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Tom Flynn (Ed.) Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007.

Pages 487-489. Entry by Frank L. Pasquale

LEUBA, JAMES H. (1868–1946), American psychologist.

James H. Leuba was born in Neuchatel, Switzerland,
where early skeptical reaction to Calvinist doctrine
and behavior prompted a lifelong interest in understanding
religious experience. After receiving a bachelor’s
degree from the University of Neuchatel, Leuba
moved with his family to the United States. He earned
a doctorate in psychology at Clark University under G.
Stanley Hall, with a dissertation on the psychology of
religious conversion. He spent his entire academic career
as professor and, for a time, chairman of the department
of psychology at Bryn Mawr College.
Body of Work. Leuba’s approach to the study
of religious experience was resolutely naturalistic and
empirical, carefully reasoned and forthright. This earned
him intermittent critical reactions from religious colleagues
and apologists throughout his career. While his lasting
reputation rests upon seminal studies of beliefs in a personal
God and immortality in the United States, the balance
of his work deserves equal, if not greater, attention.
In The Psychological Origin and the Nature of
Religion (1909) and A Psychological Study of Religion
(1912), Leuba sounds several themes that frame his lifelong
view of religious experience. To maintain clarity about
the subject, religion is delimited to “that part of human
experience in which man feels himself in relation with
powers” of a “psychic,” divine, or supernatural nature.
He rejected the utility of definitions of “religion” that
encompass “anything that is of considerable value to
man.” Religious experience is viewed as a complex,
natural, functional, and in certain forms dysfunctional
means of meeting basic human needs. Leuba was critical
of attempts to reduce religion to a single dimension. In
its internal aspect, religion involves “willing, feeling,
and thinking” aimed at the gratification of human
“needs, desires, and yearnings.” In its external aspect, it
involves practices, rites, ceremonies, and institutions.
Leuba vigorously combated the view that, due to its
claimed supernatural content, religious experience falls
outside the purview of science. He insisted that since
religious consciousness is a psychological process, it is
accessible to empirical inquiry: “[T]he gods of religion
are inductions from experience, and are therefore proper
objects of science.” Leuba could not be persuaded “that
divine personal beings . . . have more than a subjective
existence.” At the same time, religion arose from natural
psychological processes to meet human needs. It should
be “looked upon as a functional part of life, as that mode
of behavior in the struggle for life in which use is made
of powers characterized . . . as psychic, superhuman, and
usually personal.”
Leuba offers compelling, if speculative, accounts of
the likely origins of religious beliefs. Ideas of ghosts,
nature-beings, and gods emerge from a wide range of
psychological processes, including altered states of
consciousness (such as trances, dreams, apparitions, and
hallucinations), prescientific perceptions of striking natural
phenomena, and the human penchant for attributing purposive
agency to “explain” natural events. Throughout
his work, Leuba was critical of religious ideas at odds
with scientific knowledge and moral progress. In this
connection, he was consistently critical of selected
aspects of Christian monotheism (such as a personal
relationship with God). The closing chapter of The Belief in
God and Immortality: A Psychological, Anthropological,
and Statistical Study (1916) is an eloquent essay on the
independence of moral knowledge from religious belief
and the threats to moral progress posed by certain religious
In The Belief in God and Immortality, Leuba
reported on the first of his statistical surveys of
(un)belief in a personal God and immortality among
American scientists, historians, college students, and
others (see SCIENCE, UNBELIEF WITHIN). Thanks in
part to a general replication of his surveys of scientists
in the 1990s by Edward J. Larson and Larry Witham,
Leuba’s findings remain in the public eye. He found,
for example, that fewer scientists overall were believers
than “doubters” or “disbelievers” in a personal God (42
percent in 1914, declining to 30 percent in a subsequent
survey in 1933). Belief in immortality was slightly
more prevalent, but also showed a decline from 49 percent
in 1914 to 33 percent in 1933. Also, believers in
both a personal God and immortality were substantially
rarer among “elite” compared with “lesser” scientists,
and among social scientists compared with physical or
biological scientists.
In The Psychology of Religious Mysticism (1925),
Leuba provided an extensive and detailed analysis of the
varied forms, causes, and perennial allure of altered and
Drawing from extensive historical source materials,
his unflinching naturalistic analysis drew critical
reaction. His view that associations of God or the divine
with the “immediate” content of mystical experience
result from post hoc cognition, rather than direct
“knowledge” of such realities, contrasted with William
James’s greater propensity to allow that the apparent
immediacy of such associations may offer evidence of
their referent truth. The fact that Leuba’s work has
remained obscured in the shadow of James’s “The Will
to Believe” and The Varieties of Religious Experience is
noteworthy and regrettable.
In God or Man? A Study of the Value of God to
Man (1933) and The Reformation of the Churches (1950;
published posthumously), Leuba recapitulated his main
themes and looked to the future of religion, human
needs, and moral progress. Throughout his career, he
held that religious ideas and forms at odds with scientific
knowledge or moral progress would gradually be supplanted
(the secularization hypothesis). Rather than a
complete eclipse of religious by scientific or secular
worldviews, Leuba foresaw forms of experience and
behavior that preserve some of the functional benefits of
religion in harmony with scientific knowledge. He
repeatedly cited Felix ADLER’s ETHICAL CULTURE as
one possible model for such future “religion”—retaining a
sense of the “spiritual,” a natural and consequence-based
moral approach, and due regard for scientific inquiry and
knowledge. He spoke hopefully about the early promise
of philosophical HUMANISM. However, he held “no
expectation . . . of a rapid transformation of all the
churches,” noting that “fundamentalist churches are far
from having been outgrown by all the people,” a “religious
rear guard will remain with us for a long while,”
and that “intellectual and moral progress is distressingly
slow.” The whole of Leuba’s body of work and its central
messages deserve renewed attention and reappraisal.

Brown, C. Mackenzie. “The Conflict between Religion
and Science in Light of the Patterns of Religious Belief
among Scientists.” Zygon 38 (September 2003).
James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience:
A Study in Human Nature. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2002.
———. “The Will to Believe.” In The Will to Believe
and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy. New York:
Dover, 1960.
Larson, Edward J., and Larry Witham. “Leading Scientists
Still Reject God.” Nature 394 (1998).
———. “Scientists and Religion in America.” Scientific
American 281 (September 1999).
———. “Scientists Are Still Keeping the Faith.” Nature
386 (1997).
Leuba, James H. The Belief in God and Immortality: A
Psychological, Anthropological, and Statistical Study.
Boston: Sherman, French, 1916.
———. God or Man? A Study of the Value of God to
Man. New York: Henry Holt, 1933.
———. “The Making of a Psychologist of Religion.” In
Religion in Transition, edited by Vergilius T. Ferm.
London: Allen & Unwin, 1937.
———. The Psychological Origin and the Nature of
Religion. London: Archibald Constable, 1909.
———. A Psychological Study of Religion: Its Origin,
Function, and Future. New York: Macmillan, 1912.
———. The Psychology of Religious Mysticism. New
York: Harcourt, Brace, 1925.
———. The Reformation of the Churches. Boston:
Beacon, 1950.
———. “Religious Beliefs of American Scientists.”
Harper’s, August 1934.