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Preliminary Questions Regarding The Evolution Of Religion

( Originally Published 1910 )

THAT there has been an evolution of religion, no one can doubt; but there seems to be much uncertainty regarding the precise nature of the process. It is the purpose of this chapter to offer a statement of the problem as it presents itself to the psychologist. We shall first attempt to determine what it is that may be said to have undergone an evolution; and, secondly, the fundamental conditions which lie back of and have mediated the process.

The data of the psychology of religion, like those of the biological sciences, are highly complex. This is true of all religious phenomena, whether of civilized or savage, whether mental states or ritualistic observances. This complexity is susceptible of only one interpretation, namely, that it is the result of some sort of development. With no individual or people of to-day may we expect to find extant the truly primitive religious consciousness. Just as in the case of animal and vegetable forms, where every generation tends to be increasingly differentiated in structure and function, so with all forms of mental process, each succeeding psychic event being the resultant of all that have preceded it. Just as it is impossible that we should find among modern unicellular organisms specimens of a true eozoon, since every form of life to-day carries in its body the record of untold generations of struggle and adaptation, so in every manifestation of consciousness there is a complexity due to the mere fact that it has been preceded by other expressions of consciousness.

However, though we cannot know precisely the nature of really primitive forms, we can describe with more or less exactitude many of the factors which have tended to produce complexity of structure and function; we can often know also with some precision in what the changes have consisted. This is true, at least, on the biological side. In the case of the evolution of various aspects of psychical life, there is, however, much more difficulty in reaching a satisfactory statement, and this is partly because we do not keep clearly in mind the exact nature of that which we assume has undergone a development.

It seems necessary at the outset, then, to raise some preliminary questions as to the nature of the evolutionary process which may reasonably be presumed to lie back of religious phenomena.

To begin with, the psychologist can hardly rest satisfied with the assumption that the religious consciousness is a development from some ultimate religious instinct or perception. Such terms are usually used very loosely by students of religious phenomena. In many cases they are simply ways of saying, under the guise of science, that the religious attitude is innate, that it develops from some original sense, or elemental power. This is certainly the thought which Müller, Tiele, and Jastrow convey in their attempts to trace religion to a `perception of the infinite.' Jastrow uses `instinct' as interchangeable with `perception of the infinite.' Brinton's postulate of `a religiosity of man as a part of his psychical being' is closely akin to the `instinct-theory' of religion.

It is only in name that such theories of religion are scientific. Evolutionary science proves almost conclusively that instincts are not original, elemental endowments, but rather products, modes of reaction, built up in the course of, and hence definitely related to, the process of organic development. They are adjustments of the organism to certain features of the physical environment that have proved of importance to it in the struggle for existence. It must be borne in mind that the fundamental thing about an instinct is that it is a mode of overt reaction, and that neither in its genesis nor in its functioning is there need for the assumption that any conscious process or processes are involved. If consciousness has any place in an instinctive reaction, it is only as an after-effect, or especially when the instinct, under some shift of conditions, ceases to work smoothly, or fails entirely. Consciousness, in other words, is an adjusting apparatus for remedying the deficiencies of instinct.

To hold that religion is an instinct, or that it develops from an instinct, can mean only that it is some physiological adjustment to the environment necessitated by the life-process or, possibly, that it is some conscious attitude aroused by the failure of such an adjustment to function properly. In either case, however, we are involved in a serious confusion. In no intelligible way can the religious consciousness or religious acts be thought of as directly related to the biological struggle for existence. If religion is to be called an instinct, it would certainly necessitate a new definition of instinct. As was suggested in a foregoing paragraph, however, the real thought which those writers who have described religion as an instinct have meant to convey is that religion is something original, or innate, in man. The use of the term offers, under a thin disguise of science, a point of view that is utterly opposed to all that is scientific. The scientist cannot be satisfied to regard anything as innate. His so-called ultimate data are ultimate only for the philosopher or for the non-scientific mind. The `instinct-theory' really belongs to the philosophy rather than to the psychology of religion.

There is another `instinct-theory,' the one proposed by Marshall,' which at first sight seems to be free from the difficulty suggested above. He holds that religion is an instinct developed from acts useful to the race as a whole, but often injurious to the individual, and actually performed by the individual in the face of consciously recognized self-interests. It will be seen that instinct is here conceived more scientifically than in the first cases cited, but the theory is nevertheless open to criticism. It is, for instance, incredible that an instinct should have arisen which does not and never did appeal to the individual in some way, even though it wrought him injury or pain in the end. This difficulty is not relieved by Marshall's elaborate attempt to show that an instinct-act is the reaction of the organism as a whole, while acts prompted by reason and self-interest are only partial expressions of the organism. The theory as a whole we cannot discuss here, further than to say that it is only by reading a preconceived theory into the facts that this supposition of the relationship of instinct to reason can be maintained.

The most serious difficulty, however, with Marshall's theory, as that theory at present concerns us, is of accounting for the origin of religion as a conscious attitude, even though it be granted that that attitude is based upon a set of instinctive physical adjustments. Marshall meets the objection by his theory that all nervous processes are accompanied by some measure of consciousness, and hence that an instinct-act has, of necessity, its instinct-feeling. On this basis, apparently, he would hold that the religious attitude, as a psychical complex, is gradually built up. His assumption seems to us to be entirely gratuitous. It amounts, practically, to making religious acts, together with their conscious accompaniments, hereditary, whereas observation seems to point to the conclusion that it is the ability to perform certain movements that is inherited, and that consciousness accompanies the movements only under special circumstances.

We ourselves shall try to show that the religious attitude has evolved from a matrix of activity of a certain kind, but we shall contend that it bears a direct functional relationship to these activities rather than that it is merely their parallelistic accompaniment. We gain nothing and explain nothing by saying that religious acts are in some way advantageous to the race, if at the same time we take for granted what is really the main problem, i.e. that the complicated religious consciousness is already present, provided the instinctive activities called religious are at hand. As we conceive it, the general problem is to show how and why, given certain acts, the religious consciousness, or attitude, has been built up. The attempt to conceive religion after the analogy of an organic instinct not only does not bring us to the main problem, it tends, even, to make us ignore it.

A further word is required regarding the theories that conceive religion as the outcome of some primitive sense or perception. Jastrow, after asserting that religion originates in man's perception of the infinite, continues : "The further question . . . how man comes to possess power to attain to a perception of the infinite, is one that transcends the limits of historical investigation, which is required only to answer the question of how the power is brought into action. The power itself, like the religious instinct, the emotional possibilities, the unsatisfied longings, and the intellectual phases of his nature, forms part of man's equipment, from which every science connected with man necessarily starts out. Just as anthropology assumes man to be existing and occupying the place proper to him in the universe, so historical science starts with man as a being endowed with reason, certain emotions, and certain instincts, with the capacity of thought and the power to receive impressions on his mind."

It may be granted that the above assumptions are sufficient for the history of religion, but that which Jastrow presupposes it should be the business of psychology to explain. Moreover, if psychology can show that the so-called 'perception of the infinite' has probably had a natural history and is therefore susceptible of a simpler statement, and, further, that it is not a capacity which can be placed alongside thinking as a sort of original datum, requiring only to have its varied manifestations traced out, historical science would seem to be bound to take these things into account in its treatment of the subject of religion.

Jastrow is to be criticised, not because, as a historian, he assumes a religious attitude as his starting-point, but because he holds that this is really the beginning of the whole matter, so far as science goes. Thus, in harmony with his theory, he maintains that there is in every man a dormant religious `sense' which may be aroused by various circumstances of life ; for example, certain practical considerations bring `the religious emotions into play, as if they were already there and required only to be excited to activity. This sort of statement often passes for psychological; that it is not such, in any sense of the word, we shall trust to the exposition of this and the following chapters to prove. The naïve way in which psychological concepts are used in works on the science of religion is further illustrated by such statements as the following : "Granting that the earliest manifestations of the religious life are purely instinctive, still they are also called forth by a recognition, however faint, of the possibility of establishing proper relations between man and the universe about him." Practically everything that needs explanation is here assumed, the thought seeming to be that if one uses these psychological terms, he is giving a psychological explanation. The sentence above quoted seems to explain the origin thus : Man has an instinctive perception of the infinite and an intellectual recognition of the necessity of proper adjustment to it, and, presto ! he has religion.

Conceptions of religion, such as those just criticised, suggest the need of a careful definition of the field to be investigated. The science of religion, by failing to analyze these very things, becomes trivial. We can make little progress, as was stated above, in understanding the evolution of religion, until we have a more definite notion of the exact nature of the material which we suppose has undergone an evolution.

Entirely aside from questions of origin, the fact of religion of any kind in certain individuals implies some sort of conscious states. These conscious states, whatever else they are, may be described in part at least as valuational. The religious consciousness may be called a valuating attitude toward something real or imagined. By an attitude is meant an organization of various mental capacities in a definite way about certain situations, or problems of life. Attitudes are correlated with the situations, not in the sense that they are results, but simply in that a reaction to a situation necessitates such an organization of mental elements on the part of the individual. Thus, we have complex æsthetic attitudes, intellectual attitudes, scientific attitudes, attitudes toward government, whether democratic, monarchial, or socialistic; attitudes toward marriage, family life, education, and so on almost indefinitely; and among others of these organizations of disposition and ability to react, is the religious attitude. As such it involves an emotional recognition of values of some kind, an intellectual tendency to affirm or deny them, and a positive inclination to act in some way or other with reference to them. Generically, religion does not differ from many other attitudes which may also be described as valuational.

It is from the point of view of religion as a type of the valuational consciousness that we may probably find a real psychological truth in the conceptions of Müller, Tiele, and Jastrow, referred to in the preceding paragraphs. The `perception of the infinite,' if it means anything at all, must refer to the feeling for some sort of value. Perception, as the term occurs here, is evidently not used in a psychological sense, but rather as an attitude assumed toward something felt in some way to exist or to be true. When Jastrow says that there is at least some recognition in man of the possibility of establishing proper relations between himself and the universe, he undoubtedly refers to a genuine conscious state which, as psychologists, we must regard as an aspect of this evaluating attitude. This also is evidently the meaning of the words of Tiele, quoted on a preceding page. "Why," he asks in another place, " is man discontented with his condition and surroundings?" If he is dissatisfied, we should say it is probably because he has some notion of values which he has not yet fully realized. Even supposing that men have God revealed to them, why should they try to put themselves in relation to him? This question suggests that religion is not merely a belief in some fact of the universe, but that it also involves appreciation and adjustment, the appreciation of values and an active attitude toward them.

There have been many attempts to find the common element of the various religions of the world, but with small success. The idea of a god or deity is certainly not universal, nor is there any other objective content or belief which can be found in all religions. The common element, if there is one, must rather be sought on the psychic side, in the form of some sort of attitude or disposition which can be properly called religious. An examination of all religions, whether of savage or of civilized peoples, reveals in them all an appreciative attitude toward some sort of values. These values may range from the secret names and the sacred bull-roarers of the Australians to the conception of a divine organization of the universe, demanding of every individual purity of heart, uprightness of conduct.

The feeling for worth, or value, might well be judged a primary psychic element. Perhaps it is not as primitive as mere feeling or cognition, but at any rate it is a relatively simple conscious state, the genesis and development of which can be traced with some assurance. There are, of course, many values that are not religious, and there are therefore many value attitudes which have no religious significance. One of the first problems will then be that of determining the circumstances under which religious attitudes have been differentiated from those other conscious states which also may be described as valuational. As far as psychology can deal with the evolution of religion, it should be its task to inquire into how the valuating attitude arose, how it developed, the causes which lead it to take this form and that; why, for instance, it is found variously stated in such terms as deities, ideals, ancestors, spirits, forces of nature, or culture-heroes. Whatever else there is about religion will be comparatively easy to explain, when we have once reached an understanding regarding its conceptions of worth.

We have rejected the theory that the religious consciousness has evolved from some sort of innate religiosity. We may now say, further, from what we know of the development of attitudes in general, that the student of the evolution of religion is not concerned with an increase in absolute mentality of any sort, but rather with the organization of successively more complex psychic systems within a matrix of psychic capacities which have not undergone much absolute change since the first appearance of the human species. As far as mental capacity, per se, is concerned, the natural races of today are not apparently inferior to the culture races. If this is the case, it has important bearings upon the question of what sort of evolution, if any, has taken place in the religious consciousness of man.

Let us consider the question on the side of general mentality. Anthropological literature contains much material that is favorable to the view that the absolute mental status of the primitive races of to-day is comparatively high. Thus : —

" With the development of the special organs of sense, memory, and consequent ability to compare present experiences with past, with inhibition or the ability to decline to act on a stimulus, and, finally, with abstraction, or the power of separating general from particular aspects, we have a condition where the organism sits still, as it were, and picks and chooses its reactions to the outer world; and by working in certain lines, to the exclusion of others, it gains in its turn control of the environment and begins to reshape it."

And further : --

" In respect to brain structure and the more important mental faculties, we find that no race is radically unlike the others."

The fact that the modern savage, taken in his accustomed environment, does not seem inferior to the civilized man in memory, abstraction, inhibition, mechanical ingenuity, lends plausibility to the theory that progress has been in other ways than in mere increase of mental capacity as such.

The mental capacity of different people as well as of various races may be much alike, while their actual mental activity varies widely. This is due to difference in stimulating conditions, or opportunity. It is in this respect that the civilized man differs from the savage, and it is also probably in this respect that the modern man differs most from the primitive man, after the human type of mentality was once established in him. Psychic evolution, after the first dawn of self-consciousness, has been, in other words, chiefly an evolution of situations stimulating to certain types of activity, disposition, and attitude. A man of the white race stands on a vast objective accumulation of culture, or of the products of intellect. He can do complicated things with intricate machinery because there is a complicated mechanical environment to stimulate him. He can think subtle trains of thought be-cause there is such a thought environment, in which he may place himself if he so desires. His psychic life is a more or less direct counterpart of the organization of the world about him. As Thomas says : —

" The fundamental explanation of the difference in the mental life of two groups is not that the capacity of the brain to do work is different, but that the attention is not in the two cases stimulated and engaged along the same lines. Whenever society furnishes copies and stimulations of a certain kind, a body of knowledge, and a technique, practically all its members are able to work on the plan and scale in vogue there, and members of an alien race, who become acquainted in a real sense with the system, can work under it. But when society does not furnish the stimulations, or when it has preconceptions which tend to inhibit the run of attention in given lines, then the individual shows no intelligence in these lines."'

On widely different planes of culture, the difference is not one as to the mental powers involved, the savage having the same faculties as does the civilized; the difference is rather in the direction of their use.

These considerations regarding the evolution of mentality in general may be applied directly to the development of religious attitudes. Each new generation comes into possession of a certain environment which stimulates it to particular modes of activity. An environment, social and natural, may be said to have correlated with it a certain type of mental activity, especially on the part of those who are born in it. If one generation after another continues in a given type of situation, and reacts to it in about the same way, we may be sure that the mental concomitants will continue generally the same. What is transmitted from generation to generation is, then, certain sorts of reactions or conditions which provoke such reactions. The mental states accompanying these reactions, all their emotional values, and the entire set of psychic dispositions associated therewith, may be said to be transmitted by social heredity.

We are not here concerned with the problem of why the external opportunities are greater among some peoples than among others, but rather to show that complexity of psychic life depends on opportunity afforded for its exercise; and further, that this complexity is not necessarily bred into the race ; that is, it does not become a part of its original, or instinctive nature. Given the same external environment and the same stimulating problems, each new generation, as it reacts, finds itself in possession of the attitudes and dispositions of its predecessors.

The chief problem of the evolution of religion may-then be restated as that of showing how situations affording opportunity for certain types of reaction have been built up. Can there, then, be a psychology of religious development? We answer in the affirmative, because in analyzing these situations we are stating the objective conditions for the appearance of the religious attitude. Whatever may be possible in the way of an analysis of the mental attitude, per se, must rest ultimately upon some account of the objective conditions of its appearance. These pass on from one generation to another, and are the means of keeping alive, or of arousing, the mental concomitants.

The religious consciousness is, then, first of all an attitude rather than an instinct or a `perception. It is an attitude toward certain values, imagined or real. It is, moreover, an attitude which may truly be said to have been gradually evolved, and yet its presence in any given individual is largely a matter of social heredity. The present writer can see no reason for assuming that any attitude or disposition, even the aesthetic or religious, has in any sense been bred into the race as an instinct. The fact that there is no material difference in the intellectual faculties of widely separate stages of culture seems to point unquestionably to the view that the seeming differences are the result of the objective accumulation of certain kinds of stimuli. If space permitted, abundant evidence could be adduced to prove that the presence or absence of these secondary forms of consciousness, for example, the æsthetic, is, in the case of the masses of any people, dependent upon social suggestion in some form or other. This view of the matter in no sense depreciates the finer elaborations of consciousness. It simply regards them as constructions rather than as original traits.

We have just suggested that the religious attitude should, genetically, be regarded as a `construct,' determined in large measure by various objective conditions of the life-process. If this is the correct view of the matter, the problem of the evolution of religion is intimately connected with the ethnology of religion. The nature of this connection we shall now try to state as accurately as may be possible. In doing so, we come to the second phase of the problem proposed in the first paragraph of the chapter, that is, as to the general conditions which have mediated the development of the religious attitude.

These general conditions have been the overt activities connected with the various phases of the life-process of primitive races. The practical and playful activities of savage races, their rituals and ceremonials of all sorts, are not merely expressions of preexisting conscious attitudes of various kinds, they have been of primary importance in the development of those attitudes themselves. The trend of modern psychology is toward the view that an act is not merely the reflex of a psychical state, but that the psychical state is as truly the reflex of an earlier act.' If such is the case, the evolution of any variety of conscious attitude must be intimately connected with the accompanying overt activity of the being in question. That is to say, the overt activity is not only the index of the hidden internal states of consciousness, but is also a factor of prime importance in the very production of these states.

There has been a tendency on the part of some to separate sharply the psychology of religion from the ethnology of religion and from all aspects of the history of religious practices and observances. Thus it has been held that the psychological study deals with "the feelings, the thoughts, the desires, the impulses (as far as they enter into religion), while the historical and social study deals with the results of these desires, thoughts, and feelings, when they have been transformed in a process of social consolidation and set up as objects of belief (doctrines, beliefs), or as modes of worship (rites and ceremonials).. .

The most important remark to be made concerning these two classes of facts is that the former owes its existence to the latter; corporate religion owes its existence to the individual religious experiences, in the same sense as a political organization owes its existence to the individuals composing it. Beliefs and ceremonials are, in a way, higher products resulting from the elemental experiences of the individual." The assumption, in other words, is that religious states of mind exist first of all in the individual, and that only later do they objectify themselves in the social group. The same author says, ". . . the Psychology of Religion deals with the formative elements of corporate religion, while the History of Religion deals with the complex products. "

The primacy of the subjective state, as here assumed, may well be questioned. The analogy between religion with its objective manifestations and the individual and political organization is certainly fallacious.' The question here is not as to whether a certain type of overt process presupposes the existence of individual agents; that, of course, goes without saying. The question is rather as to the relationship between the external act and the internal attitude. It is so evidently true in adult life that action follows thought, that it is difficult to think of the mental state as any other than primary. But as suggested earlier in this chapter, the mental state is just as truly connected with the preceding active state as it is with the activity which follows. In fact, it is through antecedent tendencies to action that mental processes of all sorts have been built up. Unquestionably, instinctive, and reflex action is more primitive than consciousness or consciously directed activity. The appearance of the latter may be taken as evidence that the reflex or instinctive equipment of the organism has proved insufficient to meet all the demands of the environment that are requisite to life. Whether we are able to state with precision all the terms in the relationship between overt mechanically controlled action and that which is consciously directed, it is certainly safe to assume that the conscious processes are truly of the nature of specializations within the primitive reactions, rendering possible the attainment of more complex results or ends. The various types of mental con-tents may be regarded as moments, or phases in the differentiation of the instinctive or habitual act. They stand for certain stages in the separation of the stimulus from the response, or for certain types of tension which have arisen in the simpler and, at most, not acutely conscious activities. Consequently, all such mental elements as ideas, emotions, and volitions, or whatever else we may choose to call them, are products rather than original data, a fact which must be borne in mind in all discussions involving them. That is, mental processes are in some way differentiations out of previous overt activity, as well as the causes of some kind of subsequent activity.'

In general, a complicated, intensive, active life demands and has a complicated psychic accompaniment. To see that this is true, we need only compare the amount of mental activity required by the modern captain of finance or industry with that necessary to the rustic who is far removed from the active stress of life. The circle of ideas, the comprehension of human nature, the ability to execute complicated acts, is immeasurably greater in one than in the other, and shall we doubt that the contrast is due to the difference in the situation faced by the two? If it is urged that there is very probably a native capacity in one that is not in the other, we reply that even that native capacity has been selected and enhanced by just such stimulating environments. However, if there is no difference in mental capacity, per se, there is certainly more mentality where there is greater opportunity for its use.

On the side of race development, it may be said that the complex mental states of the modern man, his almost unlimited powers of ideal combination and construction, his elaborate concepts and his ability to utilize them in, subtle trains of thought, his desires, his judgments of worth, his feeling attitudes, varying from the simplest recognition of pleasure and pain to the appreciation of the most refined æsthetic, moral, and religious values, have been made possible by the active attitude he has assumed toward the world and his fellow-men. This active attitude, this impulse to grapple with some-thing, is primary, while the subjective states of the individual seem to be products.

The principles just stated are applicable not only to the development of psychic life itself in both individual and race, but also to the more complex forms of psychic life, which we have called attitudes, or dispositions. Thus the aesthetic, the religious, the scientific, and the domestic attitudes are moments in the development of more and more complicated types of reaction. To what extent these attitudes have been bred into the race, it is impossible to say. As shown earlier in this chapter, their appearance in the individual is so intimately associated with the character of the social environment that it is entirely probable that social heredity plays a preponderating part in their appearance in succeeding generations. The objective conditions which first produced them are passed on and each new generation thus falls into a certain mould, finds itself stimulated to certain kinds of activities. The channels for the expression of its impulses being thus more or less predetermined, it is inevitable that the same conscious attitudes should appear as were possessed by the generation preceding it.

In view of these general principles, it may well be asked whether religious practices, which some authors, as we have seen, consign entirely to the sphere of history, have not positive psychological value. It is true that the overt practices, the rituals, as we see them, are to a certain extent the outcome of earlier subjective states. But that this is the case with primitive rituals is another question. The tendency today, among students of primitive life, is to regard all such customs as in large measure the products of a relatively unconscious evolution.' The customs, the rituals, the language of primal man, were definitely related to the situations and problems which touched his life. Since they are the expression in terms of human nature of these situations, may we not go further and hold that, far from being merely the expression of the religious attitudes of groups of individuals, they were and are in a very genuine sense the causes and sustainers of these attitudes? In other words, the position here assumed, and which can be justified only through the entire series of chapters which follow, is this : However much it may be possible to analyze the fully developed religious consciousness in isolation, genetically it must be considered along with these objective conditions which it is related to, not as cause, but as effect.

Some such position as here taken is the logical outcome of the rejection of religion as an instinct, or as something original and innate. From such a point of view, the evolution of religion is a definite problem of social psychology, and is capable of investigation according to strictly scientific methods. To make the objective manifestations of religion positive factors in the development of the psychic state called religious, will not only render each more intelligible, but will also help to a better understanding of the relation between ancient and modern types of religion. From such a point of view we shall be led to say that there is no such thing, for instance, as a detached sense of duty, or of sin, which is applied here and there as opportunity may offer or render appropriate, but rather that these feelings represent certain crises in action, and that the character of the preceding action has been of direct importance in the determination of the character of the resulting conscious states. This is certainly true of the child's first sense of duty. Adult society furnishes the atmosphere which interprets the emotional values felt by children, and which builds up the complicated social attitudes such as are named above. To what extent could a child be taught, or have imparted to him, a sense of duty or a sense of affection or of remorse aside from contact with the real situations of life? His moral and religious sentiments are the products of, the evidences of, the ways he has reacted toward life.

In view of these things, we may define the problem of the pages which follow as that of showing how the religious consciousness has been built up, or differentiated, from a back-ground of overt activity and relatively objective phases of consciousness. The assumption underlying the problem is that the religious attitude of mind has had a natural history, that there was a time in the history of the race when a definite religious attitude did not exist, and that, in its genesis and in its development, it has been conditioned by the same laws according to which other mental attitudes have come into being.

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