The Human Origin of Morals/Chapter IV

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The Human Origin of Morals by Joseph McCabe
Chapter IV. Religion and Morals

For a hundred years, ever since men of science began to take an interest in the curious tales of travelers, it has been disputed whether such and such tribes have any moral or religious ideas. The uncertainty was due in part to unskilfulness in the observer. Very often he made no allowance for possible influences of missionaries, who are apt to put their creed in the black man's childish language and he reproduces bits of it in his legends. Often, again, the observer of the tribes, especially if he is a missionary, asks the natives if they are conscious of "sin" and "duty" and "remorse" and "God"; and, since they have not even words for such things, he bluntly says that they have no religion and no morals.

The whole literature upon which we draw for our knowledge of the religious and moral ideas of lower races is full of these contradictions. We saw it of the Veddahs, Adamanese, Australians, and others. A very long list could be added. Lord Avebury (Origin of Civilization—one of the first works on these lines) concluded generally that savages have "no moral feeling"; and his "savages" were, as usual, a medley of tribes at all levels of culture. One writer says: "The Reashin has no moral sense whatever; whereas it is well known that the Indian's code was high. The Hottentots in particular, and blacks in general, are said to have "no, moral sense"; but a high authority tells us that "the strictness and celerity of Hottentot justice are things in which they outshine all Christians," and another says that "one of the most marked characteristics of black people is their keen perception of justice."

One authority says that the Tonga Islanders (a high race) have "no words essentially expressive of ... vice, injustice, and cruelty"; and another says that they "firmly believe that the gods approve of virtue and are displeased with vice." I could extend the list indefinitely.

But the man who studies morality in the light of evolution is not troubled by these verbal contradictions. They are just what he expects to find. Ask three travelers to a certain region whether the natives have government, shops, churches, or art. One will say "no," one "yes," and the third "a sort of government," etc. We more advanced peoples attach meanings to our words which do not apply to the corresponding culture of the natives. It is entirely in harmony with evolution. In Australia the highest authorities on the natives have assured me that they have "no religion and no morals"; and they have then assured me that the natives have an elaborate belief in spirits, especially the spirits of certain remote and very powerful ancestors, and a relatively high code of character.

It is religion and morals in the making. It is from first to last, a massive testimony to evolution. Everything in the world testifies to it. Everything in the world is illumined by it.

Hence we cannot expect to put our finger on a point in the history of the race and say: Here religion begins, there morality begins. They rise gradually, with a long dawn. Peoples who do not even believe in spirits—and there are some—clearly have no religion; but at what precise point the belief in the shadow becomes religion no sensible man will try to say.

It is the same with morality. The lowest peoples have nothing corresponding to conscience or a conscious code of conduct, but they more or less automatically follow a code. At a higher level of intelligence they are conscious of a code, but it is merely "custom." At a still higher level the spirits of the dead are said to be just as interested as the living community in the observance of this code. Religion and morality enter into combination.

That they arose independently, from quite different roots, we have now abundantly shown. No modern authority questions it. And they remained independent for some time. Of the Bambala of the Congo an authority says: "There is no belief that the gods or spirits punish wrong-doing." Sir E.F. Im Thurn, the great authority on the Indians of Guiana, says that they have an "admirable" code of conduct and an elaborate Animistic religion, but there is "absolutely no connection" between the two. An authority says of the Comanche Indians: "No individual action is considered a crime, but every man acts for himself according to his own judgment, unless some superior power should exercise authority over him." Another says of the American Indian generally: "In his conception of a god the idea of moral good has no part."

Such quotations will be found by the score in Westermarck's book, from which (unless a reference is given) I borrow them. But if we are equipped with the evolutionary theory, we shall look carefully for the germ of the higher growth even at the lower level; and we shall always find it. Morality and religion gradually, and in large part naturally, blend.

It is seen even in Australia. The boy is taught a code, as we saw, and he holds strongly to it. The elders have told him of powerful spirits (or what corresponds to our spirits) who are interested in that code; just as they frighten the women away from their secret ceremonies by talk of these spirits. But when the boy is initiated to the tribe, he is laughingly told that it was all a fiction, like the "bogy" or the policeman-round-the-corner with which silly nurses frighten naughty children. Nevertheless these Australians do believe intensely in spirits, and they have a profound reverence for certain great mythical ancestors.

Take, again, the natives of the Slave and Gold Coasts in Africa, from which so many of the American negroes were brought. We have an exceptionally fine series of monographs on these natives, by Major Ellis, and they give us an admirable illustration of the separate evolution of religion and morals. Major Ellis says: "Religion at the stage of growth at which we find it among these three groups of tribes has no connection with morals and the relations of men to one another." Murder and theft are offenses against a man. The gods are not interested. At the same time these natives firmly believe that all evil comes from the invisible spirits, and so they are well on the way to a belief in avenging gods.

In other cases we get the usual contradictions, for the usual reason. Amongst the hill-tribes of India, we are told, there is no connection of religion and morals. One authority says even that the idea of a God demanding righteous conduct of men is beyond the capacity of the fully civilized Hindu of the plains! His gods, like those of Greece and Rome, like amorous adventures themselves. It is clear that this writer is thinking only of one line of the moral code, chastity. Another authority says that the hill-tribes, which are pre-Aryan, have no ideas of "moral qualities" originally, but they have words for them derived from the Hindu.

All this apparent tangle of testimonies is, as I said, what we should expect. Writers who take strict account of borrowed ideas (from missionaries or travelers) and who do not look for advanced ideas like "sin" and "virtue" and "God," tell a consistent story. The particular circumstances of tribes in all their utterly different environments give their ideas different shades and shapes, but the general evolution is the same. Custom is at first followed automatically. Custom then enters the consciousness of the tribe and becomes its tyrant. But "custom" is the English word for mos (the Latin root of "morals") and ethos (the Greek root of "ethics"). Morality is evolving.

And, as it evolves, it approaches religion quite naturally. Custom is, after all, something set up by ancestors. As the savage rises in intelligence, he sees this. But he believes that these ancestors still live, and in very many, if not most, parts of the earth he believes that they are exacting, malicious, and vindictive. All his evils and misfortunes come from them. It is an obvious development that he will come to think that the spirits punish him for violating "custom": the "god" will punish his "sins."

Westermarck quotes this stage amongst the Maoris, Tahitians, Fijians, American Indians, Eskimo, and Hindu. All these are much higher peoples than the Australians and Africans. It is a later stage.

Further, all these peoples have priests or rudimentary priests. These begin to interpret the will of the gods or spirits to ordinary mortals. And for various reasons, some of which I have given earlier, they soon represent the gods as interested in a man's conduct. For instance, rain or health very frequently does not follow their sacrifices. They have to invent reasons. A good reason is that the man has offended the spirits by his conduct, or has been "immoral." I would not call this the "dawn" of the sense of sin. It is the beginning of its manufacture.

All this, again, comes gradually. Amongst the natives of the Society Islands, for instance, and many others, "the only crimes that were visited by the displeasure of their deities were the neglect of some rite or ceremony." That was the main thing from the priests' point of view. In fact, old custom is (or was) almost the one thing in the world that could beat even priests and kings. Scores of quotations could be given to show this; but the way in which even Christianity had to yield over and over again to local custom is well known. So priests had to go cautiously in encroaching upon the field of customs, which included morals.

The second element of the evolution of religion, the deification of the more striking parts of nature, which gave religion its great gods, was much slower in blending with morality. These big spirits did wonderful things, and were admired at a distance. But there was always a tendency in some of them to become moral deities, because they could do so much harm or withhold so much good. The moon, a very popular early god or goddess, did no particular good or harm. But the sun was a terrible tyrant in the tropics. The sky might cause a drought by refusing rain or might send thunder and lightning. The water-god might cause floods. The fire-god burned houses. The wind-god sent destructive hurricanes. And so on.

Chiefly, however, it was the deified ancestors, not the nature-gods, who were concerned with the observance of custom. They had made the customs. They took an interest in them. And, although Herbert Spencer and Grant Allen were wrong in thinking that ancestor-worship was almost the only source of the making of gods, very many were made that way. Even great gods of the historic religion, like the Osiris of the Egyptians, are believed to have been ancestors. The Romans deified their Emperors. The Christians deified Christ, and the later Buddhists made a god of Buddha.

Now in the blending of tribes into kingdoms, when it was necessary for the rival priesthoods to adjust their deities, ancestor-gods were often fused with old nature-gods. Osiris was blended with an old sun-god. These wise deified old ancestors were particularly interested in proper conduct, and Osiris became in time the judge of the dead. The wicked were seen to flourish in this life. Very well, said the priests, they will get it in the next: which happens to be a good deal longer. So we find nature-gods turning ethical. Even Jupiter and Zeus were guardians of justice. They were the sky-gods, the dispensers of rain and sunshine, the fathers of all men.

Yet Zeus-Jupiter-Dyans-Thor (the old sky-god of the Aryans) was believed to have had not the slightest regard for sex-rules; and there we come to a new and interesting chapter in the evolution of morals. Many of the nature-gods had, as I said, a natural tendency to become ethical. They sent rain or sunshine or fertility: they caused drought, fires, storms, and floods. One had to gratify them by observing the rules. And one of the most important of all, when men learned agriculture, was the goddess (in a few places god) of fertility. The spirit of mother-earth was even more important than that of father-sky.

But, quite naturally, the fertility of the earth became closely connected with a woman's fertility. At first human beings copulated like cattle, not even knowing—the Australians did not know it—that the man begot the child. In time love and fertility became one of the mightiest facts of life in the mind of men. The most tremendous force, the most beneficent thing, in the world was the spirit of sex-pleasure. This gave a twist to the primitive moral rules; and, as the spirit of war just as naturally became deified at the same time, another grave perversion of the humanitarian code of conduct, as we understand it, occurred in moral evolution. These and other eccentricities we will now show to. be a normal part of the evolution of conscience,