Popular Science Monthly/Volume 48/December 1895/Sir John Lubbock and the Religion of Savages




THE question as to whether there are races or tribes on the earth entirely without a religion is one that demands on its threshold a definition of the word "religion." That it can not fairly be tied down to advanced forms of belief seems apparent, and hence the necessity of falling back on the original meaning of the word—i. e., that of binding fast the human mind to a sense of the obligation which it owes to supernatural powers. Civilization, education, may make this obligation clearer, and a professed revelation may bring before the mind the attributes of the powers to whom the obligation is felt to be due; but, as long as the obligation is mentally present and the force of the obligation fashions to any important extent not only personal but tribal conduct, so long in fairness we seem bound to acknowledge the religiousness of such persons or tribes, even though such religiousness may never create a theology, or a cut-and-dried system of doctrinal truths.

If this definition of religion be accepted, then it may boldly be asserted that, as far as is known, there is not a tribe on the face of the earth without a religion; indeed, it may be said that, of all human ideas that in any form influence the mind and conduct of man, there is no idea so widespread and influential as the religious idea. To us, living as we think in the light of reason or revelation, such religious ideas may appear unworthy of the name, but when we consider that the most indefinite belief may and indeed, as a rule, does lead a savage to fashion his conduct in accordance with what he believes to be the will of higher powers, as far as personal actions are concerned, he stands on exactly the same platform as the most devoted believer in natural or revealed religion.

In such cases, as far as the use of the word religion is concerned, it matters little what the mental idea of the higher power or powers believed in may be. That idea may center itself in a supreme God, or a Trinity of gods, or a multitude of gods, or in good and evil spirits, or in gods dwelling temporarily in common things, or in the spirits of dead ancestors or friends, but as long as any one of such powers demands and receives obedience, and as such obedience fashions life, the most indefinite spirit is practically as powerful as the most clearly defined god. And the same may be said with reference to forms or methods of worship. If the worship, whatever form it takes, is regarded as a necessity. or a privilege, or a charm, or a preservative against evil, or an engine of evil against others, it matters little as to whether it be rendered to God, or spirit, or goblin, or devil, because, whatever the worship is rendered to, the worshiper honestly feels he is in the presence of one whose power is needed to aid him in his life or work, and without whose help he can not be successful.

The chief contestant of universal religiousness has been, and is. Sir John Lubbock, although the force of circumstances has driven him of late to change his mode of presenting his contest. In the earlier editions of his Prehistoric Times he claims that "almost all the most savage races" are "entirely without a religion," "without idea of deity," and that the "almost universal testimony of travelers" supports this assertion. In his fifth edition (1890) he still claims that "almost all the savage races" are "entirely without a religion, without idea of deity," but he proceeds to define what religion is not. It is not "a mere fear of the unknown," it is not "a more or less vague belief in witchcraft," it is something "higher" than all this; and if this "higher estimate" of religion be adopted then his original assertion remains true, that "many, if not all, of the most savage races" are "entirely without a religion, without any idea of a deity." The object of this definition of the word religion is plain. Between the years 1869 and 1890 evidence as to the religiousness of savage tribes kept pouring in from all quarters of the world; the list of unbelieving savages made public by Sir John Lubbock in 1869 was seriously interfered with, and the position taken by Waitz, that "the religious element, so far from being absent from uncultured peoples, influences their whole conception of Nature," was powerfully substantiated. Then Sir John Lubbock repairs his damaged argument, Working with the implements of the most bigoted member of an old-fashioned missionary society. He defines religion as something spiritually "higher" than the belief of a Hottentot or Eskimo, and then repeats his assertion of 1869 that "all of the most savage races are entirely without" such "a religion."

Sir John Lubbock's method (pursued consistently through all editions) of adducing evidence in favor of his assertion as to the non-religiousness of savage tribes is palpably unreliable, as far as he professes to give the full intention of the authors quoted. Bates, Caillie, Ross, and others certainly say all that Sir John Lubbock quotes, but they say much more; and what is left unquoted often throws a totally different light on each quotation. He quotes Caillie as follows: "I tried to discover whether the Foulahs (of Wassoula, in central Africa) had any religion of their own; whether they worshiped fetiches, or the sun, moon, or stars; but I could never perceive any religious ceremony among them."[1] Here Sir John Lubbock plainly means to teach, on the authority of Caillie, that the Foulahs were not even fetich-worshipers; that they were positively without any religion of their own. But if he had read Caillie more carefully—read the context as well as the text—he would have discovered that the Foulahs and kindred tribes were idolaters; for that well-known explorer goes on to say: "Wassoula is a country inhabited by idolatrous Foulahs; they carry on little traffic, and never travel; their idolatry would indeed expose them to the most dreadful slavery if they did. . . . They have each several wives, like all other idolaters." It is plain that Caillie here makes a distinction between higher forms of worship and the grosser worship of images. He sought for the higher form of worship, and found no trace of it, but he evidently found the grosser form, or evidence of it. And it was this grosser form of idolatry that made it dangerous for the Foulahs to travel outside of their limits; for, if they had done so, they would have come into contact with Mohammedanism, pledged to the extirpation of idolatry, and in many countries to the enslavement of persistent idolaters.

The same lack of thoroughness in quotation is noticeable in Lubbock's treatment of the testimony of Bates as to the Brazilian Indians. He says, "According to Bates, 'none of the tribes on the upper Amazons have an idea of a Supreme Being, and consequently have no word to express it in their language." This quotation is perfectly correct, but it does not imply what Sir John Lubbock is seeking to prove—namely, that "almost all the savage tribes are entirely without a religion." It simply affirms that Brazilian Indians do not believe in a Supreme Being—an affirmation that might fairly be made with reference to many tribes whose beliefs are very apparent. But in no sense can Bates be quoted as a witness to the absence of religious belief among Brazilian Indians; his testimony runs in the opposite direction. "The mind of the Indian," he writes, "is in a very primitive condition. He has no idea of a Supreme Being, but at the same time he is free from revolting superstitions, his religious notions going no further than belief in an evil spirit, regarded merely as a kind of hobgoblin who is at the bottom of all his failures in fishing, hunting, and so forth."[2] In this testimony the word "hobgoblin" depreciates in our minds the character of this supernatural being, but few if any savages have such a word in their mental vocabulary. Few if any evil spirits worshiped by savages unite in them the clumsiness and trickery of a hobgoblin; their evil, awful spirits are terrors, entering into all aspects of life, filled with malignant purposes, and demanding constant worship to propitiate them. Thus the Indians of Carácas, in Venezuela, north of Brazil, while believing in good spirits, render all their worship and offer all their sacrifices to a great evil spirit, and do so because they feel that the good spirits are naturally friendly and do not require to be lured on to perform beneficent actions.

Sir John Lubbock's quotation from Ross as to the Eskimo is equally lacking in thoroughness. Here is his quotation in full: "Speaking of the Eskimo, Ross says: 'Ervick, being the senior of the first party that came on board, was judged to be the most proper person to question on the subject of religion, I directed Sacheuse to ask him if he had any knowledge of a Supreme Being; but, after trying every word used in his language to express it, he could not make him understand what he meant. It was distinctly ascertained that he did not worship the sun, moon, stars, or any image or living creature. When asked what the sun or moon was for, he said, to give light. He had no knowledge or idea how he came into being, or of a future state; but said that when he died he would be put into the ground. Having fully ascertained that he had no idea of a beneficent Supreme Being, I proceeded, through Sacheuse, to inquire if he believed in an evil spirit; but he could not be made to understand what it meant.". . ."He was positive that in this incantation he did not receive assistance from anything; nor could he be made to understand what a good or evil spirit meant.'"

This quotation, standing as it does alone, is unintentionally unfair to Ross, for Sir John Lubbock either did not notice, or has forgotten to quote, words used by Ross elsewhere with reference to the Eskimo, although such words are very important. He says: "Although there is no proof whatever that this people have any idea of a Supreme Being, or of a spirit, good or bad, the circumstance of their having conjurers, and of their going to the moon after death, are of a nature to prevent any conclusion from being drawn to that effect; especially as it must be evident that our knowledge of their language was too imperfect to obtain the whole of their ideas on the subject."[3]

It scarcely required these honest words of Ross, written, no doubt, to prevent mistakes being made, because in the quotation as given by Sir John Lubbock nothing can be clearer than the fact that Ervick did not understand the questions put to him. "I directed Sacheuse to ask him if had any knowledge of a Supreme Being, but after trying every word used in his own language to express it, he could not make him understand that he meant." "I proceeded, through Sacheuse, to inquire if he believed in an evil spirit; but he could not he made to understand what it meant. He could not be made to understand what a good or evil spirit meant." The probable fact of the matter was that Sacheuse could not speak the Eskimo dialect of those he was catechising. If he did not speak to them in "an unknown tongue," he certainly did in an unfamiliar tongue, the result being a general misunderstanding all round. If Sacheuse had been able to ask his listeners, "Do you believe in a benevolent Creator called 'Torngarsuk' or 'Anguta'?" it is most likely he would have received his answer in the shape of a definite affirmative.

"On Damood Island, between Australia and New Guinea," writes Sir John Lubbock, "Jukes could find no traces of any religious belief or observance."[4] This certainly is not to be wondered at, as he only spent part of a day there (March 21, 1845), and the effort at interchange of views was singularly weak, as the natives knew only a few words of English, and the English visitors knew nothing of the native language. The portion of the day spent on the island was taken up with bartering with the natives on the seashore, and during part of this time Captain Blackwood and Mr. Juices struck "off for a walk across the island," ill company with one of the natives. During this walk Jukes noticed a superior kind of house which he thought might have been a temple or a place for depositing the dead, or a chief's house, but "they could not make out which," for the simple reason that they could not communicate with their guide.

The case of the Aru Islanders is a striking instance of Sir John's method of quotation. Here are his words: "Mr. Wallace, who had excellent opportunities for judging, and whose merits as an observer no one can question, tells us that in the Aru Islands he could find no trace of a religion; adding, however, that he was but a short time among them."[5] Mr. Wallace, however, does not agree with Sir John Lubbock as to his "excellent opportunities for judging," for he says, "I could not get much real knowledge of the customs of the Aru people during the short time I was among them." The natives, he tells us, when in contact with foreign races were reserved and taciturn; and that as he could not speak the Aru language, and the natives had "an imperfect knowledge of Malay," he could not "make out very clearly" what at times they said. "I saw no signs of any religion" may mean that, in his rambles as a naturalist through the country about Wanumbai, he never came across anything like a temple or altar. Indeed, no one can read Mr. Wallace's singularly interesting book without noticing that he apparently made no well-sustained effort at religious investigation at Aru or anywhere else.

The following gives evidence of further carelessness in quoting: In writing of certain tribes in the country of Karaque in Africa, Sir John says, "Captain Grant could find no distinct form of religion in some of the comparatively civilized tribes visited by him."[6] What Captain Grant says is this: "We could not trace any distinct form of religion among this interesting race, but there were certain indications or traces of Jewish worship." Then Captain Grant tells us that the king had "many superstitions"; that he "combined in himself the offices of prophet, priest, and king"; that on the feast of the new moon he "assumed the priestly garb"; and that a younger brother of his "consulted daily with the gods," and was considered a greater prophet and priest than his royal brother.

"According to Burchell," writes Sir John, "the Bachapins (Kaffirs) had no form of worship or religion. They had no belief in a good deity, but some vague idea of an evil being."[7] One would glean from this quotation that the only approach to religious thought among the Bachapins consisted of a vague belief in an evil spirit, whereas Burchell distinctly states that they possessed a religion, although he believed they had no "form of worship" or "religion." What he says is this: "Their religion may be characterized as an inconsistent jumble of superstition and ignorance, among which no signs were to be discovered of its having ever been derived from any purer source, or that it was aught else than the offspring of barbarous and uncultivated minds." He then further states: "The superstition of the Bachapins—for it can not be called a religion (although he himself had called it so)—is of the weakest and most absurd kind. These people have no outward worship, nor, if one may judge from their never alluding to them, any private devotions; neither could it be discovered that they possessed any very defined or exalted notion of a supreme and beneficent deity, or of a great and first creator. Although they do not worship a good deity, they fear a bad one, whom they name Mooleemo, a word which my interpreter translated by the Dutch word for devil. They also believe in amulets as preservatives against evil, in lucky and unlucky omens, in witchcraft and sorcery."

Now, if language means anything, Burchell's testimony may be summed up thus: "The Bachapin Kaffirs possess a religion scarce worthy of the name, consisting of witchcraft and sorcery and the recognition of an evil spirit called Mooleemo. Their notions with regard to a supreme and beneficent deity, or of a great and first creator, are indefinite and degraded; they have no outward worship, and they never alluded to their offering private devotions." All this, however, implies a great deal more than Sir John's bare statement, "According to Burchell, the Bachapins (Kaffirs) had no form of religion and worship," etc.

"Some of the Australian tribes," writes Sir John, "are said to have no religion," and he gives as his authority for this statement a reference to Collins.[8] Sir John does not quote literally from Collins; he sums up his testimony, but his mode of doing so is scarcely satisfactory. For Collins, while stating that the Australians worshiped neither sun, moon, nor stars, or any object, admits that those he came in contact with had "some idea of a future life"; that the greater number of them believed that after death they "went to the clouds." Conversing with Ben-nil-long as to where the black men came from, his answer was, "They came from the clouds, and when they died they returned to the clouds—Boo-row-e," and he endeavored to make Collins understand that when the black men died "they ascended as little children." Collins further states that these Australians have ideas of the distinction between good and bad, and of right and wrong, but their knowledge of the difference between right and wrong never extended beyond their existence in this world, and their ideas about the future state had no influence on their lives and actions—an assertion that might, unfortunately, be truthfully made in connection with the religious views of many professing Christians.

In dealing with the lake tribes of Central Africa Sir John gives Burton as his authority for stating that some of them "admit neither God, nor angel, nor devil." His words are: "Burton also states that some of the tribes in the lake districts of Central Africa 'admit neither God, nor angel, nor devil.'"[9] This quotation is very meager, and its meagerness is scarcely just toward Burton. Burton is describing fetichism, which he says "admits neither God, nor angel, nor devil."—a statement certainly open to argument—and then he proceeds as follows: "Fetichism," he writes, "is the adoration, or rather the propitiation, of natural objects, animate or inanimate—to which certain mysterious influences are attributed. Though instinctively conscious of a Being beyond them, of a first cause to every effect subject to their senses, the Africans have as yet failed to grasp the idea, in their feeble minds it is an embryo rather than an object, at the best a vague god, without personality, attributes, or providence. They call that being Mulungu—the Ahlunga of the Kaffirs, and the Utita of the Hottentots. The term, however, may mean a ghost, the firmament, or the sun."

Sir John's method of quotation sometimes implies total unbelief without asserting it, as in his quotation from Father Dobritzhoffer with regard to the Abipones. The words quoted are, "The whole language of these savages does not contain a single word which expresses God or a divinity."[10] These words taken alone imply atheism, or something akin to it, bat in common fairness they should not be taken alone, for Dobritzhoffer tells us that the Abipones hold a somewhat defined faith. They believe in an evil spirit called Groaperikie—i. e. Grandfather—who is represented in the heavens by the Pleiades. In the month of May, on the reappearance of the constellation, they welcome their Grandfather back with joyful shouts, as if he had recovered from sickness, and with the hymn, "What thanks do we owe thee! And art thou returned at last? Ah! thou hast happily recovered." Next day they go out to seek honey to make mead, and as soon as that is prepared they assemble in one place at the setting of the sun to make public demonstration of gladness. Dobritzhoffer further tells us that the Abipones, and indeed all the nations in Paraguay, believe in a system of conjuring, the conjurers being invested with great powers by the evil spirit Grandfather. "From their custom of calling up the shades of the dead, we may deduce that they believe in the immortality of the soul, as may also be collected from their rites and conversation. The other people of Paraguay hold the same opinion as to the immortality of the soul. The jugglers perform the office of priests."

Colden's testimony as to the "Five Nation" Indians of Canada is presented by Sir John Lubbock in such a way as to imply far more than Golden intended. Sir John says, "Golden, who had ample means of judging, assures us that the celebrated 'Five Nations' of Canada had no public worship or any name for God."[11] Golden certainly does tell us that "they have no kind of public worship," but he plainly never meant to imply that they had no idea of God because they could not express that idea in one word. What he says is this: "I am told they have no radical word to express God, but use a compound word, signifying the Preserver, Sustainer, or Master of the universe."

When one considers the influence that Sir John Lubbock's Prehistoric Times has had on the reading public, and the shock that his statements as to the utter irreligiousness of certain tribes gave many of his readers, one feels inclined to question his authority as a teacher, when his quotations are submitted to the simple test of verification. One wonders how such a man as Sir John Lubbock could gather into the compass of a few concluding pages of a really great work suck a tissue of misguiding information. His character testifies that he could not do so intentionally, and it is not likely that his religious views are of such a nature as to lead him to rule outside of the pale of religious belief all who do not use a systematic form of worship, or do not acknowledge in creedlike fashion the person of the Divine Being. The only feasible explanation seems to be found in that peculiar blindness which all students know is apt to fall on the eyes of those who are striving to gather material to support a pet theory. In such cases, as the eye runs down page after page of close print, seeking for a scrap of information here or there, it naturally selects the sentence favorable to the theory, and passes over or does not see unfavorable sentences that may contain much more valuable information. Where such a method of investigation is pursued as a basis for quotation, a singularly strong case can commonly be presented on behalf of the theory; above all, where the works relied on have, on account of their age, passed out of general circulation. But such a method is palpably unscientific, being calculated to give a partial view of the point at issue, whatever that may be. If Sir John Lubbock, in the hurry of a busy life, has not fallen under this common temptation, then one knows not how to explain the extraordinary fact that one of the keenest minds in the English scientific world has so persistently left undone what he ought to have done, and done what he ought not to have done, as he gave to the public quotations from other writers.

Another strange fact is apparent. Prehistoric Times has gone through five editions, the first being published in 1859, the second in 1869, and the fifth in 1890. During this period of time investigations into the habits, customs, and religions of isolated and barbarous tribes have been very widespread, and the harvest of information reaped has been very large. But greater light has made no change in Sir John's authorities. Jukes, Collins, Burchell, Caillie, Dobritzhoff er, and Catlin maintain their time-honored position, and the harvest of modern investigation might never have been reaped, as far as Sir John is concerned. It is not the object of this article to enter into this harvest field, though the subject is in every way interesting and the facts close to hand. But a noble work lies before Sir John Lubbock, namely, that of reviewing his original statements in the light of modern investigation, and proceeding to prove the position that there is not a well-authenticated case of a single tribe on the face of the earth wholly destitute of the religious idea.

  1. Travels to Timbuctoo, vol. i, p. 303.
  2. Bates's Life in the Amazons, vol. ii, p. 137.
  3. Ross, Voyage of Discovery.
  4. Jukes, Voyage of the Fly, vol. i, p. 164.
  5. Wallace, Malayan Archipelago.
  6. A Walk across Africa, p. 145.
  7. Travels in South Africa, vol. ii, p. 550.
  8. English Colony in New South Wales, p. 354.
  9. Transactions of the Ethnological Society, New Series, vol. i, p. 323.
  10. The Five Nations of Canada.
  11. Account of Abipones, vol. ii, p. 57.