While the emergence and development of religion can be explained with the assistance of psychology and anthropology, the capacity for recognizing a Supreme Being may originally have been divinely instilled. This is how Andrew Lang sees the making of religion. In his book of the same name, Lang traces the rise of the modern science of the history of religion. Humanity grappled with questions of spirit or soul from reflections on sleep, dreams and death and came up with tentative answers.
In the first section of the book, the author examines the ‘mystical phenomena of savage life’ and fallacious reasoning about misunderstood experience that resulted in the concepts of soul and God. One person selected for his scorn is David Hume and his rejection of miracles: his famous a priori argument, ‘the joy of many an honest beast, is a tissue of fallacies which might be given for exposure to beginners in logic.’ Lang then goes on to examine a number of miracles, i.e. a Mlle. Coirin diagnosed with breast cancer in 1716, but who made a complete recovery. He is open to the possibility of ‘suggestion mentale’, that ‘lower or the higher stratum of our consciousness’ is somehow responsible. Although he calls for careful experimentation, he finds attractive a comment by Hegel, ‘The intuitive soul oversteps the conditions of time and space; it beholds things remote, things long past, and things to come.’
Along with psychical or psychological research, Lang develops the aspect of anthropology and religion. Now that anthropology is ‘within the sacred circle of permitted knowledge’, its evidence on barbaric customs and traditions and, more importantly, on the origin of religion, can be utilized. Thrusting Herbert Spencer’s arguments aside (that ‘savages’ do not possess dream language), Lang instead offers evidence by citing examples of Australians aborigines, the ‘Indians of Guiana’, Bushmen and Laplanders to demonstrate the universality of an abstract thinking that led to the establishment of moral gods. This in turn lends credence to the existence in man, ‘savage or civilised, a faculty for acquiring information not accessible by the known channels of sense’.
The second half of Lang’s text is concerned with the evolution of the idea of God or, more precisely, with the question: Out of ghosts and dreams, how does one get at the idea of God, a primal eternal Being? How do the Australians ‘bridge the gulf between the ghost of a soon-forgotten fighting man, and that conception of a Father in Heaven?’ First, he refutes the theories of others, Im Thurn and Payne, who feel that ‘lowest savages not only have no gods, but do not even recognize (them).’ Lang points at the fundamental human need to establish predictive patterns; this ‘primitive logic leads him to seek for a cause or maker of things.’ For the author, the idea of God ‘occurs rudely, but recognisably, in the lowest-known grades of savagery.’ It does not depend on the evolution of culture and civilisation. Nor can it be attributed to missionaries. And the supposition that a civilised race had become fallen also is not very credible. In his chapter ‘High Gods of Low Races’, he goes on to develop his contention that ‘certain low savages are as monotheistic as some Christians.’
Andrew Lang brings his book to close by stressing that it is the prevalent alliance of ethics with religion that leads to a conception of a supreme Being. ‘Even in its rudest forms Religion was a moral force, the powers that man reveres were on the side of social order and moral law; and that the fear of the gods was a motive to enforce the laws of society.’ Furthermore, he is convinced that ‘much of the Decalogue and a large element of Christian ethics are divinely sanctioned in savage religion.’ Also necessary to this development was the belief in man surviving the grave. ‘Finally, the exclusive Theism of Israel receives its complement in a purified Animism, and emerges as Christianity.’