A Hamatsa cannibal cult shaman, a member of the Kwakiutl tribe of what is now Alert Bay, British Columbia  

William Sargant

Emotional Conversion


Intellectual indoctrination without emotional excitement is remarkably ineffective, as the empty pews of most English churches prove; the social pressure which once sent even the agnostic or lukewarm to Sunday matins having long been relaxed. And recently we found ourselves welcoming a high-powered American fundamentalist who had come to win back for the Churches the congregations that they had lost. What the force of religion could once be, even under civilized paganisms using effective methods, is shown by Frazer’s account in The Golden Bough of the Syrian Astarte worship:

‘Other Asiatic goddesses of fertility were served in like manner by eunuch priests. These feminine deities required to receive from their male ministers, who personated the divine lovers, the means of discharging their beneficent functions: they had themselves to be impregnated by the life-giving energy before they could transmit it to the world. Goddesses thus ministered to by eunuch priests were the great Artemis of Ephesus and the great Syrian Astarte of Hierapolis, whose sanctuary, frequented by swarms of pilgrims and enriched by the offerings of Assyria and Babylonia, of Arabia and Phoenicia, was perhaps in the days of its glory the most popular in the East. Now the unsexed priests of this Syrian goddess resembled those of Cybele so closely that some people took them to be the same. And the mode in which they dedicated themselves to the religious life was similar. The great festival of the year at Hierapolis fell at the beginning of spring, when multitudes thronged to the sanctuary from Syria and the regions round about. While the flutes played, the drums beat, and the eunuch priests slashed themselves with knives, the religious excitement gradually spread like a wave among the crowd of onlookers, and many a one did that which he little thought to do when he came as a holiday spectator to the festival. For man after man, his veins throbbing with the music, his eyes fascinated by the sight of the streaming blood, flung his garments from him, leaped forth with a shout, and seizing one of the swords which stood ready for the purpose, castrated himself on the spot. Then he ran through the city, holding the bloody pieces in his hand, till he threw them into one of the houses which he passed in his mad career. The household thus honoured had to furnish him with a suit of female attire and female ornaments, which he wore for the rest of his life. When the tumult of emotion had subsided, and the man had come to himself again, the irrevocable sacrifice must often have been followed by passionate sorrow and life-long regret. This revulsion of natural human feeling after the frenzies of a fanatical religion is powerfully depicted by Catullus in a celebrated poem.’

It does seem that most powerful religious movements are attended by physiological phenomena which cause intellectual disgust and dismay in non-participants. Thus Fox’s blameless ‘Friends,’ whose faith was based on non-violence, were given the sneering nickname of ‘Quakers’ because they ‘shook and trembled before the Lord.’

‘Men, women and little children at their meetings are strangely wrought upon in their bodies, and brought to fall, foam at the mouth, roar and swell in their bellies.’1

Fox himself reports in his Journal:

‘This Captain Drury, though he sometimes carried fairly, was an enemy to me and to Truth, and opposed it; and when professors came to me (while I was under his custody) and he was by, he would scoff at trembling, and call us Quakers, as the Independents and Presbyterians had nicknamed us before. But afterwards he once came to me and told me that, as he was lying on his bed to rest, in the day time, he fell atrembling, that his joints knocked together, and his body shook so that he could not get off the bed; he was so shaken that he had not strength left, and cried to the Lord. And he felt His power was upon him, and he tumbled off his bed, and cried to the Lord, and said he never would speak against the Quakers more, and such as trembled at the word of God.’2

The Quakers later settled down to become rich and respectable, abandoning the means by which they had built up their early spiritual strength. It is the fate of new religious sects to lose the dynamism of their ‘enthusiastic’ founders; later leaders may improve the organization, but the original conversion techniques are often tacitly repudiated. The wild militancy of General Booth’s early Salvation Army is gone. The frantic scenes of the Welsh Revival are forgotten in new and respectable chapels, where the hwyl (a Welsh preaching device for exciting the congregation to religious frenzy by breaking into a wild chant) is now rarely heard. The surprise that Dr. Billy Graham’s success has caused in Great Britain, where all he has to compete with is religious addresses aimed at the congregational intelligence rather than its emotions, shows how widespread is the general ignorance of matters discussed in this book.

Even in Christianity ‘the gift of tongues,’ sometimes only an incoherent babel, is still applauded by certain primitive sects as supposedly reproducing the experience of the Apostles at Pentecost, and great importance is placed in other religions too on the appearance of trance phenomena. This is shown by the attribution of divine wisdom to the Delphic Oracle in Classical Greece. It is shown in Tibet, where the national policy can still be decided by an oracle of the same sort. Harrer, in Seven Years in Tibet3 describes how his Tibetan friend Wandüla took him to an official consultation with the Oracle at the Nechung Monastery at Lhasa. A nineteen-year-old monk was the mouthpiece of the Oracle at that time, and Harrer remarks:

‘It was always a curious experience to meet the State Oracle in ordinary life. I could never quite get accustomed to sitting at the same table with him and hearing him noisily gulping his noodle soup. When we met in the street, I used to take off my hat and he bowed and smiled in return. His face was that of a nice-looking young man, and bore no resemblance to the bloated, red-flecked, grimacing visage of the ecstatic medium.’

Harrer gives details of what happened when the Oracle fell into a trance; and wondered whether drugs or any other means were used to induce it:

‘The monk has to be able to dislodge his spirit from his body, to enable the god of the temple to take possession of it and to speak through his mouth... Hollow, eerie music greeted us at the gate of the temple. Inside the spectacle was ghastly. From every wall looked down hideous, grimacing faces, and the air was filled with stifling fumes of incense. The young monk had just been led from his private quarters to the gloomy temple.’

Here is Harrer’s description of the actual possession:

‘The trembling became more violent. The medium’s heavily laden head wavered from side to side, and his eyes started from their sockets. His face was swollen and covered with patches of hectic red... Now he started beating on his gleaming breastplate with a great thumb-ring, making a clatter which drowned the dull rolling of the drums. Then he gyrated on one foot, erect under the weight of the giant headdress, which just now two men could hardly carry.... The medium became calmer. Servants held him fast and a Cabinet Minister stepped before him and threw a scarf over his head. Then he began to ask questions carefully prepared by the Cabinet about the appointment of a governor, the discovery of a new Incarnation, matters involving war and peace. The Oracle was asked to decide on all these things.’

Harrer goes on to say that he attended many consultations of the Oracle, but had ‘never been able to arrive even at an approximate explanation of the riddle.’

Some persons can produce a state of trance and dissociation in themselves, or in others, with a decreasing need for strong and repeated emotional stresses, until it may become so much a conditioned pattern of brain activity that it occurs with only minor stresses and difficulties; for example, in the primitive religious context, at the renewed beat of a drum, or the screaming roar of the rhombos.

States of possession or trance have also been used by numerous religions to try to help the spectator, as well as the possessed person, to accept the relevant doctrine as true. If the trance is accompanied by a state of mental dissociation, the person experiencing it can be profoundly influenced in his subsequent thinking and behaviour. Even if the spectators remain unmoved and devoid of any emotional excitement, it may still help to persuade some of them of the truth of the belief professed, especially if they have been led to think that a trance means that the person concerned is now possessed by, or in communication with, a certain god. When the modern spiritualistic medium in her suburban house uses messages from dead relatives, or from the ghost of an Indian fakir, or from a childlike spirit called Forget-me-not, to help to create faith in spiritualism, the same mechanisms may be seen in operation as when the State Oracle of Tibet gyrates and clutters in the Nechung Monastery, or as when the drugged Pythoness of Delphi, her face distorted by Apollo’s divine possession, raged on her tripod, pouring out a stream of confused prophecy which the priest in charge, if suitably paid, turned into hexameters for the visitant.

The proof of the pudding lies in the eating. Wesley changed the religious and social life of England for the better with the help of such methods in a modified and socially accepted form. In other hands and other countries they have been used for sinister purposes. But one can be thankful that there have always been scientifically curious people in all ages prepared to examine and report on the actual results obtained before condemning the use of such methods out of hand. Thomas Butts has this to report about Wesley’s preaching as early as 1743:

‘As to persons crying out or being in fits, I shall not pretend to account exactly for that, but only make this observation: it is well known that most of them who have been so exercised were before of no religion at all, but they have since received a sense of pardon, have peace and joy in believing, and are now more holy and happy than ever they were before. And if this be so, no matter what remarks are made on their fits.’4


1. R. A. KNOX – Enthusiasm; A Chapter in Religious History – Clarendon Press, Oxford; 1950.

2. GEORGE FOX – The Journal of George Fox. Everyman edition – Dent, London.

3. H. HARRER – Seven Years in Tibet. Trans. by Richard Graves – Rupert Hart-Davis, London; 1953.

4. T. BUTTS, quoted by W. L. Doughty. – W. L. DOUGHTY – John Wesley – Preacher – Epworth Press, London; 1955. Wesley’s Journal, Vol. V. – J. Wesley – The Journal of John Wesley, Vol. II. Standard edition edited by N. Cumock – Charles H. Kelly, London; 1909-16.

William Sargant, Battle for the Mind: The Mechanics of Indoctrination, Brainwashing & Thought Control, revised ed., Pan, 1959, pp. 100-104. Here the quote from Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough is reproduced in full.

      Main Directory      

–– The Heretical Press ––