1944 – Man, Society and Religion

The 1944 Swarthmore Lecture by W Russell Brain, reviewed by John Hall

Walter Russell Brain (1895-1966) joined the Friends’ Ambulance Unit in 1915 but did not become a Quaker until 1931, by which time he had been elected a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, specialising in neurology. Knighted in 1952, he was made Baron Brain in 1962 and elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1964. In 1965 he cared for Winston Churchill when the former Prime Minister was on his deathbed. In 1933 he wrote the standard work on neurology, Brain’s Diseases of the Nervous System “Big Brain”, now in its twelfth edition and, in 1960 for medical students, Brain’s Clinical Neurology “Little Brain”.

Before the birth of Christopher Hitchins and before Richard Dawkins was out of short trousers, in the Swarthmore Lecture, the eminent scientist Russell Brain investigated the religious and humanist dichotomy. He revealed that Quakerism is able to bridge the gap between the two apparently incompatible positions of the religious and the atheist.

Living, as we are, in a time where those in need are regarded as being total scroungers, the importance of Russell Brain’s analysis of our mutual dependence serves as a telling reminder of our shared humanity. And, given that the second world war was still continuing when this lecture was given, it is unsurprising that it starts by stating that the worldwide “problems of the relations of man to society and of one society to another” have to be solved or we perish.

Enlarging on Paul’s metaphor that “We are members one of another”, Russell Brain suggests that membership of the Society of Friends means that we have an existence only because of a unifying principle. Although each member has a distinct function, nevertheless (s)he is still a part of the whole. That whole relies upon “mutual interdependence, specialization of function, an emotional bond and a spiritual bond”. How can this, he asks, be applied to national and international relations, given Friends’ unusual experience of membership, one with another?

Our approach to problems is dependent upon our psychological make-up. Psychology can help us but it is essentially orthopædic, that is corrective of deformity. It cannot tell us which questions to tackle. Group dynamics mean that individuals within groups behave differently than they would on their own. However, as individualism has developed over the centuries, so communal consciousness has “become absolutely as well as relatively weaker”. Nevertheless, man’s nature has in some instances, such as “in Fascism and Nazism [led to a return to a] primitive society”. While individualism created “an unprecedented flowering of human genius”, human beings still wish to be in groups because of the relationships they bring. This fellow-feeling “gives rise to actions [which] become altruism” although the herd instinct works against any new forms of altruism within a society, as happened, for example, to John Woolman when he came to London Yearly Meeting. Altruism “is the product of spiritual leadership” but in what is now a very complex society it is difficult to provide this leadership. If we are unable to grasp all the complexities of modern society, how are we to grapple with its problems? Wisdom, that is the knowledge of the material and psychological factors together with knowing what is right, is needed together with a commitment to co-operate in the organization of society.

Drawing upon the psychological development of children and how this affects subsequent adult behaviour, Russell Brain suggests that individuals in adult societies need not only to receive love but also to have altruistic tendencies, although for most people the application of such tendencies is weak. Adults’ need of love means that if it is not received, then they become aggressive. They can also misunderstand its nature. Thus people who pay for services think that the service providers are dependent upon them whereas, in truth, they are the dependent ones. Economic individualism cultivates moral independence, ignoring the fact that in social and economic relations we are dependent upon each other. Using examples from inter-war industrialisation and the Workmen’s Compensation Acts, Brain shows that society needs to provide more than just financial support. He extends this idea by suggesting that Quaker schools were pioneering in providing not only education but also through their communities, a group-consciousness of the need to give love to all.

Surprisingly perhaps, Brain praises pugnacity as a stored-up energy available to reinforce other instincts such as altruism. However, as he readily acknowledges, pugnacity, aroused by egoism and fear, can lead to war. At the national level, group self-consciousness, encouraged by political leaders, can believe that national needs or rights are being thwarted by other nations. This can lead to an aggressiveness, which in an individual would be tempered by conscience, the reactions of neighbours and societal sanctions, but such does not apply on an international scale. War arises because peace-loving nations are picked off individually. It can be prevented only by “an international police force equivalent to the force maintaining law and order within a nation”. However, aggression cannot be repressed by force without an understanding of its cause. It is present in a nation because of real or imagined threat and “is often aroused by, and always canalized through, its government”. Thus national sovereignty is one of the main causes of war and should be restricted.

Here Russell Brain discusses the failure of the League of Nations and makes a case for what became the United Nations, and particularly the need to stop viewing foreigners with suspicion or hostility.

The lecture then takes off in an entirely new direction. In considering the individual and the group in the Religious Society of Friends, Russell Brain asks whether, as a by-product of the meeting for worship, the heightened group-consciousness allows us to discover any spiritual laws of group worship to enrich our experience. There is, as he says, a “at present unexplained unconscious interchange of feelings and ideas between members of the group in meeting for worship”. He quotes from the Second Book of Discipline (1925 pp. 22-3) on ministering: “We need to wait for that sense of call that comes to us from God through the fellowship of hearts that are bound into harmony by the flowing through them of the tides of His living presence”. And in listening to ministry (p. 5), “Let the hearers be watchful over their own spirits; for if they be not very diligent in attending upon the Lord in meetings, they are liable to mistake in the judgment they may pass on the ministry”. Drawing upon an earlier part of his lecture, he then suggests that if we feel out of unity with any ministry, it may well be “our own psychological make-up” which is the cause. By recognising this, our contribution could be of greater worth. From this, he then goes into various possible effects on meetings such as size and having strangers and/or children present. He particularly points up the needs of children and young people in meeting.

Russell Brain then comes to recommendations. The first is that while Friends do not have creeds, nevertheless it is necessary that we put our experiences into words. We must express them in terms of the ideas of our own century and not the first. “Religion shall appeal to thought as well as to feeling”. While there have been many who have put science above religion, he cites Giordano Bruno, burnt at the stake in 1600, describing God as ever-living, ever-acting, ever-self-effectuating, immanent in an infinite universe and whose attributes humanity can study as a synthesis of religion, science and philosophy. From this comes a progressive revelation of God. However, there remains the current gulf between religion and science. This can be bridged only in part by a religion of experience. For the Quaker, the light within is as objective as the outer world and it illuminates the mystical knowledge of God and the scientific knowledge of continual creation.

Finally, he considers the particular role for Quakerism in bridging the two systems of thought that suffer from isolation from each other: one, the nature of mankind as defined by original sin, and the other as mankind’s attitude to the world in the form of humanism. They are the modern embodiment of the old controversy about faith and works. Quakerism has a place for both faith and works. The inner light forbids us to describe mankind as inherently evil. So original sin has no place in Quakerism. Humanism suggests an ability by mankind to resolve the world’s problems without help. While the inner light gives Quakers no ready-made solutions but properly addressed, it does help one know the right course to take.

W. Russell Brain. 1944. Man, Society and Religion: an essay in bridge-building. 104 vols. Vol. 38, Swarthmore Lecture. London: George Allen & Unwin for the Woodbrooke Extension Committee.

Leave a Reply