Religion in the Making
A Series of Four Lectures delivered during February 1926,
 Religion in History
Web Publication by
Mountain Man Graphics, Australia
The contrast between religion and the elementary truths of arithmetic makes my meaning clear. Ages ago the simple arithmetical doctrines dawned on the human mind, and throughout history the unquestioned dogma that two and three make five reigned whenever it has been relevant. We all know what this doctrine means, and its history is of no importance for its elucidation.
But we have the gravest doubt as to what religion means so far as doctrine is concerned. There is no agreement as to the definition of religion in its most general sense, including true and false religion; nor is there any agreement as to the valid religious beliefs, nor even as to what we mean by the truth of religion. It is for this reason that some consideration of religion as an unquestioned factor throughout the long stretch of human history is necessary to secure the relevance of any discussion of its general principles.
There is yet another contrast. What is generally disputed is doubtful, and what is doubtful is relatively unimportant-other things being equal. I am speaking of general truths. We avoid guiding our actions by general principles which are entirely unsettled. If we do not know what number is the product of 69 and 67, we defer any action presupposing the answer, till we have found out. This little arithmetical puzzle can be put aside till it is settled, and it is capable of definite settlement with adequate trouble.
But as between religion and arithmetic, other things are not equal. You use arithmetic, but you are religious. Arithmetic of course enters into your nature, so far as that nature involves a multiplicity of things. But it is there as a necessary condition, and not as a transforming agency. No one is invariably "justified" by his faith in the multiplication table. But in some sense or other, justification is the basis of all religion. Your character is developed according to your faith. This is the primary religious truth from which no one can escape. Religion is force of belief cleansing the inward parts. For this reason the primary religious virtue is sincerity, a penetrating sincerity.
A religion, on its doctrinal side, can thus be defined as a system of general truths which have the effect of transforming character when they are sincerely held and vividly apprehended.
In the long run your character and your conduct of life depend upon your intimate convictions. Life is an internal fact for its own sake, before it is an external fact relating itself to others. The conduct of external life is conditioned by environment, but it receives its final quality, on which its worth depends, from the internal life which is the self-realisation of existence. Religion is the art and the theory of the internal life of man, so far as it depends on the man himself and on what is permanent in the nature of things.
This doctrine is the direct negation of the theory that religion is primarily a social fact. Social facts are of great importance to religion, because there is no such thing as absolutely independent existence. You cannot abstract society from man; most psychology is herd- psychology. But all collective emotions leave untouched the awful ultimate fact, which is the human being, consciously alone with itself, for its own sake.
Religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness. It runs through three stages, if it evolves to its final satisfaction. It is the transition from God the void to God the enemy, and from God the enemy to God the companion.
Thus religion is solitariness; and if you are never solitary, you are never religious. Collective enthusiasms, revivals, institutions, churches, rituals, bibles, codes of behaviour, are the trappings of religion, its passing forms.
They may be useful, or harmful; they may be authoritatively ordained, or merely temporary expedients. But the end of religion is beyond all this.
Accordingly, what should emerge from religion is individual worth of character. But worth is positive or negative, good or bad. Religion is by no means necessarily good. It may be very evil. The fact of evil, interwoven with the texture of the world, shows that in the nature of things there remains effectiveness for degradation. In your religious experience the God with whom you have made terms may be the God of destruction, the God who leaves in his wake the loss of the greater reality.
In considering religion, we should not be obsesses by the idea of its necessary goodness. This is a dangerous delusion. The point to notice is its transcendent importance; and the fact of this importance is abundantly made evident by the appeal to history.
The Emergence of Religion
But all these four factors are not of equal influence throughout all historical epochs. The religious idea emerged gradually into human life, at first barely disengaged from other human interests. The order of the emergence of these factors was in the inverse order of the depth of their religious importance: first ritual, then emotion, then belief, then rationalization.
The dawn of these religious stages is gradual. It consists in an increase of emphasis. Perhaps it is untrue to affirm that the later factors are every wholly absent. But certainly, when we go far enough back, belief and rationalization are completely negligible, and emotion is merely a secondary result of ritual. Then emotion takes the lead, the ritual. Then emotion takes the lead, and the ritual is for the emotion which it generates. Belief then makes its appearance as explanatory of the complex of ritual and emotion, and in this appearance of belief we may discern the germ of rationalization.
It is not until belief and rationlization are well established that solitariness is discernible as constituting the heart of religious importance. The great religious conceptions which haunt the imaginations of civilized mankind are scenes of solitariness: Prometheus chained to his rock, Mahomet brooding in the desert, the meditations of the Buddha, the solitary Man on the Cross. It belongs to the depth of the religious spirit to have felt forsaken, even by God.
Ritual and Emotion
Flocks of birds perform their ritual evolutions in the sky. In Europe rooks and starlings are notable examples of this fact. Ritual is the primitive outcome of superfluous energy and leisure. It exemplifies the tendency of living bodies to repeat their own actions. Thus the actions necessary in hunting for food, or in other useful pursuits, are repeated for their own sakes; and their repetition also repeats the joy of exercise and the emotion of success.
In this way emotion waits upon ritual; and then ritual is repeated and elaborated for the sake of its attendant emotions. Mankind became artists in ritual. It was a tremendous discovery-how to excite emotions for their own sake, apart from some imperious biological necessity. But emotions sensitize the organism. Thus the unintended effect was produced of sensitizing the human organism in a variety of ways diverse from what would have been produced by the necessary work of life.
Mankind was started upon its adventures of curiosity and of feeling.
It is evident that, according to this account, religion and play have the same origin in ritual. This is because ritual is the stimulus to emotion, and an habitual ritual may diverge into religion or into play, according to the quality of the emotion excited. Even in comparatively modern times, among the Greeks of the fifth century before Christ, the Olympic Games were tinged with religion, and the Dionysiac festival in Attica ended with a comic drama. Also in the modern world, a holy day and a holiday are kindred notions.
Ritual is not the only way of artificially stimulating emotion. Drugs are equally effective. Luckily the range of drugs at the command of primitive races was limited. But there is ample evidence of the religious use of drugs in conjunction with the religious use of ritual. For example Athenaeus tells us that among the Persians it was the religious duty of the King, once a year, at some stated festival in honour of Mithras, to appear in the temple intoxicated. A relic of the religious awe at intoxication is the use of wine in the Communion service. It is an example of the upward trend of ritual by which a widespread association of thought is elevated into a great symbolism, divested of its primitive grossness.
In this primitive phase of religion, dominated by ritual and emotion, we are dealing with essentially social phenomena. Ritual is more impressive, and emotion more active, when a whole society is concerned in the same ritual and the same emotion. Accordingly, a collective ritual and a collective emotion take their places as one of the binding forces of savage tribes. They represent the first faint glimmerings of the life of the spirit raised beyond concentration upon the task of supplying animal necessities. Conversely, religion in its decay sinks back into sociability.
To primitive man, and to ourselves on our primitive side, the universe is not so much unfathomable as unfathomed by this I mean undiscriminated, unanalyzed. It is not a complex of definite unexplained happenings, but a dim background shot across by isolated vivid effects charged with emotional excitements. The very presuppositions of a coherent rationalism are absent. Such a rationalism whose interconnections are sought. But the prior stage is a background of indefiniteness relieved by vivid acts of definition, inherently isolated. One exception must be made in favour of the routine of tribal necessities which are taken for granted. But what lies beyond the routine of life is in general void of definition; and when it is vivid, it is disconnected.
The myth which meets the ritual is some exceptional vivid fancy, or recollection of some actual vivid fact probably distorted in remembrance which appears not only as explanatory both of ritual and emotion, but also as generative of emotion when conjoined with the ritual. Thus the myth not only explains but reinforces the hidden purpose of the ritual, which is emotion.
Then rituals and emotions and myths reciprocally interact; and the myths have various grades of relationship to actual fact, and have various grades of symbolic truth as being representative of large ideas only to be apprehended in some parable. Also in some cases they myth precedes the ritual. But there is the general fact that ritualism precedes mythology. For we can observe ritualism even among animals, and presumably they are destitute of a mythology.
A myth will involve special attention to some persons or to some things, real or imaginary. Thus in a sense, the ritual, as performed in conjunction with the explanatory purpose of the myth, is the primitive worship of the hero-person or the hero-thing. But there can be very little disinterested worship among primitive folk even less than now, if possible. Accordingly, the belief in the myth will involve the belief that something is to be got out of him or it, or that something is to be averted in respect to the evil to be feared from him or it. Thus incantation, prayer, praise, and ritual absorption of the hero deity emerge.
If the hero be a person, we call the ritual, with its myth, "religion"; if the hero be a thing, we call it "magic." In religion we induce, in magic we compel. The important difference between magic and religion is that magic is unprogressive and religion sometimes is progressive; except in so far as science can be traced back to the progress of magic.
Religion, in this stage of belief, marks a new formative agent in the ascent of man. For just as ritual encouraged emotion beyond the mere response to practical necessities, so religion in this further stage begets thoughts divorced from the mere battling with the pressure of circumstances. Imagination secured in it a machinery for its development; thought has been thereby led beyond the immediate objects in sight. Its concepts may in these early stages be crude and horrible; but they have the supreme virtue of being concepts of objects beyond immediate sense and perception.
This is the stage of uncoordinated beliefs. So far as this is the dominant phase there can be a curious tolerance, in that one cult does not war upon another cult. Since there is a minimum of coordination, there is room for all. But religion is still a thoroughly social phenomenon. The cult includes the tribe, or at lest it includes some well-defined body of persons within the social organism. You may not desert your own cults, but there need by no clash between cults, but there need be no clash between cults. In the higher stages of such a religion there are tribal goes, or many gods within a tribe, with the loosest coordination of cults and myths.
Though religion can be a source of progress it need not be so, especially when its dominant feature is this stage of uncriticized belief. It is easy for a tribe to stabilize its ritual and its myths, and there need be no external spur to progress. In fact, this is the stage of religious evolution in which the masses of semi-civilized humanity have halted-the stage of satisfactory ritual and of satisfied belief without impulse towards higher things. Such religion satisfies the pragmatic test: It works, and thereby claims that it be awarded the prize for truth.
The religious epoch which we are now considering is very modern. Its past duration is of the order of six thousand years. Of course exact dates do not count; you can extend the epoch further back into the past in order to include some faint anticipatory movement, or you can contract its duration so as to exclude flourishing survivals of the earlier phase. The movement has extended over all the civilized races of Asia and Europe. In the past Asia has proved the most fertile in ideas, but within the last tow thousand years Europe has given the movement a new aspect. It is to be noted that the two most perfect examples of rationalistic religions have flourished chiefly in countries foreign to the races among which they had their origin.
The Bible is by far the most complete account of the coming of rationalism into religion, based on the earliest documents available. Viewed as such an account, it is only relevant to the region between the Tigris and the Nile. It exhibits the note of progressive solitariness in the religious idea: first, types of thought generally prevalent; then protesting prophets, isolated figures of denunciation and exhortation stirring the Jewish nation; then one man, with twelve disciples, who met with almost complete national rejection; then the adaptation for popular survival of this latter doctrine by another man who, very significantly, had no first-hand contact with the original teaching. In his hands, something was added and something was lost, but fortunately the Gospels also survive.
It is evident that I have drawn attention to the span of six thousand years because, in addition to being reasonable when we have regard to all the evidence, it corresponds to the chronology of the Bible. We - in Europe and America - are the heirs of the religious movements depicted in that collection of books. Discussion on the methods of religion and their justification must, in order to relevant, base itself upon the Bible for illustration. We must remember, however, that Buddhism and Mahometanism, among others, must also be included in the scope of general statements, even if they are not explicitly referred to.
Rational religion is religion whose beliefs and rituals have been reorganized with the aim of making it the central element in a coherent ordering of life-an ordering which shall be coherent both in respect to the elucidation of thought, and in respect to the direction of conduct towards a unified purpose commanding ethical approval.
The peculiar position of religion is that it stands between abstract metaphysics and the particular principles applying to only some among the experiences of life. The relevance of its concepts can only be distinctly discerned in moments of insight, and then, for many of us, only after suggestion from without. Hence religion bases itself primarily upon a small selection from the common experiences of the race. On this side, religion ranges itself as one among other specialised interests of mankind whose truths are of limited validity. out on its other side, religion claims that its concepts, though derived primarily from special experiences, are yet of universal validity, to be applied by faith to the ordering of all experience.
Rational religion appeals to the direct intuition of special occasions, and to the elucidatory power of its concepts for all occasions. It arises from that which is special, but it extends to what is general. The doctrines of rational religion aim at being that metaphysics which can be derived from the super-normal experience of mankind in its moments of finest insight. Theoretically, rational religion could have arisen in complete independence of the antecedent social religions of ritual and mythical belief. Before the historical sense had established itself, that was the way in which the apologetic theologians tended to exhibit the origins of their respective religions. But the general history of religion, and in particular that portion of its history contained in the Bible, decisively negatives that view. Rational religion emerged as a gradual transformation of the pre-existing religious forms. Finally, the old forms could no longer contain the new ideas, and the modern religions of civilization are traceable to definite crises in this process of development. But the development was not then ended; it had only acquired more suitable forms for self-expression.
The emergence of rational religion was strictly conditioned by the general progress of the races in which it arose. It had to wait for the development in human consciousness of the relevant general ideas and of the relevant ethical intuitions. It required that such ideas should not merely be casually entertained by isolated individuals, but that they should be stabilized in recognizable forms of expression, so as to be recalled and communicated. You can only speak of mercy among a people who, in some respects, are already merciful.
A language is not a universal mode of expressing all ideas whatsoever. It is a limited mode of expressing such ideas as have been frequently entertained, and urgently needed, by the group of human beings who developed that mode of speech. It is only during a comparatively short period of human history that there has existed any language with an adequate stock of general terms. Such general terms require a permanent literature to define them by their mode of employment.
The result is that the free handling of general ideas is a late acquirement. I am not maintaining that the brains of men were adequate for the task. The point is that it took ages for them to develop first the appliances and then the habits which made generality of thought possible and prevalent. For ages, existing languages must have been ready for development. If men had been in contact with a superior race, either personally or by a survival of their literature, a process which requires scores or even hundreds of generations might have been antedated, so as to have been effected almost at once. Such, in fact, was the later history of the development of the races of Northern Europe. Again, a social system which encourages developments of thought can procure the advent. This is the way in which the result was first obtained. Society and language grew together.
The influence of the antecedent type of religion, ceremonial, mythical, and sociable, has been great; and the estimates as to its value diverse. During the thousand years preceding the Christian era, there was a peculiarly intense struggle on the part of rationalism to transform the more primitive type. The issue was a new synthesis which, in the forms of the various great religions, has lasted to the present day. A rational generality was introduced into the religious ideas; and the myth, when retained, was reorganized with the intention of making it an account of verifiable historical circumstances which exemplified the general ideas with adequate perfection.
Thus rational criticism was admitted in principle. The appeal was from the tribal custom to the direct individual intuition, ethical, metaphysical, or logical: "For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings," are words which Hosea ascribes to Jehovah; and he thereby employs the principles of individual criticism of tribal custom, and bases it upon direct ethical intuition.
In this way the religions evolved towards more individualistic forms, shedding their exclusively communal aspect. The individual became the religious unit in the place of the community; the tribal dance lost its importance compared to the individual prayer; and, for the few, the individual prayer merged into justification through individual insight.
So to-day it is not France which goes to heaven, but individual Frenchmen; and it is not China which attains nirvana, but Chinamen.
During this epoch of struggle - as in most religious struggles-the judgements passed by the innovators on the less-developed religious forms were very severe. The condemnation of idolatry pervades the Bible; and there are traces of a recoil which go further: "I hate, I despise your feast days," writes Amos, speaking in the name of Jehovah.
Such criticism is wanted. Indeed history, down to the present day, is a melancholy record of the horrors which can attend religion: human sacrifice, and in particular the slaughter of children, cannibalism, sensual orgies, abject superstition, hatred as between races, the maintenance of degrading customs, hysteria, bigotry, can all be laid at its charge. Religion is the last refuge of human savagery. The uncritical association of religion with goodness is directly negatived by plain facts. Religion can be, and has been, the main instrument for progress. But if we survey the whole race, we must pronounce that generally it has not been so: "Many are called, but few are chosen."
The Ascent of Man
But at a certain stage in history, though still elements in the preservation of the social structure, they ceased to be engines of progress. Their work was done.
They were salving the old virtues which had made the race the great society that it had been, and were not straining forward towards the new virtues to make the common life the City of God that it should be. They were religions of the average, and the average is at war with the ideal.
Human thought had broken through the limited horizon of the one social structure. The world as a whole entered into the explicit consciousness. The facility for individual wandering in comparative safety produced this enlargement of thought. A tribe which is wandering as a unit amide dangers may pick up new ideas, but it will strength its sense of tribal unity in the face of a hostile environment.
But an individual who travels meets strangers on terms of kindliness. He returns home, and in his person and by his example promotes the habit of thinking dispassionately beyond the tribe. The history of rational religion is full of tales of disengagement from the immediate social routine. If we keep to the Bible: Abraham wandered, the Jews were carried off to Babylon and after two generations were allowed to return peacefully, St. Paul's conversion was on a journey, and his theology was elaborated amid travels. This millennium was an age of travel; among the Greeks, Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato, Xenophon, Aristotle, exemplify their times. The great empires and trading facilities made travelling easy; everyone travelled and found the world fresh and new. A world-consciousness was produced.
In India and China the growth of a world-consciousness was different in its details, but in its essence depended on the same factors. Individuals were disengaged from their immediate social setting in ways which promoted thought.
Now, so far as concerns religion, the distinction of a world-consciousness as contrasted with a social consciousness is the change of emphasis in the concept of rightness. A social consciousness concerns people whom you know and love individually. Hence, rightness is mixed up with the notion of preservation. Conduct is right which will lead some good to protect you; and it is wrong if it stirs some irascible being to compass your destruction. Such religion is a branch of diplomacy. But a world-consciousness is more disengaged. It rises to the conception of an essential rightness of things. The individuals are indifferent, because unknown. The new, and almost profane, concept of the goodness of God replaces the older emphasis on the will of God. In a communal religion you study the will of God in order that He may preserve you; in a purified religion, rationalized under the influence of the world-concept, you study his goodness in order to be like him. It is the difference between the enemy you conciliate and the companion whom you imitate.
The Final Contrast
Communal religion broadened itself to the verge of rationalism. In its last stages in the Western World we find the religion of the Roman Empire, in which the widest possible view of the social structure is adopted. The cult of the Empire was the sort of religion which might be constructed today by the Law School of a University, laudably impressed by the notion that mere penal repression is not the way to avert a crime wave. Indeed, if we study the mentality of the Emperor Augustus and of the men who surrounded him, this is not far off from the true description of its final step in evolution.
Another type of modified communal religion was reached by the Jews. Their religion embodied general ideas as to the nature of things which were entirely expressed in terms of their relevance to the Jewish race. This compromise was very effective, but very unstable. It is a type of religious settlement to which communities are always reverting. In the modern world it is the religion of emotional statesmen, captains of industry, and social reformers. In the case of the Jews the crises to which it led were the birth of Christianity, and the forcible dispersion of the Jews by the military might of Rome. The same type of religion in our generation was one of the factors which led to the great war. It leads to the morbid exaggeration of national self- consciousness. It lacks the element of quietism. Generality is the salt of religion.
When Christianity had established itself throughout the Roman Empire and its neighbourhood, there were before the world two main rational religions, Buddhism and Christianity. There were, of course, many rivals to both of them in their respective regions; but if we have regard to clarity of idea, generality of thought, moral respectability, survival power, and width of extension over the world, then for their combination of all these qualities these religions stood out beyond their competitors. Later their position was challenged by the Mahometans. But even today, the two Catholic religions of civilization are Christianity and Buddhism, and if we are to judge by the comparison of their position now with what it has been both of them are in decay. They have lost their ancient hold upon the world.