The Primordial Faith
The Chukchee, a people indigenous to Siberia, had their own special way of dealing with unruly winds. A Chukchee man would chant, "Western Wind, look here! Look down on my buttocks. We are going to give you some fat. Cease blowing!" The nineteenth-century European visitor who reported this ritual described it as follows: "The man pronouncing the incantation lets his breeches fall down, and bucks leeward, exposing his bare buttocks to the wind. At every word he claps his hands."
By the end of the nineteenth century, European travelers had compiled many accounts of rituals in faraway and scarcely known lands. Some of these lands were inhabited by people known as savages—people whose technology didn't include writing or even agriculture. And some of their rituals seemed, like this one, strange.
Could a ritual like this be called religious? Some Europeans bridled at the thought, offended by the implied comparison between their elevated forms of worship and crude attempts to appease nature.
Maybe that's why Sir John Lubbock, a late-nineteenth-century British anthropologist, prefaced his discussion of "savage" religion with a warning. "It is impossible to discuss the subject without mentioning some things which are very repugnant to our feelings," he wrote in The Origin of Civilization and the Primitive Condition of Man. But he made his readers a promise. In exploring this "melancholy spectacle of gross superstitions and ferocious forms of worship," he would "endeavour to avoid, as far as possible, anything which might justly give pain to any of my readers."
One pain Lubbock spared his readers was the thought that their brains might have much in common with savage brains. "The whole mental condition of a savage is so different from ours, that it is often very difficult to follow what is passing in his mind, or to understand the motives by which he is influenced." Though savages do "have a reason, such as it is, for what they do and what they believe, their reasons often are very absurd." The savage evinces "extreme mental inferiority," and his mind, "like that of the child, is easily fatigued." Naturally, then, the savage's religious ideas are "not the result of deep thought."
So there was reassurance aplenty for Lubbock's readers: "Religion, as understood by the lower savage races," is not only different from civilized religion "but even opposite." Indeed, if we bestow the title "religion" on the coarse rituals and superstitious fears that observers of savage society have reported, then "we can no longer regard religion as peculiar to man." For the "baying of a dog to the moon is as much an act of worship as some ceremonies which have been so described by travellers."
Maybe it shouldn't surprise us that a well-educated British Christian would so disparage elements of "primitive religion." ("Primitive religion" denotes the religion of nonliterate peoples broadly, whether hunter-gatherer or agrarian.) After all, in primitive religion there is deep reverence for raw superstition. Obscure omens often govern decisions of war and peace. And the spirits of the dead may make mischief—or may, via the mediation of a shaman, offer counsel. In short, primitive religion is full of the stuff that was famously thrust aside when the monotheism carried out of Egypt by Moses displaced the paganism of Canaan.
But, actually, that displacement wasn't so clear-cut, and the proof is in the Bible itself, albeit parts of the Bible that aren't much read by modern believers. There you'll find Israel's first king, Saul, going incognito to a medium and asking her to raise the prophet Samuel from the grave for policy input. (Samuel isn't amused: "Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?") There you'll also find raw superstition. When the prophet Elisha, preparing King Joash for battle against the Arameans, tells him to strike the ground with some arrows, he is disappointed with the resulting three strikes: "You should have struck five or six times; then you would have struck down Aram until you had made an end of it, but now you will strike down Aram only three times."
Even the ultimate in Abrahamic theological refinement—monotheism itself—turns out to be a feature of the Bible that comes and goes. Though much of the scripture assumes the existence of only one God, some parts strike a different tone. The book of Genesis recalls the time when a bunch of male deities came down and had sex with attractive human females; these gods "went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them." (And not ordinary children: "These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.")
Here and elsewhere, the Hebrew Bible—the earliest scripture in the Abrahamic tradition, and in that sense the starting point for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—holds telling remnants of its ancestry. Apparently Abrahamic monotheism grew organically out of the "primitive" by a process more evolutionary than revolutionary.
This doesn't mean there's a line of cultural descent between the "primitive" religions on the anthropological record and the "modern" religions. It's not as if three or four millennia ago, people who had been talking to the wind while pulling their pants down started talking to God while kneeling. For all we know, the cultural ancestry of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam includes no tradition of talking to the wind at all, and certainly there's no reason to think that Chukchee religion is part of that ancestry—that back in the first or second millennium BCE, Chukchee culture in Siberia somehow influenced Middle Eastern culture.
Rather, the idea is that "primitive" religion broadly, as recorded by anthropologists and other visitors, can give us some idea of the ancestral milieu of modern religions. Through the happenstance of geographic isolation, cultures such as the Chukchee escaped the technological revolution—the advent of writing—that placed other parts of the world on the historical record and pushed them toward modernity. If these "primitive" cultures don't show us the particular prehistoric religions out of which the early recorded religions emerged, they at least give us a general picture. Though monotheistic prayer didn't grow out of Chukchee rituals or beliefs, maybe the logic of monotheistic prayer did grow out of a kind of belief the Chukchee held, the notion that forces of nature are animated by minds or spirits that you can influence through negotiation.
This, in fact, was the theory of one of John Lubbock's contemporaries, Edward Tylor, a hugely influential thinker who is sometimes called the founder of social anthropology. Tylor, an acquaintance and sometime critic of Lubbock's, believed that the primordial form of religion was "animism." Tylor's theory of animism was among scholars of his day the dominant explanation of how religion began. It "conquered the world at one blow," one early-twentieth-century anthropologist wrote.
Tylor's theory was grounded in a paradigm that pervaded anthropology in the late nineteenth century, then fell out of favor for many decades, and lately has made a comeback: cultural evolutionism. The idea is that human culture as broadly defined—art, politics, technology, religion, and so on—evolves in much the way biological species evolve: new cultural traits arise and may flourish or perish, and as a result whole institutions and belief systems form and change. A new religious ritual can appear and gain a following (if, say, it is deemed an effective wind neutralizer). New gods can be born and then grow. New ideas about gods can arise—like the idea that there's only one of them. Tylor's theory of animism aimed to explain how this idea, monotheism, had evolved out of primitive religion.
"Animism" is sometimes defined as the attribution of life to the inanimate—considering rivers and clouds and stars alive. This is part of what Tylor meant by the term, but not all. The primitive animist, in Tylor's scheme, saw living and nonliving things alike as inhabited by—animated by—a soul or spirit; rivers and clouds, birds and beasts, and people, too, had this "ghost-soul," this "vapour, film, or shadow," this "cause of life and thought in the individual it animates."
Tylor's theory rested on a more flattering view of the "primitive" mind than Lubbock held. (Tylor is credited with a doctrine that became a pillar of social anthropology—the "psychic unity of mankind," the idea that people of all races are basically the same, that there is a universal human nature.) He saw animism not as bizarrely inconsistent with modern thought, but as a natural early product of the same speculative curiosity that had led to modern thought. Animism had been the "infant philosophy of mankind," assembled by "ancient savage philosophers." It did what good theories are supposed to do: explain otherwise mysterious facts economically.
To begin with, the hypothesis that humans have a ghost-soul handily answers some questions that, in Tylor's view, must have occurred to early humans, such as: What is happening when you dream? Primitive societies use the notion of the human soul to solve this puzzle. In some cases the idea is that the dreamer's ghost-soul wanders during sleep, having the adventures the dreamer later recalls; decades after Tylor wrote, the anthropologist A. R. Radcliffe-Brown observed that Andaman Islanders were reluctant to awaken people, since illness might ensue if sleep was interrupted before the soul came home. In other cases, the idea is that the dreamer is being visited by the souls of others. In Fiji, Tylor noted, people's souls were thought to leave their bodies "to trouble other people in their sleep."
And the idea that the souls of dead people return to visit via dreams is widespread in primitive societies. Thus animism handles another enigma that confronted early human beings: death itself. Death, in this scenario, is what happens when the soul checks out of the body for good.
Once early humans had conceived the idea of the soul, Tylor said, extending it beyond our species was only logical. The savage couldn't help but "recognise in beasts the very characteristics which it attributes to the human soul, namely, the phenomena of life and death, will and judgement." And plants, "partaking with animals the phenomena of life and death, health and sickness, not unnaturally have some kind of soul ascribed to them."
For that matter, the idea that sticks and stones have souls is rational if viewed from the standpoint of "an uncultured tribe." After all, don't sticks and stones appear in dreams? Don't ghosts that we see while dreaming, or while delirious with fever, wear clothes or carry weapons? "How then can we charge the savage with far-fetched absurdity for taking into his philosophy and religion an opinion which rests on the very evidence of his senses?" Tylor may have had Lubbock in mind when he said of primitive peoples, "The very assertion that their actions are motiveless, and their opinions nonsense, is itself a theory, and, I hold, a profoundly false one, invented to account for all manner of things which those who did not understand them could thus easily explain."
Once a broadly animistic worldview had taken shape, Tylor believed, it started to evolve. At some point, for example, the notion of each tree having a spirit gave way to the notion of trees being collectively governed by "the god of the forest." This incipient polytheism then matured and eventually got streamlined into monotheism. In 1866, in an article in the Fortnightly Review, Tylor summed up the whole process in what may be the only one-sentence history of religion ever published—and may also be one of the longest sentences of any kind ever published:
Upwards from the simplest theory which attributes life and personality to animal, vegetable, and mineral alike—through that which gives to stone and plant and river guardian spirits which live among them and attend to their preservation, growth, and change—up to that which sees in each department of the world the protecting and fostering care of an appropriate divinity, and at last of one Supreme Being ordering and controlling the lower hierarchy—through all these gradations of opinion we may thus see fought out, in one stage after another, the long-waged contest between a theory of animation which accounts for each phenomenon of nature by giving it everywhere a life like our own, and a slowly-growing natural science which in one department after another substitutes for independent voluntary action the working out of systematic law.
There have been lots of them, actually. Tylor's theory hasn't kept the stature it once held. Some complain that it makes the evolution of gods sound like an exercise in pure reason, when in fact religion has been deeply shaped by many factors, ranging from politics to economics to the human emotional infrastructure. (One difference between modern cultural evolutionism and that of Tylor's day is the modern emphasis on the various ways that "memes"—rituals, beliefs, and other basic elements of culture—spread by appealing to nonrational parts of human nature.)
Still, in one broad sense Tylor's view holds up well today. However diverse the forces that shape religion, its early impetus indeed seems to have come largely from people who, like us, were trying to make sense of the world. But they didn't have the heritage of modern science to give them a head start, so they reached prescientific conclusions. Then, as understanding of the world grew—especially as it grew via science—religion evolved in reaction. Thus, Tylor wrote, does "an unbroken line of mental connexion" unite "the savage fetish-worshiper and the civilized Christian."
At this level of generality, Tylor's worldview has not just survived the scrutiny of modern scholarship, but drawn strength from it. Evolutionary psychology has shown that, bizarre as some "primitive" beliefs may sound—and bizarre as some "modern" religious beliefs may sound to atheists and agnostics—they are natural outgrowths of humanity, natural products of a brain built by natural selection to make sense of the world with a hodgepodge of tools whose collective output isn't wholly rational.
Elaboration on the modern understanding of how "primitive" religion first emerged from the human mind can be found in the appendix of this book. For now the main point is that, even if Tylor's animism-to-monotheism scenario looks deficient from a modern vantage point, there is still much in it that makes sense. In particular: to understand the early stages in the evolution of gods, and of God, we have to imagine how the world looked to people living many millennia ago, not just before science, but before writing or even agriculture; and there is no better aid to that thought experiment than immersing ourselves in the worldview of hunter-gatherer societies that have been observed by anthropologists—the world-view of "savages," as both Lubbock and Tylor would say.
Of course, it would be nice to observe literally prehistoric societies, the societies whose religion actually did evolve into the ancient religions on the historical record. But there can't be detailed records of beliefs that existed before writing; all that is left is the stuff archaeologists find—tools and trinkets and, here and there, a cave painting. If the vast blank left by humanity's preliterate phase is to be filled, it will have to be filled by the vast literature on observed hunter-gatherer societies.
Using hunter-gatherers as windows on the past has its limits. For example, the anthropological record contains no "pristine" hunter-gatherer cultures, cultures wholly uncorrupted by contact with more technologically advanced societies. After all, the process of observing a culture involves contact with it. Besides, many hunter-gatherer societies had been contacted by missionaries or explorers before anyone started documenting their religions.
Excerpted from The Evolution of God by Robert Wright. Copyright © 2010 Robert Wright. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.
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