Popular Science Monthly/Volume 24/January 1884/Religious Retrospect and Prospect



UNLIKE the ordinary consciousness, the religious consciousness is concerned with that which lies beyond the sphere of sense. A brute thinks only of things which can be touched, seen, heard, tasted, etc.; and the like is true of the untaught child, the deaf-mute, and the lowest savage. But the developing man has thoughts about existences which he regards as usually inaudible, intangible, invisible; and yet which he regards as operative upon him. What suggests this notion of agencies transcending perception? How do these ideas concerning the supernatural evolve out of ideas concerning the natural? The transition can not be sudden; and an account of the genesis of religion must begin by describing the steps through which the transition takes place.

The ghost-theory exhibits these steps quite clearly. We are shown that the mental differentiation of invisible and intangible beings from visible and tangible beings progresses slowly and unobtrusively. In the fact that the other-self, supposed to wander in dreams, is believed to have actually done and seen whatever was dreamed, in the fact that the other-self when going away at death, but expected presently to return, is conceived as a double equally material with the original, we see that the supernatural agent in its primitive form diverges very little from the natural agent—is simply the original man with some added powers of going about secretly and doing good or evil. And the fact that, when the double of the dead man ceases to be dreamed about by those who knew him, his non-appearance in dreams is held to imply that he is finally dead, shows that these earliest supernatural agents have but a temporary existence: the first tendencies to a permanent consciousness of the supernatural prove abortive.

In many cases no higher degree of differentiation is reached. The ghost-population, recruited by deaths on the one side, but on the other side losing its members as they cease to be recollected and dreamed about, does not increase; and no individuals included in it come to be recognized through successive generations as established supernatural powers. Thus the Unkulunkulu, or old-old one, of the Zooloos, the father of the race, is regarded as finally or completely dead, and there is propitiation only of ghosts of more recent date. But where circumstances favor the continuance of sacrifices at graves, witnessed by members of each new generation who are told about the dead and transmit the tradition, there eventually arises the conception of a permanently-existing ghost or spirit. A more marked contrast in thought between supernatural beings and natural beings is thus established. There simultaneously results a great increase in the number of these supposed supernatural beings, since the aggregate of them is now continually added to; and there is a strengthening tendency to think of them as everywhere around, and as causing all unusual occurrences.

Differences among the ascribed powers of ghosts soon arise. They naturally follow from the observed differences among the powers of the living individuals. Hence it results that while the propitiations of ordinary ghosts are made only by their descendants, it comes occasionally to be thought prudent to propitiate also the ghosts of the more dreaded individuals, even though they have no claims of blood. Quite early there thus begin those grades of supernatural beings which eventually become so strongly marked.

Habitual wars, which more than all other causes initiate these first differentiations, go on to initiate further and more decided ones. For, with those compoundings of small social aggregates into greater ones, and recompounding of these into still greater, which war effects, there, of course, with the multiplying gradations of power among living men, arises the conception of multiplying gradations of power among their ghosts. Thus in course of time are formed the conceptions of the great ghosts or gods, the more numerous secondary ghosts, or demi-gods, and so on downward—a pantheon: there being still, however, no essential distinction of kind; as we see in the calling of ordinary ghosts manes-gods by the Romans and elohim by the Hebrews. Moreover, repeating as the other life in the other world does, the life in this world, in its needs, occupations, and social organization, there arises not only a differentiation of grades among supernatural beings in respect of their powers, but also in respect of their characters and kinds of activity. There come to be local gods, and gods reigning over this or that order of phenomena; there come to be good and evil spirits of various qualities; and where there has been by conquest a superposing of societies one upon another, each having its own system of ghost-derived beliefs, there results an involved combination of such beliefs, constituting a mythology.

Of course, ghosts primarily being doubles like the originals in all things, and gods (when not the living members of a conquering race) being doubles of the more powerful men, it results that they, too, are originally no less human than ordinary ghosts in their physical characters, their passions, and their intelligences. Like the doubles of the ordinary dead, they are supposed to consume the flesh, blood, bread, wine, given to them: at first literally, and later in a more spiritual way by consuming the essences of them. They not only appear as visible and tangible persons, but they enter into conflicts with men, are wounded, suffer pain: the sole distinction being that they have miraculous powers of healing and consequent immortality. Here, indeed, there needs a qualification; for not only do various peoples hold that the gods die a first death (as naturally happens where they are the members of a conquering race, called gods because of their superiority), but, as in the case of Pan, it is supposed, even among the cultured, that there is a second and final death of a god, like that second and final death of a ghost supposed among existing savages. With advancing civilization the divergence of the supernatural being from the natural being becomes more decided. There is nothing to check the gradual dematerialization of the ghost and of the god; and this dematerialization is insensibly furthered in the effort to reach consistent ideas of supernatural action: the god ceases to be tangible, and later he ceases to be visible or audible. Along with this differentiation of physical attributes from those of humanity there goes on more slowly the differentiation of mental attributes. The god of the savage, represented as having intelligence scarcely if at all greater than that of the living man, is deluded with ease. Even the gods of the semi-civilized are deceived, make mistakes, repent of their plans; and only in course of time does there arise the conception of unlimited vision and universal knowledge. The emotional nature simultaneously undergoes a parallel transformation. The grosser passions, originally conspicuous and carefully ministered to by devotees, gradually fade, leaving only the passions less related to corporal satisfactions; and eventually these, too, become partially dehumanized.

These ascribed characters of deities are continually adapted and readapted to the needs of the social state. During the militant phase of activity, the chief god is conceived as holding insubordination the greatest crime, as implacable in anger, as merciless in punishment; and any alleged attributes of a milder kind occupy but small space in the social consciousness. But, where militancy declines and the harsh despotic form of government appropriate to it is gradually qualified by the form appropriate to industrialism, the foreground of the religious consciousness is increasingly filled with those ascribed traits of the divine nature which are congruous with the ethics of peace: divine love, divine forgiveness, divine mercy, are now the characteristics enlarged upon.

To perceive clearly the effects of mental progress and changing social life, thus stated in the abstract, we must glance at them in the concrete. If, without foregone conclusions, we contemplate the traditions, records, and monuments, of the Egyptians, we see that out of their primitive ideas of gods, brute or human, there were evolved spiritualized ideas of gods, and finally of a god; until the priesthoods of later times, repudiating the earlier ideas, described them as corruptions: being swayed by the universal tendency to regard the first state as the highest—a tendency traceable down to the theories of existing theologians and mythologists. Again, if, putting aside speculations, and not asking what historical value the "Iliad" may have, we take it simply as indicating the early Greek notion of Zeus, and compare this with the notion contained in the Platonic dialogues, we see that Greek civilization had greatly modified (in the better minds, at least) the purely anthropomorphic conception of him: the lower human attributes being dropped and the higher ones transfigured. Similarly, if we contrast the Hebrew God described in primitive traditions, man-like in appearance, appetites, and emotions, with the Hebrew God as characterized by the prophets, there is shown a widening range of power along with a nature increasingly remote from that of man. And, on passing to the conceptions of him which are now entertained, we are made aware of an extreme transfiguration. By a convenient obliviousness, a deity who in early times is represented as hardening men's hearts so that they may commit punishable acts, and as employing a lying spirit to deceive them, comes to be mostly thought of as an embodiment of virtues transcending the highest we can imagine.

Thus, recognizing the fact that in the primitive human mind there exists neither religious idea nor religious sentiment, we find that, in the course of social evolution and the evolution of intelligence accompanying it, there are generated both the ideas and sentiments which we distinguish as religious, and that, through a process of causation clearly traceable, they traverse those stages which have brought them, among civilized races, to their present forms.

And now what may we infer will be the evolution of religious ideas and sentiments throughout the future? On the one hand, it is irrational to suppose that the changes which have brought the religious consciousness to its present form will suddenly cease. On the other hand, it is irrational to suppose that the religious consciousness, naturally generated as we have seen, will disappear and leave an unfilled gap. Manifestly it must undergo further changes; and, however much changed, it must continue to exist. What, then, are the transformations to be expected? If we reduce the process above delineated to its lowest terms, we shall see our way to an answer.

As pointed out in "First Principles," §96, Evolution is throughout its course habitually modified by that Dissolution which eventually undoes it: the changes which become manifest being usually but the differential results of opposing tendencies toward integration and disintegration. Rightly to understand the genesis and decay of religious systems, and the probable future of those now existing, we must take this truth into account. During those earlier changes by which there is created a hierarchy of gods, demi-gods, manes-gods, and spirits of various kinds and ranks, Evolution goes on with but little qualification. The consolidated mythology produced, while growing in the mass of supernatural beings composing it, assumes increased definiteness in the arrangement of its parts and the attributes of its members. But the antagonist Dissolution eventually gains predominance. The spreading recognition of natural causation conflicts with this mythological evolution, and insensibly weakens those of its beliefs which are most at variance with advancing knowledge. Demons and the secondary divinities presiding over divisions of Nature become less thought of as the phenomena ascribed to them are more commonly observed to follow a constant order, and hence these minor components of the mythology slowly dissolve away. At the same time, with growing supremacy of the great god heading the hierarchy, there goes increasing ascription to him of actions which were before distributed among numerous supernatural beings: there is integration of power. While in proportion as there arises the consequent conception of an omnipotent and omnipresent deity, there is a gradual fading of his alleged human attributes: dissolution begins to affect the supreme personality in respect of ascribed form and nature.

Already, as we have seen, this process has in the more advanced societies, and especially among their higher members, gone to the extent of merging all minor supernatural powers in one supernatural power; and already this one supernatural power has, by what Mr. Fiske aptly calls deanthropomorphization, lost the grosser attributes of humanity. If things hereafter are to follow the same general course as heretofore, we must infer that this dropping of human attributes will continue. Let us ask what positive changes are hence to be expected.

Two factors must unite in producing them. There is the development of those higher sentiments which no longer tolerate the ascription of inferior sentiments to a divinity; and there is the intellectual development which causes dissatisfaction with the crude interpretations previously accepted. Of course, in pointing out the effects of these factors, I must name some which are familiar; but it is needful to glance at these along with others.

The cruelty of a Feejeean god, who, represented as devouring the souls of the dead, may be supposed to inflict torture during the process, is small compared with the cruelty of a god who condemns men to tortures which are eternal; and the ascription of this cruelty, though habitual in ecclesiastical formulas, occasionally occurring in sermons, and still sometimes pictorially illustrated, is becoming so intolerable to the better-natured that, while some theologians distinctly deny it, others quietly drop it out of their teachings. Clearly, this change can not cease until the beliefs in hell and damnation disappear. Disappearance of them will be aided by an increasing repugnance to injustice. The visiting on Adam's descendants, through hundreds of generations, dreadful penalties for a small transgression which they did not commit; the damning of all men who do not avail themselves of an alleged mode of obtaining forgiveness, which most men have never heard of; and the effecting a reconciliation by sacrifice of one who was perfectly innocent—are modes of action which, ascribed to a human ruler, would call forth expressions of abhorrence; and the ascription of them to the Ultimate Cause of things, even now felt to be full of difficulties, must become impossible. So, too, must die out the belief that a Power present in innumerable worlds throughout infinite space, and who during millions of years of the earth's earlier existence needed no honoring by its inhabitants, should be seized with a craving for praise, and, having created mankind, should be angry with them if they do not perpetually tell him how great he is. Men will by-and-by refuse to imply a trait of character which is the reverse of worshipful.

Similarly with the logical incongruities more and more conspicuous to growing intelligence. Passing over the familiar difficulties that sundry of the implied divine traits are in contradiction with the divine attributes otherwise ascribed—that a god who repents of what he has done must be lacking either in power or in foresight; that his anger presupposes an occurrence which has been contrary to intention, and so indicates defect of means—we come to the deeper difficulty that such emotions, in common with all emotions, can exist only in a consciousness which is limited. Every emotion has its antecedent ideas, and antecedent ideas are habitually supposed to occur in God: he is represented as seeing and hearing this or the other, and as being emotionally affected thereby. That is to say, the conception of a divinity possessing these traits of character necessarily continues anthropomorphic; not only in the sense that the emotions ascribed are like those of human beings, but also in the sense that they form parts of a consciousness which, like the human consciousness, is formed of successive states. And such a conception of the divine consciousness is irreconcilable both with the unchangeableness otherwise alleged and with the omniscience otherwise alleged. For a consciousness constituted of ideas and feelings caused by objects and occurrences can not be simultaneously occupied with all objects and all occurrences throughout the universe. To believe in a divine consciousness, men must refrain from thinking what is meant by consciousness—must stop short with verbal propositions; and propositions which they are debarred from rendering into thoughts will more and more fail to satisfy them. Of course, like difficulties present themselves when the will of God is spoken of. So long as we refrain from giving a definite meaning to the word will, we may say that it is possessed by the Cause of All Things, as readily as we may say that love of approbation is possessed by a circle; but, when from the words we pass to the thoughts they stand for, we find that we can no more unite in consciousness the terms of the one proposition than we can those of the other. Whoever conceives any other will than his own must do so in terms of his own will, which is the sole will directly known to him—all other wills being only inferred. But will, as each is conscious of it, presupposes a motive—a prompting desire of some kind: absolute indifference excludes the conception of will. Moreover, will, as implying a prompting desire, connotes some end contemplated as one to be achieved, and ceases with the achievement of it: some other will, referring so some other end, taking its place. That is to say, will, like emotion, necessarily supposes a series of states of consciousness. The conception of a divine will, derived from that of the human will, involves, like it, localization in space and time: the willing of each end, excluding from consciousness for an interval the willing of other ends, and therefore being inconsistent with that omnipresent activity which simultaneously works out an infinity of ends. It is the same with the ascription of intelligence. Not to dwell on the seriality and limitation implied as before, we may note that intelligence, as alone conceivable by us, presupposes existences independent of it and objective to it. It is carried on in terms of changes primarily wrought by alien activities—the impressions generated by things beyond consciousness, and the ideas derived from such impressions. To speak of an intelligence which exists in the absence of all such alien activities is to use a meaningless word. If, to the corollary that the First Cause, considered as intelligent, must be continually affected by independent objective activities, it is replied that these have become such by act of creation, and were previously included in the First Cause, then the reply is that in such case the First Cause could, before this creation, have had nothing to generate in it such changes as those constituting what we call intelligence, and must therefore have been unintelligent at the time when intelligence was most called for. Hence it is clear that the intelligence ascribed answers in no respect to that which we know by the name. It is intelligence out of which all the characters constituting it have vanished.

These and other difficulties, some of which are often discussed but never disposed of, must force men hereafter to drop the higher anthropomorphic characters given to the First Cause, as they have long since dropped the lower. The conception which has been enlarging from the beginning must go on enlarging, until, by disappearance of its limits, it becomes a consciousness which transcends the forms of distinct thought, though it forever remains a consciousness.

"But how can such a final consciousness of the Unknowable, thus tacitly alleged to be true, be reached by successive modifications of a conception which was utterly untrue? The ghost-theory of the savage is baseless. The material double of a dead man in which he believes never had any existence. And if by gradual dematerialization of this double was produced the conception of the supernatural agent in general—if the conception of a deity, formed by the dropping of some human attributes and transfiguration of others, resulted from continuance of this process is not the developed and purified conception reached by pushing the process to its limit a fiction also? Surely, if the primitive belief was absolutely false, all derived beliefs must be absolutely false."

This objection looks fatal; and it would be fatal were its premise valid. Unexpected as it will be to most readers, the answer here to be made is that at the outset a germ of truth was contained in the primitive conception—the truth, namely, that the power which manifests itself in consciousness is but a differently-conditioned form of the power which manifests itself beyond consciousness.

Every voluntary act yields to the primitive man proof of a source of energy within him. Not that he thinks about his internal experiences; but in these experiences this notion lies latent. When producing motion in his limbs, and through them motion in other things, he is aware of the accompanying feeling of effort. And this sense of effort which is the antecedent of changes directly produced by him becomes the conceived antecedent of changes not produced by him—furnishes him with a term of thought by which to represent the genesis of these objective changes. At first this idea of muscular force as anteceding unusual events around him carries with it the whole assemblage of associated ideas. He thinks of the implied effort as an effort exercised by a being wholly like himself. In course of time these doubles of the dead, supposed to be workers of all but the most familiar changes, are modified in conception. Besides becoming less grossly material, some of them are developed into larger personalities presiding over classes of phenomena which, being comparatively regular in their order, foster the idea of beings who, while far more powerful than men, are less variable in their modes of action. So that the idea of force as exercised by such beings comes to be less associated with the idea of a human ghost. Further advances, by which minor supernatural agents become merged in one general agent, and by which the personality of this general agent is rendered vague while becoming widely extended, tend still further to dissociate the notion of objective force from the force known as such in consciousness; and the dissociation reaches its extreme in the thoughts of the man of science, who interprets in terms of force not only the visible changes of sensible bodies, but all physical changes whatever, even up to the undulations of the ethereal medium. Nevertheless, this force (be it force under that statical form by which matter resists, or under that dynamical form distinguished as energy) is to the last thought of in terms of that internal energy which he is conscious of as muscular effort. He is compelled to symbolize objective force in terms of subjective force, from lack of any other symbol.

See now the implications. That internal energy which in the experiences of the primitive man was always the immediate antecedent of changes wrought by him—that energy which, when interpreting external changes, he thought of along with those attributes of a human personality connected with it in himself—is the same energy which, freed from anthropomorphic accompaniments, is now figured as the cause of all external phenomena. The last stage reached is recognition of the truth that force as it exists beyond consciousness can not be like what we know as force within consciousness; and that yet, as either is capable of generating the other, they must be different modes of the same. Consequently, the final outcome of that speculation commenced by the primitive man is, that the Power manifested throughout the universe distinguished as material is the same Power which in ourselves wells up under the form of consciousness.

It is untrue, then, that the foregoing argument proposes to evolve a true belief from a belief which was wholly false. Contrariwise, the ultimate form of the religious consciousness is the final development of a consciousness which at the outset contained a germ of truth obscured by multitudinous errors.

Those who think that science is dissipating religious beliefs and sentiments seem unaware that whatever of mystery is taken from the old interpretation is added to the new. Or, rather, we may say that transference from the one to the other is accompanied by increase; since, for an explanation which has a seeming feasibility, it substitutes an explanation which, carrying us back only a certain distance, there leaves us in presence of the avowedly inexplicable.

Under one of its aspects scientific progress is a gradual transfiguration of Nature. Where ordinary perception saw perfect simplicity it reveals great complexity; where there seemed absolute inertness it discloses intense activity; and in what appears mere vacancy it finds a marvelous play of forces. Each generation of physicists discovers, in so-called "brute matter," powers which, but a few years before, the most instructed physicists would have thought incredible; as instance the ability of a mere iron plate to take up the complicated aerial vibrations produced by articulate speech, which, all translated into multitudinous and varied electric pulses, are retranslated a thousand miles off by another iron plate and again heard as articulate speech. When the explorer of Nature sees that, quiescent as they appear, surrounding solid bodies are thus sensitive to forces which are infinitesimal in their amounts—when the spectroscope proves to him that molecules on the earth pulsate in harmony with molecules in the stars—when there is forced on him the inference that every point in space thrills with an infinity of vibrations passing through it in all directions—the conception to which he tends is much less that of a universe of dead matter than that of a universe everywhere alive: alive, if not in the restricted sense, still in a general sense.

This transfiguration, which the inquiries of physicists continually increase, is aided by that other transfiguration resulting from metaphysical inquiries. Subjective analysis compels us to admit that our scientific interpretations of the phenomena which objects present are expressed in terms of our own variously-combined sensations and ideas—are expressed, that is, in elements belonging to consciousness, which are but symbols of the something beyond consciousness. Though analysis afterward reinstates our primitive beliefs, to the extent of showing that behind every group of phenomenal manifestations there is always a nexus, which is the reality that remains fixed amid appearances which are variable, yet we are shown that this nexus of reality is forever inaccessible to consciousness. And when, once more, we remember that the activities constituting consciousness, being rigorously bounded, can not bring in among themselves the activities beyond the bounds, which therefore seem unconscious, though production of either by the other seems to imply that they are of the same essential nature, this necessity we are under to think of the external energy in terms of the internal energy gives rather a spiritualistic than a materialistic aspect to the universe; further thought, however, obliging us to recognize the truth that a conception given in phenomenal manifestations of this ultimate energy can in no wise show us what it is.

While the beliefs to which analytic science thus leads are such as do not destroy the object-matter of religion, but simply transfigure it, science under its concrete forms enlarges the sphere for religious sentiment. From the very beginning the progress of knowledge has been accompanied by an increasing capacity for wonder. Among savages, the lowest are the least surprised when shown remarkable products of civilized art, astonishing the traveler by their indifference. And so little of the marvelous do they perceive in the grandest phenomena of Nature that any inquiries concerning them they regard as childish trifling. This contrast in mental attitude between the lowest human beings and the higher human beings around us is paralleled by the contrasts among the grades of these higher human beings themselves. It is not the rustic, nor the artisan, nor the trader, who sees something more than a mere matter of course in the hatching of a chick; but it is the biologist, who, pushing to the uttermost his analysis of vital phenomena, reaches his greatest perplexity when a speck of protoplasm under the microscope shows him life in its simplest form, and makes him feel that however he formulates its processes the actual play of forces remains unimaginable. Neither in the ordinary tourist nor in the deer-stalker climbing the mountains above him does a Highland glen rouse ideas beyond those of sport or of the picturesque; but it may, and often does, in the geologist. He, observing that the glacier-rounded rock he sits on has lost by weathering but half an inch of its surface since a time far more remote than the beginnings of human civilization, and then trying to conceive the slow denudation which has cut out the whole valley, has thoughts of time and of power to which they are strangers—thoughts which, already utterly inadequate to their objects, he feels to be still more futile on noting the contorted beds of gneiss around, which tell him of a time, immeasurably more remote, when far beneath the earth's surface they were in a half-melted state, and again tell him of a time, immensely exceeding this in remoteness, when their components were sand and mud on the shores of an ancient sea. Nor is it in the primitive peoples who supposed that the heavens rested on the mountain-tops, any more than in the modern inheritors of their cosmogony who repeat that "the heavens declare the glory of God," that we find the largest conceptions of the universe or the greatest amount of wonder excited by contemplation of it. Rather, it is in the astronomer, who sees in the sun a mass so vast that even into one of his spots our earth might be plunged without touching its edges; and who by every finer telescope is shown an increased multitude of such suns, many of them far larger.

Hereafter as heretofore, higher faculty and deeper insight will raise rather than lower this sentiment. At present the most powerful and most instructed intellect has neither the knowledge nor the capacity required for symbolizing in thought the totality of things. Occupied with one or other division of Nature, the man of science usually does not know enough of the other divisions even to rudely conceive the extent and complexity of their phenomena; and, supposing him to have adequate knowledge of each, yet he is unable to think of them as a whole. Wider and more complex intellect may hereafter help him to form a vague consciousness of them in their totality. We may say that just as an undeveloped musical faculty, able only to appreciate a simple melody, can not grasp the variously-entangled passages and harmonies of a symphony, which in the minds of composer and conductor are unified into involved musical effects awakening far greater feeling than is possible to the musically uncultured, so, by future more evolved intelligences, the course of things now apprehensible only in parts may be apprehensible all together, with an accompanying feeling as much beyond that of the present cultured man as his feeling is beyond that of the savage.

And this feeling is not likely to be decreased but increased by that analysis of knowledge which, while forcing him to agnosticism, yet continually prompts him to imagine some solution of the Great Enigma which he knows can not be solved. Especially must this be so when he remembers that the very notions, beginning and end, cause and purpose, are relative notions belonging to human thought, which are probably inapplicable to the ultimate reality transcending human thought, and when, though suspecting that explanation is a word without meaning when applied to this ultimate reality, he yet feels compelled to think there must be an explanation.

But, amid the mysteries which become the more mysterious the more they are thought about, there will remain the one absolute certainty, that he is ever in presence of an Infinite and Eternal Energy, from which all things proceed.

  1. This article will eventually form the closing chapter of "Ecclesiastical Institutions"—Part VI of "The Principles of Sociology." The statements concerning matters of fact in the first part of it are based on the contents of preceding chapters. Evidence for nearly all of them, however, may also be found in Part I of "The Principles of Sociology," already published.