You are here

Lecture III: Evidence from Social Anthropology

I shall begin my outline of the natural history of religion by considering the evidence from social anthropology. Such studies have undergone a marked change in the present century. While still itself perhaps more in the phase of natural history, social anthropology is now developing into a truly scientific study of human ecology and behaviour based upon prolonged investigations in the field. The observers are no longer content just to visit this or that tribe and report upon what they can gather from interviews through an interpreter and the attendance at certain ceremonies; they go and live with the people, thoroughly learn their language and enter into their way of life before they attempt to give an account of their social and religious behaviour. Let us see what kind of evidence we can gain from such studies as to the nature of religious experience.

This new attitude is very different from that of the nineteenth century when social anthropology came into being. That period was indeed decorated with the illustrious names of the enthusiastic pioneers who not only collected together a vast body of facts from all parts of the world, but brought the subject of ethnology, as it was then more often called, before the public eye. The names of Sir Edward Tylor and Sir James Frazer in this country, Emile Durkheim and Lucien Lévy-Bruhl on the continent stand out. They, and many more, undoubtedly played a great part in laying the foundations of the subject, but today they are not infrequently referred to by the moderns as the arm-chair anthropologists. Professor Evans-Pritchard1, who tells us that with one exception no anthropologists conducted field studies until the end of the nineteenth century, recalls that William James once asked Sir James Frazer about the natives he had known; whereupon Frazer exclaimed “But Heaven forbid!” They were the ardent theorists in the period following the impact of Darwin’s Origin of Species and The Descent of Man; by studying present-day primitive tribes they expected to throw much light on the path that the more sophisticated races had traversed in the evolution of their thought and behaviour leading to modern civilization. Such a view was clearly expressed by Sir James Frazer in his inaugural lecture when taking up the chair of Social Anthropology at Liverpool2:

Thus the study of savage life [he said] is a very important part of Social Anthropology. For by comparison with civilized man the savage represents an arrested or rather retarded stage of social development, and an examination of his customs and beliefs accordingly supplies the same sort of evidence of the evolution of the human mind that an examination of the embryo supplies of the evolution of the human body. To put it otherwise, a savage is to a civilized man as a child is to an adult; and just as the gradual growth of intelligence in a child corresponds to, and in a sense recapitulates, the gradual growth of intelligence in the species, so a study of savage society at various stages of evolution enables us to follow approximately, though of course not exactly, the road by which the ancestors of the higher races must have travelled in their progress upward through barbarism to civilization.

It was taken for granted that the primitive races of today must be in a much lower phase of mental evolution than ourselves; this appeared at first to be supported by the observations of some of the great traveller naturalists, but not all. Those views which appeared to fit in with the current Darwinian stream of thought were seized upon as undoubtedly representing the true state of affairs; the others were neglected as merely sentimental and unreliable feelings towards our lower simple brethren. Sometimes Darwin’s own account of his first meeting with the native inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego has been quoted to show the appallingly primitive state of some races of man. He described the incident as “without exception the most curious and interesting spectacle I ever beheld: I would not have believed how wide was the difference between savage and civilized man; it is greater than between a wild and domesticated animal, inasmuch as in man there is a greater power of improvement.” Those who quoted such a passage from Darwin had forgotten or not read other passages in the same journal where he describes the demeanour of the three Fuegians whom Captain Fitzroy had on a previous voyage taken to England to be educated and was now returning to their native land on the Beagle. They were named, you may remember, York Minster, Jemmy Button and Fuegia Basket. Of them Darwin, who had all the voyage out on which to observe them, says “York Minster was … reserved, taciturn, morose and when excited violently passionate; his affections were very strong …, his intellect good. Jemmy Button was a universal favourite, but likewise passionate; the expression on his face at once showed his nice disposition. He was merry and often laughed, and was remarkably sympathetic with any one in pain… Lastly Fuegia Basket was a nice, modest, reserved young girl, with a rather pleasing but sometimes sullen expression, and very quick in learning anything, especially languages …”

Let me illustrate the views of some of today’s social anthropologists on their predecessors of the last century by a few quotations from works published in the last ten years or so. Dr. Godfrey Lienhardt, Lecturer in African Sociology at Oxford, writes in his recently published Social Anthropology (1964):

The foremost of British “arm-chair” anthropologists, Sir James Frazer, became for many years the interpreter of religious and magical beliefs to a public far wider than that of professional anthropologists … In addition to his own wide reading—The Golden Bough is of value as an encyclopaedia and bibliography alone—Frazer had an extensive range of admiring correspondents in foreign parts who were able to make inquiries on the spot about customs and beliefs which he drew to their attention…

Frazer’s psychological insight, on which he prided himself, was often at fault, largely because he thought that he could understand very foreign beliefs quite out of their real contexts simply by an effort of introspection. He and others of his time had something of the approach of Sherlock Holmes in the works of his near-contemporary, Conan Doyle: “You know my methods in such cases, Watson: I put myself in the man’s place, and having first gauged his intelligence, I try to imagine how I myself should have proceeded under the same circumstances.” Such deductive procedures might have their merits in the study of people with whom the investigator had much in common. They could only mislead where the student was a middle-class Victorian scholar, and the subject an Australian aborigine or ancient Egyptian priest. Nevertheless Frazer’s was a remarkable achievement. He showed the possibility of a wide-ranging comparative study of religion, which would reveal underlying similarities between “advanced” and “savage” beliefs; and he did begin to identify and define certain widespread institutions, notably that of “divine kingship” where the king is also high priest, still frequently referred to by anthropologists.

Professor E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Professor of Social Anthropology at Oxford, writes in his book on Nuer Religion (1956), to which I shall be referring later in the lecture, as follows:

The theories of writers about primitive religion have not been sustained by research. During the last century what was presented as theory was generally the supposition that some particular form of religion was the most primitive and that from it developed other forms, the development being sometimes presented as a succession of inevitable and well-defined stages. The form of religion presented by a writer as the most primitive was that which he considered to be the most simple, crude, and irrational; to exhibit most conspicuously “crass materialism”, “primeval stupidity”, “naïve eudaemonism”, “crude anthropomorphism”, or “daemonic dread”.

Again writing in The Institutions of Primitive Society (1954) the same author says:

But though pictured as immersed in religious superstition it was incompatible with positivist and evolutionary dogmas that the most primitive peoples known to us should have monotheistic religions, or indeed even the conception of God. Sir Edward Tylor, the leading anthropologist in England in the latter half of last century, laid it down as an axiom that the idea of God is a late conception in human history, the product of a long development of animistic thought; and this was so much taken for granted that no one would listen when Andrew Lang, and after him Wilhelm Schmidt, pointed out that, as far as the most primitive peoples in the world today are concerned, the evidence points to the opposite conclusion.

Professor Meyer Fortes, Professor of Social Anthropology at Cambridge, writes in the same volume:

Anthropologists, nowadays, fight shy of expressions like The Mind of Primitive Man; for there is no such being as a generic primitive man and no such entity as a collective mind of any variety of mankind. The phrase comes, by long descent, from men of letters and social philosophers who know primitive societies only at second hand and use the knowledge to support a pet theory…

A little later he makes the following telling comparison:

To appreciate the religious, magical, and mythological beliefs and practices of primitive peoples we must recognize that they are expressions of the common humanity of all mankind. Apart from being far more logically coherent, once the premises are granted, African beliefs about witches are startlingly like those of Shakespeare’s day. Sir Isaac Newton held beliefs about occult powers that would seem thoroughly sensible to a modern Melanesian or pagan African, and I do not suppose anybody would claim that he was a savage in his mental development, or inferior in intellectual capacity to the mathematical physicists of today.

He goes on to draw further comparisons between our own and more primitive societies, pointing out that we have amongst us influential sects whose members regard diseases as entirely spiritual affairs and who would rather die than undergo treatment by drugs or surgery. “There is no belief or practice found in primitive cultures” he says “which lacks a counterpart in our civilization.” The truth of this is powerfully brought home to us when we consider the extraordinary variety of what are sometimes called the fringe-religions which flourish in the United States of America, particularly in California. It was the French sociologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl who in the early days of the century was the great influence in putting forward the idea of the primitive mind against which there has been so much reaction today. Writing of Lévy-Bruhl, Professor Evans-Pritchard3 says he thinks it is now unanimously agreed among anthropologists that he “made primitive peoples far more superstitious, to use a commoner word than prelogical, than they really are; and he made the contrast more glaring between their mentality and ours by presenting us as more positivist than most of us are.”

The other leading French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, has a better standing with the moderns and is particularly important from our special point of view. Dr. Lienhardt, comparing him with Sir James Frazer, describes him as “a more systematic thinker, and one to whom the subject owes more of its current ideas.” Evans-Pritchard is equally sympathetic to Durkheim’s approach:

For Durkheim and his school, with whom, in this matter, I am in agreement, generalizations about “religion” are discreditable. They are always too ambitious and take account of only a few of the facts. The anthropologist should be both more modest and more scholarly. He should restrict himself to religions of a certain type or of related peoples, or to particular problems of religious thought and practice. Durkheim did not try to explain religion as a universal phenomenon, but only to understand certain characteristic forms it takes in certain primitive societies.

I am sure that many people will be surprised at my looking to social anthropology to provide evidence for the divine in man; indeed perhaps the majority of contemporary anthropologists may think it rather odd that I should be making this attempt. That the general laity are likely to be surprised is not really to be wondered at the ideas of the older writers had been put forward with such force and confidence, as in Tylor’s Primitive Culture and Frazer’s The Golden Bough, that they are still thought, erroneously, to be more or less the generally accepted doctrines. With the anthropologists themselves it is different; while they no longer hold the theories of the older writers to be true, they are still influenced by them in as much as, with a few notable exceptions, they believe that religion can no longer be a valid subject for study. The exceptions are important. Evans-Pritchard in his Aquinas Lecture of 1959 on “Religion and the Anthropologists”4 paints for us the picture of the earlier development of the agnostic atmosphere and its maintenance among most of his colleagues of today:

It was in such a climate of Comtism, utilitarianism, Biblical criticism, and the beginnings of comparative religion that social anthropology, as we now understand it, came into being. It was a product, as were ultimately all the others, of eighteenth-century rationalist philosophy, and more particularly of the stream of thought from Hobbes and Locke, through Hume and the Scottish moral philosophers, sceptics and Deists. Its founders were such men as McLennan, Lubbock, Tylor, and, later, Frazer, all great believers in laws of social evolution and in the necessary interdependence of institutions, and all, if one may judge from their writings and from what information one otherwise has about them, agnostics and hostile to religion…

All the leading sociologists and anthropologists contemporaneous with, or since, Frazer were agnostics and positivists—Westermarck, Hobhouse, Haddon, Rivers, Seligman, Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski; and if they discussed religion they treated it as superstition for which some scientific explanation was required and could be supplied. Almost all the leading anthropologists of my own generation would, I believe, hold that religious faith is total illusion, a curious phenomenon soon to become extinct and to be explained in such terms as “compensation” and “projection” or by some sociologistic interpretation on the lines of maintenance of social solidarity. It has been, and is, the same in America.

Am I not vainly trying to stand against the stream? It is with the “notable exceptions” to whom I have just referred that I shall deal; I believe that their work, when better understood, will turn the tide. Among these I will include Malinowski, perhaps to the still further surprise of some; he is, I think, generally thought of as a complete agnostic on account of his earlier writings, but not by those who have read his Riddell Memorial Lectures, The Foundation of Faith and Morals, to which I shall presently refer.

It is with the ideas of Emile Durkheim and of Dr. R. R. Marett that I particularly wish to deal, although at the end I shall discuss the two remarkable and recent monographs on primitive religion, that of the Nuer and of the Dinka tribes, by Evans-Pritchard and Lienhardt respectively. The notions underlying the views of Durkheim and Marett are, I think, perhaps closer together than many scholars perhaps realize. They seem to have come to the same way of thinking largely independently. Durkheim stressed the importance of the social influence on the formation of religious concepts more than Marett and I will refer to this at once because it has an interesting relation to the views of Waddington which I discussed in the last lecture. I shall presently be giving extracts from Durkheim’s great work Elementary Forms of Religious Life, but before I do so, let me give two more quotations from Evans-Pritchard and Lienhardt which emphasize again the respect with which Durkheim’s views are still held. The former writes5:

Catching up with it anthropologists now often explain religion in terms of projection, following Freud, for whom religion is an illusion characteristic of a phase of immaturity both for the individual and for the human race.

Durkheim and his colleagues and pupils of the Année Sociologique have steadfastly, and in my opinion rightly, opposed any such psychological explanations of religion. In their view religious facts, whatever else they may be, are social facts and cannot therefore be explained only in terms of individual psychology.

And Lienhardt writes (and this is, I think, particularly relevant to Waddington’s ideas) as follows:

… In general, the French sociologists of Durkheim’s school established convincingly that social tradition moulds the individual conscience more fully than even the most self-conscious members of a society usually recognize. Different societies exhibit different patterns of thought, different “collective representations” as the French called them, and these collective representations are the object of specifically sociological study.

Now let us discuss more fully the views put forward by Durkheim in his Elementary Forms of Religious Life; all the quotations I make will be from the English translation by J. W. Swain (1915). He sets out to study, to analyse and attempt to explain the most primitive and simple forms of religion known; i.e. those belonging to societies which are not surpassed by others in simplicity and which can be explained without borrowing elements from any previous religion. In his introductory chapter he expresses his conviction of the reality of such religious phenomena. If we only consider the “letter of the formulae” such religious practices may indeed appear disconcerting and suggest that they are to be attributed to some deep-rooted error.

But [he says] one must know how to go underneath the symbol to the reality which it represents and which gives it its meaning. The most barbarous and the most fantastic rites and the strangest myths translate some human need, some aspect of life, either individual or social. The reasons with which the faithful justify them may be, and generally are, erroneous; but the true reasons do not cease to exist, and it is the duty of science to discover them.

He goes on to explain that the general conclusion of his book is that primitive religion is “something eminently social” and that its rites are a manner of acting taking place in assembled groups in order to excite, maintain or recreate certain mental states within such groups. He believed that totemism is the most primitive religion known and even, in all probability, that has ever existed, and that originally it was not concerned with the existence of spirits, genii or divine personalities. This view, that totemism is the most primitive form of religion, while for a time widely held under his influence, is, I am told, by no means so easily accepted by anthropologists today; it is rather regarded, I believe, as a special case of something much more general. I am not, however, concerned with the truth or otherwise of this hypothesis; it is Durkheim’s discussion of the nature of the religion and the experiences accompanying it that is of much greater interest for us than the primitiveness of totemism which may for long be debated.

The totem is the emblem of the clan, and is very often, but not always, of animal form, something like the British lion or American eagle standing for national pride and prestige, but of greater significance—indeed more like the British or American flag, something that the members of the clan regard as sacred and would, if need be, die for, as a soldier might give his life in an impossible attempt to regain a captured standard from an enemy. Durkheim explains the significance of the totem in these words:

If a certain species of animal or vegetable is the object of a reverential fear, this is not because of its special properties, for the human members of the clan enjoy this same privilege, though to a slightly inferior degree, while the mere image of this same plant or animal inspires an even more pronounced respect… Totemism is the religion, not of such and such animals or men or images, but of an anonymous and impersonal force, found in each of these beings but not to be confounded with any of them. No one possesses it entirely and all participate in it. It is so completely independent of the particular subjects in whom it incarnates itself, that it precedes them and survives them. Individuals die, generations pass and are replaced by others; but this force always remains actual, living and the same. It animates the generations of today as it animated those of yesterday and as it will animate those of to-morrow…

The idea of totemism is not at first an easy one to grasp. When a native of a particular tribe, with for example a crow as its totemic symbol, says that all the members of the tribe are crows, he means that the same principle, which is their most essential characteristic, is found in all of them and is one which they have in common with the animals of their symbolic name, in this case crows. The world as totemism sees it, is animated by forces which the imagination links with various animal forms. I quote again from Durkheim:

When someone asks a native why he observes his rites, he replies that his ancestors always observed them, and he ought to follow their example. So if he acts in a certain way towards the totemic beings, it is not only because the forces resident in them are physically redoubtable, but because he feels himself morally obliged to act thus; he has the feeling that he is obeying an imperative, that he is fulfilling a duty. For these sacred beings, he has not merely fear, but also respect. Moreover, the totem is the source of the moral life of the clan. All the beings partaking of the same totemic principle consider that owing to this very fact, they are morally bound to one another; they have definite duties of assistance, vendetta, etc., towards each other; and it is these duties which constitute kinship. So while the totemic principle is a totemic force, it is also a moral power; so we shall see how it easily transforms itself into a divinity properly so-called.

Moreover, there is nothing here which is special to totemism. Even in the most advanced religions, there is scarcely a god who has not kept something of this ambiguity and whose functions are not at once cosmic and moral. At the same time that it is a spiritual discipline, every religion is also a means enabling men to face the world with greater confidence.

Now just as a primitive totemism is widespread among the tribes of Australia, so it was also among a large number of American Indians, especially those tribes belonging to the great Sioux family such as the Omaha, Ponka, Kansas, Dakota, Iowa, Winnebago, etc. Among all these people “there is a pre-eminent power to which all the others have the relation of derived forms and which is called wakan.” Among the Omaha there are totems of all sorts, both individual and collective, but both are only particular forms of wakan. This has often mistakenly been taken to represent a great spirit, but really it is not personified, it, in the words of Riggs (quoted by Durkheim), “embraces all mystery, all secret power, all divinity.” Or again in the words of Miss Fletcher6 (also quoted by Durkheim): “The foundation of the Indian’s faith in the efficacy of the totem rested upon his belief concerning nature and life. This conception was complex and involved two prominent ideas: first, that all things animate and inanimate, were permeated by a common life; and second, that this life could not be broken, but was continuous.” This common principle of life, says Durkheim, is the wakan, and “the totem is the means by which an individual is put into relations with this source of energy; if the totem has any powers, it is because it incarnates the wakan.” Now this idea is not peculiar to the Indians of North America; it is found under the name of mana among the islanders of Melanesia and this, Durkheim believes, “is the exact equivalent of the wakan of the Sioux and the orenda of the Iroquois.” He quotes from Codrington’s study The Melanesians (p. 118) as follows:

There is a belief in a force altogether distinct from physical power, which acts in all ways for good and evil; and which it is of the greatest advantage to possess or control. This is Mana. I think I know what our people mean by it… It is a power or influence, not physical and in a way super-natural; but it shows itself in physical force, or in any kind of power or excellence which a man possesses. This mana is not fixed in anything, and can be conveyed in almost anything… All Melanesian religion consists, in fact, in getting this mana for one’s self, or getting it used for one’s benefit.

Durkheim now comments on Codrington’s view of Mana:

Is this not the same notion of an anonymous and diffused force, the germs of which we recently found in the totemism of Australia? Here is the same impersonality; for, as Codrington says, we must be careful not to regard it as a sort of supreme being; any such idea is “absolutely foreign” to Melanesian thought. Here is the same ubiquity; the mana is located nowhere definitely and it is everywhere. All forms of life and all the effects of the action, either of men or of living beings or of simple minerals, are attributed to its influence.7

He goes on to discuss how it has often been supposed that, because in early times men were dominated by their senses, they imagined gods in the concrete forms of nature; yet in totemism we do not meet with such personalities of this sort. The real totemic cult is not addressed to certain animals or plants as such, but to a vague power spread through these things. He says that in the more advanced religions such as those found among the North American Indians, which have developed from totemism, this idea becomes more conscious of itself and attains a higher generality “which dominates the entire religious system.”

Now it is clear that Durkheim regarded this power as something very real and he likened it to psychic force which may be collectively generated in an assembly of people moved by a common emotion.

There are occasions [he says] when this strengthening and vivifying action of society is especially apparent. In the midst of an assembly animated by a common passion, we become susceptible of acts and sentiments of which we are incapable when reduced to our own forces; and when the assembly is dissolved and when, finding ourselves alone again, we fall back to our ordinary level, we are then able to measure the height to which we have been raised above ourselves. History abounds in examples of this sort…

Durkheim then describes some of the remarkable religious festivals such as fire ceremonies among the Warramunga of Australia and goes on to express his belief that it is in the midst of these social events, and “out of this effervescence itself that the religious idea seems to be born.” He further considers that the theory that this is its origin “is confirmed by the fact that in Australia the really religious activity is almost entirely confined to the moments when these assemblies are held.”

In a quotation I gave from Professor Evans-Pritchard (on p. 61), to show his approval of this kind of approach, I think perhaps he goes too far in saying that Durkheim did not try to explain religion as a universal phenomenon; surely Durkheim is implying that in the study of these primitive religions we are looking at the beginnings (or near beginnings, if we do not accept his hypothesis of their being really primary) from which most other more elaborate and more personal religions have sprung. I will now pass to some of his observations on religion in general which appear at the end of this remarkable book. They are so important, not only for our particular theme, but indeed for an understanding of religion in general that I make no apology for giving a somewhat lengthy extract; it is over fifty years since the book first appeared and as it did so at the beginning of the 1914 war and has long been out of print, I think it may not have received from English readers in general the attention it deserves.

The theorists [he says] who have undertaken to explain religion in rational terms have generally seen in it before all else a system of ideas, corresponding to some determined object. This object has been conceived in a multitude of ways; nature, the infinite, the unknowable, the ideal, etc.; but these differences matter but little. In any case, it was the conceptions and beliefs which were considered as the essential elements of religion. As for the rites, from this point of view they appear to be only an external translation, contingent and material, of these internal states which alone pass as having any intrinsic value. This conception is so commonly held, that generally the disputes, of which religion is the theme, turn about the question whether it can conciliate itself with science or not; that is to say, whether or not there is a place beside our scientific knowledge for another form of thought which would be specifically religious.

But the believers, the men who lead the religious life and have a direct sensation of what it really is, object to this way of regarding it, saying that it does not correspond to their daily experience. In fact, they feel that the real function of religion is not to make us think, to enrich our knowledge, nor to add to the conceptions, which we owe to science, others of another origin and another character, but rather, it is to make us act, to aid us to live. The believer, who has communicated with his god, is not merely a man who sees new truths of which the unbeliever is ignorant; he is a man who is stronger. He feels within him more force, either to endure the trials of existence, or to conquer them. It is as though he were raised above the miseries of the world, because he is raised above his condition as a mere man; he believes that he is saved from evil, under whatever form he may conceive this evil. The first article in every creed is the belief in salvation by faith. But it is hard to see how a mere idea could have this efficacy. An idea is in reality only a part of ourselves; then how could it confer upon us powers superior to those which we have of our own nature? Howsoever rich it might be in affective virtues, it could add nothing to our natural vitality; for it could only release the motive powers which are within us, neither creating them nor increasing them. From the mere fact that we consider an object worthy of being loved and sought after, it does not follow that we feel ourselves stronger afterwards: it is also necessary that this object set free energies superior to these which we ordinarily have at our command and also that we have some means of making these enter into us and unite themselves to our interior lives. Now for that, it is not enough that we think of them; it is also indispensable that we place ourselves within their sphere of action, and that we set ourselves where we may best feel their influence; in a word, it is necessary that we act, and that we repeat the acts thus necessary every time we feel the need of renewing their effects. From this point of view, it is readily seen how that group of regularly repeated acts which form the cult get their importance. In fact, whoever has really practised a religion knows very well that it is the cult which gives rise to these impressions of joy, of interior peace, of serenity, of enthusiasm which are, for the believer, an experimental proof of his beliefs. The cult is not simply a system of signs by which the faith is outwardly translated; it is a collection of the means by which this is created and re-created periodically. Whether it consists in material acts or mental operations, it is always this which is efficacious.

Our entire study rests upon this postulate that the unanimous sentiment of the believers of all times cannot be purely illusory. Together with a recent apologist of the faith8 we admit that these religious beliefs rest upon a specific experience whose demonstrative value is, in one sense, not one bit inferior to that of scientific experiments, though different from them.

Here Durkheim is making, together with William James, to whom he has just referred, and some others we shall discuss in the next lecture, a statement on the nature of religion which, being based upon a long study of human behaviour, is, I believe, one of the foundation stones of our coming science of natural theology. He goes on to say much more about the development of religion as a social force. Many who have not read Durkheim sufficiently carefully have thought, I believe, that his theory of religion is one linking it to a simply mechanistic interpretation of the evolution of man as a social animal. Nothing could be further from the truth, as is clearly shown by the following statement:

… it is necessary to avoid seeing in this theory of religion a simple restatement of historical materialism: that would be misunderstanding our thought to an extreme degree. In showing that religion is something essentially social, we do not mean to say that it confines itself to translating into another language the material forms of society and its immediate vital necessities.

It is true that we take it as evident that social life depends upon its material foundation and bears its mark, just as the mental life of an individual depends upon his nervous system and in fact his whole organism. But collective consciousness is something more than a mere epiphenomenon of its morphological basis, just as individual consciousness is something more than a simple efflorescence of the nervous system…

One last quotation from Durkheim and I must leave this mine of fascinating ideas;

In summing up, then, we must say that society is not at all the illogical or a-logical, incoherent and fantastic being which it has too often been considered. Quite on the contrary, the collective consciousness is the highest form of the psychic life, since it is the consciousness of the consciousnesses.

Now let me turn to Dr. Marett’s views, and again I shall largely let him speak for himself. Whilst he recognizes the importance of the social psychological studies of the Durkheim school, he lays more emphasis on individual psychology9. He, very early in his writings, in breaking away from the notions of the previous century, remarks upon the difficulties of interpreting primitive religion:

Now for most persons, probably, the emotional side of religion constitutes its more real, more characteristic feature. Men are, however, obliged to communicate expressly with each other on the subject of their religious experience by the way of ideas solely. Hence, if for no other reason, the ideas composing the religious state tend to overlay and outweigh the emotional element, when it comes to estimating man’s religious experience taken at its widest. Thus we catch at an idea that reminds us of one belonging to an advanced creed and say, Here is religion; or, if there be found no clear-cut palpable idea, we are apt to say, There is no religion here; but whether the subtle thrill of what we know in ourselves as religious emotion be present there or no, we rarely have the mindfulness or patience to inquire, simply because this far more delicate criterion is hard to formulate in thought and even harder to apply in fact.10

In describing elementary religion he says:

Of all English words awe is, I think, the one that expresses the fundamental religious feeling most nearly. Awe is not the same thing as “pure funk.” “Primus in orbe deos fecit timor” is only true if we admit wonder, admiration, interest, respect, even love perhaps, to be, no less than fear, essential constituents of this elemental mood.11

In the same work we find this statement of his religious philosophy:

As regards theory, I would rest my case on the psychological argument that, if there be reason, as I think there is, to hold that man’s religious sense is a constant and universal feature of his mental life, its essence and true nature must then be sought, not so much in the shifting variety of its ideal constructions, as in that steadfast groundwork of specific emotion whereby man is able to feel the supernatural precisely at the point at which his thought breaks down.

Marett again and again stresses that in primitive religion, all over the world, we see man making contact with a “power” that helps him in his life:

But enough has been said to show that, corresponding to the anthropologists’ wide use of the term “religion”, there is a real sameness, felt all along, if expressed with no great clearness at first, in the characteristic manifestations of the religious consciousness at all times and in all places. It is the common experience of man that he can draw on a power that makes for, and in its most typical form wills, righteousness, the sole condition being that a certain fear, a certain shyness and humility, accompany the effort so to do. That such a universal belief exists amongst all mankind, and that it is no less universally helpful in the highest degree, is the abiding impression left on my mind by the study of religion in its historico-scientific aspect.12

Or in another example:

A play of images sufficiently forcible to arouse by diffused suggestion a conviction that the tribal luck is taking a turn in the required direction is the sum of his theology; and yet the fact remains that a symbolism so gross and mixed can help the primitive man to feel more confident of himself—to enjoy the inward assurance that he is in touch with sources and powers of grace that can make him rise superior to the circumstances and chances of this mortal life.13

Or again:

… religious observances of every kind would seem to have an absorbing quality of appeal that causes the participant to feel that for the moment he lives a life apart, is removed to another world. He is on a plane of existence where he seems to do hard things easily. Of course, he is more or less aware at the time that he is doing them symbolically, not actually. Even so, he now feels that he could do them as never before—that, given his present temper, they are as good as done… This new plane of experience is one baffling to the intellect because the literal, the language of the senses, no longer suffices; but it is apprehensible to die mind as a whole, since on the side of feeling and will the value of the dynamical mood approves itself directly. Herein, then, lies the truth of religious symbolism—not in what it says, for it speaks darkly, but in what it makes a man feel, namely, that his heart is strong.14

There is much more of Marett that I would like to include, but I can give only one more quotation; it is the ending paragraph of his lecture on “Faith” in his Gifford Lectures Faith, Hope and Charity in Primitive Religion:

To sum up, then, it would appear that the religious faith of the savage is not merely a will to believe a lot of nonsense. Nor, again, is it simply a will to take his world as he finds it, because in order to live up to such a hard world a man has to be fit, and fitness depends on mana. Now mana stands at once for miracle and for morale; and who will say that the savage is not right in identifying the two. With wonder and positive awe he discovers, as we all may do, that the moral order is capable of supplying out of itself the motive—the “drive”—necessary to evoke moral action on the part of Man. This revelation comes, however, to the primitive man in a special way. So concrete-minded is he that he is bound to be more or less of a pantheist. He encounters the divine stimulus here, there, and anywhere within the contents of an experience in which percepts play a far more important part than concepts. The civilized man, on the other hand, thanks to a far wider system of communications which entails a free use of mental symbols, favours a more abstract notion of deity, seeking to grasp it in the unity of its idea rather than in the plurality of its manifestations. Now in both these directions there lies danger, but in a different form. As for the savage, it is not a starved intellectualism that he has to fear, but on the contrary a sensualism nourished on a miscellaneous diet that is mixed up with a good deal of dirt. Yet, even though none of us may have reason to envy the child of nature either for his innocence, or for his digestion, the fact remains that he is uncritical of his rough fare and can extract from it all the rude health that a man can want. Whatever, then, may be the final judgement of Ethics, a comparative history of Morals is bound to assume that among the mixed ingredients of his religion the holiness prevails over the uncleanness, since the vital effect is to encourage him in a way of life that has survival value. Thus, anthropologically viewed at all events, the faith of the savage is to be reckoned to him for righteousness.

I come now to those most significant Riddell Memorial Lectures on The Foundations of Faith and Morals delivered in 1934–5 by B. Malinowski who for so long must have appeared to be a materialistic rationalist. Here, as an anthropologist he is discussing our main interest: the scientific study of religion. He has clearly been much influenced by the calamity of the First World War and still more by the events which followed it; he is lecturing soon after Hitler came to power. Speaking of anthropology as the comparative science of human cultures, he says the student of human institutions is feeling less and less inclined to confine himself to the so-called primitive or simple cultures: “he draws on the savageries of contemporary civilization as well as on the virtues and wisdom to be found among the humbler peoples of the world.” For him the real “scientific task of anthropology” is to reveal the fundamental nature of human institutions, including religion, through their comparative study:

To many a thinking man and woman one of the most important questions of the day is the place of religion in our modern culture. Is its influence on the wane? Has it failed us, say, in the last war and in the framing of the ensuing peace? Is it gradually receding from the dominant place which it ought to occupy in our public life and private concerns? The attacks on religion nowadays are many, the dangers and snags innumerable and obvious. Yet here again, the comparative study of civilization teaches that the core of all sound communal life has always been a strong, living faith. What about our own civilization? Is there not a slight shifting of the function and substance of religious belief? Do we not observe the infiltration of extraneous dogmas, political and economic, into the place of the spiritual truths on which Christianity is based? Is it true that some modern political movements, Communism or Fascism, the belief in the saving power of the Totalitarian State and of new Messiahs, brown-, red-, or black-shirted, are becoming, in form and function, the effective religion of the modern world?

From the scientific point of view we must first arrive at a clear conception of what religion is. And this can be best achieved by a comparative study of religious phenomena, carried out in the anthropological spirit. Such a survey will show that, as regards religion, form, function, and substance are not arbitrary. From the study of past religions, primitive and developed, we shall gain the conviction that religion has its specific part to play in every human culture; that this is fundamentally connected with faith in Providence, in immortality, and in the moral sense of the world …

Whilst Malinowski explains that he cannot accept any particular revealed religion, Christian or not, he goes on to say that even an agnostic has to live by faith—“in the case of us, pre-war rationalists and liberals, by the faith in humanity and its powers of improvement.”

This, however, was a faith “as rudely shaken by the war and its consequences as that of the Christian” so that he finds himself in the same predicament. He goes on later to express his view that it is no easier for an atheist to study religion than for a deeply convinced believer: the former finds it difficult to study seriously facts which appear as a delusion or a trickery, whilst the other will be looking only for evidence of his own special “truth”. He pleads for an agnostic, “humble approach to all the facts of human belief, in which the student investigates them with a sympathy which makes him almost a believer, but with an impartiality which does not allow him to dismiss all religions as erroneous whilst one remains true.”

It is in this spirit that the Anthropologist must approach the problems of primitive religion if they are to be of use in the understanding of the religious crises of our modern world. We must always keep in sight the relation of faith to human life, to the desires, difficulties, and hopes of human beings. Beliefs, which we so often dismiss as “superstition”, as a symptom of savage crudeness or “prelogical mentality”, must be understood; that is, their culturally valuable core must be brought to light.

But belief is not the alpha and omega of religion: it is important to realize that man translates his confidence in spiritual powers into action; that in prayer and ceremonial, in rite and sacrament, he always attempts to keep in touch with that supernatural reality, the existence of which he affirms in his dogma…

Now, in a matter of some fifty pages, he makes a brief but broad ethnographic survey sufficient to demonstrate to his own satisfaction, and I believe to that of most of his readers, that a scientific analysis of religion is indeed possible; for there are, he says, “common elements in all religious systems as regards substance, form and function.”

We find, moreover [he says] that there exists an intrinsically appropriate subject-matter in every religious system, a subject-matter which finds its natural expression in the religious technique of ritual and ethics, and its validation in sacred history. This subject-matter can be summed up as the twin beliefs in Providence and in Immortality. By belief in Providence we understand the mystical conviction that there exist in the universe forces or persons who guide man, who are in sympathy with man’s destinies, and who can be propitiated by man. This concept completely covers the Christian’s faith in God, One and Indivisible though present in Three Persons, who has created the world and guides it today. It embraces also the many forms of polytheistic paganism: the belief in ancestor ghosts and guardian spirits. Even the so-called totemic religions, based on the conviction that man’s social and cultural order is duplicated in a spiritual dimension, through which he can control the natural forces of fertility and of the environment, are but a rude version of the belief in Providence…

The substance of all religion is thus deeply rooted in human life; it grows out of the necessities of life. In other words, religion fulfils a definite cultural function in every human society. This is not a platitude. It contains a scientific refutation of the repeated attacks on religion by the less enlightened rationalists. If religion is indispensable to the integration of the community, just because it satisfies spiritual needs by giving man certain truths and teaching him how to use these truths, then it is impossible to regard religion as a trickery, as an “opiate for the masses”, as an invention of priests, capitalists, or any other servants of vested interests.

The scientific treatment of religion implies above all a clear analysis of how it grows out of the necessities of human life…

I shall now end my lecture with two quite outstanding examples of the modern work; they are made by the observers living with the tribes they studied and getting to know their subjects in such a way that they could analyse their thoughts and behaviour to a remarkable degree. These two studies have been upon neighbouring tribes in the Southern Sudan, the Nuer and the Dinka, both cattle-herding peoples. I will take the latter tribe first because their religion is, I feel, not so highly developed as that of the Nuer.

The study of the Dinka religion was made by Dr. Godfrey Lienhardt, Lecturer in African Sociology at Oxford, and published in 1961 in his book Divinity and Experience. The essence of the Dinka’s religion is the existence of a spiritual element which they encounter in many different forms in their surroundings and life and to these they give the general name of jok. Lienhardt calls them Powers rather than spirits. They are “higher in the scale of being than men and other merely terrestrial creatures, and operate beyond the categories of space and time which limit human actions.” These Powers are not thought of as forming a separate “spirit-world” of their own; the Dinka think of the world as having a broad division into “that which is of men” and “that which is of Powers”. The Dinka religion is concerned with the interrelations of these two different natures in the single world of their own experience.

The Dinka when talking about his religion most frequently uses the word nhialic which literally means “up” or “above” and the same word is sometimes used for “the sky”, but it is also addressed and referred to as “creator” and “father” and prayers and sacrifices are offered to it. Dr. Lienhardt says that for some purposes it could well be translated as God, yet this will hardly do, for the Dinka will also talk of a multiplicity of beings by the same term nhialic. It is used sometimes to mean a Supreme Being and sometimes for the collective activity of these numerous beings. He therefore translates it as Divinity, with a capital letter and without definite or indefinite article. This seems to be the core of their religion—the belief that their world of experience is permeated with Divinity.

Dinka religion, then, is a relationship between men and ultra-human Powers encountered by men, between the two parts of a radically divided world. As will be seen, it is rather phenomenological than theological, an interpretation of signs of ultra-human activity rather than a doctrine of the intrinsic nature of the Powers behind those signs.15

The Dinka have myths, very like that of the fall of Adam, which tell of how the worlds of Divinity and of Man, of sky and earth, were originally contiguous and there was no death; but then Man, or rather woman it was, committed the sin of greedily growing more grain than they were allowed to, and so the two worlds became separated. The creation is often spoken of as the work of Divinity’s hand, but, says Lienhardt, the Dinka do not think of Divinity as having a face or hands; for them it is just a metaphorical expression as when we speak of “the hand of God”. I have already said that the Dinka Divinity is spoken of as both single and manifold; let me now quote again from Lienhardt:

All the sky-Powers are said to “be” Divinity; yet Divinity is not any one of them, nor are all of them merely subnumerations of Divinity. They are also quite distinct from each other, though considered together in relation to men they have a reality of the same kind. The Dinka assert with a uniformity which makes the assertion almost a dogma that “Divinity is one”. They cannot conceive of Divinity as a plurality and, did they know what it meant, would deeply resent being described as “polytheistic”. What account can we now give ourselves of these Powers, both the same as and other than Divinity? …

Our answer is that Divinity as a unity, and Divinity as a multiplicity, are not the products of logical or mystical elaboration of a revealed truth as are our own theological considerations of similar apprehensions. Divinity is manifold as human experience is manifold and of a manifold world…

Divinity, then, corresponds to experience common to all men, and to the Dinka’s recognition that a single human nature and condition embraces all. Divinity is thus everywhere, and everywhere the same. The different names by which different peoples know it are matters only of different languages. So in Divinity the Dinka image their experience of the ways in which human beings everywhere resemble each other, and in a sense form a single community with one original ancestor created by one Creator. Divinity therefore transcends the individual and social differentiations the Dinka know, as they recognize them in some ways to be transcended in a fundamental unity of human nature. This theme is frequently stressed in Dinka invocations and hymns:

… and you, Divinity, I call you in my invocation because you help everyone and you are great towards [in relation to] all people, and all people are your children16

Here again we find this feeling of receiving help from a power beyond the self—Providence if you like. Finally I pass to the religion of that neighbouring tribe, the Nuer, which has been examined in such detail and with such understanding by Professor E. E. Evans-Pritchard in his book Nuer Religion. Whilst it was published in 1956, it represents the results of a prolonged study which began in 1930 and yielded two other volumes dealing with the Nuer methods of livelihood, their politics and systems of kinship and marriage. Among the Nuer people religion has developed on to a higher and more philosophical plane than that of the Dinka. Here individual prayer and communication with the Deity is a common practice; with the Dinka, who as a rule make group supplications, individual prayer is a rarity. I can best put a statement of their philosophy in Professor Evans-Pritchard’s own words:

Nuer philosophy is … essentially of a religious kind, and is dominated by the idea of kwoth, Spirit. As Spirit cannot be directly experienced by the senses, what we are considering is a conception. Kwoth would, indeed, be entirely indeterminate and could not be thought of by Nuer at all were it not that it is contrasted with the idea of cak, creation, in terms of which it can be defined by reference to effects and relations and by the use of symbols and metaphors. But these definitions are only schemata, as Otto puts it, and if we seek for elucidation beyond these terms, a statement of what Spirit is thought to be like in itself, we seek of course in vain. The Nuer do not claim to know. They say that they are merely doar, simple people, and how can simple people know about such matters? What happens in the world is determined by Spirit and Spirit can be influenced by prayer and sacrifice. This much they know, but no more; and they say, very sensibly, that since the European is so clever perhaps he can tell them the answer to the question he asks.

Nevertheless, we can reach certain conclusions about the basic features of the conception… Nuer religion is pneumatic and theistic. Whether it can rightly be described as monotheistic is largely a matter of definition. I would say … that it can be so described … for at no level of thought and experience is Spirit thought of as something altogether different from God …

He goes on to discuss different aspects of Nuer religion, saying that a theistic religion need not be either monotheistic or polytheistic, but can be both; at different levels of thought it can be one or the other, or indeed at times might be called totemistic or fetishistic. They are he says “different ways of thinking of the numinous at different levels of experience” and a little later says:

We can say that these characteristics, both negative and positive, of Nuer religion indicate a distinctive kind of piety which is dominated by a strong sense of dependence on God and confidence in him rather than in any human powers or endeavours. God is great and man foolish and feeble, a tiny ant. And this sense of dependence is remarkably individualistic. It is an intimate, personal, relationship between man and God. This is apparent in Nuer ideas of sin, in their expressions of guilt, in their confessions, and in the dominant piacular theme of their sacrifices. It is evident also in their habit of making short supplications at any time. This is a very noticeable trait of Nuer piety, and my conclusions are here borne out by Dr. Lienhardt’s observations. He tells me that when he was in western Dinkaland he had in his household a Nuer youth whose habit of praying to God for aid on every occasion of difficulty greatly astonished the Dinka. In prayer and sacrifice alike, in what is said and in what is done, the emphasis is on complete surrender to God’s will. Man plays a passive rôle. He cannot get to God but God can get to him. Given this sort of piety, we are not surprised to find that the prophet is more influential than the priest.17

There could, I think, be no better ending for a lecture on the relation of social anthropology to a natural theology than the last paragraph of Professor Evans-Pritchard’s book:

We can, therefore, say no more than that Spirit is an intuitive apprehension, something experienced in response to certain situations but known directly only to the imagination and not to the senses. Nuer religious conceptions are properly speaking not concepts but imaginative constructions. Hence the response to them is imaginative too, a kind of miming. Words and gestures transport us to a realm of experience where what the eye sees and the ear hears is not the same as what the mind perceives. Hands are raised to the sky in supplication, but it is not the sky which is supplicated but what it represents to the imagination… If we regard only what happens in sacrifice before the eyes it may seem to be a succession of senseless, and even cruel and repulsive acts, but when we reflect on their meaning we perceive that they are a dramatic representation of a spiritual experience. What this experience is the anthropologist cannot for certain say. Experiences of this kind are not easily communicated even when people are ready to communicate them and have a sophisticated vocabulary in which to do so. Though prayer and sacrifice are exterior actions, Nuer religion is ultimately an interior state. This state is externalized in rites which we can observe, but their meaning depends finally on an awareness of God and that men are dependent on him and must be resigned to his will. At this point the theologian takes over from the anthropologist.

The overriding impression from all these studies of the religions of primitive man from all over the world is that he is conscious of being in touch with some Power which appears to be outside and beyond the individual self and from which he can receive grace: help in the conduct of his life and a sense of renewed vitality. Here indeed is where the natural theologian should take over the contributions from the social anthropologist.

  • 1.

    Social Anthropology, p. 72.

  • 2.

    The Scope of Social Anthropology published as an addition to his Psyche’s Task in its second edition in 1913.

  • 3.

    I have added this from his Theories of Primitive Religion (1965) published after I gave my lectures.

  • 4.

    Blackfriars, April (1960) (reprinted in Essays in Social Anthropology, 1962).

  • 5.

    In The Institutions of Primitive Society, p. 5.

  • 6.

    A. Fletcher. Smithsonian Report for 1897, pp. 578ff.

  • 7.

    An analysis of this idea will be found in Hubert and Mauss, “Théorie Générale de la Magie”, in Année Sociol., vii, p. 108.

  • 8.

    William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience.

  • 9.

    See his The Threshold of Religion (revised edition 1914) pp. 122–3.

  • 10.

    loc. cit., p. 5.

  • 11.

    loc. cit., p. 13.

  • 12.

    Psychology and Folk-lore (1920) p. 166.

  • 13.

    Head, Heart and Hands in Human Evolution (1935), p. 17.

  • 14.

    Faith, Hope and Charity in Primitive Religion (1932), pp. 14–15.

  • 15.

    Divinity and Experience, 1961, p. 32.

  • 16.

    loc. cit., p. 156–7.

  • 17.

    Nuer Religion, 1956, pp. 315–18.

From the book: