Description: Religions posit a supernatural realm involving either an impersonal force or a personal god, with many combinations. The earliest forms of primitive religion involved ten common institutions. 

What is religion? How does it arise? Since no supernatural world exists, why is the phenomenon of religion so universal among men? Most atheists have probably asked themselves these questions at one time or another. This essay attempts to answer them.

The Nature of Religion

A religion is a system of beliefs and practices resting on two fundamental assumptions: (1) that events in the world are subject to supernatural power, and (2) that human needs can be satisfied by man's entering into relationships with such supernatural power. The fundamental belief in all religions, therefore, is the belief that a supernatural power exists capable of controlling natural events, and the fundamental practice in all religions is the attempt to influence this power. The power in question is called supernatural because it can, allegedly, be known and influenced by means other than those deriving from sense experience and reason.

Within this general framework, however, are two sharply differing ways of conceiving supernatural power. One way sees the power as an impersonal energy, a kind of supernatural electricity that can be manipulated and controlled by men, according to invariable laws. This manipulation is called magic, which is the art of compelling a supernatural power to do one's bidding.

These methods for manipulating supernatural power are learned by the magician, somehow, and then applied according to specific formulae, in the form of chanted incantations or scripted rituals. If these incantations and rituals are correctly performed, the desired results are inevitably achieved. If the results are not achieved, then something was wrong with the performance.

Sir Francis Bacon said that nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed. The magician believes that supernature, to be commanded, must be obeyed. Thus, magic shares with science the characteristic of seeking invariable laws; it departs from science with respect to the object of these laws—the supernatural world versus the natural world. Moreover, as described below, the basis for these magical laws is nothing but certain arbitrary beliefs handed down from generation to generation, not the observation, experiment, and reason that are the basis of learning scientific laws.

The pseudo-technology called magic, then, is the first way that man can relate to the supernatural world. The second way is the personal I-Thou relationship. Here, the supernatural power is conceived in terms of disembodied persons—gods, spirits, angels, demons. Man's relation to these is, in intention, an interpersonal one. For example, man often enters into interpersonal relations with the gods via prayer. More broadly, he begs them, cajoles them, loves them, hates them, is faithful to them, or is unfaithful to them. His attitude is that of a suppliant, whereas the magician's attitude toward the supernatural is that of an engineer. The disembodied persons of the supernatural world, in turn, relate to man in a personal way. The gods love him, hate him, choose him, reward him, punish him, and so on. Any number of models of interpersonal relationship may operate in this kind of religion. The gods may be regarded as friends or enemies, for instance. Or a political model may be used: God is a king and men are his subjects. Or a family model: God is the heavenly father and men his children. The best examples of a strongly personal religion are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The God of these religions is conceived as a person. He thinks, wills, watches, and evaluates; gives out commandments, rewards, and punishments; has mercy; seeks his lost sheep; and so on.

The impersonal and personal concepts of religion can be thought of as two ends of a spectrum. At one end is pure magic, nothing but impersonal force being collected, stored, routed, rerouted, and dispersed by the magician. At this same end, the magician is in total control, an engineer of the supernatural. An example would be a witch doctor curing a person or putting a curse on him.

At the other end of the spectrum is a religion in which the human being has no control, but a personal and absolutely omnipotent God decrees all things from moment to moment. Here, Islam is the perfect example. The word "Islam" means surrender, and the idea behind it is the total prostration of the individual before God's will. In between these two extremes, but toward the magic end of the spectrum, comes ancient Greek polytheism. For the Greeks, the gods were persons but persons in constant conflict with one another and limited in their action by the amount of divine power they could work up for a particular occasion.

Further over toward personal religion is Catholicism, where God is omnipotent but confers upon his priests the power to perform rites that "work," more or less automatically, when correctly and seriously performed. For instance, during the movie The Exorcist, the bed containing the possessed girl was suspended in the air, while the priest, with sweat rolling down his face and a crucifix in his hand, kept repeating, “By the power of Christ, I compel you, by the power of Christ I compel you!” until finally the bed returned to the floor. That is an example of the mixture within a religion of the personal and the impersonal, of God-controlled power and man-controlled power.

More striking still was the case involving the traditionalist Archbishop Marcel-François Lefebvre. Lefebvre ordained, without the pope's permission, a number of priests who shared his own traditionalist views. The rite was performed correctly and the ordinations were therefore valid. Those ordained were true priests with supernatural powers, such as that of celebrating mass and changing the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. But the exercise of those priestly powers would be morally wrong and even sacrilegious, since they were bestowed in defiance of the pope. Here we have a religion in which moral and magical considerations are about equal.

The Institutions of Primitive Religion

Religion, as defined above, is universal, not in the sense that all men are religious but in the sense that religion has been present in and exerted a perceptible force over every society known to history. To find the origins of human religion, however, one must examine its presence in and power over prehistoric societies. But these, of course, can be studied only through archeological remains: stone instruments, pottery, cave paintings, and the like, all of which need to be interpreted. Among the most potent keys to interpreting prehistoric societies, anthropologists have decided, are the practices and beliefs (the "institutions") of the few surviving tribes whose ways of life resemble those of prehistoric cultures. Following this reasoning, one can isolate approximately ten religious institutions that are present in contemporary primitive cultures and were probably, therefore, man's earliest forms of religious belief and practice.

Here, there is room only to mention the institutions and give a slight characterization of their essential features.

1. Supernatural forces. Among the most fundamental of religious beliefs is the idea of a powerful supernatural energy that pervades nature, but apparently at different densities. This special force is generally held responsible for whatever cannot be explained by everyday forces, such as fire and wind. When the special force is encountered, it causes awe and anxiety. Nevertheless, as noted above, this force is subjected to fixed laws, which are at least partly known by men.

2. Magic. In virtue of his belief in law-bound, supernatural forces, primitive man practices magic, a kind of engineering devoted to the supernatural realm. According to Sir James Frazer, author of The Golden Bough, a great deal of magic-engineering is supposed to work according to a law of sympathy. This law holds that objects are able to act on each other at a distance through several kinds of "sympathy," and the magician can therefore create effects at a distance by employing the sympathy that exists between objects. A simple version would be the attempt to produce rain by beating on drums: the rumbling sound of the drums resembles, and therefore has a secret sympathy with, the rumbling sound of thunder.

3. Spirits. Primitive man grasps that his consciousness is not identical to his body. Therefore, when confronted by experiences such as dreams, he can imagine that his consciousness leaves his body and wanders through the world. Next, he reasons that if spirits may wander away from their bodies temporarily, they may also wander away permanently. Thus, among the spirits of the primitive's world are the souls of the dead. There may also be spirits that have never had bodies, and spirits that inhabit trees, brooks, and rocks.

4. Practices of worship and veneration. A belief in spirits gives rise to worship and veneration, just as a belief in supernatural force gives rise to magic. Worship means giving homage or honor to a personal spirit that is in some sense a superior. Occasionally, a person pays homage to a spirit because the spirit is more worthy than the worshipper, but occasionally the spirit is only more powerful. Thus, there may be nothing wrong in "worshipping" a demon with fear and loathing just to make him go away. Veneration is a reverential regard for a sacred personal power. Veneration of powerful animals such as lions is common among primitive people, who seek thereby to acquire some of the animal's strength.

5. Taboo. A taboo is a prohibition against contact with a person or thing and seems to represent a fear of supernatural energy. It does not necessarily coincide with a moral prohibition, which seeks to preserve some value, and in fact a taboo may stand in the way of fulfilling an ordinary moral injunction. A person who has broken a taboo must be ostracized, lest he infect the entire community. But the ostracism can be avoided through a purification rite, such as his taking a ritual bath, fasting, shaving his hair, covering his body with white paint, or passing through fire.

6. Sacrifice. Religious sacrifice is the giving up, by forfeiture or destruction, of some valued object, in order to cause it to pass from human possession to the possession of a supernatural power. Sacrifice can range from pouring a cup of wine on the ground to killing one's own children. The motive for sacrifice may be to prevent something bad from happening: a virgin may be thrown into a volcano to keep it from erupting. Or the motive for sacrifice may be to bring about a positive good. For example, a person may be sacrificed to ensure a good crop.

7. The cult of the dead All primitive people believe that some part of the human personality survives death, and this belief is attended by a mixture of wishes and fears, as well as by a wide variety of practices. Primitive beliefs about the fate of the human spirit after death fall into three categories. In the first, the spirit goes to a heaven where earthly joys and woes continue. In the second, the spirit is reborn, usually as another human. In the third, some weak image of the human personality lives on in a shadowy realm. In none of these versions, however, does the idea of reward and punishment play a role. In the primitive's version of heaven, for example, both good and evil warriors gain admittance to paradise. In the primitive's version of reincarnation, a person is reborn into the same status as he held in this life.

8. Totemism. Totemism is a system of beliefs and practices based on the assumption that there is a special relationship between a certain group of people and some type of animal, plant, or, occasionally, inanimate object. This special relationship turns the group of people into a clan, among whose members sexual relationships amount to incest. Among the clan members, too, eating of the totem is taboo, except on periodic occasions when the whole clan can make a sacramental, unifying meal of the totem.

9. Ritual. Ritual is a system of programmed words, bodily actions, and gestures, whether undertaken for the purposes of impersonal magic or personal worship and devotion. Rites of passage—rites marking birth, initiation into adulthood, marriage, and death—are among the most important rituals. Indeed, it is instructive to note that, even when the tribal form of society is broken up and replaced by urban society, a hunger for tribal ritual seems to linger on for generations.

10. Myth. In its original meaning, a myth could be true or false. It did not matter. The myth was simply a story that explained and justified something—a ritual, a custom, the origin of a tribe, the origin of the universe—without regard for truth. Out of myths have come great oral traditions; out of oral traditions have come scriptures; and out of the attempt to systematize scriptures and give them a semblance of rationality has come theology.

The Source of Religion

Now, one might ask, "How do people who believe in such religious institutions manage to function successfully in the world? In particular, how did primitive man manage to function successfully in the world, when life was so much more tenuous and magic was taken quite seriously?"

In the first place, it is clear that anyone who operated wholly on the basis of religion could not survive. Yet primitive man did survive, otherwise we would not be here. So, one may conclude that primitive man lived by ordinary methods of knowledge a good deal of the time. If he switched to magic every now and then, or even a lot of the time, he must have known when to switch. There must have been some signal in his life that told him it was time to switch.

Assuming for the moment the existence of an on-off switch for religion, the survival of primitive societies is not that mysterious. To begin with, primitive man has keen senses, and in many ways he is a far better observer of nature than civilized man. He can tell what animals have just passed through the woods, when the average American would not have a clue. So there is nothing wrong with the primitive man's powers of perception. Furthermore, primitive man can think abstractly. He can make elaborate calendars and calculators like Stonehenge. His systems of totem relations are so elaborate as to baffle cultural anthropologists. So there is nothing wrong with primitive man's conceptual ability, either.

From these powers of observation and thinking, primitive man can develop amazing arts and crafts that make it possible for him to survive under the most adverse conditions. Think of the enormous skill involved in setting out from the coast of southeast Asia in canoes and settling all of the Melanesian and Polynesian and Malayan islands, all the way from Easter Island to Madagascar. Such people must have been reality-oriented to a large extent, not mere dreamers.

Primitive man survives, then, by building up an enormous number of arts and skills and crafts based on everyday observation and rational thinking. When and why does he turn to the supernatural? No one really tackled this question before the great anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski did so, in about 1925. His conclusion:

In a maritime community depending on the products of the sea, there is never magic connected with the collecting of shellfish or with fishing so long as these are completely reliable. On the other hand, any dangerous, hazardous and uncertain type of fishing is surrounded by ritual. In hunting, the simple and reliable ways of trapping and killing are controlled by reason—by knowledge and skill—but let there be any danger or uncertainty connected with an important supply of game and magic immediately appears.

In short, primitive man recognizes two realms of activity. As Malinowski also wrote: "Coastal sailing as long as it's perfectly safe and easy commands no magic. Overseas expeditions are invariably bound up with ceremonies and ritual."

In the face of sudden changes of wind and current, too, the savage must admit that neither his knowledge nor his most painstaking efforts are a guarantee of success. Something unaccountable usually enters and baffles his anticipations. But although unaccountable it yet appears to have a deep meaning, to act and behave like a purpose. The sequence of events seems to contain some inner logical consistency. Man feels that he can do something to help and abet his luck.

At such times, he turns to religion. The element of chance or fortune in his circumstances fills him with what another anthropologist, George C. Homans, called "primary anxiety." Turning to ritual relieves the anxiety. But suppose he fears that the ritual has not been performed correctly? That gives rise to a secondary anxiety, and the upshot is an obsessional neurosis permeating the entire culture. Look at the Talmud, full of directions and exceptions and opinions of this and that authority on how to behave.

In sum, the on-off switch for primitive man's turn to religion is anxiety—specifically, anxiety brought on by his own lack of control. In this helpless condition, he returns to a psychologically infantile state in which he believes his needs will be met if he simply makes their existence known in a suitable fashion. The responsibility for meeting those needs will then pass to persons or forces more powerful than he. "Except ye ... become as little children ye shall not enter the kingdom of heaven," a famous authority once said. The same authority declared, "Take no thought, saying 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?'... for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you."

Thus, primitive man is not lacking in sense observation nor in reason but in philosophical development. His primitive philosophy (his religion) projects two realms: one containing elements and forces that he can control and one containing elements and forces that he cannot control. What happens in the second realm is due to the forces of some heavenly or malevolent kingdom and the outcome is called "providence."

Later on in his history, man acquired more and more control over nature and his own life. He learned that all of nature is one uniform system and that chance is not a metaphysical but an epistemological category. (At least, some men learned that.) As man's control and confidence advanced, religion retreated. But it still tends to come back whenever an individual's certainty and confidence wane, as they occasionally will. For some things escape a man's control: death is the most prominent of these, but disaster is another. Man remains finite in his knowledge. The most advanced physicist, the most sophisticated statistician or seismologist, cannot predict the moment when an earthquake may wipe out his institute and reduce him to a paraplegic. Facing these unavoidable slings and arrows is thus the supreme test of the individual's commitment to reason rather than religion.

George Walsh was emeritus professor of philosophy at Salisbury State University in Maryland. This article is adapted from the first chapter of his book The Role of Religion in History (Transaction Publishers, 1998).

This article was first published in IOS Journal Volume 7 Issue 2, June 1997 


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