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Religion And Morals - The Australians Part 3

( Originally Published 1910 )

This evidence as to the moral status of the Australian aborigines is of particular interest because they have usually been classed as the lowest of savage races. These facts have not been presented with a view to proving that they may lay claim to a higher station, but rather to show how primitive are the beginnings of those types of excellence characteristic of the higher stages of religion and morals. These unreflective types of behavior, upon many of which we can look only with admiration, are the raw material of reflective ethics as well as the basis upon which those higher conceptions of conduct sanctioned by religion are constructed. In fact, it is safe to say that, in the case of religion at least, the love of justice, mercy, and human kindliness in general would never have developed as the expression of the will of a deity except as they appeared in the social relations of human life. As we have pointed out in another chapter, much of the difficulty experienced by many people in conceiving of an evolution of the higher ethical religions has been due to the fact that they have never taken into account the positive value of much that may be found in the customary life of primitive groups.

The life of the Australians contains many admirable qualities, and perhaps, as a whole, it is best adapted to the sum total of conditions under which these people lived before contact with the white race. We must say this even of the practice of cannibalism and of the rules regarding marriage and the general relation of the sexes, customs so abhorrent to the ethical sensibilities of the white race. Of course we must admit that many of these practices are incompatible with that type of social life that has developed among our-selves. But that they were degrading, and hence evil for the Australians, is a proposition not so easily disposed of.

It is to be noted, however, that in the case of some races this primitive ethos has been transferred to new conditions and to types of social life changed in many respects from that in which the customs took their rise. The incompatibility of the old and the new produces, in time, the reflective moralist, who attempts a reconstruction of old values to suit new conditions. But religion, just because it is unreflective and be-cause its valuations are intimately associated with these same ancient customs, tends to cling to them more tenaciously. Hence we have frequently the extraordinary condition of low types of conduct condemned by moral teachers, but persisting and sanctioned by religion.

As we have said, however, the fact that higher religions have, in the main, come to a consciousness of higher types of behavior, is in large measure dependent upon the actual presence in primitive ethos of all the fundamental human virtues.



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