The Making of Religion eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 351 pages of information about The Making of Religion.

[Footnote 40:  Prim.  Cult. ii. 345, 346.  Ellis, ii. 193.]

[Footnote 41:  Ellis, ii. 221.]

[Footnote 42:  The Faiths of The World, p. 413.]

XV

THE OLD DEGENERATION THEORY

If any partisan of the anthropological theory has read so far into this argument, he will often have murmured to himself, ’The old degeneration theory!’ On this Dr. Brinton remarked in 1868: 

’The supposition that in ancient times and in very unenlightened conditions, before mythology had grown, a monotheism prevailed which afterwards, at various times, was revived by reformers, is a belief that should have passed away when the delights of savage life and the praises of a state of nature ceased to be the theme of philosophers[1].’

‘The old degeneration theory’ practically, and fallaciously, resolved itself, as Mr. Tylor says, into two assumptions—­’first, that the history of culture began with the appearance on earth of a semi-civilised race of men; and second, that from this stage culture has proceeded in two ways—­backward to produce savages, and forward to produce civilised men[2].’  That hypothesis is false to all our knowledge of evolution.

The hypothesis here provisionally advocated makes no assumptions at all.  It is a positive fact that among some of the lowest savages there exists, not a doctrinal and abstract Monotheism, but a belief in a moral, powerful, kindly, creative Being, while this faith is found in juxtaposition with belief in unworshipped ghosts, totems, fetishes, and so on.  The powerful creative Being of savage belief sanctions truth, unselfishness, loyalty, chastity, and other virtues.  I have set forth the difficulties involved in the attempt to derive this Being from ghosts and other lower forms of belief.

Now, it is mere matter of fact, and not of assumption, that the Supreme Being of many rather higher savages differs from the Supreme Being of certain lower savages by the neglect in which he is left, by the epicurean repose with which he is credited, and by his comparative lack of moral control over human conduct.  In his place a mob of ghosts and spirits, supposed to be potent and helpful in everyday life, attract men’s regard and adoration, and get paid by sacrifice—­even by human sacrifice.

Turning to races yet higher in material culture, we find a crowd of hungry and cruel gods.

On this point Mr. Jevons remarks, in accordance with my own observation, that ’human sacrifice appears at a much earlier period in the rites for the dead than it does in the ritual of the gods.’[3] The dead chief needs servants and wives in Hades, who are offered to him.  The Australians have some elements of cannibalism, but do not, as a general rule, offer any human victims.  So far, then, ancestor-worship introduced a sadly ‘degenerate’ rite, compared with the moral faith in unfed gods.

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