The Evolution of the Idea of God - Grant Allen - darmowy ebook

Two main schools of religious thinking exist in our midst at the present day: the school of humanists and the school of animists. This work is to some extent an attempt to reconcile them. It contains, I believe, the first extended effort that has yet been made to trace the genesis of the belief in a God from its earliest origin in the mind of primitive man up to its fullest development in advanced and etherealised Christian theology. My method is therefore constructive, not destructive. Instead of setting out to argue away or demolish a deep-seated and ancestral element in our complex nature, this book merely posits for itself the psychological question, “By what successive steps did men come to frame for themselves the conception of a deity?”—or, if the reader so prefers it, “How did we arrive at our knowledge of God?” It seeks provisionally to answer these profound and important questions by reference to the earliest beliefs of savages, past or present, and to the testimony of historical documents and ancient monuments. It does not concern itself at all with the validity or invalidity of the ideas in themselves; it does but endeavour to show how inevitable they were, and how man’s relation with the external universe was certain a priori to beget them as of necessity.

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by Grant Allen

Published 2018 by Blackmore Dennett

All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

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I propose in this work to trace out in rough outline the evolution of the idea of God from its earliest and crudest beginnings in the savage mind of primitive man to that highly evolved and abstract form which it finally assumes in contemporary philosophical and theological thinking.

In the eyes of the modern evolutionary enquirer the interest of the origin and history of this widespread idea is mainly psychological. We have before us a vast and pervasive group of human opinions, true or false, which have exercised and still exercise an immense influence upon the development of mankind and of civilisation: the question arises, Why did human beings ever come to hold these opinions at all, and how did they arrive at them? What was there in the conditions of early man which led him to frame to himself such abstract notions of one or more great supernatural agents, of whose objective existence he had certainly in nature no clear or obvious evidence? Regarding the problem in this light, as essentially a problem of the processes of the human mind, I set aside from the outset, as foreign to my purpose, any kind of enquiry into the objective validity of any one among the religious beliefs thus set before us as subject-matter. The question whether there may be a God or gods, and, if so, what may be his or their substance and attributes, do not here concern us. All we have to do in our present capacity is to ask ourselves strictly, What first suggested to the mind of man the notion of deity in the abstract at all? And how, from the early multiplicity of deities which we find to have prevailed in all primitive times among all human races, did the conception of a single great and unlimited deity first take its rise? In other words, why did men ever believe there were gods at all, and why from many gods did they arrive at one? Why from polytheism have the most advanced nations proceeded to monotheism?

To put the question in this form is to leave entirely out of consideration the objective reality or otherwise of the idea itself. To analyse the origin of a concept is not to attack the validity of the belief it encloses. The idea of gravitation, for example, arose by slow degrees in human minds, and reached at last its final expression in Newton’s law. But to trace the steps by which that idea was gradually reached is not in any way to disprove or to discredit it. The Christian believer may similarly hold that men arrived by natural stages at the knowledge of the one true God; he is not bound to reject the final conception as false merely because of the steps by which it was slowly evolved. A creative God, it is true, might prefer to make a sudden revelation of himself to some chosen body of men; but an evolutionary God, we may well believe, might prefer in his inscrutable wisdom to reveal his own existence and qualities to his creatures by means of the same slow and tentative intellectual gropings as those by which he revealed to them the physical truths of nature. I wish my enquiry, therefore, to be regarded, not as destructive, but as reconstructive. It only attempts to recover and follow out the various planes in the evolution of the idea of God, rather than to cast doubt upon the truth of the evolved concept.

In investigating any abstruse and difficult subject, it is often best to proceed from the known to the unknown, even although the unknown itself may happen to come first in the order of nature and of logical development. For this reason, it may be advisable to begin here with a brief preliminary examination of Christianity, which is not only the most familiar of all religions to us Christian nations, but also the best known in its origins: and then to show how far we may safely use it as a Standard of Reference in explaining the less obvious and certain features of earlier or collateral cults.

Christianity, then, viewed as a religious standard, has this clear and undeniable advantage over almost every other known form of faith—that it quite frankly and confessedly sets out in its development with the worship of a particular Deified Man.

This point in its history cannot, I think, be overrated in importance, because in that single indubitable central fact it gives us the key to much that is cardinal in all other religions; every one of which, as I hope hereafter to show, equally springs, directly or indirectly, from the worship of a single Deified Man, or of many Deified Men, more or less etherealised.

Whatever else may be said about the origin of Christianity, it is at least fairly agreed on either side, both by friends and foes, that this great religion took its rise around the personality of a certain particular Galilean teacher, by name Jesus, concerning whom, if we know anything at all with any approach to certainty, we know at least that he was a man of the people, hung on a cross in Jerusalem under the procuratorship of Caius Pontius Pilatus. That kernel of fact—a man, and his death—Jesus Christ and him crucified—is the one almost undoubted historical nucleus round which all the rest of a vast European and Asiatic system of thought and belief has slowly crystallised.

Let us figure clearly to ourselves the full import of these truths. A Deified Man is the central figure in the faith of Christendom.

From the very beginning, however, a legend, true or false (but whose truth or falsity has no relation whatever to our present subject), gathered about the personality of this particular Galilean peasant reformer. Reverenced at first by a small body of disciples of his own race and caste, he grew gradually in their minds into a divine personage, of whom strange stories were told, and a strange history believed by a group of ever-increasing adherents in all parts of the Græco-Roman Mediterranean civilisation. The earliest of these stories, in all probability—certainly the one to which most importance was attached by the pioneers of the faith—clustered about his death and its immediate sequence. Jesus, we are told, was crucified, dead, and buried. But at the end of three days, if we may credit the early documents of our Christian faith, his body was no longer to be found in the sepulchre where it had been laid by friendly hands: and the report spread abroad that he had risen again from the dead, and lived once more a somewhat phantasmal life among the living in his province. Supernatural messengers announced his resurrection to the women who had loved him: he was seen in the flesh from time to time for very short periods by one or other among the faithful who still revered his memory. At last, after many such appearances, more or less fully described in the crude existing narratives, he was suddenly carried up to the sky before the eyes of his followers, where, as one of the versions authoritatively remarks, he was “received into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God”—that is to say, of Jahweh, the ethnical deity of the Hebrew people.

Such in its kernel was the original Christian doctrine as handed down to us amid a mist of miracle, in four or five documents of doubtful age and uncertain authenticity. Even this central idea does not fully appear in the Pauline epistles, believed to be the oldest in date of all our Christian writings: it first takes full shape in the somewhat later Gospels and Acts of the Apostles. In the simplest and perhaps the earliest of these definite accounts we are merely told the story of the death and resurrection, the latter fact being vouched for on the dubious testimony of “a young man clothed in a long white garment,” supplemented (apparently at a later period) by subsequent “appearances” to various believers. With the controversies which have raged about these different stories, however, the broad anthropological enquiry into the evolution of God has no concern. It is enough for us here to admit, what the evidence probably warrants us in concluding, that a real historical man of the name of Jesus did once exist in Lower Syria, and that his disciples at a period very shortly after his execution believed him to have actually risen from the dead, and in due time to have ascended into heaven.

At a very early date, too, it was further asserted that Jesus was in some unnatural or supernatural sense “the son of God”—that is to say, once more, the son of Jahweh, the local and national deity of the Jewish people. In other words, his worship was affiliated upon the earlier historical worship of the people in whose midst he lived, and from whom his first disciples were exclusively gathered. It was not, as we shall more fully see hereafter, a revolutionary or purely destructive system. It based itself upon the common conceptions of the Semitic community. The handful of Jews and Galileans who accepted Jesus as a divine figure did not think it necessary, in adopting him as a god, to get rid of their own preconceived religious opinions. They believed rather in his prior existence, as a part of Jahweh, and in his incarnation in a human body for the purpose of redemption. And when his cult spread around into neighboring countries (chiefly, it would seem, through the instrumentality of one Paul of Tarsus, who had never seen him, or had beheld him only in what is vaguely called “a vision”) the cult of Jahweh went hand in hand with it, so that a sort of modified mystic monotheism, based on Judaism, became the early creed of the new cosmopolitan Christian church.

Other legends, of a sort familiar in the lives of the founders of creeds and churches elsewhere, grew up about the life of the Christian leader; or at any rate, incidents of a typical kind were narrated by his disciples as part of his history. That a god or a godlike person should be born of a woman by the ordinary physiological processes of humanity seems derogatory to his dignity—perhaps fatal to his godhead: * therefore it was asserted—we know not whether truly or otherwise—that the founder of Christianity, by some mysterious afflatus, was born of a virgin. Though described at times as the son of one Joseph, a carpenter, of Nazareth, and of Mary, his betrothed wife, he was also regarded in an alternative way as the son of the Hebrew god Jahweh, just as Alexander, though known to be the son of Philip, was also considered to be the offspring of Amon-Ra or Zeus Ammon. We are told, in order to lessen this discrepancy (on the slender authority of a dream of Joseph’s), how Jesus was miraculously conceived by the Holy Spirit of Jahweh in Mary’s womb. He was further provided with a royal pedigree from the house of David, a real or mythical early Hebrew king; and prophecies from the Hebrew sacred books were found to be fulfilled in his most childish adventures. In one of the existing biographies, commonly ascribed to Luke, the companion of Paul, but supposed to bear traces of much later authorship, many such marvellous stories are recounted of his infantile adventures: and in all our documents, miracles attest his supernatural powers, while appeal is constantly made to the fulfilment of supposed predictions (all of old Hebrew origin) as a test and credential of the reality of his divine mission.

* On this subject, see Mr. Sidney Hartland’s Legend of

Perseus, vol. i.

We shall see hereafter that these two points—the gradual growth of a myth or legend, and affiliation upon earlier local religious ideas—are common features in the evolution of gods in general, and of the God of monotheism in particular. In almost every case where we can definitely track him to his rise, the deity thus begins with a Deified Man, elevated by his worshippers to divine rank, and provided with a history of miraculous incident, often connected with the personality of preexistent deities.

In the earlier stages, it seems pretty clear that the relations of nascent Christianity to Judaism were vague and undefined: the Christians regarded themselves as a mere sect of the Jews, who paid special reverence to a particular dead teacher, now raised to heaven by a special apotheosis of a kind with which everyone was then familiar. But as the Christian church spread to other lands, by the great seaports, it became on the one hand more distinct and exclusive, while on the other hand it became more definitely dogmatic and theological. It was in Egypt, it would seem, that the Christian Pantheon (if I may be allowed the expression in the case of a religion nominally monotheistic) first took its definite Trinitarian shape. Under the influence of the old Egyptian love for Triads or Trinities of gods, a sort of mystical triune deity was at last erected out of the Hebrew Jahweh and the man Jesus, with the aid of the Holy Spirit or Wisdom of Jahweh, which had come to be regarded by early Christian minds (under the influence of direct divine inspiration or otherwise) as a separate and coordinate person of this composite godhead. How far the familiar Egyptian Trinity of Osiris, Isis, and Horus may have influenced the conception of the Christian Trinity, thus finally made up of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, we shall discuss at a later stage of our enquiry; for the present, it may suffice to point out that the Græco-Egyptian Athanasius was the great upholder of the definite dogma of the Trinity against opposing (heretical) Christian thinkers; and that the hymn or so-called creed known by his name (though not in all probability of his own composition) bears the impress of the mystical Egyptian spirit, tempered by the Alexandrian Greek delight in definiteness and minuteness of philosophical distinction.

In this respect, too, we shall observe in the sequel that the history of Christianity, the most known among the religions, was exactly parallel to that of earlier and obscurer creeds. At first, the relations of the gods to one another are vague and undetermined; their pedigree is often confused and even contradictory; and the pantheon lacks anything like due hierarchical system or subordination of persons. But as time goes on, and questions of theology or mythology are debated among the priests and other interested parties, details of this sort get settled in the form of rigid dogmas, while subtle distinctions of a philosophical or metaphysical sort tend to be imported by more civilised men into the crude primitive faith. The belief that began with frank acceptance of Judaism, plus a personal worship of the Deified Man, Jesus, crystallised at last into the Catholic Faith in one God, of three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

Quibbles are even made, and discussions raised at last as to the question whether Father and Son are “of one substance” or only “of like substance”; whether the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father and the Son, or from the Father only; and so on ad infinitum.

It was largely in other countries than Judæa, and especially in Gaul, Rome, and Egypt, too, as I believe, that symbolism came to the aid of mysticism: that the cross, the tau, the labarum, the fish, the Alpha and Omega, and all the other early Christian emblems were evolved and perfected; and that the beginnings of Christian art took their first definite forms. Such forms were especially to a great extent evolved in the Roman catacombs. Christianity, being a universal, not a local or national, religion, has adopted in its course many diverse elements from most varied sources.

Originally, it would seem, the Christian pantheon was almost exclusively filled by the triune God, in his three developments or “persons,” as thus rigorously conceived by the Alexandrian intelligence. But from a very early time, if not from the first dawn of the Christian cult, it was customary to reverence the remains of those who had suffered for the faith, and perhaps even to invoke their aid with Christ and the Father. The Roman branch of the church, especially, accustomed to the Roman ancestor-worship and the Roman reverence for the Du Manes, had its chief places of prayer in the catacombs, where its dead were laid. Thus arose the practice of the invocation of saints, at whose graves or relics prayers were offered, both to the supreme deity and to the faithful dead themselves as intercessors with Christ and the Father. The early Christians, accustomed in their heathen stage to pay respect and even worship to the spirits of their deceased friends, could not immediately give up this pious custom after their conversion to the new creed, and so grafted it on to their adopted religion. Thus the subsidiary founders of Christianity, Paul, Peter, the Apostles, the Evangelists, the martyrs, the confessors, came to form, as it were, a subsidiary pantheon, and to rank to some extent almost as an inferior order of deities.

Among the persons who thus shared in the honours of the new faith, the mother of Jesus early assumed a peculiar prominence. Goddesses had filled a very large part in the devotional spirit of the older religions: it was but natural that the devotees of Isis and Pasht, of Artemis and Aphrodite, should look for some corresponding object of feminine worship in the younger faith. The Theotokos, the mother of God, the blessed Madonna, soon came to possess a practical importance in Christian worship scarcely inferior to that enjoyed by the persons of the Trinity themselves—in certain southern countries, indeed, actually superior to it. The Virgin and Child, in pictorial representation, grew to be the favourite subject of Christian art. How far this particular development of the Christian spirit had its origin in Egypt, and was related to the well-known Egyptian figures of the goddess Isis with the child Horus in her lap, is a question which may demand consideration in some future treatise. For the present, it will be enough to call attention in passing to the fact that in this secondary rank of deities or semi-divine persons, the saints and martyrs, all alike, from the Blessed Virgin Mary down to the newest canonised among Roman Catholic prelates, were at one time or another Living Men and Women. In other words, besides the one Deified Man, Jesus, round whom the entire system of Christianity centres, the Church now worships also in the second degree a whole host of minor Dead Men and Women, bishops, priests, virgins, and confessors.

From the earliest to the latest ages of the Church, the complexity thus long ago introduced into her practice has gone on increasing with every generation. Nominally from the very outset a monotheistic religion, Christianity gave up its strict monotheism almost at the first start by admitting the existence of three persons in the godhead, whom it vainly endeavoured to unify by its mystic but confessedly incomprehensible Athanasian dogma. The Madonna (with the Child) rose in time practically to the rank of an independent goddess (in all but esoteric Catholic theory): while St. Sebastian, St. George, St. John Baptist, St. Catherine, and even St. Thomas of Canterbury himself, became as important objects of worship in certain places as the deity in person. At Milan, for example, San Carlo Borromeo, at Compostella, Santiago, at Venice, St. Mark, usurped to a great extent the place of the original God. As more and more saints died in each generation, while the cult of the older saints still lingered on everywhere more or less locally, the secondary pantheon grew ever fuller and fuller. Obscure personages, like St. Crispin and St. Cosmas, St. Chad and St. Cuthbert rose to the rank of departmental or local patrons, like the departmental and local gods of earlier religions. Every trade, every guild, every nation, every province, had its peculiar saint. And at the same time, the theory of the Church underwent a constant evolution. Creed was added to creed—Apostles’, Nicene, Athanasian, and so forth, each embodying some new and often subtle increment to the whole mass of accepted dogma. Council after council made fresh additions of articles of faith—the Unity of Substance, the Doctrine of the Atonement, the Immaculate Conception, the Authority of the Church, the Infallibility of the Pope in his spiritual capacity. And all these also are well-known incidents of every evolving cult: constant increase in the number of divine beings; constant refinements in the articles of religion, under the influence of priestly or scholastic metaphysics.

Two or three other points must still be noted in this hasty review of the evolution of Christianity, regarded as a standard of religion; and these I will now proceed to consider with all possible brevity.

In the matter of ceremonial and certain other important accessories of religion it must frankly be admitted that Christianity rather borrowed from the older cults than underwent a natural and original development on its own account. A priesthood, as such, does not seem to have formed any integral or necessary part of the earliest Christendom: and when the orders of bishops, priests, and deacons were introduced into the new creed, the idea seems to have been derived rather from the existing priesthoods of anterior religions than from any organic connexion with the central facts of the new worship. From the very nature of the circumstances this would inevitably result. For the primitive temple (as we shall see hereafter) was the Dead Man’s tomb; the altar was his gravestone; and the priest was the relative or representative who continued for him the customary gifts to the ghost at the grave. But the case of Jesus differs from almost every other case on record of a Deified Man in this—that his body seems to have disappeared at an early date; and that, inasmuch as his resurrection and ascension into heaven were made the corner-stone of the new faith, it was impossible for worship of his remains to take the same form as had been taken in the instances of almost all previously deified Dead Persons. Thus, the materials out of which the Temple, the Altar, Sacrifices, Priesthood, are usually evolved (as we shall hereafter see) were here to a very large extent necessarily wanting.

Nevertheless, so essential to religion in the minds of its followers are all these imposing and wonted accessories that our cult did actually manage to borrow them readymade from the great religions that went before it, and to bring them into some sort of artificial relation with its own system. You cannot revolutionize the human mind at one blow. The pagans had been accustomed to all these ideas as integral parts of religion as they understood it: and they proceeded as Christians to accommodate them by side-issues to the new faith, in which these elements had no such natural place as in the older creeds. Not only did sacred places arise at the graves or places of martyrdom of the saints; not only was worship performed beside the bones of the holy dead, in the catacombs and elsewhere; but even a mode of sacrifice and of sacrificial communion was invented in the mass,—a somewhat artificial development from the possibly unsacerdotal Agape-feasts of the primitive Christians. Gradually, churches gathered around the relics of the martyr saints: and in time it became a principle of usage that every church must contain an altar—made of stones on the analogy of the old sacred stones; containing the bones or other relics of a saint, like all earlier shrines; consecrated by the pouring on of oil after the antique fashion; and devoted to the celebration of the sacrifice of the mass, which became by degrees more and more expiatory and sacerdotal in character. As the saints increased in importance, new holy places sprang up around their bodies; and some of these holy places, containing their tombs, became centres of pilgrimage for the most distant parts of Christendom; as did also in particular the empty tomb of Christ himself, the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem.

The growth of the priesthood kept pace with the growth of ceremonial in general, till at last it culminated in the mediaeval papacy, with its hierarchy of cardinals, archbishops, bishops, priests, and other endless functionaries. Vestments, incense, and like accompaniments of sacerdotalism also rapidly gained ground. All this, too, is a common trait of higher religious evolution everywhere. So likewise are fasting, vigils, and the ecstatic condition. But asceticism, monasticism, celibacy, and other forms of morbid abstinence are peculiarly rife in the east, and found their highest expression in the life of the Syrian and Egyptian hermits.

Lastly, a few words must be devoted in passing to the rise and development of the Sacred Books, now excessively venerated in North-western Christendom. These consisted in the first instance of genuine or spurious letters of the apostles to the various local churches (the so-called Epistles), some of which would no doubt be preserved with considerable reverence; and later of lives or legends of Jesus and his immediate successors (the so-called Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles). Furthermore, as Christianity adopted from Judaism the cult of its one supreme divine figure, now no longer envisaged as Jahweh, the national deity of the Hebrews, but as a universal cosmopolitan God and Father, it followed naturally that the sacred books of the Jewish people, the literature of Jahweh-worship, should also receive considerable attention at the hands of the new priesthood. By a gradual process of selection and elimination, the canon of scripture was evolved from these heterogeneous materials: the historical or quasi-historical and prophetic Hebrew tracts were adopted by the Church, with a few additions of later date, such as the Book of Daniel, under the style and title of the Old Testament. The more generally accepted lives of Christ, again, known as Evangels or Gospels; the Acts of the Apostles; the epistles to the churches; and that curious mystical allegory of the Neronian persecution known as the Apocalypse, were chosen out of the mass of early Christian literature to form the authoritative collection of inspired writing which we call the New Testament. The importance of this heterogeneous anthology of works belonging to all ages and systems, but confounded together in popular fancy under the name of the Books, or more recently still as a singular noun, the Bible, grew apace with the growth of the Church: though the extreme and superstitions adoration of their mere verbal contents has only been reached in the debased and reactionary forms of Christianity followed at the present day by our half-educated English and American Protestant dissenters.

From this very brief review of the most essential factors in the development of the Christian religion as a system, strung loosely together with a single eye to the requirements of our present investigation, it will be obvious at once to every intelligent reader that Christianity cannot possibly throw for us any direct or immediate light on the problem of the evolution of the idea of God. Not only did the concept of a god and gods exist full-fledged long before Christianity took its rise at all, but also the purely monotheistic conception of a single supreme God, the creator and upholder of all things, had been reached in all its sublime simplicity by the Jewish teachers centuries before the birth of the man Jesus. Christianity borrowed from Judaism this magnificent concept, and, humanly speaking, proceeded to spoil it by its addition of the Son and the Holy Ghost, who mar the complete unity of the grand Hebrew ideal. Even outside Judaism, the selfsame notion had already been arrived at in a certain mystical form as the “esoteric doctrine” of the Egyptian priesthood; from whom, with their peculiar views as to emanations and Triads, the Christian dogmas of the Trinity, the Logos, the Incarnation, and the Holy Ghost were in large part borrowed. The Jews of Alexandria, that eastern London, formed the connecting link between Egyptian heathenism, Hellenic philosophy, and early Christianity; and their half-philosophical, half-religious ideas may be found permeating the first writings and the first systematic thought of the nascent church. In none of these ways, therefore, can we regard Christianity as affording us any direct or immediate guidance in our search for the origin and evolution of the concepts of many gods, and of one God the creator.

Still, in a certain secondary and illustrative sense, I think we are fully justified in saying that the history of Christianity, the religion whose beginnings are most surely known to us, forms a standard of reference for all the other religions of the world, and helps us indirectly to understand and explain the origin and evolution of these deepest among our fundamental spiritual conceptions.

Its value in this respect may best be understood if I point out briefly in two contrasted statements the points in which it may and the points in which it may not be fairly accepted as a typical religion.

Let us begin first with the points in which it may.

In the first place, Christianity is thoroughly typical in the fact that beyond all doubt its most central divine figure was at first, by common consent of orthodox and heterodox alike, nothing other than a particular Deified Man. All else that has been asserted about this particular Man—that he was the Son of God, that he was the incarnation of the Logos, that he existed previously from all eternity, that he sits now on the right hand of the Father—all the rest of these theological stories do nothing in any way to obscure the plain and universally admitted historical fact that this Divine Person, the Very God of Very God, being of one substance with the Father, begotten of the Father before all worlds, was yet, at the moment when we first catch a glimpse of him in the writings of his followers, a Man recently deceased, respected, reverenced, and perhaps worshipped by a little group of fellow-peasants who had once known him as Jesus, the son of the carpenter. On that unassailable Rock of solid historical fact we may well be content to found our argument in this volume. Here at least nobody can accuse us of “crude and gross Euhemerism.” Or rather the crude and gross Euhemerism is here known to represent the solid truth. Jesus and his saints—Dominic, Francis, Catherine of Siena—are no mere verbal myths, no allegorical concepts, no personifications of the Sun, the Dawn, the Storm-cloud. Leaving aside for the present from our purview of the Faith that one element of the older supreme God—the Hebrew Jahweh,—whom Christianity borrowed from the earlier Jewish religion, we can say at least with perfect certainty that every single member of the Christian pantheon—Jesus, the Madonna, St. John Baptist, St. Peter, the Apostles, the Evangelists—were, just as much as San Carlo Borromeo or St. Thomas of Canterbury or St. Theresa, Dead Men or Women, worshipped after their death with divine or quasi-divine honours. In this the best-known of all human religions, the one that has grown up under the full eye of history, the one whose gods and saints are most distinctly traceable, every object of worship, save only the single early and as yet unresolved deity of the Hebrew cult, whose origin is lost for us in the mist of ages, turns out on enquiry to be indeed a purely Euhemeristic god or saint,—in ultimate analysis, a Real Man or Woman.

That point alone I hold to be of cardinal importance, and of immense or almost inestimable illustrative value, in seeking for the origin of the idea of a god in earlier epochs.

In the second place, Christianity is thoroughly typical in all that concerns its subsequent course of evolution; the gradual elevation of its central Venerated Man into a God of the highest might and power; the multiplication of secondary deities or saints by worship or adoration of other Dead Men and Women; the growth of a graduated and duly subordinated hierarchy of divine personages; the rise of a legend, with its miracles and other supernatural adjuncts; the formation of a definite theology, philosophy, and systematic dogmatism; the development of special artistic forms, and the growth or adoption of appropriate symbolism; the production of sacred books, rituals, and formularies; the rise of ceremonies, mysteries, initiations, and sacraments; the reverence paid to relics, sacred sites, tombs, and dead bodies; and the close connexion of the religion as a whole with the ideas of death, the soul, the ghost, the spirit, the resurrection of the body, the last judgment, hell, heaven, the life everlasting, and all the other vast group of concepts which surround the simple fact of death in the primitive human mind generally.

Now, in the second place, let us look wherein Christianity to a certain small extent fails to be typical, or at least to solve our fundamental problems.

It fails to be typical because it borrows largely a whole ready-made theology, and above all a single supreme God, from a pre-existent religion. In so far as it takes certain minor features from other cults, we can hardly say with truth that it does not represent the average run of religious systems; for almost every particular new creed so bases itself upon elements of still earlier faiths; and it is perhaps impossible for us at the present day to get back to anything like a really primitive or original form of cult. But Christianity is very far removed indeed from all primitive cults in that it accepts ready-made the monotheistic conception, the high-water-mark, so to speak, of religious philosophising. While in the frankness with which it exhibits to us what is practically one half of its supreme deity as a Galilean peasant of undoubted humanity, subsequently deified and etherealised, it allows us to get down at a single step to the very origin of godhead; yet in the strength with which it asserts for the other half of its supreme deity (the Father, with his shadowy satellite the Holy Ghost) an immemorial antiquity and a complete severance from human life, it is the least anthropomorphic and the most abstract of creeds. In order to track the idea of God to its very source, then, we must apply in the last resort to this unresolved element of Christianity—the Hebrew Jahweh—the same sort of treatment which we apply to the conception of Jesus or Buddha;—we must show it to be also the immensely transfigured and magnified ghost of a Human Being; in the simple and forcible language of Swinburne, “The shade cast by the soul of man.”

Furthermore, Christianity fails to be typical in that it borrows also from pre-existing religions to a great extent the ideas of priesthood, sacrifice, the temple, the altar, which, owing to the curious disappearance or at least un-recognisability of the body of its founder (or, rather, its central object of worship), have a less natural place in our Christian system than in any other known form of religious practice. It is quite true that magnificent churches, a highly-evolved sacerdotalism, the sacrifice of the mass, the altar, and the relics, have all been imported in their fullest shape into developed Christianity, especially in its central or Roman form. But every one of these things is partly borrowed, almost as a survival or even as an alien feature, from earlier religions, and partly grew up about the secondary worship of saints and martyrs, their bones, their tombs, their catacombs, and their reliquaries. Christianity itself, particularly when viewed as the worship of Christ (to which it has been largely reduced in Teutonic Europe), does not so naturally lend itself to these secondary ceremonies; and in those debased schismatic forms of the Church which confine themselves most strictly to the worship of Jesus and of the supreme God, sacerdotalism and sacramentalism have been brought down to a minimum, so that the temple and the altar have lost the greater part of their sacrificial importance.

I propose, then, in subsequent chapters, to trace the growth of the idea of a God from the most primitive origins to the most highly evolved forms; beginning with the ghost, and the early undeveloped deity: continuing through polytheism to the rise of monotheism; and then returning at last once more to the full Christian conception, which we shall understand far better in detail after we have explained the nature of the yet unresolved or but provisionally resolved Jehovistic element. I shall try to show, in short, the evolution of God, by starting with the evolution of gods in general, and coming down by gradual stages through various races to the evolution of the Hebrew, Christian, and Moslem God in particular. ‘And the goal towards which I shall move will be the one already foreshadowed in this introductory chapter,—the proof that in its origin the concept of a god is nothing more than that of a Dead Man, regarded as a still surviving ghost or spirit, and endowed with increased or supernatural powers, and qualities.


At the very outset of the profound enquiry on which we are now about to embark, we are met by a difficulty of considerable magnitude. In the opinion of most modern mythologists mythology is the result of “a disease of language.” We are assured by many eminent men that the origin of religion is to be sought, not in savage ideas about ghosts and spirits, the Dead Man and his body or his surviving double, but in primitive misconceptions of the meaning of words which had reference to the appearance of the Sun and the Clouds, the Wind and the Rain, the Dawn and the Dusk, the various phenomena of meteorology in general. If this be so, then our attempt to derive the evolution of gods from the crude ideas of early men about their dead is clearly incorrect; the analogy of Christianity which we have already alleged is a mere will o’ the wisp; and the historical Jesus himself may prove in the last resort to be an alias of the sun-god or an embodiment of the vine-spirit.

I do not believe these suggestions are correct. It seems to me that the worship of the sun, moon, and stars, instead of being an element in primitive religion, is really a late and derivative type of adoration; and that mythology is mistaken in the claims it makes for its own importance in the genesis of the idea of a God or gods. In order, however, to clear the ground for a fair start in this direction, we ought, I think, to begin by enquiring into the relative positions of mythology and religion. I shall therefore devote a preliminary chapter to the consideration of this important subject.

Religion, says another group of modern thinkers, of whom Mr. Edward Clodd is perhaps the most able English exponent, “grew out of fear.” It is born of man’s terror of the great and mysterious natural agencies by which he is surrounded. Now I am not concerned to deny that many mythological beings of various terrible forms do really so originate. I would readily accept some such vague genesis for many of the dragons and monsters which abound in all savage or barbaric imaginings—for Gorgons and Hydras and Chimæras dire, and other manifold shapes of the superstitiously appalling. I would give up to Mr. Clodd the Etruscan devils and the Hebrew Satan, the Grendels and the Fire-drakes, the whole brood of Cerberus, Briareus, the Cyclops, the Centaurs. None of these, however, is a god or anything like one. They have no more to do with religion, properly so called, than the unicorn of the royal arms has to do with British Christianity. A god, as I understand the word, and as the vast mass of mankind has always understood it, is a supernatural being to be revered and worshipped. He stands to his votaries, on the whole, as Dr. Robertson Smith has well pointed out, in a kindly and protecting relation. He may be angry with them at times, to be sure; but his anger is temporary and paternal alone: his permanent attitude towards his people is one of friendly concern; he is worshipped as a beneficent and generous Father. It is the origin of gods in this strictest sense that concerns us here, not the origin of those vague and formless creatures which are dreaded, not worshipped, by primitive humanity.

Bearing this distinction carefully in mind, let us proceed to consider the essentials of religion. If you were to ask almost any intelligent and unsophisticated child, “What is religion?” he would answer offhand, with the clear vision of youth, “Oh, it’s saying your prayers, and heading your Bible, and singing hymns, and going to church or to chapel on Sundays.” If you were to ask any intelligent and unsophisticated Hindu peasant the same question, he would answer in almost the self-same spirit, “Oh, it is doing poojah regularly, and paying your dues every day to Mahadeo.” If you were to ask any simple-minded African savage, he would similarly reply, “It is giving the gods flour, and oil, and native beer, and goat-mutton,” And finally if you were to ask a devout Italian contadino, he would instantly say, “It is offering up candles and prayers to the Madonna, attending mass, and remembering the saints on every festa.”

And they would all be quite right. This, in its essence, is precisely what we call religion. Apart from the special refinements of the higher minds in particular creeds, which strive to import into it all, according to their special tastes or fancies, a larger or smaller dose of philosophy, or of metaphysics, or of ethics, or of mysticism, this is just what religion means and has always meant to the vast majority of the human species. What is common to it throughout is Custom or Practice: a certain set of more or less similar Observances: propitiation, prayer, praise, offerings: the request for divine favours, the deprecation of divine anger or other misfortunes: and as the outward and visible adjuncts of all these, the altar, the sacrifice, the temple, the church; priesthood, services, vestments, ceremonial.

What is not at all essential to religion in its wider aspect—taking the world round, both past and present, Pagan, Buddhist, Mohammadan, Christian, savage, and civilised—is the ethical element, properly so called. And what is very little essential indeed is the philosophical element, theology or mythology, the abstract theory of spiritual existences. This theory, to be sure, is in each country or race closely related with religion under certain aspects; and the stories told about the gods or God are much mixed up with the cult itself in the minds of worshippers; but they are no proper part of religion, strictly so called. In a single word, I contend that religion, as such, is essentially practical: theology or mythology, as such, is essentially theoretical.

Moreover, I also believe, and shall attempt to show, that the two have to a large extent distinct origins and roots: that the union between them is in great part adventitious: and that, therefore, to account for or explain the one is by no means equivalent to accounting for and explaining the other.

Frank recognition of this difference of origin between religion and mythology would, I imagine, largely reconcile the two conflicting schools of thought which at present divide opinion between them on this interesting problem in the evolution of human ideas. On the one side, we have the mythological school of interpreters, whether narrowly linguistic, like Professor Max Müller, or broadly anthropological, like Mr. Andrew Lang, attacking the problem from the point of view of myth or theory alone. On the other side, we have the truly religious school of interpreters, like Mr. Herbert Spencer, and to some extent Mr. Tylor, attacking the problem from the point of view of practice or real religion. The former school, it seems to me, has failed to perceive that what it is accounting for is not the origin of religion at all—of worship, which is the central-root idea of all religious observance, or of the temple, the altar, the priest, and the offering, which are its outer expression—but merely the origin of myth or fable, the mass of story and legend about various beings, real or imaginary, human or divine, which naturally grows up in every primitive community. The latter school, on the other hand, while correctly interpreting the origin of all that is essential and central in religion, have perhaps underestimated the value of their opponents’ work through regarding it as really opposed to their own, instead of accepting what part of it may be true in the light of a contribution to an independent but allied branch of the same enquiry.

In short, if the view here suggested be correct, Spencer and Tylor have paved the way to a true theory of the Origin of Religion; Max Müller, Lang, and the other mythologists have thrown out hints of varying value towards a true theory of the Origin of Mythology, or of its more modern equivalent and successor, Theology.

A brief outline of facts will serve to bring into clearer relief this view of religion as essentially practical—a set of observances, rendered inevitable by the primitive data of human psychology. It will then be seen that what is fundamental and essential in religion is the body of practices, remaining throughout all stages of human development the same, or nearly the same, in spite of changes of mythological or theological theory; and that what is accidental and variable is the particular verbal explanation or philosophical reason assigned for the diverse rites and ceremonies.

In its simplest surviving savage type, religion consists wholly and solely in certain acts of deference paid by the living to the persons of the dead. I shall try to show in the sequel that down to its most highly evolved modern type in the most cultivated societies, precisely similar acts of deference, either directly to corpses or ghosts as such, or indirectly to gods who were once ghosts, or were developed from ghosts, form its essence still. But to begin with I will try to bring a few simple instances of the precise nature of religion in its lowest existing savage mode.

I might if I chose take my little collection of illustrative facts from some theoretical writer, like Mr. Herbert Spencer, who has collected enough instances in all conscience to prove this point; but I prefer to go straight to an original observer of savage life and habit, a Presbyterian missionary in Central Africa—the Rev. Duff Macdonald, author of Africana—who had abundant opportunities at the Blantyre Mission for learning the ideas and practice of the Soudanese natives, and who certainly had no theoretic predisposition towards resolving all religious notions into the primitive respect and reverence for the dead or the worship of ancestors.

Here, in outline, but in Mr. Macdonald’s own words, are the ideas and observances which this careful and accurate investigator found current among the tribes of the heart of Africa. “I do not think,” he says, “I have admitted any point of importance without having heard at least four natives on the subject. The statements are translations, as far as possible, from the ipsissima verba of the negroes.”

The tribes he lived among “are unanimous in saying that there is something beyond the body which they call spirit. Every human body at death is forsaken by this spirit.” That is the almost universal though not quite primitive belief, whose necessary genesis has been well traced out by Mr. Herbert Spencer, and more recently in America with great vigour and clearness by Mr. Lester Ward.

“Do these spirits ever die?” Mr. Macdonald asks. “Some,” he answers, “I have heard affirm that it is possible for a troublesome spirit to be killed. Others give this a direct denial. Many, like Kumpama, or Cherasulo, say, ‘You ask me whether a man’s spirit ever dies. I cannot tell. I have never been in the spirit-world, but this I am certain of, that spirits live for a very long time.’”

On the question, “Who the gods are?” Mr. Macdonald says: “In all our translations of Scripture where we found the word God we used Mulungu; but this word is chiefly used by the natives as a general name for spirit. The spirit of a deceased man is called his Mulungu, and all the prayers and offerings of the living are presented to such spirits of the dead. It is here that we find the great centre of the native religion. The spirits of the dead are the gods of the living.

“Where are these gods found? At the grave? No. The villagers shrink from yonder gloomy place that lies far beyond their fields on the bleak mountain side. It is only when they have to lay another sleeper beside his forefathers that they will go there. Their god is not the body in the grave, but the spirit, and they seek this spirit at the place where their departed kinsman last lived among them. It is the great tree at the verandah of the dead man’s house that is their temple; and if no tree grow here they erect a little shade, and there perform their simple rites. If this spot become too public, the offerings may be defiled, and the sanctuary will be removed to a carefully-selected spot under some beautiful tree. Very frequently a man presents an offering at the top of his own bed beside his head. He wishes his god to come to him and whisper in his ear as he sleeps.”

And here, again, we get the origin of nature-worship:

“The spirit of an old chief may have a whole mountain for his residence, but he dwells chiefly on the cloudy summit. There he sits to receive the worship of his votaries, and to send down the refreshing showers in answer to their prayers.”

Almost as essential to religion as these prime factors in its evolution—the god, worship, offerings, presents, holy places, temples—is the existence of a priesthood. Here is how the Central Africans arrive at that special function:

“A certain amount of etiquette is observed in approaching the gods. In no case can a little boy or girl approach these deities, neither can anyone that has not been at the mysteries. The common qualification is that a person has attained a certain age, about twelve or fourteen years, and has a house of his own. Slaves seldom pray, except when they have had a dream. Children that have had a dream tell their mother, who approaches the deity on their behalf. (A present for the god is necessary, and the slave or child may not have it.)

“Apart from the case of dreams and a few such private matters, it is not usual for anyone to approach the gods except the chief, of the village. He is the recognised high priest who presents prayers and offerings on behalf of all that live in his village. If the chief is from home his wife will act, and if both are absent, his younger brother. The natives worship not so much individually as in villages or communities. Their religion is more a public than a private matter.”

But there are also further reasons why priests are necessary. Relationship forms always a good ground for intercession. A mediator is needed.

“The chief of a village,” says Mr. Macdonald, “has another title to the priesthood. It is his relatives that are the village gods. Everyone that lives in the village recognises these gods; but if anyone remove to another village he changes his gods. He recognises now the gods of his new chief. One wishing to pray to the god (or gods) of any village naturally desires to have his prayers presented through the village chief, because the latter is nearly related to the village god, and may be expected to be better listened to than a stranger.”

A little further on Mr. Macdonald says: “On the subject of the village gods opinions differ. Some say that every one in the village, whether a relative of the chief or not, must worship the forefathers of the chief. Others say that a person not related to the chief must worship his own forefathers, otherwise their spirits will bring trouble upon him. To reconcile these authorities we may mention that nearly everyone in the village is related to its chief, or if not related is, in courtesy, considered so. Any person not related to the village chief would be polite enough on all public occasions to recognise the village god: on occasions of private prayer (which are not so numerous as in Christendom) he would approach the spirits of his own forefathers. Besides, there might be a god of the land. The chief Kapeni prays to his own relatives, and also to the old gods of the place. His own relatives he approaches himself; the other deities he may also approach himself, but he often finds people more closely related and consequently more acceptable to the old gods of the land.”

The African pantheon is thus widely peopled. Elimination and natural selection next give one the transition from the ghost to the god, properly so called.

“The gods of the natives then are nearly as numerous as their dead. It is impossible to worship all; a selection must be made, and, as we have indicated, each worshipper turns most naturally to the spirits of his own departed relatives; but his gods are too many still, and in farther selecting he turns to those that have lived nearest his own time. Thus the chief of a village will not trouble himself about his great-great-grandfather: he will present his offering to his own immediate predecessor, and say, ‘O father, I do not know all your relatives, you know them all, invite them to feast with you.’ The offering is not simply for himself, but for himself and all his relatives.”

Ordinary ghosts are soon forgotten with the generation that knew them. Not so a few select spirits, the Cæsars and Napoleons, the Charlemagnes and Timurs of savage empires.

“A great chief that has been successful in his wars does not pass out of memory so soon. He may become the god of a mountain or a lake, and may receive homage as a local deity long after his own descendants have been driven from the spot. When there is a supplication for rain the inhabitants of the country pray not so much to their own forefathers as to the god of yonder mountain on whose shoulders the great rain-clouds repose. (Smaller hills are seldom honoured with a deity.)”

Well, in all this we get, it seems to me, the very essentials and universals of religion generally,—the things without which no religion could exist—the vital part, without the ever-varying and changeable additions of mere gossiping mythology. In the presents brought to the dead man’s grave to appease the ghost, we have the central element of all worship, the practical key of all cults, past or present.

On the other hand, mythologists tell us nothing about the origin of prayer and sacrifice: they put us off with stories of particular gods, without explaining to us how those gods ever came to be worshipped. Now, mythology is a very interesting study in its own way: but to treat as religion a mass of stories and legends about gods or saints, with hardly a single living element of practice or sacrifice, seems to me simply to confuse two totally distinct branches of human enquiry. The Origin of Tales has nothing at all to do with the Origin of Worship.

When we come to read Mr. Macdonald’s account of a native funeral, on the other hand, we are at once on a totally different tack; we can understand, as by an electric flash, the genesis of the primitive acts of sacrifice and religion.

“Along with the deceased is buried a considerable part of his property. We have already seen that his bed is buried with him; so also are all his clothes. If he possesses several tusks of ivory, one tusk or more is ground to a powder between two stones and put beside him. Beads are also ground down in the same way. These precautions are taken to prevent the witch (who is supposed to be answerable for his death) from making any use of the ivory or beads.

“If the deceased owned several slaves, an enormous hole is dug for a grave. The slaves are now brought forward. They may be either cast into the pit alive, or the undertakers may cut all their throats. The body of their master or their mistress is then laid down to rest above theirs, and the grave is covered in.

“After this the women come forward with the offerings of food, and place them at the head of the grave. The dishes in which the food was brought are left behind. The pot that held the drinking-water of the deceased and his drinking-cup are also left with him. These, too, might be coveted by the witch, but a hole is pierced in the pot, and the drinking calabash is broken.

“The man has now gone from the society of the living, and he is expected to share the meal thus left at his grave with those that have gone before him. The funeral party breaks up; they do not want to visit the grave of their friend again without a very good reason. Anyone found among the graves may be taken for a cannibal. Their friend has become a citizen of a different village. He is with all his relatives of the past. He is entitled to offerings or presents which may come to him individually or through his chief. These offerings in most cases he will share with others, just as he used to do when alive,” Sometimes the man may be buried in his own hut.

“In this case the house is not taken down, but is generally covered with cloth, and the verandah becomes the place for presenting offerings. His old house thus becomes a kind of temple.... The deceased is now in the spirit-world, and receives offerings and adoration. He is addressed as ‘Our great spirit that has gone before.’ If anyone dream of him. it is at once concluded that the spirit is ‘up to something.’ Very likely he wants to have some of the survivors for his companions. The dreamer hastens to appease the spirit by an offering.”

So real is this society of the dead that Mr. Macdonald says: “The practice of sending messengers to the world beyond the grave is found on the West Coast. A chief summons a slave, delivers to him a message, and then cuts off his head. If the chief forget anything that he wanted to say, he sends another slave as a postscript.”