Popular Science Monthly/Volume 74/March 1909/Steps in the Evolution of Religion

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THE most remarkable thing yet discovered about this planet is the fact that human beings exist upon it in large numbers, scattered almost everywhere over its surface, that pay homage to superterrestrial powers. But this fact, remarkable as it is, is only a portion of the truth. For the most searching and unprejudiced investigation has failed to reveal any time in human history when it was otherwise. However ignorant and forlorn man may have been in the past, we have no evidence that he has ever been so low down in the scale of being that he did not look upward with some degree of reverence and awe to higher powers.

Not many years ago this fact of the universal prevalence of religion among men was seriously called in question by no less weighty writers than Sir John Lubbock and Herbert Spencer. They quoted at length from the reports of certain travelers and missionaries among the Eskimos of North Greenland, the Hottentots of South Africa and the Indians of Lower California in support of their position; and they stoutly contended that in these documents we have proof positive that there are communities now in existence that have no religion at all. This challenge led to a careful and thorough study of the status of these tribes by competent anthropologists, and in every case an extensive mythology was discovered among them, together with elaborate religious rites. A false idea of the meaning and scope of religion, a short stay in the country, or a lack of knowledge of the native language, had been the cause of the mistaken judgment. Probably no scholar of repute to-day would hesitate to accept the statement of Professor Brinton in his recent work on "The Religions of Primitive Peoples" that:

There has not been a single tribe, no matter how rude, known in history or visited by travelers, which has been shown to be destitute of religion under some form.

The reason for this historical fact is a psychological one, and has never been more clearly or forcibly expressed than by Dr. Edward Caird. He asserts:

Man, by the very constitution of his mind, has three ways of thinking open to him: he can look outwards upon the world around him; he can look inwards upon the self within him; and he can look upwards to the God above him.

And he very appropriately adds, "none of these possibilities can remain utterly unrealized."

For the fact is that man is a self-conscious being. And inasmuch as he is endowed with some degree of reason and will, he can not stand still and passively gaze at the objects about him as though he were a mere brute. He must at least exert himself enough to form some kind of a conception of the powers around and above him, and put forth some degree of energy to place himself in harmonious relations with them. But it should not at all surprise us if, at the outset of his career as a religious being, he shows the same confusion of ideas about the objects he worships, as he does about all the other matters that come within the sphere of his experience. On the contrary, we should naturally expect to find him growing and developing in his religious ideas as he grows and develops in all others.

As a matter of fact, this is actually the case, and it will be our present purpose to trace out in a general way some of the principal steps that he has taken as he has advanced from lower to higher conceptions on this subject in the course of history.

It is now generally agreed by careful students of anthropology that the most primitive form of all religion is best characterized by the word spiritism. This is the naive and unreflective belief that most objects in this world, especially those that are capable of motion, contain an unseen being which, for the lack of a better term, we will call a demon, or spirit; that these spirits have superhuman powers and can affect for good or ill everything that concerns the ongoings of nature and the lives and happiness of man. In this stage of development human beings attribute all their pleasant experiences to friendly demons, and all their disagreeable ones to just the opposite source. Hence they make use of every means in their power to win the favor of the good spirits, and ward off the envy and wrath of the bad.

The reason for this state of things it is not hard to find. For when the primitive man first begins to give form to his religion, he is himself the only being that he knows anything about that possesses the power of spontaneous action. He can not help attributing the same power to all the objects with which he in any way comes in contact. He acts just as every little child acts in a similar condition. Any object that constantly gives a baby pleasure it pats and caresses with affection. The one from which it gets a hard pinch or knock it wants to pound and kick with all its power. It spontaneously assigns to the object the same sensations and feelings and will as it is itself conscious of. Its experience is so limited and crude that it does not know enough to do otherwise. So it is with primitive man. To him every other is another, and he attributes to that other all of his own powers. In his opinion the world about and above him is made up of a vague. indefinite host of superhuman demons or spirits, and the form of his religion is determined by that fact.

Another thing that confirmed the primitive man in the belief that he was surrounded by a world of supersensuous beings was his experience in dreams: when he had developed far enough to remember his dreams with any vividness, he always thought of them as real experiences. The beings that visited him in his sleep were as genuine realities and as truly to be dealt with as any that he came in contact with when awake. In fact, he finds that he can often do things in dreams that he can not do when awake, and that he frequently communes with beings that he has no knowledge of when awake. The Kamchatkans and Eskimos, we are told, determine what they will do when awake to a great extent by their dreams; for they regard the knowledge obtained in this way far superior to that gained through the senses. Lucretius, however, goes too far when he asserts that "the dreams of men peopled the heaven with gods." Many of the lower animals are vivid dreamers, but they show no signs of having any religion. Still, dreams in all ages have often been regarded with superstitious reverence, and were undoubtedly an element in determining the character of the primitive religion of mankind.

It has come down to us from the Latin poet Petronius that "fear first made the gods." As a complete statement of the origin of religion, it is contrary to the history and nature of man. The primary religious influence is not fear, but confidence and awe. The spirit of many early religions was quite the opposite of fear. "Probably the first of all public rites of worship," says a high authority, "was one of joyousness, to wit, the invitation to the god to be present and to partake of the repast." Many modern students of the subject would bear witness to the presence of joy and confidence in primitive religions.

Yet it can not be denied but that fear early came to be one of their most important elements. For just as with the little child, the primitive man was often disappointed in his confidence. As his experience widened and the ills of life multiplied, he began to doubt the friendly character of the spirits. He soon came to the conviction that some only were favorable to him. The rest were to be feared. And as fear once aroused feeds upon everything within its grasp and grows with extraordinary rapidity, the uncertainty as to what the attitude of the spirits would be toward him naturally caused the primitive man to spend the most of his energy in devising ways to appease their wrath.

A slight step in advance beyond spiritism was taken when the opinion began to prevail that all objects do not contain superhuman beings, but only some of them. This stage in religion is called fetishism. The term was first applied by certain early Portuguese explorers to the objects worshipped by the savage tribes they discovered in Senegal and the region of the Congo. They found some of these peoples paying homage to such objects as a piece of wood, a feather, the fin of a fish, the claw of a bird, the hoof of a goat. Others among them regarded with reverential awe a big rock, a grove of trees, some such animal as a snail, a snake, a lizard or a crocodile. In fact, anything became an object of worship to them when they fancied that a powerful unseen being had attached himself to it.

The fact that no man ever worships a material object is well illustrated by the treatment accorded a fetish. If a fetish brings good luck, it may be sold for a high price if the owner wishes to part with it. If it brings bad luck, it is thrown away or demolished. For all virtue has gone out of it. The spirit that was in it has departed, and it has lost its power. The favorite fetish of a Papuan of New Guinea is a little wooden doll with a bright-colored rag tied around it. If a stroke of ill fortune comes to him when he has this in his belt, he will take it out and stamp on it, or tear it in pieces with his teeth, and cast it from him as utterly of no value.

As we go about over the surface of the earth, we find that different tribes have selected different objects for their fetishes, according as the objects have impressed themselves upon them as possessing superhuman powers. Among the Maoris of New Zealand spiders were paid divine honors; for it was in their gossamer threads that they fancied the souls of the departed ascended heavenwards.

Some of the Indian tribes of the northwest regarded the raven, or the thunder-bird, as they called it, as especially sacred; and according to Capt. Cook, the Sandwich Islanders also did so. The peacock, the swan, the rooster, the eagle and the dove, have been the favorite fetishes of other tribes. In Australia and Polynesia the lizard was greatly revered. The Chaldeans paid the fish divine honors. In Egypt the ox was especially sacred, and so it is in parts of India. In certain of the Fiji Islands the shark is worshipped, just as the alligator is in the Philippines. The Samoyeds in Siberia make a fetish of the whale and the polar bear.

But the most widely worshipped of all animals is the serpent. Mr. Ferguson, in his work on "Tree and Serpent Worship," finds that the serpent was accorded divine honors by nearly all the nations of antiquity, and is now worshipped in many parts of Asia, Africa and America. Among the Lithuanians in southern Russia, says a high authority "every family entertained a real serpent as a household god." Sir John Lubbock tells us that in Liberia

No negro would intentionally injure a serpent, and any one doing so by accident would assuredly be put to death. Some English sailors once having killed one which they found in their house, were furiously attacked by the natives who killed them all and burned the house.

Closely allied to fetishism, yet indicating some advance in the evolution of religious belief s, is ancestor-worship. This easily arises when man has developed far enough to begin to meditate upon the phenomena of death. At the very outset it is likely that death did not arouse much more interest than it does now among brutes. Britton asserts that

The evidence is mountain-high that in the earliest and rudest period of human history the corpse inspired so little terror that it was nearly always eaten by the surviving friends.

But even this custom was probably of a religious origin. A traveler (D'Orbigny) in Bolivia tells us of an old Indian he met there whose only regret in giving up his old religion and adopting Christianity was that his body would now be devoured by worms, instead of being eaten by his relatives.

At all events, it early became an elaborate and solemn religious rite to provide the body with carefully prepared viands for its last long journey. Any neglect on the part of the survivors would be severely punished. For the soul of the departed would continue to roam about without a home, unless it was properly attended to its final resting place. Hence it became the world-wide custom among savage tribes to place in the tomb or on the funeral pyre such articles as the weapons, the clothing and ornaments of the deceased. In many cases the wives or slaves or companion-in-arms were slain or slew themselves to accompany a chieftain to his long home. Often among the American Indians they were interred in the same mound, and many such mounds exist in different parts of the country.

When a tribe had survived so long as to have a history, and to trace its descent through the male head of the family, a decided change in their religious views usually followed. As Giddings describes it:

While the household may continue to regard natural objects and forces and miscellaneous spirits with superstitious feelings, they entertain for the soul of the departed founder of the house the strongest feeling of veneration. They think of the ancestral spirit as their protector in the land of shades. To the ancestral spirit, therefore, they pay their principal devotions.

We find it generally true that the family tomb was near the house and not far from the entrance. The children were brought up under its shadow, and constantly addressed to it their prayers. Within the house on the family altar burned the sacred fire that went out only with the extinction of the family. Around this fire all the household dead were supposed frequently to assemble to hear their mighty deeds narrated and to be reverenced and adored.

All the ancient Semitic tribes were ancestor-worshippers, and so were the Aryans when they first appeared on the shores of the Mediterranean. The Egyptians carried the cult to a high state of perfection, and the manes-worship which long held sway among the Eomans is an example of it. It is to-day the religion of the Bantu tribes of Africa, and still prevails to some extent in Japan. But it is chiefly among the Chinese that this form of religion has reached its highest form of development. All changes in the customs of the country are resisted as a reflection upon the regulations established by their ancestors, for the infraction of which they will be severely punished. The greatest sin they can commit is to allow the graves of their ancestors to be disturbed for any cause whatsoever.

As men progress in their knowledge of the things about them, they come to see the defects in the forms of religion described above, and begin to turn their attention to more exalted powers. They cease to pay exclusive homage to the spirits that reside in the objects that they themselves have handled and can make or destroy, and begin to look up in reverential awe to the beings that manifest themselves on a vaster scale, and in a more consistent and impressive manner.

Thus arose what is usually called nature-worship, the most prominent form of which is the worship of the celestial bodies. It is probable that the division of the week into seven days came about from the dedication of one day to each of the gods manifesting himself through the seven greatest luminaries.

Naturally, in all except the torrid zone, the sun-god received the greatest homage. As the source of light and warmth, as the earth's great fructifying power, as the one constant ever-recurring factor in man's daily experience, it has always awakened the most powerful religious emotions, in the minds of rude as well as semi-civilized people. Among the ancient Phœnicians the sun was the center of their cultus. It was probably the leading feature of the religion of the ancient Persians. The same was also true of the Sabeans. The worship of Apollo, so popular among the Greeks, was in all probability sun-worship. The Egyptians gave the sun a high place in their system, and the ancient Peruvians paid it their chief honors. The Celts and the Teutons, as well as the East Indians, made much of it, and so do numerous tribes in Africa to-day. It is maintained by many writers that the North American Indians were always and chiefly sun-worshippers; that the sun was actually their Manitou, or Great Spirit.

In some lands the moon was fixed upon as the chief deity. Certain Australian tribes believe to-day that all things, including man, were created by the moon.

At all periods of the world's history the stars have received special homage. Among the early natives of Greenland and Australia the Milky Way was nothing less than the pathway of souls ascending to their home in the heavens. The auroras borealis and australis were actually in their opinion the dance of the gods across the firmament.

Another form of nature worship was the adoration of the fire-god. Among all peoples fire has been held sacred. It was thought of as the central principle of life. Among the Kafirs in South Africa every religious ceremony must be performed in front of a fire. The Indians of Guatemala regard it as their greatest and oldest deity. The fire test was practised by the Aztecs of Mexico, as well as by the Moloch worshippers of Syria. In Borneo the crackling of blazing twigs is the speech of the gods. The vestal fire of old, and the perpetual fire of the modern Christian altar are both founded upon the assumption of its sacred character.

As the experience of man widens, he discovers not only that he can destroy the tree whose spirit he worshipped, and can entrap the animals and subdue them, but also that the sun, moon and stars do not vary their action at their own option. They are obliged to move about in certain more or less prescribed courses. Even the clouds are driven to and fro by some superior power and are not free to follow their own desires. Hence he easily and naturally comes to see the truth that there must be powers above these forces that are far more worthy than they are of his homage. He rejects the notion that the forces of nature reveal the highest spirits, and he looks up to deities that can use these forces freely at their option. As distinguished from nature-worship and other lower forms of religion, this doctrine is called polytheism, although it differs from these other forms not in kind, but only in degree.

Undoubtedly, the development of this doctrine is closely related to the development of the social and governmental relations existing among the people themselves. When chiefs and kings begin to make their appearance in any community, then these greater gods begin to be recognized as over and above all lesser spirits. Oftentimes the kings and chiefs themselves are elevated to the sphere of gods, and in some cases, even while alive, receive divine honors. Rarely, however, does polytheism do away with any of the lower forms of religion. On the contrary, it usually coexists with belief in disembodied spirits, local genii of rocks and fountains and trees, household gods, and a host of other good and evil demons. The deities of this form of religion simply take their place as presiding over all inferior gods, using them as messengers or agents for the furtherance of their plans and purposes.

At first, each tribe or district is thought of as having its own particular deity. But as the tribes intermingle and learn more of one another, the tribal gods give way to national. At the outset the national gods of one country are regarded as distinct from those of another, but of equal powers. Even the ancient Hebrews considered the gods of other nations, such as those of Assyria, Phœnicia and Egypt as real divinities.

Many tribes and peoples have risen in some degree to the stage of polytheistic thought, but the nations that carried it to a higher degree of perfection than any others were the ancient Greeks and Romans. Costly temples were erected to the honor of their gods. Elaborate ritualistic services were instituted to do them reverence. A great multitude of priests and priestesses devoted their lives to finding out and enforcing their will and purpose. The character and extent of this form of religion are, however, so familiar that there is little need of further explanation of it here.

This can hardly be said of monotheism, the next step in the evolution of religion. For there has been and in some quarters still is a great divergence of opinion regarding its historic origin. For until within a few generations, it was the common belief of thinkers on the subject of religion that the knowledge of the existence of one god was a primitive revelation, made to the first representatives of the human race, and handed down by them to their posterity. Polytheism and all other forms of religion, it was maintained, are a degeneration from a once higher form. But this view has few if any advocates among recent scholars. For it is now known that the tendency to the monotheistic position exists among all people when they have advanced to a certain degree of mental culture. As Jastrow well says:

There is a difference in the degree in which this tendency is emphasized, but whether we turn to Babylonia, Egypt, India, China or Greece, there are distinct traces towards concentrating the varied manifestations of divine powers in a single source.

This tendency is a perfectly natural one, and arises the moment man begins seriously to reflect upon the universe. He can not fail to observe the inequalities that exist among the deities, and to realize that of necessity one must be supreme to all the others. When any two peoples united as the result of war or for any other reason, the superior place would naturally be accorded to the deity of the conquering power; and as a nation grew in influence and became conscious of its strength, it would gradually change its opinions regarding the gods of the nations about it. It would either do as the Greeks did in the case of Ammon, the god of the Egyptians, recognize in him their own Zeus as appearing in another form, or come to treat other gods as inferior deities not worthy of being compared with their own god, as the Hebrew looked upon Chemosh, the supreme god of the Moabites, in comparison with Jahveh, or Jehovah, their own national deity.

It is a matter of history that monotheism did not originate in any one quarter alone, but was an idea attained independently by many people at a comparatively early stage in their development.

The chief contribution of the Hebrews to religion is not their monotheistic idea, but the emphasis they put upon the ethical character of their supreme deity. He was not mere power that goes stalking through the universe, but a being of righteousness that deals with men and nations according to their moral character. It was this view that caused the worship of Jehovah to supplant that of all the other gods among the Hebrews themselves, and to survive the crash of faiths that early befell the entire ancient world.

In this brief outline of the main steps that have been taken in the development of religion, it is not claimed that any hard and fast distinction can be made between them. Indeed, it is the opinion of competent authorities that all the different forms of religion described above coexisted among the Hindus, the Greeks, the old Norsemen, and to some extent still coexist among modern Africans, as well as the negroes and Indians of our own land. Nor is it held that any sudden or complete transition from a lower to a higher stage has actually taken place at any time in history. On the contrary, the changes have been gradual, and many evidences of the survival of the old amid the new exists in the notions and customs of even the most highly civilized and intelligent nations of our own day.

Amulets, charms, lucky stones and coins, the veneration of sacred relics, everything that goes under the name of "mascot," are all legitimately descended from fetishism; just as belief in ghosts and haunted houses, fear of the dark, and the like, come from a more primary form of religion. Current ideas concerning lucky and unlucky days and numbers, spilling salt, throwing rice at a wedding, charming away warts, are survivals of a similar sort. So, too, are the present notions of man as to sacred days and places, sacred utensils, holy water. And we should not hesitate to class in the list of primitive and outgrown religious ideas the worship of saints, and the common belief that a person acquires peculiar supernatural authority in religious matters by the laying on of hands, or by any other form of ordination. For they are notions on a par with the old Greek tradition that one gets a supernatural inspiration by the very act of paying a visit to the fountain of Parnassus, or taking a draft at the Pierian spring. But the most striking of all is the present popular belief that between man and the Supreme Being there exists an ascending gradation of angels and archangels on the one hand, and evil spirits on the other, reaching up to a supreme evil demon, who, under the title of Devil or Satan, is supposed to be the author of the sin and misery of mankind.

In the light of this view of the evolution of religion, we can see how irrational it is to divide religions into true and false, instead of classifying them as primitive and developed. It was maintained by Empedocles among the ancient Greeks that all religions are false because they are the product of a diseased mind, and Feuerbach in the last century strongly advocated the same view among the Germans.

While few, if any, maintain that opinion at present, there are many who hold that all religions are false except one, and that the one they themselves have come to adopt. The Jew does this who asserts that God by a perpetual covenant, recorded in the Old Testament, has made his own race the sole repository of his will. The Islamite does this who regards the Koran alone as the sole guide to truth and life. And the Christian who sees in the New Testament the only source of religious faith and practise belongs to the same class. No writer has given us a more vivid picture of the erroneous way of regarding the religions of the World than Milton in his "Paradise Lost." That all religions except the Christian are pure inventions of the Devil to ensnare the unwary is his fundamental thought.

This position has been the source of untold mischief and suffering in the past, and immensely impedes the progress of mankind at present. It is contrary to actual fact, and is based upon the false assumption that man possesses the ability to acquire absolute certainty in religious matters, a thing which is denied to him in every other sphere.

The truth is that man's religion develops as he himself develops. The steps in the evolution of religion are the steps in his own mental advancement. There is never a time after he comes into conscious possession of his powers as a person when he is without religion, and there is no possibility of his outgrowing religion. He does not get his religion out of any book, but primarily out of the experiences of his own mind and heart. The experiences of others are a help to him only as he reproduces them in his own. The more sensual he is, the more sensual will be his religion, and the more rational and pure his life is, the more refined and spiritual will his religion become. In other words, the more of a man he is himself, the loftier will his conception be of the Maker and Sustainer of the universe.