The Origin of Religion

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By Professor Revilo P. Oliver
From The Origins of Christianity, Chapter 1

RELIGION, which we may define as a belief in the existence of praeter-human and supernatural beings, is a phenomenon limited to several human species, since it depends on rudimentary powers of reason and relatively developed powers of imagination. We may agree with Xenophanes that if oxen or horses or lions conceived of gods, each species would, like men, create its gods in its own image, but there is no slightest reason for supposing that mammals other than man have any conception of superior beings other than an instinctive recognition of predatory species that can prey on them and an instinctive suspicion of whatever is unfamiliar and may therefore be dangerous.

Anatole France, to be sure, identified dogs as religious animals, and he had a basis for doing so. A dog does venerate his master as a being with powers vastly superior to his own. He worships his god in his own way, seeking to conciliate his favor with propitiatory motions and caresses, learning to obey his wishes and whims, and even having a sense of sin when he knows that he has yielded to a temptation to do something that will displease his deity. A dog tries to appease his god’s anger, as men do, by humility and fawning and he will fight for his god, even at the risk of his own life. But we must not carry France’s analogy too far. The dog’s god is a living being, who normally feeds his canine worshipper, punishes him physically on occasion, and, if worthy of devotion, pets him affectionately. No dog ever worshipped a being that he could not see, hear, smell, and touch.

Eugène Marais, whose scientific investigations have at last been accorded the honor they long deserved, made observations of the highest importance for anthropological studies. He discovered that baboons collectively evince a degree of intelligence that, in certain respects, surpasses that of the apes that are usually classified as anthropoid, and, despite their lack of an articulated language, they may favorably be compared to the more primitive species that are classified as human. The chacmas whom Marais so patiently observed undoubtedly have rudimentary powers of reason, to which, indeed, they owe their survival in an environment that became overwhelmingly hostile when farmers and government undertook to exterminate them. In his articles for the general public, which were collected and translated under the title, My Friends, the Baboons (London, 1939), Marais describes a highly significant incident that occurred during his prolonged observation of a band of baboons that had, after long observation, come to accept him and his colleague as not hostile members of a species they justly feared. When many of the infant baboons were smitten by an epidemic malady, the elders of the band, its oligarchs, solicited human help and found a way to show that they believed or hoped that kindly members of our species, which, they knew by experience, had the power to inflict death miraculously with a rifle, also had the miraculous power to preserve from death beings they chose to protect. And at least one of the female baboons, mother of a dead infant, unmistakably believed or hoped that men had the power to resurrect the dead and restore them to life.

If the pathetic episode is reported correctly, the chacmas have something of the power of imagination that is requisite for religiosity. But we should not call them religious. They attributed to a mammalian species, which they knew to have powers incomprehensible to them, a power the species did not have. Baboons do fear night and darkness, but if they give a shape to what they fear, they probably think of it as a leopard. There is no evidence to suggest that they have even the most rudimentary notion of gods. No more can be said of some species of anthropoids that are classified as human because they have an articulate, though rudimentary, language. Anthropologists who had opportunities to observe those species before their native consciousness had been much corrupted by “missionaries” or by contact with higher races (which usually excites an almost simian imitativeness), report that the dim consciousness of those species, although possessing certain animal instincts and faculties that are weak or wanting in our race, is strictly animistic, attributing, so far as we can tell, the efficacy of a spear to some power inherent in the spear itself, and being unable to distinguish between animate and inanimate objects. The creatures live in a world of perpetual mystery, incapable of perceiving a relation between cause and effect. Scrupulous observation has shown that the Arunta and other tribes of Australoids, admittedly the lowest species that is classified as human, propagated themselves for at least fifty thousand years without even guessing that there might be some causal relationship between sexual intercourse and pregnancy. For aught we know to the contrary, baboons may have more native intelligence. Obviously, where nothing is either natural or supernatural, there can be no concept that could be called religious.

Such facts should make us chary of trying to reconstruct the unknown pre-history of our race from observation of the primitive races that have survived to our own time. They, like the primitive coelacanth, which has survived much longer, may represent the dead ends of an evolutionary process that can go no farther. The work of Frobenius, best known in the English translation entitled The Childhood of Man (London, 1909), encouraged, more by its title than its content, an assumption once generally held as a residue of Christian doctrine. When the dogma that all human beings were the progeny of Adam and his spare rib could no longer be maintained, it was, as happens with all cultural residues, modified as little as possible, and it was replaced with the notion of human descent from a single hypothetical ancestral family. Now,that Dr. Carleton Coon, in his Origin of Races (New York, 1962), has shown, as conclusively as the exiguous data permit, that the five primary races owe their diversity to the differences between the several pithecanthropoid species from which they respectively evolved, we can no longer assume that, for example, the Hottentots of today represent a stage of evolution through which our ancestors once passed. There is simply no evidence that our race was ever animistic; its religiosity may have appeared in minds of basically different quality.

We have no certain trace of our race before comparatively recent times. If we overrule some dissenting opinions and identify the Cro-Magnon people as Aryan, we have gone as far as we can into our past, and that, for most of our evidence, is less than twenty thousand years. We may think it likely that the Cro-Magnons had a religion, but we have no means of knowing what it was. The confident statements that one so commonly sees are conjectures, formed largely on inadmissible analogies with modern primitives, and based entirely on two kinds of evidence: burials and the cave-paintings that evince an artistic talent that makes the Cro-Magnons unique among the peoples of the world in their time.

We are frequently told that care for the dead and painstaking burials are evidence of some belief in an afterlife and, hence, in ghosts, but that is a guess. Burial may be no more than a manifestation of an instinctive respect or affection for the dead and an unwillingness to see his corpse devoured by beasts or becoming putrescent near the camp. When a man’s possessions are buried with him, there may indeed have been some notion (as is attested in Egypt, for example) that the equipment would be useful to him in a postmortem existence, but it is equally possible that some or many instances of this custom may indicate the emergence of a strong sense of private property: the spear or the beads or the golden drinking horn were the dead man’s, and no one should steal from him when he dies and can no longer defend his own.

In the celebrated cave-paintings, we see men who wear the heads and hides of animals, so we are told, on the basis of conjectural analogies, that the figures are shamans making magic for a successful hunt. But the very cave (“Trois-Frères” in Haute-Garonne) that contains the best-known depiction of such a “sorcerer” also contains a painting that shows a man who wears the head and hide of a reindeer while stalking a herd of those animals, and his disguise has an obviously practical purpose. The isolated figures in animal costume that seem to be dancing may be merely cavorting for the amusement of their fellows or, conceivably, exhibiting extravagant joy over luck in hunting.

In one cave (Willendorf) is found a small figurine, carved with noteworthy skill from the tusk of a mammoth, which depicts a very plump woman with an elaborate coiffure in an advanced stage of pregnancy, clearly not her first. Some wit satirically calls it a “Venus,” and we soon have our choice between several dissertations about fertility cults and the religion of which they were a part. The fact is that we do not know who carved the figurine or why. It does evince some interest in pregnancy – perhaps that of a husband who hopes for another offspring, perhaps that of a man who had a whim to carve something from a tusk.

We may, of course, form conjectures about the origin of religion. Statius was doubtless right: primus in orbe deos fecit timor. Early men did live in a world filled with terrors and dangers that they, no matter how natively intelligent, could not understand. Earthquakes are awesome, even when they are not destructive. Storms arise without perceptible causes; hurricanes and violent lightnings awaken atavistic fears in us, even if we, who know that they are merely natural phenomena, are in places of safety. The very seasons (especially in a time of climatic changes following the retreat of glaciers) seem mysterious at best, and even fearful when accompanied by prolonged rainfall, excessive snow, or desiccating drought. Even luck, that is, unexplained coincidences, makes some of our own contemporaries superstitious and, if adverse, may suggest the activity of mysteriously inimical forces. And, like the baboons, we instinctively dread darkness, which may conceal all the fearsome dangers that the imagination can conceive. Ignorance is terrible. So much is obvious.

We are reduced to precarious speculation, however, when we try to understand why our remote ancestors imagined that the incomprehensible phenomena amid which they had to live could be influenced by their own acts – that they could, for example, appease whatever caused storms or persuade whatever caused rain to end a drought. And was it because phenomena of which the cause is unknown seem capricious and thus like impulses and whims of men that they imagined that invisible beings, praeterhuman men, consciously produced the phenomena? Did many bands or tribes spontaneously and independently imagine supernatural beings as the causes of inexplicable phenomena, or did the notion first occur to some visionary individual, whose explanation was accepted and adopted ever more widely because no one could think of a better one? Or did adults transfer to the external world the sentiments excited when they were children and subject to whatever rewards or chastisements a parent chose to bestow or inflict? One may speculate endlessly why men began to attribute natural phenomena to supernatural persons. The only certainty is that they did, and whenever they did so, religion was born. It was an attempt to understand the world by identifying causes and classifying them, and crude as it seems to us, it evinces a more than animal intelligence.

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