American Journal of Sociology

Date: 1957

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Louisn/aSchneidern/an/an/an/a and SanfordM.Dornbuschn/an/an/an/a

Inspirational Religious Literature: From Latent to Manifest Functions of Religion1

The inspirational religious literature is known to be enormously popular. The books of Norman Vincent Peale today, of Bruce Barton a generation ago, and of numerous of their close intellectual relatives and imitators have achieved staggering sales. Sociologists have left comment on it to journalists or theologians or gifted outsiders. But it is of significance for the analysis of "cultural drift," with broad general implications. In this article, a brief survey of the inspirational religious literature and a summary of its dominant trends and themes, attention is given to a special phase which is of considerable sociological import.

The literature is by no means unitary, but strains or trends in it exhibit prominent elements of unity. Ralph Waldo Trine’s In Tune with the Infinite, Bruce Barton’s The Man Nobody Knows, Henry C. Link’s The Return to Religion, and Peale’s A Guide to Confident Living and The Power of Positive Thinking suggest for purposes of definition four criteria to which the items of literature should conform: (a) they assume the general validity of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition; (b) they aim to inspire with the hope of salvation here or in an afterlife; (c) they recommend use of techniques to achieve salvation, in whatever sense salvation might be understood; and (d) they address themselves to the "everyday problems" of "everyday people." The books vary in the balance among the four points.

The general validity of the Judeo-Christian tradition is assumed among these works with significant vagueness. Specific theological doctrines, such as of Christ’s soteriological mission, or specific theological discussions, as of Christ’s status as a member of the Trinity, are hard to find. More likely, there will be found discussion of a transcendent "something" about which a professed theologian could say practically nothing. Daniel Poling confesses, "I began saying in the morning two words, ’I believe’—those two words with nothing added."

The literature also holds forth the hope of some kind of salvation. In the seventy-five years covered in the survey eschatological interest has declined. But, while concern with the next world fades increasingly, salvation comes quite conclusively to mean salvation in this world: release from poverty or handicapping inhibition in personal relations or from ill health or emotional disequilibrium. But salvation in this secular sense is held forth as a definite hope and even a promise.2

The inspirational literature bristles with techniques to attain peace and power which range from putting one’s self "in tune with the infinite" by some intuitive twist of the psyche to sensing a deity in the chair by one’s bed at night; from reconstructing failures as trifles or even as successes to whispering to one’s self a promise of good things to come. These practices, finally, are represented as helpful to ordinary men and women in solving their everyday problems, but this point needs no elaboration here.

Elements of this kind may be found in a variety of other places, for example, in Augustine’s Confessions or Thomas à Kempis’ Imitation of Christ. But these documents differ in affirming faith unequivocally. Moreover, the salvation they envisage is not of this world. The ends they set out lack the concrete, tangible quality of such goals as business success or emotional "adjustment," and, consequently, they hardly bristle with the techniques with which the modern literature is filled. True, in a certain sense there is some overlap, as, for instance, in the case of prayer, which is often recommended; but there are obvious differences between devotional prayer and prayer that, not very subtly, is instrumental. On the other hand, the literature, not only on its own recognizances, is in some sense "religious." Advertisements that promise to add six inches to the chests of scrawny men are "inspirational" in tone, but they make no pretensions to being religious and cannot qualify as inspirational religious literature.

A dominant trend in the literature through the decades is secularization; for instance, suffering has lost its "meaningfulness" and more and more is described as senseless misery, best gotten rid of. No longer divinely or transcendentally significant, suffering figures as a pathological experience calling for a psychiatrist or a minister trained in counseling. Again, the deity as represented in the literature is in process of transformation: his existence in some objective sense is no longer insisted upon, and he often approximates a consciously useful fiction. The "hero" appears more and more as the "well-adjusted" man, who does not question existing social institutions and who, ideally successful both in a business or in professional sense, feels no emotional pain. Finally, there is a strong bias against the "unscientific" and for equating religion and "science."

In American thought William James, in effect, substituted, "I believe because it is useful" for "I believe because it is so"—or even, with Tertullian, "because it is impossible"—an idea which abounds in the inspirational religious literature. Or the best is made of both worlds in a combination such as, "I feel it is absurd; but, since it is useful, I shall insist that it is true." Thus, Henry Link avers, "I believe in God because I have found that without the belief in someone more important than themselves, people fail to achieve their own potential importance." And he adds later: "Agnosticism is an intellectual disease, and faith in fallacies is better than no faith at all."3 Writers like Harry Emerson Fosdick will go only a certain distance in this direction. Fosdick asserts:

The explanation of the rise of cults like Christian Science and New Thought is obvious. While the old-line churches were largely concerning themselves with dogma, ritual, and organization, multitudes of folk were starving for available spiritual power with which to live. These cults arose to meet this need, and with all their mistaken attitudes … they have genuinely served millions of people by translating religion into terms of power available for daily use.4

But if Fosdick is willing to go only thus far, others are willing to go beyond him. The literature consistently emphasizes "God-power" as divine flow into men, sustaining and aiding them in some materially useful sense to the point where the deity often becomes simply a psychological device. The strain toward instrumen-talization is so strong in Peale, for example, that one must by inference from his work assign to God as a primary function the dispensing of divine vitamins to men eager for health and wealth.

A kind of spiritual technology has also been developed, inseparable, of course, from the instrumental element. Standard religious procedures like prayer are constantly recommended, although often with a characteristic twist, as in Peale when he urges: "Learn to pray correctly, scientifically. Employ tested and proven methods. Avoid slipshod praying."5 Self-exhortation, another frequently suggested procedure, undoubtedly has affinities with more "classical" religious procedures, for example: "I believe," "Christ is with me," "In everything I do God helps," "I cannot lose." Again, stress is placed on special psychic states, perhaps with physical props simultaneously suggested—for example, a state of receptivity to "God-power." A notable set of recommendations depends upon converting spiritual principles into magic. Thus, as in some of the work of Lloyd Douglas, which is frequently only a fictional transcript of inspirational religious literature, he who gives without letting anyone know it is repaid a thousand fold, both magically and materially; he becomes a great success. An outcome not only of impossible physics but—in the light of the principle, "cast your bread upon the waters" and cognate exhortations—of a dubious spirituality, this can be described as spiritual technology.

Other trends include, as the quotation above from Fosdick illustrates, a definitely antiritualistic, antidogmatic, anti-institutional (antiorganizational) strain. The stress is most emphatically on religious "experience" as might be expected.

In marking the transition from latent to manifest functions of religion, one must distinguish between a primary and a secondary religious sequence. A good enough text for the primary sequence is afforded by the biblical prescription and promise, "Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you." "Faith" is thus urged, but it is urged as primary; its possible "fruits" are only hinted at. The notion that Job might have been seeking to be "well adjusted" simply on the basis of the Book of Job is incongruous. The primary religious sequence may be roughly rendered, then, as follows: Faith → Action → "Results" (for example, emotional equanimity).

But the modern inspirational literature more or less deliberately reverses this sequence. It starts from the observation (here assumed to be correct) that what is loosely called "faith" can bring about "peace of mind" and cognate desired ends. It does not, so to say, start with "the Kingdom of God," that is, with what may be called "classical" religious belief, because the belief is thought to be true. (Of course, it may incidentally hold out for the truth of such doctrine as it happens to retain.) It relies on a secondary sequence that begins with a projection or presentation of the desirability of all manner of "good things," mainly wealth and emotional or physical health. This secondary sequence becomes, then, "Results" (in prospect) → Action → Faith (or, possibly, also "Results" → Faith → Action>), "action" being largely on the lines of spiritual technology. The modern spiritual technology may in a number of ways be a substitute for older religious ritual. If it is acknowledged that at times, when men have believed sincerely and devotedly, serenity or calm has come to them, it has clearly often come as a by-product. Serenity, calm, and the like have been latent functions of religious faith and devotion. It is not necessary to claim that they have been unqualifiedly latent; differences of degree may well be crucial. But the inspirational religious literature makes these latent functions of religion manifest and pursues them as aims.

The shift from latent to manifest raises the question: Can the same "results" be obtained? A task facing sociological theory is the classification and explanation of cases in which the transition has different kinds of results. If, say, factory workers can be inspired by a demonstration of the full nature and final uses of the product to which their seemingly disjointed individual efforts have led, it does not follow that an analogous service will always be performed by a demonstration to the religious that their efforts to "find God" afford them "peace of mind." Nor is there any reason to think that faith will be enhanced if it is also shown, directly or by implication, that gaining peace of mind is the point of religious practice in the first place. Here, too, differences of degrees are important. That the inspirational religious literature does not always make an outright and unqualified shift from latent to manifest but often stops short of an uninhibited assertion that the object of faith is to attain power or peace of mind is of sociological interest.

Thus, curiously, the religious begin to look on their own activity in the manner of functionally oriented sociologists and psychologists. The question is whether, in doing so, they do not endanger the religious function; or perhaps these are all signs that faith has already lapsed, the efforts to exhibit its virtues being proof. In this connection it is pertinent to look back to a recent paper by William Kolb, who poses a "moral dilemma" for sociologists of religion who affirm the "integrating" function and necessity of belief in ultimates while themselves holding that belief to be illusory:

To spread the idea that a belief in ultimate validity of values is necessary but illusory would be to destroy society through destroying or confusing this belief. Yet to urge people to accept the idea that there is an ontic realm of values while believing oneself that such an idea is false is deliberately to deprive people of the knowledge necessary for their freedom and dignity.6

Many of the purveyors of inspirational religion may represent a kind of halfway house. At one extreme we would find followers of the "old-time religion," unreserved believers that their creed has objective validity, who, at times, incidentally reap material benefits from it. At another extreme, are "positivistic" functional sociologists, quite prepared to find religion increasing the solidarity of the group, drawing the deviant individual back to it, and so on, while unconvinced themselves. Inspirational religion is somewhere between these extremes, somewhat fluctuating and unsure, yet with a powerful instrumental bent. Faith, again, is "the answer"—enjoined in the first instance not because the religious content that it affirms is above all "true," but just because it is "the answer." The concentration on "the answer," the results, already half-suggests an "illusion." The presumed primary "truth," put into the background from the very absence of attention to it, becomes the more dubious the less stress it receives and the vaguer it gets. The impulse to make religion "useful" is understandable, but the deliberate effort to do so may be self-defeating.

1 From , 1957, 62:476–481. By permission of The University of Chicago Press.

2 So Emmet Fox: "If only you will find out the thing God intends you to do, and will do it, you will find that all doors will open to you; all obstacles in your path will melt away; you will be acclaimed a brilliant success; you will be most liberally rewarded from the monetary point of view; and you will be gloriously happy" (Power through Constructive Thinking [New York: Harper & Bros., 1932]), p. 23.

3The Return to Religion, pp. 34, 63. New York: Macmillan Co., 1936.

4As I See Religion, pp. 17–18 (italics ours). New York: Harper & Bros., 1932.

5A Guide to Confident Living, p. 114. New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1948.

6 W. L. Kolb, "Values, Positivism, and the Functional Theory of Religion: The Growth of a Moral Dilemma," Social Forces, 1953, 31:309.


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Chicago: "Inspirational Religious Literature: From Latent to Manifest Functions of Religion1," American Journal of Sociology in Principles of Sociology: A Reader in Theory and Research, ed. Young, Kimball, and Mack, Raymond W. (New York: American Book Company, 1962), Original Sources, accessed July 19, 2019,

MLA: . "Inspirational Religious Literature: From Latent to Manifest Functions of Religion1." American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 62, in Principles of Sociology: A Reader in Theory and Research, edited by Young, Kimball, and Mack, Raymond W., New York, American Book Company, 1962, Original Sources. 19 Jul. 2019.

Harvard: , 'Inspirational Religious Literature: From Latent to Manifest Functions of Religion1' in American Journal of Sociology. cited in 1962, Principles of Sociology: A Reader in Theory and Research, ed. , American Book Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 19 July 2019, from