The Story Of Religious Controversy
The Origin of Religion
- Was Religion Revealed?
- Modern Theories of Its Origin
- The Real Roots of Religion
- How Gods Were Made
- The Rise of Priesthoods
- The Psychology of Religion
SIXTEEN centuries ago there was a simple-minded “Father of the Church,” Firmicus Maternus by name, who wrote a book called “The Errors of the Profane Religions.” It is the most valuable book that a stupid man ever wrote. Our modern scholars have great difficulty in learning the real doctrines and practices of the religions of the Roman world in the first few centuries of the Christian Era. They were suppressed by law when Christianity was established, and Christian writers, for good reasons, do not tell us much about them. But Firmicus was not a diplomatist. He sat down to write all that he knew about the pagan religions, and we get very valuable information from his pages.
Firmicus was very much disturbed, and, if parts of his book were translated and published, a good many simple Christians would be disturbed. He found that many of these pagan religions of the Roman world had Saviors or Redeemers. He learned that every year the birth of these gods was celebrated, often in mid-winter, and every year, often about the time of our Easter, the death and resurrection of the gods were celebrated. He discovered that in some of these religions bread and wine were used at the altar, and candles and incense and sacred water were part of the ritual.
Poor Firmicus concluded that the devil had revealed or inspired these things to the pagan nations before Christ was born, in order to spoil the success of the Christian Church when it should be founded. “The devil has his Christs!” he exclaimed.
What it all really meant we shall see later. It is part of the study of evolution. Creeds and legends and rituals have evolved just as stars and flowers have evolved. But until this wonderful discovery of evolution was made, about the middle of the nineteenth century, the work of creation was divided between God and the devil. All good things, especially all true religion, came from God. All evil things, especially false beliefs, came from the devil. Man, of himself, was a poor little manikin, not capable of doing much, either good or evil.
We now have a science of religion, just as we have a science of rocks and atoms, of bodies and of minds. The common idea that science deals with material things and religion with spiritual things is very far astray. One of the best known sciences in America is the science of the mind, psychology. Is the mind a material thing? Then we have a science of esthetics (or of the sense of beauty), a science of ethics (or of the moral sense), a science of sociology, and so on. Science merely means the accurate and critical study of anything that exists. Religion is a fascinating subject for scientific study, and we now have scores of learned experts studying the origin and development of religion.
Religion has had for ages — certainly for tens of thousands of years — so large and commanding a part in the life of man that it is a most fitting subject for a scientific study. What a drama, what an epic, it will seem to the student of a later age if, as I think, humanity is just now outgrowing all religion! Take the savage tribes which put before us today a vivid picture of what all men were a few thousand years ago. Religion dominates and absorbs them even more than sex. All their hopes and fears center round the rude temple and the native priest. Then man became civilized, and of all the great cities that they built little remains today but the ruins of their temples. It is the temples of Egypt, the temple- mounds of Babylonia, the Parthenon of Athens, that we go to see. The cathedrals of the Middle Ages survive in all their splendor, while the homes of those who built them crumbled into dust ages ago. So much men did for the gods, so little for themselves! Now the church is lost in the forest of masonry of our great cities, and tomorrow…. Will the idea that has so stupendously filled the heart and life of men for ages pass away forever?
This is far more worth studying than the rhythm of a poet or the bones of a bat. It is particularly important to study it, at the outset of an inquiry into religion, for two reasons. First, most of the writers on the science of religion, or comparative religion, are too timid. They seem always to be apologizing to the world for applying the scientific spirit to so sacred a thing as religion! Please understand, they say at every turn, that we pass no opinion on the truth or value of religious beliefs.
The reader may please himself. I am going to collect such facts as are available to throw light on the origin and early development of religion. But it seems to me ridiculous to say that this has no bearing on the truth of religion. If we discover why men first began to believe in a soul, a spirit-world and a hierarchy of gods in the spirit-world, we make a discovery of some practical importance. For men’s beliefs are worth just as much as their reasons for believing.
But how can we give any positive information about the origin of religion if, as evolution teaches, it arose in the minds of men tens of thousands of years ago? How can we say that religion was not revealed, but grew out of small germs of emotion and speculation in the hazy mind of primitive man?
The religious opponent of science and evolution is apt to be very scornful about what scientific men say because he knows only the conclusions, and not the methods, of the scientist. His amusement is, in any case, very much misplaced. Fundamentalist writers who hold up science to ridicule are really making themselves ridiculous. What? The men who gave us steam and electricity, whose work is the basis of all our wonderful chemistry and textile work, who have measured the universe and doubled the average duration of human life these men can be made sport of by a handful of pamphleteers and preachers with very poor training and very ordinary mental power? Is it likely? Is it not more likely that they are misunderstood and misrepresented?
The writer of this kind of literature generally replies that he acknowledges all our debt to science on the “material side.” There, he says, science deals with facts. What he ridicules is the scientific man who deserts facts and piles speculation upon speculation about other than material things — about religion, for instance.
Now when a scientific man tells you that he believes or does not believe in God or Christ, this objection holds good. He is leaving his scientific territory. He knows no more than any intelligent and educated person knows about it. But when he deals with evolution, or the nature of moral law, or the development of religion, he is dealing with facts, and his methods are just the same as when he measures the distance of the sun and planets. He first collects the facts and then interprets them. If science merely collected facts, we should still be waiting for the wonderful chemistry and medicine and surgery, the electric appliances and means of transport and million comforts, of modern times.
The origin of religion is a very good illustration. The first vague religious ideas or feelings entered the mind of man ages ago. Now, things that happened ages ago are apt to leave traces behind them, and we may discover these traces. As everybody knows, pre- historic man has left behind him millions of his flint implements, and these give us the measure of his intelligence. At once you see that it is quite possible to get positive knowledge even of a state of mind of fifty or a hundred thousand years ago.
But we find no trace of religion in all that primitive man has left us. About twenty thousand years ago man began to carve figures, in ivory and stone, and some of these may be of a religious character. In any case, they buried their dead, and sometimes put their stone implements and shell ornaments round the body: a fairly clear proof that they thought that the man had gone to the “happy hunting ground.” But this is not the beginning of religion. We must try another way.
Evolution does not in the least mean that every living thing goes on evolving. It is only when their conditions of life change that animals or plants need to change. It is the same with human beings. Put a race of men in an island like Australia, and keep out all higher competitors, and there is no need for them to make progress. There is no stimulation to advance. And from the beginning of its history the human race has been throwing off these side-branches into isolated regions. There they generally remain unprogressive, and we pick them up today, and so learn what the race was like when they fell out of the march — ten, fifty, or a hundred thousand years ago.
This method of obtaining information will be important in more than one of these chapters, and I will illustrate it from the population of America. On the whole, before the Spaniards came, it was a Red Indian (or Amerind) population. But there were exceptions, like the very lowly Yahgans in the island of Tierra del Fuego and certain tribes in the foresis of Brazil.
So there were two waves of migration, an earlier and a later, from Asia into America. The Indians, with their superior weapons, pushed the crude earlier population south, or into the forests, just as the arrivals from Europe displaced the Indian. The first invaders were part of the human family of tens of thousands of years ago, to put it very moderately, and they show us what primitive man was like, and how he thought and felt and behaved. The Indians show us man at a much later date. The European shows a still higher stage.
Evolution has thus thrown a light, for the first time, on what we call savage races and their great variety of degrees of culture. We study them all over the world, and we arrange them in the order of their culture and intelligence. As we pass up this order, from the lowest to the highest, we get almost the whole story of the development of man’s ideas and institutions. It enables us to study the evolution of moral and religious and political ideas, just as it shows us the development of weapons, from stone to bronze and iron, of art, of clothing, of houses, and so on.
That is how we find a basis of positive fact for a study of the origin of religion. What the savage is thinking today (carefully cutting out what he has learned by contact with the whites), the entire race thought long ago. What the very lowest savages are thinking today, the whole human race thought in its infancy. Let us see what light this throws on the origin of religion. It began in something very different from a revelation.
The method we have described is evidently very promising and interesting. For instance, if you want to know how men shaved before there were safety-razors, how they wrote before they had paper and fountain-pens, how they plowed before the modern steel machines were invented, you follow the same method. You go to backward nations. I have seen Bulgarians plowing with a cow’s horn on the end of a pole and (when they could write) using a quill pen and ink-horn. So with illuminants and everything else. Then you go to Africa, and find a still earlier level. Next you may go to Australia, where men neither write nor shave nor plow. There you find stone knives and wind-screens instead of houses. But there is a still earlier level in Tierra del Fuego and Ceylon and the Philippines.
In studying the development of religious ideas, you must be very careful that you begin at the lowest human level. Oh, yes, says the critic, I know this “scientific procedure.” You look for the tribes with the crudest religious ideas, and you say that these are, of course, the earliest level because their ideas are so crude, and then you say that religion began very crudely, because you have found the earliest level!
That is precisely what we do not do. In making my study of the origin of religious ideas, which I have personally investigated and on which I have written a substantial book (“The Growth of Religion,” 1918), I consulted one of the leading ethnologists of Europe, my friend Professor Huddon, as to which, on quite general grounds, are the lowest human peoples today. The result will be seen later.
But sometimes writers speculate on the origin of religion without following this strict procedure, or without taking care to begin at the lowest level. In consequence of this we have different theories of the origin of religion. Most of these have now only an historical interest, but it will be useful to have a short account of them.
What is religion? And what is the exact meaning of the word, “religion”?
It is more difficult to answer these questions than to say how religion arose ages ago. To begin with the word itself, it belongs to the very earliest period of the Latin language, and even the Roman writers of the civilized periods had lost the meaning of it. Very often it is said to come from the word “bind” (ligare or religare), and so it is represented as meaning “what binds man to the gods.” But in that case the word would be “religation,” not religion,” and we must try again. It seems to be connected with the Latin word for “cull” or “select,” but what it really meant to the men who first used it we cannot tell.
We know well what we mean today, but the difficulty is that we do not all mean the same thing. So many people nowadays wish to keep the word “religion,” although they do not believe in God, that all kinds of new definitions are current. Professor Leuba gives fifty different definitions in his “Psychological Study of Religion.” Mr. H.G. Wells, wanting to write a chapter about me in his “God the Invisible King,” wrote me: “What is your religion, McCabe? Or, rather, what is your religiosity? Every man has a religiosity.” I replied that I had not. It seems to me that the word religion ought to mean always: “The belief in and worship of gods.” However, very many people now wish to use the word in much the same sense as “idealism,” or reverence for any high ideals.
Here I take the word in its commonly accepted meaning: the belief in God and immortality and the practices inspired by those beliefs. I am glad to be able to agree for once with my Fundamentalist friend! Certainly every reader will know that in its origin and early stages, of which I write, religion was not what the modern refined idealist means.
There were plenty of skeptics, and there were evolutionists, in ancient Greece and Rome, and they seem to have speculated as to how man came to believe in gods. The Roman poet Lucretius, perhaps, gives us their general sentiment when he says: “Fear was the first thing on earth to make gods.” He seems to have imagined the prehistoric savage cowering before the crash of thunder, the roar of the storm, the blaze of the volcano, the chaos of an angry sea, and even the fierceness of the crocodile or the tiger.
In the nineteenth century, when evolution again became a living thought, many speculations were published about the origin of religion. Much discussed at one time was a theory of the great expert on languages, Max Muller, that religion was due to a sort of “disease” or decay of language. The early Hindus, he said, talked much in their poetry of the sun and moon, of fire and water, and so on. They regarded them merely as elements of nature, but later Hindus misunderstood the meaning of their fathers. They took these conspicuous elements of nature to be deities and worshiped them. This theory rests on too narrow a basis and is not now followed by any man.
Next Herbert Spencer, the great evolutionary philosopher, published a theory of the origin of religion. It began, be said, with a belief that a man’s shade survived the death of the body, and, as the chief remains a chief or ruler even in the world of shades, famous chiefs came to be honored, flattered, and appeased as gods. Grant Allen, in his work, “The Evolution of the Idea of God,” follows much the same theory, and he quotes a very large amount of material from the life of African tribes to prove it.
But before Grant Allen took up the theory, it had been generally displaced by a new theory conceived by one of the most famous anthropologists, Sir E.B. Tylor (“Primitive Culture,” 1877). This theory is known as Animism. Just as stars are only gradually formed out of loose, diffused cosmic dust, or “fire-mist,” so, Tylor thought, the belief in definite spiritual persons, souls and gods, must have been preceded by a vaguer and more nebulous belief. Nature generally must have been supposed by primitive man to have an animating spirit. This vague general animation was in the course of time gathered into separate and definite personalities: the gods and goddesses of sky and sun and moon, of fire and water, the spirits of the trees, the fountains, the animals, and so on.
More recent writers think that Tylor’s general Animism was not the first stage. There was, they say, a vaguer and earlier stage which they call Pre-Animism. The germ of religious belief was man’s awe in presence of the mighty and mysterious movements surrounding him in nature. He did not at first personify these forces, and did not even think of a general animation of nature, or world-soul (as Dr. Brinton supposes in his “Religions of Primitive Peoples”). It was just an emotional attitude or reaction, without reasoning.
The best books presenting this theory of religion, which is widely held, are, perhaps, R.R. Morett’s “Threshold of Religion” and Professor J.T. Shotwell’s “Religious Revolution of Today.” The feeling of the Melanesian natives seems to correspond with this theory, and is much quoted in support of it. Irving King (“The Development of Religion”) points out that the American Indians had a corresponding feeling, and be supports the theory from that side.
This is the general trend of speculation on the origin of religion, though there are various separate theories. The phallic theory, that it arose out of sex emotions, will be considered in a later chapter. Dr. L.R. Farnell, a distinguished authority on the science, thinks that primitive man’s horror of bloodshed and death led on to religion (“Evolution of Religion”). M.E. Crawley, another authority, thinks that it sprang rather from man’s general attitude toward life (“The Tree of Life”). Others start from early Greek religion, and think “mother earth” the first to inspire religious feeling. Some, in fine, like Professor Leuba, one of the leading American experts on religion, think that there were many different roots of religion, not one, and combine all the theories (“The Psychological Study of Religion”).
Those who wish can read the works I have quoted, but I would wish to make one or two general reflections on these theories. Some readers will at once exclaim: “Ah, the usual thing! Scientific guesses succeeding and annihilating each other every decade.”
Now, the answer to this common remark is, as a rule, that successive scientific theories do not annihilate, but correct, complete and expand each other, The first theory is too broad or too narrow. We find new facts and correct it. In any case, the remark is really foolish. Because theories which were advanced fifty years ago, when our knowledge was still very imperfect, have had to be abandoned, it is absurd to say that the theories formed at the present time when our knowledge of facts is ten times as great, are just as likely to be superseded.
And at first it looks as if we have here only a normal case of the evolution of a theory. Max Muller’s theory was never widely received. It was just a first guess, nearly a century ago. Spencer’s theory, as far as it goes, is sound. But Tylor traced, or thought he traced, an earlier psychological stage in the evolution of ghosts and gods, and the Pre-Animists only profess to find a still earlier stage. The theory is successively enlarged or built up.
But I am going to try to show that Spencer was, on the whole, right, and that the Animistic and Pre-Animistic stages did not precede the belief in a definite soul or double. Speculation on this subject is difficult and dangerous. The modern scholar has to try to put himself in the mental attitude of the savage: to see how the savage mind would react upon the daily experiences of savage life. He cannot do it. He imagines fine shades of psychological development which are modern rather than primitive.
The best way is to go to the lowest savages and learn what they actually think and feel about religion. But one has to be very careful to begin at the beginning: to start from the lowest level of mental life, the lowest savage type, that is known to us. This is very rarely done. In the days of Herbert Spencer it could not be done, as our knowledge of lower peoples was still very imperfect, and the arrangement of them according to their culture and development was far from satisfactory. Grant Allen builds almost entirely on the religious ideas of the Bantu tribes of Africa, and they are very far from being at the lowest level of humanity. More recent students start from the Melanesians (of New Guinea, etc.), and we are still not at the lowest level. Others build much on the Australian aboriginals, and here again we are not at the lowest level.
This is, I think, the defect in the theory of one of the greatest living writers on comparative religion, Sir J.G. Frazer (“The Golden Bough”). He thinks that magic preceded religion. Men tried at first to coerce the powers or elements of nature by magical practices. When they became intelligent enough to see that they failed, they imagined personal powers behind the vegetation and the Storm, and began to worship and placate them. A high French authority, Solomon Reinach, thinks that the use of tabu was a stage earlier than magic.
With all respect for these distinguished authorities I feel that they have speculated too much and have taken their facts from tribes which do not show the lowest level of human development. When my book, which does thus begin from the lowest human level, appeared a few years ago, an expert wrote that we know too little about the obscure peoples I chose to be able to reason from their sentiments. That is untrue. We shall see that in most cases we have volumes on them by scholars of high repute, and no scholar questions that they are the lowest fragments of humanity. It will, surely, be of interest to see what religion, if any, they have.
Where should we look for the lowest fragments of the human family?
Remember what we mean today by the human family. Savages are not degenerated peoples. Here and there, in particularly hard conditions, a tribe may have degenerated somewhat, but their language or some other part of their life contains traces of the higher level from which they sank. The overwhelming majority show no such traces, on any scientific test. They are fragments of the race, regiments of the human army, flung off, and left to stagnate, as the race advanced. With each fresh advance of the other races, they were driven further afield. Men with better weapons and better brains pushed them aside and seized their lands. You look for them in sheltered islands, sheltered forests, and at the tips of continents.
That is where we find them. They are the Yahgans of Tierra del Fuego, the Botocudos of Brazil, the Veddahs of Ceylon, the Andamanese Islanders, the Aetas of the Philippine Islands, the Samoans of the Malay Peninsula, the Tasmanians, and the Bushmen of South Africa. These are admitted to be the lowest human peoples. They are not tribes; they have no tribal organization or chiefs. Most of them cannot count beyond one, or make fire. In all their culture and their physique they are the lowest human beings. I have in my work, “The Growth of Religion,” summarized all that the authorities, whose works are given, say about them. Here I must very briefly quote what we know about their religion.
First let us take America. The continent was peopled by an invasion from Asia, across a land bridge which formerly existed in Alaska. But a few peoples are so far below the Indian level that it is imagined by some that they crossed from Europe by a land bridge which, we know, once spanned the North Atlantic. It is, however, so many hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years since this land bridge broke down that it is safer to trace all the inhabitants of America to Asia. The primitive very early race, of which we find patches today in Ceylon, the Andaman Islands, the Malay Archipelago, and the Philippines, seems to have sent a branch over to America before the great Ice Age blocked the Alaskan bridge. The later and higher Indian invaders, after the Ice Age, drove them right south, and the remnants of them shudder today (and die out) on the bleak shores of Tierra del Fuego or wander in the dense forests of Brazil.
In Tierra del Fuego there are three peoples. It is the lowly Yahgans who interest us. They seem to have degenerated in many respects, but there is no trace of any degeneration from a higher religious level. Fortunately, they were thoroughly studied for two years (1882 and ’83) by two able French scientists long before modern ideas could reach them, and these men, Hyades and Deniker, say: “We have never detected the least allusion to any kind of cult or religious idea.” They quote a missionary, T. Bridges, who had, before them, spent twenty years amongst the Yahgans. He says:
“They have neither hope nor fear beyond the grave. For them there is neither God, nor good, nor evil, nor spirits to fear apart from the phantoms which may injure them in this world. Death is the end of existence, and they have no idea of a spiritual life or of the composition of man from a body and a soul.”
Here let us pause for a moment to point the bearing on another issue of religious controversy. It is constantly said that no tribe ever lived without a belief in God. Even Professor Leuba strangely says, in his “Psychological Study of Religion,” that this is correct. It is very far from correct.
I do not see, in any case, what consolation a Christian can derive from the assurance that the very lowest of savages share his belief in God. It might, perhaps, be urged that this universal belief points to either a primitive revelation or an “instinct” in human nature. If the latter view be urged, we may say that an instinct which is so strong in the savage and so feeble in modern civilized man is scarcely entitled to respect. And if it be held rather that the universality of belief points to a primitive revelation, we can only regret that the revelation did not contain also a warning that worship should be kept free from bloodshed, human sacrifices, and all the monstrosities of savage religion.
In point of fact, it is false that all nations or peoples believe in God. I have just quoted a most experienced and devoted missionary saying that the Yabgans had no religious belief whatever, and missionaries never err on the side of Rationalism! We shall see that not one of the peoples described in this chapter believe in any kind of God, and even higher peoples, whom we shall describe later, have no God or gods. The human race does not begin with Monotheism, or a revelation, and degenerate from it. On every strict test of facts, it begins without religion, then believes in spirits of the dead, next in Polytheism, and finally in Monotheism.
But in the quotation about the Yahgans there is a reference to “phantoms which may injure them in this world,” and it may be thought that here we have a rudimentary religion. Hyades and Deniker also say that they found certain ideas that might be referred to superstition, though their origin was the fear of maleficent individuals. The Yabgans attributed disease and death to certain “wild men of the woods.” Some of the Yahgans had seen these horrible monsters, who sometimes stole their children and often descended upon them during the night. But there is here no religion. Hyades and Deniker say in the end: “The Fuegians commonly believe that these wild men are the Alakolups.” And the Alakolups are simply a neighboring people of higher culture. In short, the Yahgans have little magic and no religion. They have never speculated on dreams, shadows, or powers of nature. Such was primitive man.
Next we turn to the Botocudos and other lowly tribes of Central Brazil. These, naturally, are less isolated (from other tribes) than the Yahgans, and they have borrowed much and are at a higher level. Yet Dr. A.H. Keane, a distinguished authority, who studied the Botocudos, and tells us that they cannot count beyond one, says that they merely regard the sun as a good principle (but do not worship it), and the moon as a maleficent agent, and the storm as full of evil spirits. Beyond that they have no religion. Other writers on them say, curtly, that they have no religion. It depends on how you define religion.
Other primitive tribes of Brazil were carefully studied by Professor K. von den Steinen. He found them great dreamers. They stupefy themselves with tobacco leaves in order to get vivid dreams. We are therefore not surprised to find that they are quite convinced that man has a double which leaves his body in the dream and, at death, fails to return to it. As the professor says, when they bury a woman’s implements with her, and say that she will need them “in heaven,” they clearly betray the influence of missionaries. They worship nothing. In their legends they talk of two very powerful ancestors,” and even credit them with the creation of fire and water. But when we learn that these myths are common in America, we must gather that they borrowed them from the Indians.
In a word, they have no gods and no religious practices, but they have a firm belief in an invisible double of the body. This is closely connected with dreams, but — note this particularly — their native name for it is “shadow.”
In the beautiful island of Ceylon, not far from the cradle of the human race, there lingered until recent years another of these patches of primitive humanity, the Veddahs. Naturally, the island long ago attracted higher tribes, and most of the Veddahs have adopted Tamil or Cingalese ideas and practices. There are, however, and were until quite recently, a few “wild Veddahs,” and these have been thoroughly studied by two scientific men, Paul and Fritz Sarasin.
Their general culture is of the simplest known description — they cannot count beyond one — and their brains are, relatively to their size, the smallest amongst living peoples. We are at the primitive level of humanity.
They have no religion, and only the slightest trace of anything that we could call magic, and not the least belief in an impersonal force in nature. They thus, like nearly all the peoples I describe in this chapter, do not fit either Frazer’s theory or the Pre-Animistic theory of the origin of religion. At the most they have some awe of the sun and the moon, but it has no religious significance. They speak of a dead man as a Yaka, and the Sarasin brothers translate this “soul.” But it is, they admit, a Cingalese word, and the Veddahs, who offer rice to the Yaka, say that they in this merely imitate the Cingalese. To the question whether the dead lived on, they replied that they did not know; they had never even reflected on the matter.
There is a second important study of the Veddahs, by Dr. and Mrs. Seligmann, but it deals with the Vedniahs as a whole, and it is acknowledged that they have adopted the Tamil religion. The pure Vedniahs, now almost extinct, have no religion whatever; not even a belief that man has a double which survives the body.
Equally primitive, both in culture and language and brain, were the aboriginals of Tasmania, who died out half a century ago. Here again we have a people not far removed from the very cradle of the human race, which was probably in southern Asia. They at first occupied Australia, but the present Australian aboriginals drove them to the extreme southeast. This part was then cut off by the sea, and became the island of Tasmania, and behind its ocean- sheltered frontiers they retained the primitive features of the early human race until the nineteenth century. They had no abstract ideas or words, and their language was, in fact, so rudimentary, and had so much to be assisted by gesture, that they could hardly talk to each other in the dark.
Fortunately we have again here the testimony of a missionary of long experience, Dr. Nixon, the first bishop of Tasmania. He says:
“No trace can be found of any religious usage, or even sentiment, among them; unless indeed we may call by that name the dread of a malignant and destructive spirit which seems to have been their predominant, if not their only, feeling on the subject.”
The bishop, as later and more careful writers like Bonwick and Ling Roth show, is quite right in saying that they have no gods and no kind of worship. But they have plenty of religion, of an elementary sort, in their belief in “malignant and destructive spirits,” and it is most important for our purpose.
The Tasmanians believe very strongly both in magic and in spirits: neither belief seems to precede the other. The spirits of the dead, moreover, were malevolent, and were greatly dreaded and never mentioned. It is clear that, before the first traveler described them, they had vaguely adopted ideas from missionaries, as they said that they became white men after death. They had never seen a white man until the eighteenth century. It is, however, enough for us that they were convinced that man had a double which survived the body, and their native name for this element was “shadow.” Beyond this they had only a certain feeling of awe for the sun and the moon, which they did not worship.
Returning to the Indian Ocean, the probable cradle of the human race, we pick up another fragment of early humanity in the Andaman Islanders. Their ideas and practices, however, are very largely adulterated with foreign elements, for their islands lie in the track of seafaring peoples, and their religion contains such obviously borrowed beliefs as creation, Eden, and a deluge. It is thus impossible to tell how far they have been influenced by others in their legend of a “great spirit,” Puluga, who lives in a stone house in the sky, with wife and family. At all events, they have no nature-worship, and no belief in an impersonal force, but they intensely believe in the spirits of the dead. Since the “soul” is red, one may conclude that they got the idea of it from the colored double or reflection of themselves which they saw on the surface of water.
The Samoans of the Malay Peninsula are another dwindling fragment of the same primitive race: a race of small-statured black men (negritoes) scattered in patches along the Asiatic coast and in Tasmania and South Africa. The Samoans, however, have admittedly adopted many ideas from the Malays. They have “a kind of deities called Kari and Ple,” and occasionally they offer human sacrifices to Kari. In this, and in their magical practices and legends, we cannot possibly disentangle native from adopted ideas. It is enough that they believe intensely in the surviving spirits of men, and that the spirit is a small red object which, after the death of the body, lives on in the water or the storm.
In the Philippine Islands — the race, you see, spreads toward America, and gives us the clue to the Botocudos and Yahgans — are a few thousand additional primitive negritoes called the Aetas. Most travelers say that they have no religion; but they build fires to the full moon (not praying to it, so that Professor Brinton is not justified in calling it their “chief deity”). It is not clear even that they believe in spirits of the dead. The only suggestion of such a belief is in connection with their head-hunting; but they have most probably adopted this practice from the Malay head- hunters with whom they have for ages been in contact.
Lastly, we have the Bushmen of South Africa. These are what we may call the highest stratum of the primitive human level, and they have for ages been so closely associated with higher tribes, and for a century with Boers and missionaries, that it is difficult to get at their really native beliefs. They are often quoted as believing in a supreme spirit, ‘Kaang, who created all things, but the chief authority on them, Dr. G. McCall Theal, tells us that ‘Kaang was not a god, and that they do not even clearly believe in a spirit which survives the body. He says:
Everything connected with their religion — that is, their dread of something outside of and more powerful than themselves — was vague and uncertain. They could give no explanations whatever about it, and they did not all hold the same opinions on the subject. Some of them spoke indeed of a powerful being termed ‘Kaang or Cagu, but when questioned about him, their replies showed that they held him to be a man like themselves, though possessing charms of great power. Many are supposed to have had a vague belief in immortality … but probably very few of them ever gave a thought to such matter. [Yellow and Dark-Skinned People of Africa, 1910, p. 50.]
When we compare the statements of the other authorities, we come to the conclusion that they vaguely believe in the survival of some part of a man, for which they have no definite name, and they have very rich legends about ancestors, one of whom, ‘Kaang, is well on the way to become, in their memory, a sort of god, though there is as yet no clear reason to call him a god, and there is no worship.
An ounce of fact is worth a ton of argument, and there is, perhaps, no subject in connection with which it is more useful to remember this proverbial advice than the origin of religion.
I have now put before the reader a collection of facts of the greatest importance and instructiveness. These facts are given us by men of the highest authority, men who personally and scientifically studied the peoples in question. There is, moreover, no dispute about the position of these peoples. They are the lowest fragments of the living human family. I have not space here to describe their life, their ideas, and their physique in detail, though a good deal of this is given in one of my books, but on every test these lowly peoples are marked off from the rest of humanity as an earlier and lower stratum. They are surviving fragments, not of the earliest human family, by any means, but of a race far lower than the Australian black: a race corresponding to man of the early Stone Age, the man of more than a hundred thousand years ago. From the cradle of the race they wandered along the lines we have indicated, and higher tribes have driven them into the islands and forests.
They afford us a fascinating glimpse of early man just at the time when he was becoming religious. They show us religion in the making. There is no trace of primitive revelation or of a religious instinct. There is no trace of Animism or Pre-Animism, and magic seems amongst them to develop equally with, not to precede, their rudimentary religion.
What do they teach us? First, that there is originally no belief in a god. It is only amongst the higher of these lowly peoples or those who have been most in contact with higher tribes, that any sort of being stands out as particularly powerful, like ‘Kaang or Puluga. It is a stage, perhaps, in the making of a god, but there is nothing like worship. He is a strong man about whom they tell stories, as Britons once did about “King Arthur,” or the Hebrews about Samson, or the Babylonians about Gilgamesh.
Some of these peoples cannot be said to have any religion at all, but they are all on the threshold of it. And it makes its first appearance as a belief that a part of man survives the death and decay of the body. I defined religion as a belief in a worship of gods. In that sense none of these primitive peoples have any religion, but I would here extend the meaning of the word to include a belief in spirits. The first religious idea, not preceded by any sort of speculation about the animation of nature or awe of the powers of nature, is a belief in what we today call soul or spirit.
Before I made this investigation into the beliefs of the lowest peoples, I considered that it was probably the sun and moon, the fire and the storm, that first impressed the imagination of early man and begot a religious feeling. It is clear that this is not so. Before man got wit enough to speculate on the cause of movements in nature, he believed in his own soul.
Then we get important clues as to the origin of this belief in a soul, Let us be careful, in using the words soul and spirit and immortality, to remember that these dull-brained humans had no ideas corresponding to ours. The part of a man that survived death was material, though generally (after death) invisible. Whether it lived forever … They never ask the question. They reply vaguely to it. All that they know is that it lives on.
And we get a very clear idea why they suppose that there is a part of a man that lives on. Their word for it is commonly “shadow,” or it is a “little red thing,” like a man’s shadow on water. Of the nine peoples I have described, three plainly have no idea of survival, two are very doubtful, four (the higher in culture) have an intense belief in it. Of the four who do definitely believe in survival, two call the surviving part of a man “shadow,” and the other two say that it is a red object, though I cannot find the translation of their name for it. We shall see that even at higher levels tribes still give the name “shadow” to the soul.
So it appears that there is more meaning than we thought in the phrase “shades of our ancestors”! I do not wish to press any particular theory of the origin as an exclusive and universal fact, but these lowly peoples very clearly suggest that religion began with a crude speculation of primitive man about his own shadow.
And this seems to me quite the most probable course which the mind of early man would take. Sex-life does not count in the earliest form of religion. Primitive man takes sex as a fact, like food. We leave the phallic theory to a later stage. On the other hand, nature worship, or the animation of nature, is not one of the earliest stages. Some of these peoples are said to have an “awe” of the sun and moon. This is certainly a germ of a religious feeling, but religion as a belief in personal human spirits or doubles clearly comes first.
If we try to put ourselves in the mental atmosphere of a very lowly savage, we can understand it. He is incapable of abstract ideas. His mind is thoroughly concrete. A vague general animation of nature is quite beyond him. He does not speculate on causes of movements. But definite concrete things begin to prick his curiosity. The sun and moon are too conspicuous, too solitary in the sky, too striking in their daily movements across it, to be ignored. He begins to have a feeling of wonder about them, though not a definite opinion or speculation, But his own shadow is so near to him hourly, so weird in its movements, so plainly a double of himself, that it would be likely enough to be the first thing in nature be speculated about.
Primitive man at this level had not the slightest idea of the sun’s share in the matter. No sun, no shadow, of course; but he had only to look into a pool or river to see it again, an exact duplicate of himself. It drew back into himself, spread out from himself, went with him everywhere. He must really be two beings: a body and a shadow. This gave him a clue to death. The shadow-part had gone away.
But it seems likely that dreams intervened here. While be slept on the ground, some part of him was out in the forest or on the river: the shadow-part. We saw that the Brazilians who believed most intensely in spirits were great dreamers; though their word for the soul was “shadow.” The shadow-part wandered at night. When a man was found dead, his shadow-part had not returned to the body. It still wandered, especially at night, when everybody’s shadow wandered. The world of the savage became peopled with shadows. So many men died.
There is not much “religion” in this. The lowest peoples, we saw, had no such belief. To the next group survival was simply a fact. They did not bother about the shadows. But in the next group we find a belief that the shadows are malignant. Amongst the lowest peoples few are malignant, As we shall see in studying the evolution of morals (in Chapter vi), the lowest peoples have no idea of a moral law, but they have very few vices. They live socially. Character gets worse as they rise in culture — we shall see why — and the violent crimes multiply. So violent and malignant shades multiply. You must look out during the night.
Now this is all that we find at the lowest level of humanity when we set aside borrowed ideas and practices. It is the beginning, the germ, of religion. It was fortunate for us that so many primitive patches of the race survived into our age of scientific curiosity. Before the end of this century they will all brobably be extinct, like the Tasmanians and the pure Vedniahs.
From this level upward we can still trace the evolution of religion by means of the savages who remain in the infancy of the race. But the tribes are now more numerous, the culture is more varied, and it would require a large volume or series of volumes to tell the story even in outline. All that I propose to do is to explain, by means of a few peoples at different levels, how men came to believe in gods, to have priests and temples, to practice worship and sacrifice. And we will first take the evolution of gods.
But what is a god? We have already seen how in the mind of primitive man certain shadowy figures rise to a high or predominant position. The Veddahs and others have no spirits, so there is no question of a god. Others, like the Tasmanians, have spirits, but nothing that stands out and could by any stretch of imagination be called a god. On the other hand, the Bushmen have ‘Kaang,’ the Andamanese have Puluga and a second “power,” and the Semangs have Kari and Ple.
We must not attach too much importance to these. ‘Kaang’ is to the Bushmen a great man of long ago. They never worship him. Puluga and his companion power are said by one student of the Andamanese to be merely the monsoons, and Kari and Ple seem to be borrowed from the Malays. The truth is that these lowly peoples have, as I said, no tribal organization and no chiefs. The spirits of the dead were equal as the living are.
The clue to the evolution of gods is, in other words, the rise of man to tribal organizations under chiefs. When men become hunters and fighters, the strong or cunning man gets chosen as leader. He becomes a chief. The leadership becomes hereditary. And, as the spirit-world is a duplicate of the living world, there are more powerful spirits in the world beyond the grave. Famous ancestors or former members of the tribe rise in the memory above all the ordinary spirits, who are individually forgotten. They are on the way to become gods. But it is a very gradual process, with all sorts of shades of belief, all degrees of godness, so to say.
So far Herbert Spencer and Grant Allen seem to be right. Gods are at first deified (glorified) chiefs or ancestors. But we must not suppose that religion evolved in precisely the same way everywhere. The glorification or deification of the sun and moon and other elements of nature was proceeding at the same time. It seems, however, that men got a definite belief in human spirits, some of which towered above others, before they imagined corresponding spirits in nature. The “awe” they sometimes show of the powers in nature, the sun, the moon, and the storm, is not far removed from the feeling you can sometimes deduce from the expression of a dog watching a storm or a lion shrinking from fire. It is a very long way from this to the speculation that the visible storm or fire must have an invisible cause. The definite belief in spirits has to come first.
The proper way to trace the successive stages in the evolution of religion would be to arrange savage tribes in the order of their culture or general development, and then see how religion rises from level to level. Most writers on comparative religion, instead of doing this, quote one tribe after another without noticing to which level of culture each belongs. The result is contradictory and confusing, and theories are wrong. Naturally, no one will expect to find in a short chapter such as this an attempt at such systematic work. But we will glance at a few peoples which are at the next level of culture to those we described earlier in this chapter.
The Australian aboriginals are at the next level of culture above the one we have described. They entered Australia ages ago. I should say, certainly fifty thousand years ago, at least; for they correspond to man of the Old Stone Age in Europe, yet in some respects they rise above him. In any case, it is not disputed that they represent the next stage in man’s evolution, and they are, therefore, most interesting from our present point of view. Many of them have for a century been in contact with the whites, but competent Australian scholars have studied them in their purest forms and given us valuable accounts of them.
Of these accounts Spencer and Gillen’s “Northern Tribes of Central Australia,” and “Native Tribes of Central Australia” are the most authoritative, and the authors tell us that the aboriginals, who have no number above three, have “no belief in anything like a supreme being.” Howitt, the other chief authority, says that, if by religion we mean worship of a god, the Australians have “no religion.” On the other band, C. Streklow, who also knows them well, asserts that some tribes have a sort of supreme being. As the Australians are always quoted, on one side or the other, when the question is raised whether all peoples, even the lowest, believed in God, it would seem that we have here a perplexing contradiction.
But — apart from the fact that the Australians are by no means amongst the lowest savages — it is a verbal quarrel. Streklow says that the tribe he studied described their “great being” as a huge red-haired man with very large feet. Is that a deity? Some tribes talk of this being — he has various names — as having “made” the world, but here we clearly get the ideas borrowed from missionaries. On the other hand, the tribes generally believe that there was an earlier age when their ancestors were beings of marvelous power and could make a river or a range of mountains; just as the Bushman thinks some of his marvelous ancestors could make sun and moon by throwing their shoes into the sky.
In a word, all the Australians believe firmly in a spirit-part in man and in the reincarnation, or successive embodiment, of this undying part. They believe in magic with the same intensity, and we have no reason to suppose that one preceded the other. They believe further that some of their ancestors were remarkably powerful beings, and that they remain powerful in the spirit world. They never pray to, or supplicate, or worship these beings, and they have no moral code presided over by them. The great ancestors, now great spirits, are simply facts. They have no priests and no temples; but there are hiding places for their ceremonial objects which we might regard as the germ of temples. In fact, some tribes pick out one amongst the ancestral spirits — Bungil, Baiame, Altjira, etc. — as a very special and powerful spirit. There is no sort of nature-worship or Animism.
All this quite confirms the idea of the origin and development of religion and gods which I have given. Now, at this higher level, there is no uncertainty whatever about a man’s spirit-part. The race has got beyond that. Now, also, since the peoples are organized in tribes, and the tribes have chiefs, there are chiefs or headmen in the spirit world. It is no longer a complete democracy. In fine, in some tribes one particularly powerful spirit is named above all others. It is not a god; but it is not far from it.
Another black race is found on the islands north and east of Australia, and these “Melanesians” are on a higher stage than the Australians, though lower than most of the Africans. Their word for a man’s spirit-part is related to the word for “shadow,” and we may assume that their belief arose in the way described. They are, however, still vague about the future life, and, though they put the dead man’s weapons in his grave, they deny that this means a belief that his spirit will use them. Some of the tribes believe definitely in punishment in a future life, and it warns us again not to read our “spiritual” ideas into the savage mind when we learn that the punishment was administered on the part on which old-fashioned schoolmasters used to punish boys?
There are still no gods, but, as in Australia, there are approaches to a divine condition. In many of the islands particularly powerful spirits are venerated, and in cases it is said that they are the spirits of former human beings, sometimes chiefs, Sacrifices are offered to them, their help is invoked, and little houses built over their supposed remains represent the germ of temples.
At this point something in the nature of priests, though not formal priesthoods, appear. The wizard or the chief has to offer the propitiatory sacrifices, and he gains a quasi-sacred character The Melanesians are especially interesting because they believe in a kind of impersonal supernatural influence diffused through nature which they call mana. A good knife, a shark, a curious stone, or a tree may have mana. A man wants it — one almost thinks of the American “pep” — and believes he gets it by eating a strong man. Now, we saw that one of the current theories of the origin of religion is that it began in a vague belief in some such vague force or virtue in nature generally, and those who hold the theory illustrate it from the Melanesian mana. But the Melanesians are very far from primitive. Their ideas entirely confirm the line of evolution which I suggested.
The Polynesians of the Pacific Islands are a very much higher race, and are believed to be related to the Europeans. Their word for “soul” is not “shadow,” but, when a man dies a violent death, they spread a white cloth on the ground, and the first ant that crosses it is said to be the man’s shadow. It is buried with him. Here again the idea of soul becomes connected, in an ancient practice, with shadow.
But the next level above the Melanesian is that of the African black, or of the Sudanese Negroes in particular, and here we get striking confirmation of our theory. Gods are now common, and it is equally common to find that they are regarded as the spirits of glorified ancestors. One of the most noted writers amongst the early missionaries, D. Macdonald, said: “The spirits of the dead are the gods of the living,” and the anthropologist Dr. A.H. Keane tells us that this formula “applies equally to the Sudanese natives of Upper Guinea, and to the Bantu populations of Uganda, the eastern coast-land and Damaraland.”
There is, however, one more point to be considered. We have covered a very great deal of the evolution of religion without mentioning the deification of sun and moon and the powers of nature. What about the solar cult or solar myth theory of religion?
Well, we must be guided by the facts. When I first began to speculate on the origin of religion, it seemed to me certain that man would first deify, or ascribe powerful spirits to, such conspicuous bodies as the sun and moon, the storm and the fire. I now believe that all this is based on a false psychology. Primitive man was too unintelligent to speculate on causes. He began with a concrete fact, his shadow. This was not an inference, but a thing he saw. He consisted, obviously, of two parts. As his mind grew, he got the idea of a spirit-part, and later, when he began to speculate on the life of nature, he put spirits into it to explain its energies and movements.
The facts we have narrated prove this. It is only above the Melanesian level that we begin to get nature-gods. We begin to find them among the Bataks of Sumatra and the Papuans, who are Melanesians with a tincture of higher culture. The growth is more pronounced amongst the African Negroes, though even here the nature-deities are of much less importance than the deified ancestors. They are very far away, and they have not the same dangerous interest in the life of men. The higher the tribe, the greater the nature-gods become. On the whole, even in Africa sun- gods and earth-goddesses are secondary. Amongst the American Indians and others the nature-gods were much more important, but here we are dealing with a higher level, a later stage of religious evolution.
We saw that Sir J.G. Frazer, one of the most influential writers on religion, regards it as derived from magic, or the failure of magic. It is sometimes put that magic, in the earlier ages of man, was the religion of the individual, and that, as social evolution proceeded, religion became the magic of the social group. There seem to be two errors in this. First, magic, we saw, did not precede religion. It develops at the same time and in the same proportion. Secondly, religion, the facts have shown us, grew out of individual experiences, not out of social influence.
But we have now reached a human level at which the growth of social life does react on the evolution of religion. Social life always means the division of labor, the increase of experts and middle-men. Moreover, with the rise of agriculture (which is unknown to the lowly people we first studied) the course of nature becomes a matter of grave anxiety. Will the rain fall in due season? Will the spirits of the trees and the corn bring forth their usual abundance?
Disease, also, is now thought to be due to spirits. In fact, since spirits are everywhere — in the shark and crocodile as well as the clouds and trees — a man has a frightful lot of potential friends and enemies to concern himself about. He wants experts, or particularly gifted people. So medicine-men, rain-makers, wizards and priests arise.
We see the appearance of these middle-men as a quite natural development when we ascend from lower to higher tribes. The Australians have no priests, but, of course, the women and children are, as weaker vessels (not on grounds of sex), excluded from the important ceremonies, and it is the elders particularly who handle the tawdry mysteries of the tribes.
Amongst the Melanesians, the next level, we find experts appearing. There is no professional caste, but a man can acquire or buy the art of making the sacrifices and placating the spirits, and he becomes a sort of wizard or priest, living on his art. Amongst the much higher Polynesians there are definite priests. They enter into communion with the gods — which is proved by convulsions and contortions — they induce the god to speak to the worshiper (by putting out of sight an assistant to play the part of the god), they demand presents in the name of the god. Priestcraft is as old as priesthood.
The natives of the Slave Coast are a little further evolved, and they illustrate the further development of religion. The little spirits become of less importance. The greater spirits occupy the attention of the Negroes more and more. The really greatest spirit, Mawu, the god of sky and rain, is still not dreaded. He is a sort of good-natured father in heaven. The god of lightning is much more important; for much damage is done by lightning in the region. So his priests and priestesses (who are “wives of the god”) rise in importance. When a man’s hut has been destroyed by lightning, these priests or priestesses come along and examine the ruin. Secretly — they are all expert conjurers — they slip a flint arrow into the heap, and they then produce it to the wondering natives as a proof that the catastrophe was an “act of god.”
Then there is a phallic deity: and we must note that this is about the level where the phallic element enters religion. The natives delight in erotic dreams, and the priests keep them on good terms with the god of love. The sex-organ is carved everywhere.
Beyond these major spirits are the usual legions of spirits of dreaded animals, of fire and river, forest and harvest, disease and child-birth, and so on. What interests us most is that some spirits are rising out of the primitive crowd to the position of something like gods, and Mr. Ellis tells us that this is not a natural development, but has been “brought about by the priesthood.” The ambitions and rivalries of different bodies of priests are beginning to make gods. Their spirit, each group says, is the really great spirit, the one that really matters. We must be careful not to suppose that the deifying of a great ancestor, or the veneration of a great element of nature, was the one way of making gods.
We see the rise from a crowd of spirits to a few outstanding spirits which, under the fostering influences of the priests, became what we may call gods. We see the nature-gods gradually, but slowly, rising to importance above deified ancestors. We see rude huts over chief’s remains or fetishes growing into carved temples. We see priesthoods gaining in power, wealth and organization. We see the departed spirits gradually acquiring a home, at first in the forest or beyond the hills or in some other vague place, then underground, then with the great spirits in the sky. We see, in fine, a strong tendency everywhere for one great spirit, and it is very commonly the sky-god, to predominate. The whole story of man’s religious evolution lies before us, not in a dead and speculative chronicle, but in living remnants of the various ages through which the race has passed. Science is not “a series of guesses.” It is a careful interpretation of carefully observed facts.
There is no psychology of religion; that is to say, there are a million different psychologies of religion. The religious psychology of the Tasmanian is not that of the Australian, and it differs again as we rise to the African, the Polynesian, the Amerind, the Mongolian or the European peasant. The religious psychology of the Minneapolis lady, with her tremendous puritanism and social zeal, has not the least relation to that of the Madrid lady, who thinks that the Church exists mainly to forgive indiscretions, or of the south Italian or Bulgar or Greek girl who permits unnatural vice without a blush and crosses herself in the presence of a Protestant. The religious psychology of a man is not that of a woman, and there is even no such thing as a general religious psychology of the same sex in the same sect or congregation.
It is a very large subject. All that we can do here is to seek if there are any common features at all in the frame of mind which we call religious.
It is very difficult to find any such common features. And a reverence for the unknown? Well, the Spiritualist is religious, but the objects of his religion — he does not necessarily believe in God — do not inspire awe and reverence, and he would not admit that they are unknown. Probably the mass of Roman Catholics, the illiterate Mexicans and Peruvians, the Italian and Spanish peasants etc., so rarely feel awe and reverence that we cannot regard it as essential. It is at all events a very small element in what they call their religious life. It is a small and occasional element in the lives of the great majority of religious people. Ask them what religion is, and they will answer: correct belief, occasional attendance at church, and a graceful recognition (in theory) of the moral obligations of Christianity.
Religion is not an emotional reaction on the universe or on powers which seem to be manifested through it. Scholars say this; and religious people don’t know what they mean. Are Buddhism (as taught by Buddha) and Confucianism religions? They are generally described as such. But Buddha and Confucius were Agnostics, as we shall see, and Confucianism at least has been faithful to its founder. Was Stoicism, which was one of the greatest of moral systems, a religion? But the Stoic was completely indifferent to gods or to anything except the life of man here and now.
The facts give no indication whatever of a religious instinct, an inner sense or urge, or whatever new name one invented. From beginning to end it is a question “of drawing wrong inferences from observed facts” — the shadow, the dream, the nightmare, disease, death, the movements of wind and river, the rain, the sun and moon, the annual birth and death of vegetation. The only urge beyond the subtle urge of priesthoods — is the curiosity of man. He itches to explain things. From beginning to end religion is an explanation or interpretation of obscure and dark things.