, infinite confusions and painful distortions in the psychic life of people”.

Religion – and not God – was to blame for this, with the likes of Augustine, Calvin and Luther all being obsessed with wickedness. And Liebman argued that the strategy of the church to cope with wickedness had been repression. Western religions had insisted that people can be good only through the repression of sensual impulses. Most importantly, Liebman concluded, that strategy had not worked.

Liebman made the important distinction that whereas atonement is the aim of the confessional, psychotherapy does not require someone to feel sorry for their sins as they outgrow them. “The confessional only touches the surface of a man’s life,” he said, while the spiritual advice of the church throws no light on the causes that lead someone to confession in the first place. Moreover, priestly strictures about confessants showing more ‘willpower’ were “ineffective counsels”.

On the other hand, psychotherapy was, Liebman said, designed to help someone work on his (or her) own problems without “borrowing” the conscience of a priest, and “offers change through self-understanding, not self-condemnation”. And this was the unique way to inner peace. The human self, Liebman insisted, was not a gift from God, as traditionally taught, but an achievement.

The religion of the future, he declared, must poach from the psychotherapist’s armoury. He told his readers that henceforth it should not be “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” but “Thou shalt love thyself properly and then thou wilt be able to love thy neighbor”.

Liebman set the tone. And his book sold in millions, making him the spearhead of wider developments within the churches.

In 1939, as the Second World War began, pastoral psychology courses in seminaries were rare. But by 1950, thanks to Liebman’s lead, four out of five theological schools had psychologists on their staff. By the end of the decade, 117 centres for clinical pastoral psychology had been established.

At first the church showed resistance to, in particular, psychoanalysis. Ministers condemned it as an “unsatisfactory mix of materialism, hedonism, infantilism and eroticism” and, in contrast to the confessional, therapy gave no norms or standards. This intransigence didn’t last, however, because in February 1954 Pope Pius XII gave pastoral psychology a tentative go-ahead.

Other churches followed, and so one can say that the mid-1950s really marks the point at which a secular psychological model of ‘fulfillment’, ‘wholeness’ and ‘self-realisation’ in this life, began to outweigh a religious concept of ‘salvation’ in an afterlife. And it was this sanctioning of psychology by religious institutions that, as much as anything, encouraged the ‘therapy boom’ that blossomed in the 1960s. Psychotherapy was now proliferating internationally. It epitomised new ways of living and, for many, it replaced religion.

As the number of clergy plummeted – so much so that some people were predicting the extinction of the Anglican church within a generation – the ranks of counsellors snowballed. In fact, by the end of the 20th century, the profusion of therapies constituted what the sociologist Frank Furedi identified as “therapy culture”.

But therapy was only one of three developments that, for many people, replaced the role of religion following the Second World War. The other two were drugs and music – in particular, rock and roll. These together comprised what was called the counter-culture.

It is worth pointing out that roughly one in four people born in the west after the Second World War has used illegal drugs – it is not a fringe activity. And it was against this background that, in 1960, Timothy Leary first ingested Psilocybe mexicana, the mysterious magical mushroom of Mexico. As a result, Leary, a psychology lecturer at Harvard University, came to the view that these mushrooms – whose active ingredient was from the same family as LSD – could “revolutionise” psychotherapy, bringing with it the “possibility of instantaneous self-insight”.

Leary decided to put the potential of Psilocybe mexicana to the test at Concord State Prison in New Hampshire – in what was the first controlled experiment involving the drug. The changes in the inmates were, he noted, dramatic: “[F]riction and tension were lowered, and there was talk in the sessions about ‘love’ and ‘God’ and ‘sharing’.”

In the early 1960s, Leary and his assistants managed, as they put it, to “arrange transcendental experiences” for more than a thousand people. This second set of studies revealed that, “when the setting was supportive but not explicitly spiritual, between 40 and 75 per cent of their subjects nonetheless reported life-changing religious experiences. Yet when the setting emphasised spiritual themes, up to 90 per cent reported having mystical experiences.” These substances were known as ‘entheogens’ – generators of the ‘divine within’.

In a third experiment, Leary sought to clarify whether the transcendental component of psychedelic experience really was equal to those visions reported by saints and mystics. He gathered 24 divinity students from a seminary and divided them into five groups of four. On Good Friday 1962, after a service in the chapel, some students were given psilocybin; others a placebo of nicotinic acid, which should produce only hot and cold flushes.

After 30 minutes, the 10 who had ingested the nicotinic acid were sitting facing the altar. The others were “lying on the floors and pews, wandering round, murmuring prayers as one of them played ‘weird, exciting, chords’ on the church’s pipe organ. Another… clambered across the pews and stood facing the crucifix, transfixed, arms outstretched as if trying to identify physically with Christ and his suffering on the cross.” To Leary and his aides, the experiment proved that “spiritual ecstasy, religious revelation and union with God were now directly accessible”.

When Time magazine got hold of the story, however, Harvard Divinity School took a very different view: follow-up studies were cancelled, a medical apparatchik from the Food and Drug Administration described the psychological benefits of the study as “pure bunk”, and Leary was fired.

But LSD itself didn’t go away. It was now the late sixties, the west was falling in love with rock music, and acts like the Grateful Dead were headlining festivals in which religious epiphanies flourished.

At much the same time, in Los Angeles, Paul Rothchild, a record producer who had cut his teeth with Crosby, Stills and Nash, was supervising Jim Morrison and the Doors in one of the first – perhaps the very first – albums to be produced on LSD. Rothchild himself thought that the session that day was “one of the most important moments in recorded rock and roll”.

Rothchild was no stranger to drugs. He had smoked marijuana since he was 17 but when acid began to “trickle in”, he says it had a significant impact on music.

For him it occurred one night in 1967 when he visited the Woodstock home of Albert Grossman, the manager of Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and Peter, Paul and Mary. Dylan was staying there, after a tour of New England colleges. “We opened the refrigerator to find sugar cubes with little gold dots on them, wrapped in aluminum foil.” They took the acid and from that moment, Rothchild remembers, Dylan’s music changed. “From simple but powerful songs of social observation and protest and moral conscience to those elusive compositions of no single message or ultimate meaning… The experience of drugs seemed to splinter Dylan’s mind into brilliant kaleidoscopic flashes of poetry; the result was strange, mystical, beautiful compositions like ‘Mr Tambourine Man’.”

If Dylan’s music was the first creative highlight of the new drugs-and-rock scene, the other two were the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the Woodstock festival itself.

Released in June 1967, Sergeant Pepper was soon regarded as “a masterpiece of the psychedelic age”, confirming that the Beatles had “incorporated the sensibility of consciousness-altering substances into every aspect of its creation”. At the Monterey pop festival, John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas declared: “Now there was an album that proved to the masses what musicians had believed for years: that music and drugs work wonders together.”

Two years later, on 15 August 1969, half a million people gathered in Bethel, New York for “the greatest party of the 20th century”. Woodstock was the ultimate rock festival. “Psychedelic drugs not only turned Woodstock into an acid-drenched holy quagmire but also shaped its soundtrack.” The festival quickly passed into myth. “Before long it was being considered in religious terms – the people were seekers, the rock stars their prophets and drugs pretty much their staff of life,” as a reporter wrote in Life.

The 1970s would become the golden age of marijuana, cannabis being for many a more benign substance than LSD but still with great spiritual, therapeutic (and, let’s not forget, commercial) potential. Leary urged people to start their own religions based on the “sacramental” use of marijuana and psychedelics.

There is no denying the almost universal appeal of therapy, drugs and rock and roll to the immediate postwar generations. But there is also no denying that they have been widely criticised.

Therapy has been denounced because, as Frank Furedi, a professor of sociology at the University of Kent has said, psychotherapists have proved opportunist, with a host of new ‘illnesses’ being conceived by new professions who “invent the needs they claim to satisfy”.

Furedi disliked this expanding “psychologicalisation” or “pathologicalisation” of life, arguing there was now a “promiscuity” of therapeutic diagnoses: redundancy counselling, counselling for people who are “exercise addicts” or “sex addicts”, counselling for people who are recently divorced, who have just given birth, for women who are depressed by having to do housework. He also decried the fact that children as young as four have become “legitimate targets for therapeutic intervention”.

Furedi’s argument was that many experiences hitherto regarded as normal everyday life have been redefined as injurious to people’s emotions and that from birth to bereavement, “people’s experience is interpreted through the medium of the therapeutic ethos”.

Among all this, he noted, there had been a subordination of religion to therapy. He referred to George Carey, archbishop of Canterbury (1991–2002), who remarked that “Christ the Saviour” was becoming “Christ the counsellor”. This, Furedi thought, was the fundamental problem: therapeutic culture exaggerates the vulnerability of people. It conceives the self “in distinctly fragile and feeble form and insists that the management of life requires the continuous intervention of therapeutic expertise”. In the long run, therapy has, in effect, replaced sin with pathology.

Drugs have been criticised because figures such as Timothy Leary and novelist Aldous Huxley all write of the insight acquired through the psychedelic experience as a direct apprehension of some deep truth. But ‘psychedelic spirituality’ hardly fits with the theological view that God is unknowable, cannot be perceived or even sensed. The God of the Torah never appears to humans directly, so what are we to make of claims by people on drugs that they have had direct encounters with God or seen angels face to face? No omniscient being can be summoned by worldly means against his or her will.

LSD is nowhere near as popular today as it was in the sixties and seventies. Instead, in the last years of the 20th century, people started turning to Prozac, empathogens (which promote empathy with others), and MDMA (Ecstasy), which has evocatively been described as “penicillin for the soul”, creating not so much a sense of ‘oneness’ with God, as a sense of connection with nature and with other people, even complete strangers. People flocked to mass ‘raves’, fuelled by MDMA, to experience what has been hailed as “equal parts therapy, mass catharsis and tribal bonding”.

Perhaps the changing fashions in the use of drugs, each with differing properties, has also played havoc with our beliefs. A survey in 2008 reported that, in Britain, 58 per cent of people believed in aliens and ghosts, whereas only 54 per cent believed in God.

But ‘tribal bonding’ is an apt phrase because, underneath the mish-mash of current beliefs, there is a great irony. Anthropologists now tell us that the very earliest form of religion – in Siberia, way back in the age of hunter-gatherers – was shamanism. Here, the holy figures, or shamans, used to exercise their power by visiting ‘other realms’ – to communicate with the ancestors, the leaders of the animals, the gods themselves. Such realms were accessible only with the aid of, you guessed it, hallucinogens. The more we advance, it seems, the more we travel back to where it all began.


Peter Watson is a historian and writer who specialises in the history of ideas. Among his previous books are The German Genius (Simon & Schuster, 2011) and The Great Divide (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2012)


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