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The development of religion; a study in anthropology and social psychology online

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the departed spirit, but before death the sick man is a problem
requiring the attention and skill of some individual. Or per-
haps the treating of sickness by magic originates in the fact
that it is supposed to be caused by magic, and hence must be

' Boas, op, cit. ' Spencer and Gillen, op. cit., p. 530.


counteracted by a similar force. But as the cause of sickness
we can detect the individual character of magic as opposed
to religion. The medicine-man who cures, on the other
hand, represents the tribe in its desire to keep itself intact
against the wiles of malicious individuals.

There is, we believe, no generalization concerning savage
practices which may be made with greater assurance than
this, that magic is relatively individualistic and secret in its
methods and interests, and is thus opposed fundamentally
to the methods and interests of religion, which are social and
public. This individualistic and secret character of magic
makes it easy for it to become the instrument of secret ven-
geance, as we have seen above. There is no primitive society,
as far as our accounts have gone, ^hich does not dread the
sorcerer. Everywhere there is a clear-cuL JisLincLion belVVt«n
the sorcerer, who deals secretly with unfamiliar agencies, and
the priest or medicine-man, who works for the public good.
In some cases the latter uses *good magic,' and in some
the recognized technique of religion, and it is difficult to sepa-
rate the one clearly from the other, as far as the attitude of
mind involved is concerned. Public magic is to all intents
and purposes organic with primitive religion. On the other
hand, when religion becomes subservient to anti-social or to
merely private ends, it is scarcely to be distinguished from
sorcery. Among the Tshi-speaking tribes of West Africa it
is possible for an individual to seek out some spirit and ally
himself with it, in the same way that a clan or village may
seek among the undomesticated spirits for a tutelary deity.
Such an individual spirit has one most important function:
to work, according to the will of its possessor, evil of all kinds
against the latter's enemies. When an individual resorts to
such a spirit, the request which he has to prefer is such as he
dare not make publicly to the clan god, the guardian of the


interests of the community and of tribal morality. Customs
such as these are scarcely to be distinguished from magic.
They have to do with the occasional interest, the private
grudge ; there is no abiding consciousness of value built up by
means of them, as in the case of religious rites where all join
together at stated intervals to celebrate matters of general
and abiding interest. This contrast is brought out in the
following from Nassau: * "In the great emergencies of life,
such as plagues, famines, deaths, funerals, and where witch-
craft and black art are suspected, the aid or intervention of
special fetiches is invoked. . . . But for the needs of life
day by day, with its routine of occupations whose outgoings
are known and expected, the Bantu fetich worshipper depends
upon himself and his regular fetich charms, which indeed
were made either at his request by a doctor, or by himself
on fetich rule obtained from a doctor. . . . The worshipper
keeps these amulets and mixed medicines hanging on the
wall of his room or hidden in one of his boxes. But he gives
them no regular reverence or worship, no sacrifice or prayer,
until such times as their services are needed. . . . These
needs come day by day" in "hunting, warring, trading,
lovemaking, fishing, planting, or journeying.'*

The reaction of the group against sorcery, or magic, seems
to be primarily the assertion of the consciousness of the
group, as expressed or organized in recognized customs,
against the individual who departs from known methods of
action and seeks to accomplish ends of his own by secret
means. It is the reaction of the familiar and public against
the unknown and private. In this opposition between magic
and religion, we have the beginnings of a conflict which has
continued up until our own day, that is, the conflict between
science and religion. Since religion is in large measure the

* Fetichism in West Africa, pp. 172, 173.



appreciation of values, a thing which is rendered possible only
through the formation of habits and associations about the
end or object valued, it must always possess more or less
inertia, more or less of a tendency to resist change or innova-
/ tion. Hence it instinctively looks with suspicion upon all
individual initiative, especially as this finds play in magic, or
later in genuine science.

The connection of magic with the mysterious is well illus-
trated by the tendency of all primitive peoples to attribute
magical powers to people with whom they have little inter-
course. Thus, the members of the lowest stratum of society
in India, i.e. the Dravidians, are regarded as magicians, par
excellence, by the higher classes.^ The Todas dread the sor-
cery of the Korumbas, a lower race, far more than that of
their own magicians.^ Among the Central Australians, dis-
tant and unfamiliar tribes are supposed to be experts in

In connection with the fact that magic has to do with the
private and mysterious as over against the social, it is of
some importance to note that the practiser of magic is usually
recognized as a peculiarly gifted individual, having through
his own effort or initiative these special powers. The mak-
ing of a medicine-man is, moreover, never a public function.
A man acquires such powers only through his own sub-
jective effort, or through the help of another medicine-man.
Thus, among the Central Australians the sorcerer may ac-
quire his powers either through the agency of some supposed
spirits, or through the help of others of the same craft. In
either case the process is a private and individual affair.

* Crooke, William, Popular Religion and Folklore of Northern India.
' Rivers, The Todas, p. 263.

' Spencer and Gillen, Vol. I, p. 541. Cf. also Tylor, E. B., Primitive
Culture, Vol. I, pp. 102 ff., for many similar illustrations.



When a man feels he is capable of becoming a sorcerer, he
ventures away from the camp quite alone, until he comes to
the mouth of the cave where the spirits dwell. The series
of strange experiences which follow need not be described
here. Suffice it to say that they are essentially like those
e6mmonly occurring among all savage peoples in similar

ysituations, and that they depend upon the psychic mechanism

^ of self-suggestion.

Among the Niger tribes, the education of the sorcerer is
again private and largely a subjective process. The novice
gains his power through one who is already possessed of the
magic potency. Having been instructed by the sorcerer in
the "mysteries of the Great Mother, the master of divina-
tion turns him out into the bush all by himself to the con-
templation of the mysteries which lie around him," and that
he may commune with his other self. The results of this
period of seclusion are of the same general nature as in the
case of the Australians. In this way the novice imagines he
comes into possession of special powers.*

Among the Todas the diviners and sorcerers are people
reputed to have unusual powers. In many cases the power
of divination is inherited from some near relative, but "any
one who showed the evidence of the necessary powers might
become a diviner." ^ The Toda sorcerers are said to belong
to special families, and each one probably communicates
his power to one or more of his sons. Here, then, again,
the phenomena of magic are such as pertain to the individ-
ual rather than to the influence of the group consciousness.
Among the Sakai of the Malay Peninsula, the magician had
peculiar power which had been bequeathed to him by his
ancestors. Through this power he was supposed to be able
to bring health or misfortune and disease upon his fellows.
* Leonard, op. cU, * Rivers, op. cit., p. 249.



In all these cases, and they are certainly representative,
there is the constant suggestion that the worker in magic deals
with some mysterious power, a power which is impersonal,
even though it be conferred by spirits. That there is some
connection, if'^rmt^o.n jd^miiy^'tiptwppn this power and that
of the * mystic potence ' referred to earlier in this chapter, and
discussed at length in another chapter, seems highly probable
to the present writer. Mayic. thep „ t^fis ^9 do with the, private
and sometimes nefarious use of this c osmir for^R, How this
same conception has played a part m the development of
religion we shall see in the chapter upon the development of
deistic ideas.

We have had repeated occasion to emphasize the impor-
tance of the social atmosphere in the development of reli-
gious ideas. It will be instructive, in concluding this chapter,
to note how it is through the lack of this social factor that
magic has developed many of its peculiar characteristics.
Certain means suggest themselves as available in a social
situation that would not in other situations come to conscious-
ness. This is easily conceivable when we reflect that the
means that do come to consciousness are always more or less
the result of association by contiguity. With primitive man
and with ourselves it is not the inherent connection of things
that is taken into account, but simply the elements of a situa-
tion that are commonly and prominently before the atten-
tion. Hence the particular development of a system of
mediation and control will depend largely upon the actual
elements in the situation in which it develops. Merely by
way of illustration, undoubtedly one of the important elements
in any primitive social structure is the system of ideas con-
nected with the ancestors of the group. The very social
consciousness tends to retain as a part of itself the members
who have passed away as well as the living. We are not, of




course, suggesting that religion originates in ancestor-worship,
but simply that the idea of ancestors is one of the elements
in social consciousness, and a very primitive one, too. No
better illustration of this can be found than the myths of the
Central Australians concerning the Alcheringa, to which we
have already referred. As we have seen, the Alcheringa^
without being really worshipped, are bound up with nearly
all the ceremonies. We have also seen how many of the
ceremonies of the Kwakiutl Indians originate in the adven-
tures of an ancestor, as also the Mountain Chant of the
Navaho. It is thus by no means theoretical that the cus-
toms of a tribe are involved with the idea of their ancestors,
whether these latter are worshipped or not. If it came
to be believed that they could exert an important rdle in the
mediation of tribal needs, the activities associated with them
would easily assume the form of worship, or would tend to
adapt themselves to the maintaining and keeping vital of the
bonds of fellowship between the past and present portions
of the group. As is well known, W. Robertson Smith has
shown that sacrifice among the Semites was such a practi-
cal expedient.^ Worship, with them, was a time of joyous
communion. The interests of the tribe and the means of
securing them would be inseparably connected with the
various expressions of the tribal life and consciousness.^
This connection of ancestors and spirits with mediating
activities is possible only in the case of those activities which
have developed within social groups, and the contrast here
with magic is significant. For magic there are no ancestors,
for there can be no definite consciousness of ancestors out-
side of a social group. For magic there would be only spirits,
and these could scarcely have the definite and abiding char-

» The Religion of the Semites, Lectures VII, VIII.
» Ihid,t p. 240 ff.


acter that is possessed by the spirit beings of reh'gion, since
they would lack the sustaining influence of a tribal conscious-
ness. Under these conditions it would be an easy matter
for sympathetic magic, as we know it, to develop, that is,
a form of magic involving no reference to spirits and de-
pending upon a supposed interrelation of things that are
associated by contiguity or similarity.

By general consent, in so far as magic deals with spirits at
all, it concerns itself with those which have no relation of
good-will to man, no stated relation of any kind, in fact, but
are simply wild and capricious. The distinction of gods and
wild spirits made in some later stages of culture is further
evidence of the connection of religion with the definite or-
ganization of a social bodjLaad of themore or less indi;\[ jrl j.ia l.j,
^nd npy^-'soclal character of p agic. The same author says ,
also : " A supernatural being as such is not a god ; he becomes ,
a god only when he enters into some stated relation with >
men, or rather with some community of men. In the be- i
lief of the heathen Arabs, for example, nature is full of liv-
ing beings of superhuman kind, the jinn, or demons. These
jinn are not pure spirits, but corporeal beings, more like
beasts than men. . . . Like wild beasts they have, for the
most part, no friendly or stated relations with men, but are
outside the pale of man's society, and frequent savage and
deserted places far from the wonted tread of men. . . .
The jinn are gods without worshippers, and a god who loses
his worshippers goes back to the class from which he came,
as a being of vague'and indefinite powers who, having no per-
sonal relations to men, is on the whole to be regarded as an
enemy. ... In fact, the earth may be said to be parcelled out
between demons and wild beasts on the one hand and gods j
and men on the other. To the former belong the untrodden '
wilderness with all its unknown perils, the wastes and jungles


that lie outside the familiar tracks and pasture-grounds of
the tribe, and which only the boldest men venture upon
without terror; to the latter belong the regions that man
knows and habitually frequents, and within which he has
established relations, not only with his human neighbors, but
with the supernatural beings that have their haunts side by
side with him." * We have quoted at length because the
point is so clearly expressed that religion is connected with
the familiar and the habitual, and this for primitive man is
largely synonymous with his social group. Beyond this is the
great world of the occasional and hence the mysterious. It
would be only the more daring, and hence the few, the indi-
viduals, who would have dealings with this outer world. The
contrast here drawn by Smith is, of course, based upon the
studies made by him in the beliefs and customs of the primi-
tive Semites. In the main we do not believe that the division
is as marked as here represented. Whether a people make
this definite separation between religion and magic probably
depends upon an intricate combination of circumstances.
The development of a strong tribal life, or definite tribal
feelings such as evidently belonged to the Semites, as seen, for
instance, in their sacrifices, which were originally communal
festivals, would be an important factor in such a distinction.
The point we have wished to make in this discussion is not
that religion is essentially social and magic essentially individ-
ual, but that the former develops most readily in the atmos-
phere of the group, and that the latter is relatively an in-
dividualistic affair. Magic is simply primitive man's science,
and there is nothing to hinder the tribe from availing it-
self of the scientific knowledge in the hands of its mem-
bers. Many social groups may and have adopted magical
practices. Magic furnishes the community with a technique
* Religion of the Semites^ pp. 112-114.


for doing many simple things. It is a postulate available for
many emergencies, and it is conceivable that it might stand
for an attitude of approach toward many possible difficul-
ties without its practice, in any formulated way, becoming a
part of social habit. '^As a postulate, it would lend itself to
each individual in the meeting of his own difficulties. We
can see that in multitudes of cases the difficulty would be
only occasional, and in many others it would interest only the
individual concerned. It is also easy to see that in a difficulty
of either of these kinds the initiative of the individual would be
largely called into play, if not in devising a new method, at
least in adapting the old device to the new situation. Magic
would thus be readily associated with the privaJje^ftdwaduaL/
and in tribes in which the power of custom was strong, this
particular aspect of magic, which, as we have reason to believe,
is the larger aspect of it, would be outlawed. In communities
of the opposite type, that is, those of loose organization, magic
might be so thoroughly taken up by the group as to be iiV/
distinguishable from religion. Many of the North American
Indian tribes illustrate this aspect of the development of
magic. This is particularly true of the Plains Indians.
Major Powell says, however, of the Indians in general:*
"The medicine-man is an important functionary among all
the tribes of North America, and medicine practices constitute
an important element in the daily life of the Indian tribe.
But medicine practices cannot be differentiated from religious
rites and observances. The doctor is priest and the priest
is doctor, the medicine-man is priest-doctor."

* Fifth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, p. xlvi.




The tracing of some sort of an evolution in religious beliefs
and practices has long been a favorite task with those engaged
in th e 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 cer-
tain criteria for determining the relative degree of organiza-
tion 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
^ '•Wt may subsist between different forms of primitive religion,
Sand hence may reveal something as to the nature of the evolu-
^ — ''^tionary series which it may be possible to trace in religious

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

* Chap. II, supra.


religions of different periods and stages of culture an embodi-
ment, in greater or less degree, of some concept such as mono-
theism, the meaning of which is predetermined by the inves-
tigator, 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, natu-
ralism, higher pantheism, henotheism, and ethical mono-
theism. All such schemes have a certain rough and ready
merit, but at their best they fail to take into account impor-
tant 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 reli-
gions then divide themselves into real religion and into super-
stition. They are significant in proportion as they reveal
some trace of this instinct, revelation, or whatever the pri-
mordial 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

' E.g. Max Miiller, Tide, Jastrow, and others ; also H. R. Marshall,
Instinct and Reason.

' For recent expositions of this point of view, cf. Nassau's Fetichism in West
Africa^ Chap. Ill, and Trumbull's The Blood Covenant.


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 unre-
lated 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 reli-
gion 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 sys-
tems, 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 pro-
cess 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 mem-
bers are more than likely to be imaginary. In this connec-
tion 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 appear-
ance 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 de-
scendants 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 appli-
cable 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

Online LibraryIrving KingThe development of religion; a study in anthropology and social psychology → online text (page 18 of 32)