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Regarding The Evolution Of Religious Attitude

( Originally Published 1910 )

THE tracing of some sort of an evolution in religious beliefs and practices has long been a favorite task with those engaged in the scientific study of religion. We have already pointed out certain conditions under which the concept of evolution is applicable to the religious attitude. In the light of the material offered in Chapters IV and V, there are now some other phases of the question which require discussion.

We have shown that the religious attitude is an outgrowth from a social matrix of some sort, that it is, in fact, rather definitely related to the type of social organization prevailing within a group. To deal adequately with the problem of the evolution of religion, we should be able to formulate certain criteria for determining the relative degree of organization possessed by a given social body. We shall try presently to see to what extent this is possible. This will furnish a basis for some conclusions regarding the relationship which may subsist between different forms of primitive religion, and hence may reveal something as to the nature of the evolutionary series which it may be possible to trace in religious phenomena.

The point of view of most students of this subject has, unfortunately, been more or less determined by systematic considerations, and the procedure has often amounted to little more than a series of attempts to find in the various religions of different periods and stages of culture an embodiment, in greater or less degree, of some concept such as mono-theism, the meaning of which is predetermined by the investigator, that is, carried over bodily as a perfectly determinable quantity from his own universe of ideas. It has also been common to work out in the same manner some supposedly evolutionary series such as the following. Beginning with fetichism, religions are said to pass through animism, naturalism, higher pantheism, henotheism, and ethical monotheism. All such schemes have a certain rough and ready merit, but at their best they fail to take into account important facts regarding religion, not the least of which is the great complexity of the data involved, so that the series, so painstakingly elaborated, is apt to be entirely spurious.

As we have seen, some investigators have held that there is a germinal `idea' or `instinct' present in primitive religions which by degrees attains, or may attain, to more and more adequate expression, or that there have been successive `revelations' of a certain concept among different peoples and in different times. The phenomena of the ethnic religions then divide themselves into real religion and into superstition. They are significant in proportion as they reveal some trace of this instinct, revelation, or whatever the primordial datum is taken to be; otherwise primitive beliefs are largely negative quantities. These views are really the direct descendants of the once prevalent idea that true religion was, in all essentials, originally revealed to man, and that, in so far as there has been any evolution, it has been, in the main, negative? The adherents of the instinct type of theory can, of course, stand for a positive evolution, but if they ever faced the problem in a detailed and thorough manner, they would apparently have some difficulty in showing how an instinct with no natural history could evolve in the terms of an unrelated economic, social, and intellectual milieu.

It is not, however, our purpose here to attempt a systematic criticism of these points of view, but rather merely to state that the resulting methods of treating religion throw over it a false simplicity, and that the problem of evolution in religion requires further and more critical examination. The theories above referred to have borrowed their concepts and method more or less directly from the biological sciences, where it is doubtless legitimate to arrange in series various types of structure, such as reproductive organs, nervous systems, and so forth. From such considerations some have come to the conclusion that the diverse forms of religion represent necessary stages in the development of the higher types of religion. But, even in biology, there are limitations to the significance of the series which may be constructed. Each animal and plant form stands at the end of a long process of development, and is in no sense actually intermediate between certain other existing forms. In an even greater degree the different manifestations of religion are discrete and non-continuous. Of course it is possible to arrange types of religion in a series in the same way in which types of animal structure may be arranged, but, for reasons which we shall develop, the seeming connections between the members are more than likely to be imaginary. In this connection the words of Galton are apposite : —

" Whenever search is made for intermediate forms between widely divergent varieties, whether they be of plants or of animals, of weapons or utensils, of customs, religion, or language, or of any other product of evolution, a long and orderly series can usually be made out, each member of which differs in an almost imperceptible degree from adjacent specimens. But it does not at all follow, because these intermediate stages have been found to exist, that they were the very stages passed through in the course of evolution. Counter-evidence exists in abundance, not only of the appearance of considerable sports, but of their remarkable stability in heredity transmission. Many of the specimens of inter-mediate forms may have been unstable varieties whose descendants had reverted; they might be looked upon as tentative and faltering steps taken along parallel courses of evolution, and afterwards retraced."

He who supposes that the method of biology can be applied offhand to social phenomena certainly falls into a serious error. The strictures which Galton urges are particularly applicable in the science of religion. True, the stages of culture known to us may be serially arranged, but it does not follow that the low-grade forms are preliminary steps to higher grades. Many of them are quite likely side developments on some plane of arrest, or unfruitful exaggerations of planes of culture that in some way lost the cue to progress, or got detached from its main stream. Conditions of this sort would be entirely possible, even if religious development consisted in the unfolding of some primitive instinct or `perception of the infinite.' If, however, it can be shown that the religious attitude is a differentiation from the more immediate aspects of the life-process, that the one is an organic part of the other, neither of them possessing a primordial essence peculiar to itself, it would seem that the different phenomena called religious would be even more discrete than is the case with apparently related forms of animal life. So complex are the elements which constitute, and so subtle are the forces which cooperate in the determination of any given social fact, it is generally unsafe to compare one with another as one might compare the reproductive systems of various plants. Only the primary life activities of different peoples can be so compared. Variations in these elementary processes bring about, on derived planes, indefinitely varied results. The forms of religion are so definitely parts of the social milieu which produces them that we cannot attempt to arrange them in a scale of higher and lower until we are able to evaluate the social background, and this is possible only so roughly that, with our present knowledge, the scaling of religions is scarcely worth attempting. That is to say, a group may be far advanced in certain aspects of its social organization while, paradoxically enough, it may be very backward in its economic development.' So of every other phase, in some respects the group may be progressive and in others backward or even degenerate. What, then, can we say of the relative status of such a group as compared with others which may show retardation or progress in still different ways?

Types of social organization are, we believe, closely related to the sort of problems which people have had to face, or to the particular aspects of the life-process which have chanced to attract their attention. In the face of some concrete economic difficulty, for instance, which engages the attention of all the individuals of a group, there would always be, sooner or later, some adjustment of the entire social body, and in time, perhaps, an actual development of a type of social structure which would be continuously able to deal adequately with the situation. Thus, under pressure of certain economic problems, a group may differentiate into various producing classes with intricate rules governing the sharing of food.' Various taboos grow out of the food problem, rules designed to limit the consumption of different foods to particular classes within the group. To guard (in part at least) against surprise from without, encampment rules develop.' In places where the maintenance of a unified social consciousness is necessary, there are elaborate initiation ceremonies attendant upon the entrance of the youth into manhood. Of such ceremonies among certain of the Australian natives,' Howitt says that they are intended to impart those qualities to the boys which will make them more worthy members of society. The totemic organizations of many primitive peoples is a further type of social differentiation which possibly has a connection with some phase of the life-process, although what the connection is is at present somewhat obscure. The origin of the exogamic type of social organization is also a matter of dispute.' It is quite possible that it was at the first an unconscious product of natural selection, but in its later development it has without doubt been consciously elaborated to an enormous extent. However that may be, whether its growth has been conscious or unconscious, it certainly does represent an organized reaction of the social body to a practical situation.

A well-organized social group is, then, a society possessing sufficient solidarity to maintain and to enforce customs of some sort with reference to exigencies of life in a natural environment, even though it have no political head or chieftainship of any sort. If a group has few insistent problems to face, we shall find within it little unification of custom and a low degree of social organization. This regulative social structure is the most primitive form of religion. Whether there is also present a religious consciousness or not, is a matter of indifference. If, however, mental attitudes are aroused in connection with these activities, they may be regarded as constituting the elementary religious consciousness.

To illustrate the above statements and make clear their bearing upon the problem of the evolution of religion, we may refer again to the Arunta of central Australia. As far as tribal organization and the various means of social control are concerned, these people are relatively advanced for an ethnic race. Their marriage system is worked out with elaborate detail, and they count descent through the male. And yet, according to their observers (Messrs. Spencer and Gillen), they have no system of chieftainship, neither theistic ideas of any sort, and their economic development, while it is in a way adapted to their natural conditions, is, nevertheless, most crude. Thus, while living in a climate that is sometimes very severe, they are unclothed, and their primary method of insuring an abundant supply of staple articles of food is based upon various and elaborate magical rites, so called, rather than upon even a feeble reconstruction of their food environment. They are said to have no religion because they have no notions of gods, and yet, if religion consists in certain mental attitudes and social functions rather than in a certain conceptual frame-work, we believe a good case for their religion can be made out. Now just as it would be difficult to determine, on the whole, the social status of such a group, because of the very unequal development of the various aspects of its life, so it would be hard to say where its religion belongs, comparatively speaking, or to say offhand that it is related in any sequential fashion to the religion of some other group. Such a religion, granted that it is one, since it lacks the conceptual framework that is usually associated with even primitive faiths, must be deter-mined solely by its functional relationships to the various expressions of group life. An attempt to work out a statement of the Arunta religion would make it quite clear that religions, generally, are so definitely the outcome of particular social conditions that no such external characteristics as fetichism, animism, theism, and the like, can place the religions of different groups in any vital relationship. A people which possesses no gods is not necessarily in a prereligious stage of development. It may have had deities, and, through some peculiar turn in its social and economic development, it may have lost them (e.g. the case of the Todas, mentioned in a following paragraph). Nor is a monotheistic belief an indication in every case of high religious plane. A tribe in the interior of Borneo, of low-grade social development, is said to believe in a supreme god, while tribes which are more advanced in many ways living along the coast are ordinary polytheists.'

Again, while the Arunta people, as before stated, have no theistic ideas, other tribes, on the southeast coast of Australia, have a concept of an `All-father,' which, though remotely theistic in the tribes studied by Howitt, attains among others the definite qualities of a deity who is revered and to some extent prayed to.' In these cases, and others of the sort, we can scarcely say that the religion of one tribe is superior to that of another, but rather that the evolution of the concepts of higher values has followed diverse lines and that the matrix of social life, of which each is a part, must be taken into ac-count in all attempts to valuate them. In other words, that there is no direct relation between the atheism of the Arunta and the monotheism of the Euahlayi.

One other illustration, out of many, may be given. The Todas of India, Rivers 1 tells us, have at present very vague ideas of deities; but they were once, he believes, quite definite. All the attention of these people is at present centred in their dairies and the rituals connected therewith. They seem to be losing an old religion, in which there were deities, and slowly evolving a new one, in which their highest value-concepts are symbolized in other than deistic terms. At least their religious ideas are changing, and this much, at any rate, seems clear, that, in some way, in the not very remote past, their interest in their old religion died out because that religion failed to express sufficiently the new interests which were gradually awakening among them. By some means, external conditions, possibly their economic environment, underwent radical change, and in time nothing was left in their lives to make the old ideas and rituals significant to them of any values.

We do not need to raise the question here as to whether the social organization of the peoples referred to above belongs to a high or low order of culture. In fact, even the simplest extant society is so complicated that it is usually highly developed in at least one of its phases. There are no doubt other sections of the natural races, more advanced in some phases of their culture, but having a less complex social structure than the Australians. We do not mean to advance the idea that social structure is in itself desirable, but simply that, with reference to the origin and development of the religious attitude, it seems to be of more importance than some of the other results of human evolution. The negroes of West Africa, referred to already, probably represent a more advanced status of culture, economically and politically, than do the Australians, but they do not possess that permanent solidarity of structure which imposes upon each individual a certain definite type of conduct and restrains him from other types. Hence we can say that, while the Africans have manifold spirit-beliefs, their religion is in some respects of a lower grade than that of the Australians (pace Messrs. Howitt and Spencer and Gillen).

In turning from these illustrations, let us emphasize again that the terms `fetichism,' `animism,' or even `monotheism,' have no special significance as blanket concepts to be applied right and left to the phenomena of primitive religion. The developmental series which may be worked out in such terms is more than likely to be spurious. A comparative study, as far as it is possible at all, might, however, start from the assumption that, in different social matrices, there are specialized attitudes having functional elements in common, such as might be called religious. It would seem, then, that some criterion of the religions might be formulated in terms of social psychology, which would at least serve as a working hypothesis.

But as far as the evolution of this religious tendency is concerned, it is clear, at least as far as primitive religions are concerned, that we do not have some constant element to deal with, an element which gradually becomes more and more explicit. We have rather an indefinite number of discrete attitudes which, within limits, bear a definite relation to the matrix of experience out of which they have evolved.

We say this advisedly, for, of course, the West Africans have customs in plenty, but we believe our statement is still true, comparatively speaking, if these peoples are taken in connection with such as those of Central Australia.

These are alike and yet different. They are alike in respect to their religious character, which certain conditions, in various stages of society, have caused to develop. All of the results of these conditions may be called forms of religious consciousness because of their peculiar relation to the matrix of practical activities.' On the other hand, they are different in so far as they have sprung from different grades of culture or from different sets of activities on the same grade of culture. In other words, from a given stage of culture a corresponding religious attitude may be differentiated, the immediate pre-cursors of which attitude are the more direct and, in the main, the more practical attitudes of the life of the group. Almost any conceivable practical adjustment may theoretically, and has, in fact, as a matter of history, served as the basis of a religious attitude. It is manifest, if the religious attitude is thus a secondary matter, or a product, and if these are the conditions of its appearance, that religious types are not related to one another in causal or sequential terms, but rather in this, that they are all alike connected with certain cultural levels.

The problem of the evolution of religion is, then, the problem of tracing the connection between various religions and the cultural matrix out of which they have sprung, of noting how, in certain environments, and in the face of certain life-problems, the religious type of attitude tends to develop in particular ways, and how, in like manner, its content and form vary with these external conditions. The point is not that a pre-existing religious instinct finds expression in the important practical activities of a group of people, but rather that these activities by their very importance produce a peculiar differentiation of consciousness that may be called religious, and hence, in so far, themselves become religious acts. Thus, " Worship of ancestors naturally predominates where family feeling is the strongest, and where the head of the family holds the position of authority over a large number of dependants." In the case of negroes described by Ellis,' there is little family solidarity or family feeling, and consequently there is no development of the religious attitude on this side of their life. The chief matters of concern are the forces of nature manifested in ocean and river, in the falling of great trees, and in the pestilence. Certain adjusting activities cluster about these objects of attention, and out of them a religious attitude eventually grows.

The religion of the primitive Semites has been shown to be directly connected with their dependence upon the date palm for food and with their matriarchal organization of society. The central object of attention of the Head-hunting Dyaks is, of course, the capture of enemies' heads, with its accompanying perils. The religious; attitude of the Kwakiutl Indians is definitely connected with their complex system of secret societies. That of the Central Australians is evidently an outgrowth of their somewhat strenuous food conditions. In all the cases just mentioned, and many more might as easily be offered, we find a somewhat definite type of social interest about which most of the activities of the group centre. These activities may be called either practical or religious, with almost equal justice from the standpoint of the people involved.

The point which we have desired to make clear is that certain elements in the life of a people come to consciousness as having peculiar value, and therefore that the religious attitude, a special case of this larger sense of value, is directly related to, and is an integral part of, the practical and spontaneous adjustments of the people concerned. If this is the correct view, there is no such thing as a permanently existing religious instinct, sense, or attitude, which continues independently of these objective conditions of life.

We may say, if we choose, that the human species is so organized that it has the faculty of realizing value; but nothing is gained by such a statement, any more than general psychology would profit by the dictum that man has a faculty of perception or of reason. Man does not perceive all of the time or reason all of the time, but if placed in certain situations he does act in these characteristic ways. There has been no continuum of reason or perception, but merely various discrete acts related definitely to the objective conditions in which he is from time to time placed. We hold that the case is the same with religion. One has here to deal with peculiar kinds of reactions which appear with reference to all varieties of objective circumstances, provided the latter have acquired a certain sort of relationship to a social group of some sort.

We should expect, then, to find that religious forms do not develop into other forms, but rather that they are the successive expressions of various ages and changing environments. Thus, we venture to assert, the piacular sacrifice of the later Semitic religions can be said, only in an external sense, to have developed from the earlier sacrificial meal. These two types of religious expression were responses to two different types of needs, or conceptions of value. It is true that the objective form of the reaction was in all probability continuous throughout all periods of Semitic history; in other words, that the sacrificial meal gradually changed into certain later forms; but there was no continuity on the psychical side. The objective continuity was simply the vague one of habit or custom. As Semitic society met new problems and exigencies of life, the expression of the religious attitude, when it appeared at all, naturally fell into the conventional forms, modifying them gradually, however. It is so of all religious development. The external form of expression may serve to keep alive, or to reëxcite, a primitive attitude, but more likely the attitude itself is different because it has arisen out of new circumstances, and, in the end, the traditional form of expression is itself gradually transformed. The only continuity, then, in religious evolution is, we hold, the continuity of the social background, which, under varying conditions, produces varying types of religious growth.

In speaking, then, of different stages of the religious consciousness, we cannot mean that a certain attitude has been continuously unfolding in the history of the race, but rather that, here and there, are to be found divers types of development which may, on the whole, be classed as religious. No religion is related to another except on the general ground that all are expressions of what man feels to be ultimate values, the expression of the most far-reaching appreciations of life and its problems which he is capable of feeling upon his stage of culture and with his environment. Consequently the forms of religion are as diverse as the infinitely varied circumstances of human life and struggle can make them.

The foregoing discussion, not merely in this but also in all the preceding chapters, has been concerned with relatively primitive phases of religion. It is in types of this sort, particularly, that the statements made regarding the discreteness of religious phenomena are especially applicable. Here also is to be found that lack of relation between the religious consciousness of one age and that of another. These statements must, however, be gradually modified as one has to deal with successively better or more elaborately developed religions. The primary reason for this is that all those psychical attitudes in which human nature maybe organized tend to acquire a certain individuality and momentum which renders it possible for them to develop to some extent upon their own account. This has certainly been true of all the great historical religions, such as Buddhism, Judaism, Mahometanism, and Christianity. To illustrate and develop this point we may derive real assistance from certain aspects of biological evolution.

In the plant and animal world it seems to be true that the different forms, or types, acquire certain peculiar `directions of movement, together with a momentum which, within limits, carries them along a course of their own. Variations do not seem to occur altogether at random, but in certain directions peculiar to the species itself and conditioned apparently by its previous variations. Thus two different plant or animal forms in the same environment are affected by, or select and react to, quite different aspects of that environment. The life history of a given species seems to render it susceptible to one type of influence and irresponsive to another, or it may be better to say that each form responds to a stimulus in a manner peculiarly its own, and that this is increasingly true as the type develops. From generation to generation the momentum in some particular direction increases, and a correspondingly unique individuality is gradually built up. In any evolutionary process it is necessary to take into account not only the physical environment but also the form itself as a determining factor.

What is true of plant and animal life is apparently true of different varieties of social evolution. A social group also gradually acquires a certain individuality, and all the changes in the various phases of its life are largely determined by this individuality.' Its ideals, its concepts, its valuations, are all cast in the peculiar mould which its previous development has provided. These tendencies apply to religion as well as to other social processes. Each religious type gradually constructs from the raw material furnished by the physical and social environment a mechanism capable of utilizing this environment in specific ways. But the universe offers in-definite possibilities to an evolving biological form. None can so develop as to embrace all these possibilities. Some are inevitably utilized to the neglect of others. In the same way the value-consciousness may be conceived as developing with an accelerated momentum along diverse lines on account of the indefinite possibilities for valuation afforded by man's universe. All specific valuations must appear more or less one-sided to an individual looking at them from a point of view outside the process which has produced them, and yet they may be legitimate constructs, since no valuation can include the entire order of existence. But, just as some animal forms have constructed types of life which prove in various ways to be superior to other forms which have had relatively the same natural environment, so it is possible that the evolution of values has been more successful in some directions than in others. The Todas, with their `dairy religion,' the Australians, with their peculiar religio-magical rites, the Melanesians, with their customs largely adjusted so that they may obtain and utilize the mysterious force, mana,—all afford interesting illustration of the momentum which particular types of valuation may acquire in one or another direction. A striking case is presented by some of the North American Indians whose burial ceremonies required the destruction of a certain amount of personal property. These customs gradually increased to such an extent that the tribes in question were rapidly approaching a condition of abject poverty when the `whites' interposed and checked the development of the ruinous practices, which seem to have gotten entirely beyond the control of the Indians.' All these cases represent diverse methods of reacting to and of expressing certain appreciations of worth which, when once differentiated, acquire a force of their own which carries each forward almost irresistibly in its own peculiar direction. In this same way a particular type of religious consciousness was gradually developed by the later Hebrews, of which certain aspects have continued to unfold in connection with Christianity. In this way arises a sort of continuum of religious valuations and concepts which has some of the attributes of an independent existence capable, from tone generation to another, of casting men's ideas into a particular mould and of organizing within them fairly constant types of valuational attitudes.

Thus there are diverse strains of religious as well as of general social evolution. Each of them has its peculiar merit (or demerit, some might say), because each is the expression of a particular outlook upon life, and no such single outlook can, as we have already said, be entirely inclusive of all the possibilities afforded by the universe. Some of these strains of religious development seem to have more momentum, and to be more inclusive than others, but in every case there is the particular `direction of movement' which each has acquired and which is always more or less organic with the social life of the people concerned.

There are two points regarding the evolution of such a religious strain which should be kept in mind. The first, the method of its transmission from one generation to an-other; the second, the means of its further elaboration, or development. To the method of transmission we have already made reference.' It is in a large measure dependent upon the maintenance of certain objective conditions which stimulate in each new generation particular types of organized activity, and thus serve to keep alive fairly constant types of mental states. To be sure, in connection with this handing down of certain customs there is also a more or less definite transmission of a conceptual framework which depends for its meaning, in part, upon the underpinning of custom and ceremonial. The appearance of any given variety of the religious attitude in the individuals of succeeding generations is, then, accomplished largely by the method of social suggestion in all the manifold ways in which that may work.

As regards the means of elaboration, some account must always be taken of the development of the individual with a relatively separate and valid personality of his own. It has been shown that the primitive religious attitude is more or less objective, due to the fact that society, in its earlier stages, is organized so exclusively with reference to acute objective interests. Here the individual is not clearly differentiated from the group.' As a separate personality he has no validity; his religious interests, feelings, and concepts he shares with the rest of his tribe; purely personal desires and appreciations of worthfulness he can scarcely have, or, if he does have them, they are unstable and transient because they can find no place in the organized religion of his social milieu. As this subject comes up later in another connection,' we do not wish to go into details here. It is sufficient to say that with the development of the individual there is a corresponding development, both in intension and extension, of the religious attitude. Wherever the person acquires a status as an individual, in addition to his overt social relationships, it is, of course, inevitable that his various religious concepts and valuations, which before had significance only for group activity, will gain many new meanings. Out of the heightened sense of individuality will come new needs and new appreciations of worth. The relationship to the gods will become more and more personal. In countless ways his religious attitude will differentiate to correspond with his larger and more complex personality. The type of religion which thus evolves will not be radically different from the earlier group religion. It will be simply a highly specialized form of it in which the individual as such may find satisfaction for personal needs as he finds further opportunity for the exercise of his personality in the objective social life. The development of individuality enables the concepts and values built up so slowly and pain-fully in primitive society to unfold with more plasticity and with a certain independence of objective conditions.

The considerations we have above set forth are, we believe, fundamental to the proper understanding of the evolution of religion.



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