A Primal Religion


Belden Johnson, M.S., M.F.C.C.

Although Freud (1927, 1961) and Janov (1970) perceive religion as an illusion for which only neurotics have a need, my personal experience is that primal therapy enabled me to return to the valuable parts of my religious roots that I had rejected or been cut off from for many years. Through my therapy I was able to regain access to my soul. The end of all our exploring, T.S. Eliot (1930) says,

Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

My organizational method will be historical: I will attempt to give the flavor of my childhood religious training in liberal Protestant theology, explain my rebellion against it, and tell what I learned in primal therapy that enabled me to arrive where I had started with a fresh perspective and at a new definition of religion. I will conclude with some notes on a primal religion.


My early religious experiences were a mixture of positives and negatives. As a boy I felt good when I entered church. Warm and friendly faces turned to welcome us as we--Dad, Mom, my two sisters, my brother and myself--came down the aisle wearing our Sunday best, a family, together, part of a caring community. I relished this weekly re-welcoming ritual. From the corners of my eyes I looked for my girlfriend. Once seated in the pew, I listened to the organ, letting the music fill me as I watched the candles flicker on the altar before the white marble stone with the commandments cut into it and lettered in gold. I went into a meditative trance, which was deepened by the singing, the litanies, the unvarying rituals. In church I got a direct bodily experience of mild religious ecstasy--right-brained, hypnotic, full of lovely endorphins. And when the entire congregation stood and I got to belt out "A Might Fortress is Our God," the hair stood up on the back of my neck. I liked the feeling experience of church.

I also enjoyed the mental stimulation of Sunday school and catechism classes, in which we learned about and debated theology, learned how to distinguish factual history in the Bible from myth, learned how to interpret myth and parable, and entered into wide-ranging philosophical questioning. I whetted my mind on the ancient and fascinating questions that religion at its best tangles with: If God is all-knowing and all-powerful, didn't he know we would screw up when he created us? Do we have freedom of choice, or have our actions been predetermined?

The adults who taught me were never doctrinaire; they did not try to impose their beliefs. On the contrary, they seemed to want me to think for myself. They welcomed inquiry and encouraged diversity of opinion. I had a safe forum for stretching my mind and building my self-esteem. Looking back, I suppose I was lucky to have such positive experiences for body, feelings, and mind in that particular Episcopal church.

The negative experiences eventually became heavier and led to my breaking with the church soon after puberty. The first negative, and perhaps the most important, is that I was forced to attend church by my father. More, I had to shine the shoes of the entire family the night before. I hated shining all those shoes--often twice or thrice to meet Dad's stringent standards. My smoldering rebellion against him spilled over onto enforced church attendance.

There were other negatives. Like most children, I was quick to note the glaring contradictions between adult ideals and behavior, and I resented the "Do as I say, not as I do," attitude. The Bible says, unequivocally, "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven," yet here was a congregation far wealthier than the starving Ethiopians, in whose name I was exhorted to clean my plate. A commandment declared, "Thou shalt not kill," yet chaplains blessed our troops in Korea. I felt that not killing meant not killing under any circumstances. I was a hard-liner, wrathful in my judgments. On some Sundays I mumbled about hypocrites and whited sepulchres, loud enough only for my parents to hear me.

Sex was the final straw. When the divine hormones exploded in my body like an atomic bomb, I ached for sexual contact and had less tolerance for suppression of any kind. Making an appointment with my minister, I marched myself into his study (which I judged far too plush and comfortable for a man of God), and announced that I saw no reason, in the Bible or elsewhere, not to pursue sexual intimacy. The commandment, "Thou shalt not commit adultery," applied only to married people; I had looked up adultery in the dictionary--my church training had honed my skills. Reverend Davis looked thoughtfully out the study window. An ornate clock on the wall ticked. After some minutes of meditation, he suggested masturbation.

I left in a hurry. I was already doing that. Spilling my seed--which was also frowned upon in the Old Testament. That was no answer at all. I wanted contact, with another person; I craved intimacy and ecstasy. Shortly thereafter, I announced to my parents that I would no longer attend church. Dad hit the ceiling.

"You damn sure are going to church!" he bellowed. I was prepared for this reaction, his standard one, to be followed, I assumed, by beatings with The Belt. I knew what he could dish out, and I was willing to take it in what I saw as my martyrdom. Through church, I'd learned how saints had been willing to die for their beliefs rather than submit to tyranny. I was ready, even eager, to be martyred for mine.

Denying me this glory, Mom pointed out to Dad that as a boy he had been forced to attend church because he was the minister's son, but that there was no reason for me to go if I no longer believed. It was one of the few times she stood up to him for me and I appreciated it. He calmed down somewhat, only insisting that I be working hard at chores while the family was at church. I was delighted at this arrangement; I felt that I had stuck to my beliefs and won. I had won a measure of independence, but I had cut myself off from my religious roots. For many years I was willing to have thrown out the baby of religion with the bathwater of hierarchical authority systems. It was not until I did primal therapy and began to untangle Dad, authority, religion, and church that I began to look back.


During primal therapy I had four major experiences that led me back to religious roots even deeper than those I had found in church and that enabled me to reappraise institutionalized religion. Two of these were not discrete experiences but ones that accumulated over many primal sessions, beginning on my first day of therapy. I had the then-remarkable sensation of being carried along on a flow of feelings and bodily movements that were mostly outside of my conscious control--even though I was neither having sex nor under the influence of a hallucinogen, the two sources of such feelings in my pre-primal life. At first I was terrified by such powerful feelings arising in unfamiliar circumstances. So difficult was it for me to believe that such feelings could arise in "me" that I was tempted to look under the mat I was lying on to see whether my therapist had hidden an electrode there, through which he had zapped me with 1000 volts.

Gradually, I came to enjoy this state of surrender. Through such experiences I learned that I did not need drugs or sex to move from a state of conscious control to a state in which I turned my conscious self over to a higher power, much as I might surrender my body to a breaking wave while body-surfing. Once I went with it, the ride upon the wave of feeling became exhilarating rather than terrifying. I enjoyed contacting this larger force that seemed to be within me, around me, and grander than me all at once.

A similar experience happened in a much more modest manner. Lying on the mat opened to my feelings and bodily processes, I began to feel such quiet processes as the pulsation of my interior organs and the continuous waves of my smooth muscles. For the first time I understood what was meant by the "still, small voice" in the Bible--it was a deep inner voice in me that I could hear only when I got away from the busy-ness of my daily struggles, and it spoke not in English or in tongues but in the language of my cells and the ebbing and flowing tides of my gentler feelings. Through these experiences I discovered that religion need not be an exterior dogma based upon someone else's faith in their experience but might be a personal experience forming out of my own cellular truths, not pie-in-the-sky but something as real and immediate as the pulsation of my own heartbeat.

In touch with this human, animate experience, I felt in touch with a profoundly religious experience. The Latin roots of "religion" are instructive here, meaning either to "tie back" (as does exterior authority) or to "connect with again"--as we do when we re-connect with our inner processes. That's exactly what I was doing: re-connecting with my inner processes, from which I had been cut off for so long that I returned to it as if for the first time. Through my primal process, I moved from a religion heavy in tie-backs, which I had rejected, to a religion of re-connection.

Now, I have no need to "swim in a sea of manufactured devotion in order to remain faithful to the real experience of devotion and love" (Keleman, 1985). I don't need to tell others what to do or how to believe, I don't need to seek an exterior ultimate authority, I don't need to preach. I don't even know much about what's "right"--except for me.

Contacting what's right for me, I discover it is primal, persistent, contact-producing, ordering, and vital. I find I have a bodily sense of a meaningful cosmos which I feel through the ordered rhythms of my body, the seasons, and the slow wheeling of the stars. I feel closer to nature and also to the best parts of the human tradition.

My early church experience, I realized, had triggered a similar state: the mild trance in church, away from distractions, had focused me in a natural body process and allowed me to hear the still small voices within me.

The third primal experience came after many hours of repeated sessions of rage and terror at having to fight my way out of the birth canal unassisted. (I think Mom was reciting Byron's Don Juan to divert her mind from the pain of drugless childbirth while the doctor, eager for a non-intrusive birth, let me be shoulder-stuck for an hour until I freed myself.) In a sort of sped-up time-lapse film that ran quickly backwards, I went from birth to an inter-uterine state to conception to floating in the icy vastness of space, surrounded by the faint light-pricks of distant stars. At first my Observer-mind came in with, "Hm. Symbolic ideation. The soul floating in space between embodiments and all that." But he quickly changed his diagnosis: "Nope. You're a tiny part of the whole shtick, old boy. An atom in space, a mote of consciousness, a tiny fragment of the Godhead."

Later, I realized that this correlated with a mystical experience I once had in Asia in which I perceived that everything that is is God fragmented and that transcending the illusion of separateness brings us to the conclusion that we-are-all-one (hardly an original idea, but one as ancient as the Vedas and as corny as Dr. Bronner). Nonetheless, knowing cognitively and experiencing are radically different states. Both the mystical and the primal experiences seemed to have a common core, though the attendant feelings in the former were joy and laughter, in the latter fear and aloneness.

Together, these two experiences--primal and mystical--formed a whole in which I could see how I was both a tiny, individualized fragment of the universe and, simultaneously, "God," and that I could tune in to one or the other way of perceiving "truth" at any given moment, depending upon whether feelings of separateness or union were ascendant, but that a higher truth was the paradox that "I" existed in two realms at all times and was part of the infinite and eternal, as well as the finite and immediate.

My Episcopalian training helped me conceptualize this thought with a sense of strange familiarity, although reading Buddhism and Alan Watts also helped. I felt personally comfortable in the long mystical religious tradition in a way I could not have been without my early training.

The fourth primal experience I had that seemed to me profoundly religious (that is, re-connecting) got me through my fear of my own death. After rejecting, as an adolescent, the Christian concept of heaven, I settled for a pantheistic view--I'd go back into the soil and supply nourishment for flowers, which would then have within them my molecules. Now Freud thought that a basic underlying need that religion fills is the fear of death. My own experience, however, was that I came back to religion only after I had lost my fear of death through my primal experience.

This experience occurred when I was mourning for my long-dead grandfather who had given me a lot of unconditional love when I was a child. So marvelous was our relationship for me that as a boy in church I always substituted the phrase "God the Grandfather" for the traditional "God the Father." For me, God the Father was a wrathful and jealous god, whereas God the Grandfather was the embodiment of compassion and loving kindness.

Yet when Granddad died--I was fourteen and away at prep school--I did not mourn at all. I was thankful that Mom gave me the option of not attending his funeral. An outside observer might have thought me callous, but quite the opposite was true: Granddad's leaving was so profoundly shocking to me that I could not face it then. I had to wait another fourteen years to feel strong enough, through therapy, to begin to grieve.

"I love you, Granddad!" I sobbed, weeping disconsolately for hours. My shells broke and dissolved as the innermost petals of my heart re-opened. Wide open, feeling the bittersweet pang of a lost deep love, I wept and wept, mourning Granddad and letting him go. And then a strange thing happened. Once I had let him go, he came to me. First, I felt the almost physical sensations of warmth that his love had always sent into me. I felt his love, alive, surrounding me, penetrating me, filling me with joy. And then, though my eyes were closed, I saw him, standing in the room, smiling at me, his blue eyes twinkling from behind his rimless spectacles. Sensing him there, I was filled with great peace. Simultaneously, all fear of death left me. In an intuitive flash, I knew that death was only a beginning of something else.

I have no way to verify it scientifically--even if I wanted to--but I am convinced that Granddad, in some form, was with me in that padded, windowless room, as real as anything I know to be real. Since that day I often experience Granddad's presence with me, and I understand the concept of guardian angels. He is a wise guide who helps me in my work as a therapist and as a writer, and he helps me be a great daddy to my two boys. I know that when I die, Granddad will be there to guide me through whatever journey awaits us into that country from whose borne Shakespeare thought no traveler had returned.

I had this experience long before I read the reports of Moody (1975) and others on the Near Death Experience (NDE) or before I saw the documentary film on C.G. Jung in which the old Swiss dreamer, recounting his own NDE, when asked by the interviewer if this means he believes in an afterlife, replied with his lovely little smile and said:

"Oh, I don't believe in an afterlife. I know."

Having that knowledge, I no longer fear death. Yet it was after this loss of the fear of death that I found myself more and more drawn to religion. Nor was it any conventional religion with a concept of heaven. Through these last two primal experiences, I know that I, and Granddad, (and probably everybody, but I'll let you decide for yourself), have always been and will always be. I sense that we are all connected in some way--and have always been. What greater re-connection could there be, than to feel that?

These experiences--of having someone "dead" come to me, of experiencing myself as an eternal bit of a unified but constantly changing universe, of hearing the still voice within, and of rediscovering that I could trust in and surrender to a higher power--seemed direct perceptions of religious experience. Though there are many paradigms through which I might conceptualize them, I like choosing the most dramatic one available. For me, that's a revitalized religious one that owes much to Buddhism, shamanism, and a Jungian Christianity that honors rather than disparages the body. I hope for a community of similarly-minded people, though I have as yet--of this writing--to find one. Perhaps this paper is my message in a bottle cast upon the universal seas whose slow tides I have come to trust.


I'd like to make a few observations on what I think I gained from my early religious training: these are gifts I value and which I ponder how to pass on to my children without the accompanying garbage-dogma.

First, church framed a bodily experience (which I had in other contexts) as a religious one and gave me a weekly "hit" of that feeling. Consequently, I was both familiar with the feeling and not starved for it. I could recognize it when it reappeared in primal sessions and I was not so hungry for it that I needed to leap upon the bandwagon of one of the self-styled gurus of our times.

Second, Episcopalianism introduced me to a systematic way of talking about religious experience. The antiquity of this system has the advantage that it has confronted most of the important religio-philosophical issues that beset a human being; in that, little has changed in two or three thousand years. Being a recipient of and a participant in that continuous and continuously-evolving stream of consciousness gives a sense of identification with a large part of humanity (in the Judeo-Christian tradition) and also provides a way of languaging matters of the soul.

Unlike fundamentalism, liberal Protestantism has not attempted to freeze a 4000-year old "science" and to apply it unquestioningly to today but has encouraged the evolution of both scientific and religious thought rather than opposing them. I found my religious training to be a helpful adjunct to my more academic education. It developed my capacity for abstract thought and my ear for the rhythm and cadence of English poetry.

Third, tangling with religious questions early on, I was never so unsophisticated that I felt the need to swallow the swill of one of the spiritual panderers of our times, as have so many of my contemporaries. I mentioned above that I was not starved for religious feeling; nor was I starved for religious thought. No guru was saying anything much different from what I had already heard long before. I was simply put off by the hierarchical Oriental relationship which takes so little account of the Occidental individual, as Joe Campbell (1987) often pointed out, and I'd had plenty of that with Daddy. The terrible abuse of this parent-hunger/soul-hunger by such people as Joya and Rajneesh, Jim Jones and Jim Bakker, must make a sane person question the unmet needs of the leaders as well as the followers. My early religious training made me impervious to charlatans.

Last, liberal Protestantism articulates a view of the universe as essentially good, true, and beautiful. Through primal therapy, I think that I have re-arrived at that view. Having within and around me now a continual and direct experience of "God's" (choose your own word) presence, I perceive the universe as a positive and loving place wherein human consciousness may expand toward the good, the true and the beautiful.

For all these gifts from my early churching I am thankful.


I have a dream. In it a community of feeling people, re-connected with themselves and their human biological ground, work together to mine the rich sources of our religio-mythic heritage, drawing from it the best of our rituals (which are enactments of our dreams) and mythopoetic traditions to form a religion free of hierarchy and dogma.

Many of us have begun this process already, both in re-connecting with our somatic processes and in constructing personal mythologies that give them outward expression. I intuit that a time is coming when a new religion will take shape out of experiential process psychotherapy, transpersonal psychology, world religions, myth, and art (in the largest sense of that word). It will be democratic rather than plutocratic, egalitarian rather than hierarchical, experiential rather than dogmatic, feeling-based rather than text-based.

I suppose I'd like to re-create that childhood experience of coming in and seeing all those welcoming faces again, knowing we shared a common belief system.

In my dream-vision I see members of this community coming together in a strange new ritual: in a semi-darkened room--or even better, out in nature, where God is clearly present--they lie down together (yet separate) and enter the depths of their human feeling process. Perhaps their journey to these depths is aided by music, drumming, or other ancient rituals. Afterwards, they sit in a circle and speak to one another from their inner voices, as Quakers do.

I have a memory of a cartoon, perhaps in The New Yorker, in which two men in suits and ties are standing in front of an imposing edifice upon which are the words, "First Church of the Primal Scream. Services Sunday." One man says to the other, "I suppose it had to happen sooner or later." I certainly hope it will.


Melville put it beautifully: "I am a very religious man without a religion." The psyche seems to me religious ground. Also -- love, children, birth, death, nature, good art, solid work -- some of my own loves.

A co-founder of the Primal Center in Berkeley and Nevada City, CA, I see primal as the most religious therapy available.


Campbell, J. (1987) "Beyond Dogma: The Vision Quest Experience." Audio tape #1296, New Dimensions Foundation, Inc., San Francisco.
Eliot, T.S. (1930) The Complete Poems and Plays, p. 145. New York, Harcourt, Brace.
Freud, S. (1927, 1961) The Future of an Illusion. New York, Anchor Books. Translated by W.D. Robson-Scott.
Janov, A. (1970) The Primal Scream. New York, Laurel.
Keleman, S. (1985) "Finding a Religious Ground." Audio tape, Center Press, Berkeley.
Moody, R.A. (1975) Life After Life. New York, Bantam.

Return to The Int. Primal Assn. Articles Page