« PreviousContinue »
consideration. The question belongs to one of the least advanced of sciences—the science of comparative psychology. The religious characteristics of men are mental peculiarities which can only be successfully studied by those who are accustomed to trace and analyse mental processes. But how few of those who travel among savage peoples have received any instruction in mental science, and how little mental science is there of a kind calculated to serve as a guide to the correct observation and interpretation of intellectual, moral, and religious phenomena! The men who write those books of travels in which distant lands and savage peoples are described, are often more than ordinarily conversant with zoology, botany, and other physical sciences, and they can describe accurately plants, animals, geological and meteorological facts, the bodily peculiarities of human beings, weapons, canoes, &c., but they very seldom give much trustworthy information as to the mental operations of the aborigines with whom they have come into contact. Even such eminent observers of outward nature as Mr Wallace and Mr Bates, for example, were obviously able to make out extremely little as to the inner life of the Amazonian tribes. When a traveller tells us that he found among the natives of some barbarous land no traces of religious belief, we must consider whether or not he had the means and opportunities required
to arrive at the truth in the matter ; whether or not he was sufficiently master of the tribal language to converse easily in it; whether or not he had so thoroughly gained the confidence of those whose religious beliefs he sought to ascertain that they were quite open and unreserved in communicating to him their most secret and most sacred thoughts and feelings; whether or not his inquiries were of a really intelligent kind; how far these inquiries extended; how far the impression which he derived from his intercourse with some individuals might have been modified if he had had more intercourse with other individuals of the same community; whether he knew much, little, or nothing of their songs and traditions, &c. A foreigner is very rarely a competent and impartial judge. It is so even with respect to civilised peoples, and must be still more so with respect to barbarous peoples. After years of residence in England, a Frenchman's book on English life is apt to be on many points amusingly absurd. What must, then, the liabilities to error be in the case of countries rarely or never visited before, and which the traveller merely hurries through, knowing imperfectly or not at all the languages spoken? In savage countries the stranger is generally an object of dislike, or at least of distrust. Disinterested curiosity is what an uncivilised man cannot understand, and to question him is often of itself sufficient to render him suspicious and evasive. He is, in general, specially averse to being questioned about his religious beliefs. It doubtless seems to him a sort of profanation to converse regarding them with one whom he perceives to despise them, and a humiliation to give expression to his vague feelings and incoherent convictions on such matters before one whom he cannot but feel to be intellectually above him. If the questioner be a missionary seeking to propagate the principles of his own faith, of course the barbarian is all the more likely to take refuge in silence and feigned ignorance.
In confirmation of these remarks, I may quote the following sentences from the valuable work of Mr Tylor on ‘Primitive Culture.' He says: “Even with much time, and care, and knowledge of language, it is not always easy to elicit from savages the details of their theology. They try to hide from the prying and contemptuous foreigner their worship of gods who seem to shrink, like their worshippers, before the white man and his mightier Deity. Mr Sproat's experience in Vancouver's Island is an apt example of this state of things. He says: 'I was two years among the Ahts, with my mind constantly directed towards the subject of their religious beliefs, before I could discover that they possessed any ideas as to an overruling power or a future state of existence. The traders on the coast, and other persons well acquainted with the people, told me that they had no such ideas, and this opinion was confirmed by conversation with many of the less intelligent savages; but at last I succeeded in getting a satisfactory clue.' It then appeared that the Ahts had all the time been hiding a whole characteristic system of religious doctrines as to souls and their migrations, the spirits who do good and ill to men, and the great gods above all. Thus, even where no positive proof of religious ideas among any particular tribe has reached us, we should distrust its denial by observers whose acquaintance with the tribe in question has not been intimate as well as kindly.”
I would remark, in the third place, that we must beware of denying that a rude and feebly developed religion is religion at all. We must not expect too much. Many who have affirmed that such and such peoples were destitute of religion have done so because these peoples did not believe in one supreme God, or had no proper conception of a Creator or Moral Governor. They have identified religion with theism, and represented as destitute of religion tribes whose doctrines fell so far short of their own that they thought them unworthy to be designated religious. As the early Christians were called atheists because they disowned the gods of pagan Rome, so several heathen tribes have been called atheists by those who could find
among them no traces of belief in the one true God; or if not called atheists they have been said to have no religion but merely superstitions. Testimony of this kind, however, is quite worthless when the point to be decided is whether religion is universal or not. Superstition, as understood by the writers referred to, just means false religion, and the presence of false religion is as good evidence of the existence of religion as the presence of true religion. The distinction between religion and superstition is a very important one in its proper place, but it has no relevancy here, and the employment of it in this connection is a sure sign of confusion of thought. We have no right to identify religion with particular phases of religion. We have no right to pronounce a low or bad religion no religion at all. We have no right to include in our definition of religion the belief in one Supreme Being, in the creation of the world, in the immortality of the soul, or a regulated outward worship, or a priesthood, &c. We are inquiring whether or not religion in some form is everywhere to be discovered; and in order to arrive at a correct answer, we must not ignore or discard any form of it, however humble or ignoble, however undeveloped or degenerate.
We must be content with a minimum definition, —with the definition which comprehends all phenomena admitted to be religious. Perhaps if we say