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Second Course of Lectures

Lecture 10. Primitive Religion (1).

Now that we have formed by the light of Natural Theology the best idea we can of what revelation will be, we have still to review historically the conceptions men have formed of what it has been. The task is one of enormous range and complexity, for the conception of revelation is in mathematical language a function of many variables. The ideas indeed of God and man which chiefly determine it are so closely related that either might be inferred without risk of any great error from the other; but they are both influenced together and in much the same way by all the forces that act on the moral state of men, like their knowledge of nature, their social and political condition, and the varied circumstances of individual life. As the religion, whatever it be, directly and indirectly shapes the life of men in all its relations, so also that life reacts on the religion, and shapes the conception of revelation. A morally great or mean life, national or individual, tends to a great or a mean idea of God and man, and therefore to a great or a mean conception of revelation; and any influence which raises or debases life will also raise or debase the others, so that a full discussion of the conception of revelation would be a full discussion of the history of human life. We shall find it as much as we can do to trace the merest outline, marking out some of the main lines of development, but not attempting to give more than a rough chart even of these.

If all true thought retraces God's thought, all religions must be his revelation, so far as they are true. However elementary the truth may be, however great the errors men connect with it, truth is still divine. It may be no more than that there is a power kindred to us though unseen, with whom we can live and ought to live on terms of trust and friendliness. This is not much of a creed; but it contains the essentials of religion. Here is faith, that such a power is, and is a rewarder of them that seek him—for him it must be, whenever the conception of faith is fairly thought out. Here is morality, for this belief binds me to do some things as right and to forbear others as wrong without regard to selfish ends. Here is trust, which is in germ the perfect love that casteth out fear. And here is communion, not only with that power but with my fellows, for kinship to me is kinship to my clan, and joins us all in common duties. This trustful sense of common duty to an unseen but kindred power seems the least which can be called religion; and the history of religion is the unfolding of this conception in its age-long struggle with the alien and intruding power of magic.

Before we go further we must get clear the difference between magic and religion, for there has always been a good deal of confusion. Magic then or art-magic resembles religion in dealing with unseen powers, so that it is entirely distinct from what is called sympathetic magic. This last is not properly magic at all, but the science of the savage, by which he tries to bring rain, make the crops grow, or do other things which he believes he can do himself. This may be crude science; but there can be no question of either magic or religion till he comes to things which he believes can only be done by the unseen powers. Magic may also be like religion in outward form, and sometimes even becomes religion when our relation to the unseen powers is differently conceived. The distinction is in this relation; and it is absolute. In magic we do not trust the unseen powers we are dealing with: in religion we do. Bargaining with gods is not magic, for we cannot bargain even with men unless we have some trust in them. Thus Jacob's vow is religious, though a low form of religion. We are not using magic till we endeavour to outwit or wheedle the unseen powers, or to compel there by the terror of some power supposed to be greater than theirs. In short, we are not trusting them: we believe only that they will do what we make them do. But the natural man does not care to serve the gods for nought: so he mixes up magic with religion till he forgets the difference, and puzzles whole schools of philosophers and archæologists. Thus the proposal to measure scientifically the value of prayer by its results in one ward of a hospital depends on a complete confusion of religion with magic. It must be allowed that there was a good deal of authority for supposing the conception of prayer to be a sort of spiritual artillery—the more pieces the better—for making heaven do what we want. But the idea is in as fundamental antagonism to religion as it is to science. It is only the magic which clings to the lower forms of religion, and is rejected by the higher. We need not come up to Christianity or Plato for a repudiation of it. As low down in the scale as such a champion of theurgy and brutish idol-worships as the writer de mysteriis Ægyptiorum, we find a noble protest that prayer is not a means of inducing the gods to change the course of things but their own good gift of communion with them, the blessing of the living gods upon their children. To take the battery theory for religion is no better than judging science by astrology. Even if religion and magic were using the same ceremonies in much the same way, the difference of attitude to the unseen powers would make an absolute contrast between them. In magic we seek to impose our own will on those powers: in religion we are free like children to make known our needs to them, but we submit ourselves to their will.

The history of religion is long and chequered. In one direction the simple god of totemism is developed into a Babel of polytheistic invention, or still further degraded into the malignant spirits of the savage: in another he climbs the narrow path of monotheism to become first the God of Israel, then the Lord of all the earth, and at last our heavenly Father. In a few cases it may be that spirits of the underworld who at first were evil powers became in course of time protectors of the good and arbiters of life to come. So too the conception of worship has undergone many changes, not always for the better. In one direction the rude primitive communion was developed into gifts of sacrifice and bargains with gods, or further degraded into hideous orgies of lust and blood, sometimes balanced after a fashion by morbid excesses of asceticism: in another it gradually threw off the primitive formalism of sacramental accuracy, to become more and more a reasonable service of willing and unselfish piety, such as is described for all ages in the old words, “to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.”

The prehistoric growth of religion will not detain us long. In the first place, our knowledge of it is scanty and obscure. We find its relics; but the ideas originally connected with them are not so easy to determine. Given some things found in a burying-place: had any of them a religious meaning? If so, can we find out exactly what it was? Perhaps the question is harder than it looks. Imagine the archæologists five thousand years hence describing Christianity from the remains of its churches, all records having perished.1 We might read, “These people were unquestionably polytheists. We find some differences of North and South; but everywhere the chief gods were a woman with a child, and a crucified man whose relation to them is uncertain. There are also traces of many lesser gods, of whom some are represented as put to death by violence. The idea indeed of crucifixion seems to have had a fascination for them, to judge by the form of their buildings, and the numerous crosses and crucifixes which remain. As they were fairly civilized, we can hardly suppose that they worshipped criminals. The evidence rather points to an extensive personification of natural forces in their ceaseless conflict. Thus the woman with the child may be Mother Earth, or better perhaps the Corn-maiden, while the crucified man may represent some solar myth of light overcome by the powers of darkness, and the minor gods will stand for other myths of a similar sort.”

If you call this a strange account of Christianity, I quite agree with you. But if some of the archæologists have come to results of this kind in spite of records, it is not unreasonable to suppose that others might go the same way if records were lost. Perhaps we have not slandered the Christians much worse than some of us have slandered primitive man. The ideas of savages, on which archæologists depend so much for their conclusions, are hard to ascertain and hard to understand, and in any case give us no very safe clue to the ideas of primitive man. If savage life is a likeness, it must also be a caricature of primitive life, for we have to reckon with the plain fact that primitive man is as much the ancestor of civilized as of savage man. In the matter which now concerns us he was more like civilized man, for he must have had not only the general capacity for improvement which belongs to human nature but the particular capacity for self-improvement which the modern savage seems to have lost. This fact makes a great difference; and the only alternative is to make a greater difference by supposing that the special help which now has to come from a more civilized people was originally given straight from heaven. On either theory primitive man was not simply a savage. If lie was a child in knowledge, his moral sense likewise may have been that of a child, less developed but also less perverted than in later times. His power of mind, however, must have been considerable, as we see from his inventions and his occasional artistic skill. In a word, it is not safe to assume that the ancestors of modern savages either never got beyond the state of primitive man, or else that, having got beyond it, they fell back precisely to their former state and no further. As well judge the wine by the dregs as primitive man by the savage.

Nor would the fullest knowledge of primitive religion entitle us to make it the standard of all religion. Our fathers may have done so; but we should contradict the very idea of evolution if we read the later growths in terms of the earlier. This is “going back to nature,” like the Cynics and Rousseau. The key must be in the highest religions, not in the lower. As the Judaizers of the apostolic age who construed the Gospel by the Law completely misunderstood them both, so the students of our time who try to construe the higher religions by the lower—say the Old Testament by fetishism, or the New by solar myths and human sacrifices—would seem as much mistaken as their predecessors. Archæology may be to history what palaeontology is to physiology; but it cannot be very much more. If religion is in any way a subject of evolution, we shall not find its meaning in the caput mortuum which may remain when all religions have been well shaken together, but in some principle or other which may be scarcely traceable in the lower religions, but becomes clearer in the higher, and only reaches its full development in the highest. Such a principle is that of trust in the unseen powers.

But which are the higher, and which are the lower? What is primitive religion, and what is not? These are distinct questions, but neither of them can be settled simply by chronology. In the first place, the world was old when history begins. We cannot say how many thousand years of development lie behind the old civilization of the Euphrates valley. Again, some peoples move faster than others. India soon ran through her religion of nature, and settled down into a fairly modern pantheistic polytheism, while China is still in an almost patriarchal stage of ancestor-worship, and still has the emperor for priest of heaven. Even in one people the individual differences range upward from the lowest forms of religious thought to the highest of the time. We do not take either Marcus or Commodes as fair samples of their subjects. So too every modern country has plenty of people in all ranks of life whose notions of religion are little better than those current in West Africa. All that can be done is to strike a sort of average, as we do in estimating national character, neglecting such baser elements as are not too obtrusive. Thus we can pass over the Mormons in England, though some account might have to be taken of them in America.

Even so, the classification of religions is not easy. Many schemes have been proposed, but there seem to be objections to all. The old classification of true and false expresses a vital difference; but the difference is not so much of religions as wholes, as of their guiding ideas, for in practice no religion is pure truth or pure falsehood. Again, the division into national and universal covers many of the facts; but Judaism and Islam form an awkward intermediate class, and Christianity is more akin to either of these than to the Buddhism which ranks as the other universal religion. There are great merits also in the distinction of monotheistic and polytheistic religions; but here again the classification is confused. Some religions are monotheistic in theory and polytheistic in recognized practice, like the old Eclecticism or modern Romanism. How are these to be classed? So also the division of religions into natural and ethical may bring out the difference of principle between magic and morality; but it gives no sharp line of demarcation. There is an ethical element in the lowest religions, and a magical clings to the highest, say in verbal inspiration or the ex opere operato view of sacraments. Moreover, natural and ethical is a false contrast. There is more that is ethical in the higher natural religions than in the lowest ethical. The sunny naturalism of Greece with all its faults is on a higher moral plane than Buddhist asceticism with all its beauty. Again, the difference between founded and unfounded religions is important, and roughly answers to the “revolution” which marks the passage from the natural to the ethical. Yet even here we cannot escape questions of degree. Be his originality what it may, the founder stands in close relation to his own time, and cannot do more than reform the religion lie finds. Thus Islam is made up of the Jewish, Christian, and heathen ideas which were current in Arabia. The Buddha took over the degraded Indian conception of gods—and put them aside as minor beings at best; and accepted the idea of retribution in the future—but applied it to the trans-mission of karma, instead of the transmigration of souls. Even Jesus of Nazareth “came not to destroy, but to finish” the work which the law began but was not able to carry through. A real revolution making a clean severance from the past is as impossible in religion as in politics.

If we roust have a classification, the best is Hegel's, by the value assigned to the individual. In religions of mass, as he called them, the individual is lost in the society; in religions of individuality, society exists for the individual; while Christianity as the one religion of spirit proclaims at once the supreme value of the individual and the need of the society to bring him to perfection. This division answers to the historical development of religion generally. First came the objective religions, then the subjective, then those that strive to reconcile in a higher unity the ideas of both. There is a similar development in society generally, where we pass from a rule of custom to a rule of contract, and from an age of authority to an age of liberty, from a condition where the individual is lost in the State to one where the State exists for the individual; and where we are now looking for a reconciliation between authority and liberty, State management and individual enterprise. It is the same within the limits of Christianity. First came the Catholic systems, where man was made for the Church; then the Protestant, in which the Church was made for man; and now we are feeling after something that shall give a real value to the Church consistent with the supreme value of the individual. Current thought inside and outside the churches is upon the whole moving forward to this third stage, in spite of the strong pantheistic and catholic reactions to the first which mark the second half of the nineteenth century.

The difficulty of classification is much the same with religions as in zoology. We can more easily come to a general agreement than justify it by any single character. Thus in the Mollusca, if we go by the shell only or the radula only, we shall some-times separate allied genera;2 and conversely, we can bring together from very different genera either similar shells 2 or a particular type of radula—arboreal 3 or parasitic,4 for example. In some cases the shell is misleading, in others the radula will not separate species.5 No single character is an absolutely safe guide. So with religions: there is no single feature which will not sometimes mislead us. Still, certain features are more or less common in ancient religions, while in modern times they are chiefly found in peoples and individuals otherwise known to be backward or degraded. Even these, however, are not unerring tests, for we occasionally see flashes of high light in the lower religions, while strange survivals and superstitions in the higher bear witness to the persistent force of old beliefs. Yet even the high truths in low religions are commonly misconceived in an environment of low thought, and take the form of scandals. Thus the theory of the high places with their social religion all over the country was higher than that of the fixed and local services at Jerusalem; but of the practice the less said the better. The belief in a “feminine” element in the divine was mixed up with matters of sex, and led to such gross excesses that decent religions have always looked on it with great and just suspicion. Yet its truth is undeniable for those who confess the image of God in man, unless the “feminine” virtues are either rejected or placed in a lower class. Indeed, the fact that we count them distinctively feminine is a relic of the barbarian belief that force is strength, and a clear mark of our own imperfect evolution.

For our purpose, however, we shall need no very precise classification. It will suffice to take the closely related ideas of God and man embodied in religions, for these will in the main determine the conception of the knowledge of God. The divine may be distributed through the parts of the world or lost in the world as a whole;6 or it may stand out in clear personality as a God above the world, and perhaps also in the world. It may hardly differ from men except in power, or it may be invested with the noblest attributes of right and good-ness. Likewise man may be no more than an item of some family or tribal unit; or he may be sharply distinguished as an individual person responsible for his own acts only. What is popularly called religion may aim chiefly at propitiating or outwitting vaguely conceived spirits by magical rites and ceremonies; or it may lay decisive stress on a moral relation to one personal God. It may be satisfied with an accurate performance of outward observances; or it may require a spiritual service and truth in the inward parts. It may be content with unreasoning traditionalism; or it may seek by manifestation of the truth to commend itself to all men in the sight of God.

Religions lie variously between these extremes. The lowest of them is above the ideal natural man of St. Paul, who has no sense at all of religion, while the highest fail to realize generally among men the ideal spiritual man, in whom that sense is perfect. But in general the higher ideas cohere together, and so do the lower. If the conception of God is high, so generally is that of man, and conversely. Thus the imperfect ideas of human personality current among the ancients are reflected in imperfect conceptions of the divine; and conversely, the haze which modern Pantheism throws over the idea of God obscures and degrades the personality of man. As long as magic is stronger than science, the gods must be supposed variable in temper and weak of will; and so long as custom and tradition reign supreme, there is no free scope for moral conceptions of God and man. The one must be inscrutable power, the other either un-reasoning obedience to power—which is a base religion—or else coaxing or outwitting of power—which is not religion at all. It is not by accident that since the Reformation we have had on one side a development of our idea of God by the discoveries of science, the establishment of natural law, and the overthrow of the old belief in a despot in heaven; and on the other that deepened respect for human personality which is the glory of civilized nations in our own time.

Whatever be the origin of man, no ideas in any true sense religious can have crossed his mind till he was not only equal to the higher beasts in bodily structure and social habits, but also possessed of the human reason we find in the lowest savages, and of the sense of right and wrong without which there can be no religion. We may therefore credit him from the first with gregarious habits, which indeed were necessary for his continuance, and with natural affection, which owing to his long infancy must always have played a much larger part in human than it does in animal life. The clan was the unit, for the family was not yet, though mere animal jealousy would be enough to secure some fixity in sexual relations. Even the savage is far from destitute of moral sense. If his ideas of what ought or ought not to be done differ from ours, he is quite as clear that some things ought to be done and some ought not. Nor does he differ entirely from us as to what they are, for he will sometimes do works of human kindliness that might shame his betters; and even where the men will not, the women mostly will. Some savage tribes are treacherous to strangers, most are thievish, all excessively thoughtless and careless of human life, all liable to indefinite debasement by drink, yet it must not be forgotten that those whom necessity or choice has brought into close relations with them commonly think much better of them than passing travellers.

Primitive man must have been at least as good as this, with more capacity for improvement. He was also something of a philosopher. The fact that he did not perish is evidence enough of a sound practical faith in the uniformity of nature; and there seems to be evidence that he was not without a theory of the universe. It was very objective, and so anthropomorphic, for he appears to have ascribed all changes not caused by the action of his own will to the action of other wills—of spirits like his own resident in all things, though at first not necessarily supernatural. If he has no clear idea yet of the difference in kind between things and himself, or even between live and dead things, so much the more is he compelled to figure himself in their likeness, and them in his own.

The mere persistence of things he might at first regard as placidly as the beasts; but he is too dependent on them not to watch their changes with keen interest. If he scarcely notices the quiet stream, he cannot overlook the swollen torrent; and the storm and the earthquake dismay him as they dismay the beasts. Here at all events he sees the supernatural, for he can hardly compare himself on equal terms with the strong (not necessarily hostile7) spirits at work in these. However inscrutable their action might be, it was too fascinating to be looked on with unmixed fear, though the mystery deepened as lie gradually learned by trial the limits of his power, and found that many things which had seemed matters of course must be put down to some sort of supernatural agency.

But it is not good for man to be alone in a world which he has peopled with spirits natural and supernatural. His craving for security and rest under the protection of some higher power is as natural as his craving for food, and must have shown itself at once. Even the superior persons who have risen above it will tell us that the weakness is almost universal, and in most cases very hard to overcome. So deeply is it rooted in human nature that few even of the enlightened can escape occasional falls into religion. There is no reason to suppose that primitive man had less than we have of that craving; and if so, it seems a more natural and a more likely basis for religion than pure and simple fear.

Of the earliest stage of religion we have no direct knowledge; but it cannot have been one of continual terror. Even the beasts are above this; and primitive man must have been as good as they. Moreover, there is an impassable gulf between such terror and religion. There is no more religion in mere fear of spirits than in mere fear of a tyrant; and out of mere fear no religion can be developed. The, vital element of religion is not fear but trust, so that it cannot ever have been mere fear without trust. Let us put this again, that there may be no mistake. Fear as an animal passion has nothing to do with religion; and the fear of punishment suggested by a bad conscience is not a necessary part of religion. There was not much of it in such early times as had no great sense of sin; and there is not much left of it in such choice products of the highest religions as can say, Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him. We should no more fear the gods than we fear our nearest friend, if only we were as sure of our relation to them. Thus there is a stage below the bad conscience as well as one above it; and the theory that fear developed into religion would not be even plausible if the intermediate stages did not almost cover history. If religion is a subject of evolution, its earliest form is likely to have been rather childlike than either savage or idyllic. The theory that “an Aristotle was but the rubbish of an Adam” is no better and no worse than the other extreme, that the most degraded savages are the most faithful portraits of primitive man. The child begins with instinctive trust—neither as an angel nor as a monster, but with a chaos of unreflecting impulses waiting to be shaped into a definitely good or bad character. Even if there ever was a primitive stage of continual terror, it cannot have lasted. Animal fear has nothing to do with the matter: and as soon as man had mind enough to reflect on his fear he must also have had mind enough to see the obvious escape, by finding friends among the spirits around him.

  • 1.

    I owe the thought to Brace, The Unknown God, p. 5; but I have worked it out a little differently.

  • 2.

    Thus the shell separates Limax from Euplecta, the radula Murex from Ranella.

  • 3.

    Like Helix and Natalina, Pupa and Ennea, Cæliaxis and Cylindrella.

  • 4.

    Arboreal: Rhachis, and species of Helicostyla and Amphidromus; Janella, and Achatinella (not Amastra).

  • 5.

    Parasitic: Cerithiopsis, Pedicularia, Sistrum (spectrum Rve only, so far as my observation goes). To these may be added the curious likeness of radula between such utterly different genera as Omphalotropis and Ovula, or Urocoptis and Ancylus (only elatior Anth and rhodacmo Walker, so far as I know).

  • 6.

    Thus in the Buccinidæ the individual variation is greater than the specific; and in large genera like Clausilia and Achatinella (not Amastra) the radula of different species is often indistinguishable.

  • 7.

    Or more accurately, the world may be lost in it.