Review of Religion Among the Primitives

Ellsworth Faris

The title of this book is misleading, since it deals with only five peoples, selected because one or more detailed anthropological accounts of each one were available. Nevertheless, it represents a great deal of patient labor. Several important sources are neglected, but the Bibliography lists about two hundred and fifty books, while the citations and footnotes take up forty-seven pages with over eight hundred references.

The body of the work is a discussion of three aspects of life: economics, politics, and family relations, to each of which two chapters are devoted. The relation of religion to each of these three is set forth in detail for each of five societies located in West Africa, Polynesia, Melanesia, Australia, and southwestern United States. Brief generalizations follow each of the three sections.

On economics the author finds that "primitive" man is not occupied merely in a rude struggle for existence but that he gives much effort and "wealth" to religious activities. He draws upon a great body of knowledge about fishing, canoe-building, irrigation, and the rest, and, moreover, he gives gifts to relatives and others, The author finds that religious "systems" motivate economic activity, though not always in the most efficient way.

The political system of each of the five peoples receives detailed treatment, ending with the conclusion that religion gives support to the political. Society, he insists, is not a mere aggregation of hypothetical individuals but is a cultural emergent.

The family life of each of the five tribes is set forth in detail, and the conclusion is reached that religion is very closely related to family life and to the kinship structure. In particular, the socialization of children involves a religious ritual, and the creation of a new family is sup-ported by, and in turn supports, the religious structure.

These accounts are preceded by a chapter on a "theory of religious action," which is set forth in eleven numbered propositions but which can be given in a condensed summary. Human societies distinguish between sacred and secular and have specific cult training, since conformity with religious prescriptions gives support for other values. Religious practitioners have certain advantages. The gods are not always like men but are always conceived in social terms. There is a body of religious belief, but religion always demands action. Finally, magic and religion merge into each other in a continuum. These are the main points in the theory.

The writing is free from the jargon that mars so much of sociological writing, but the author does lapse into writing "groupal," "actional," and "judgmental," and not by oversight, since they are perpetrated repeatedly.

The word "primitive" is used throughout for want of an acceptable word, as he acknowledges, but it leads him to write "modern primitives" in one place, which is almost like saying "young old people." An agreed term has not appeared, but we no longer write "savage" or "nature people." Of course, they are primitive in no sense whatever, and the term is fast disappearing, It has become increasingly clear that the possession of written records is perhaps the essential differentia between civilized man and the once-called "primitives." The author compares and contrasts on occasion the primitives with "urban peoples," but this obscures a fundamental fact and blurs an important distinction. If we designate the Polynesian tribe as "pre-literate" and the modern urban as literate, we have left a convenient term, "illiterate," which applies to the peasants or folk, who are in a very different case from either of the other two, For the illiterate is in a certain contact with the learned, though he cannot read, and this whether in Germany, China, or India. He cannot read the sacred books, but his priest tells him some-thing of what is written there.

Pre-literates, on the other hand, have no written records, no history, no fixed doctrines, not theology. History is written history, and history is the memory of a people-but the pre-literates have no history, and their legends change and grow and even fade and disappear. They have their rituals, but the explanatory legends and myths have none of the force or authority of

( 395) written doctrines. Terminology is, of course, determined by usage, and we can expect the most convenient term to prevail. Incidentally, the term "preliterate" is used on the jacket of this hook to advertise the work of Radcliffe-Brown on the Andamans.

The value of a book of this sort is, of course, dependent on the accuracy of the sources of in-formation. Great gain in this respect has come since Spencer, Durkheim, and Sumner had to depend on travelers' tales and the chance re-ports of missionaries. A generation ago our anthropologists went to the field and began to study intensively and to record their findings. This is a great gain, but it still leaves much to be desired. A residence of a few weeks or a few months, speaking English or French or a jargon "pidgin," has given us valuable material but leaves much to be desired. When our scholars are able to spend years enough to enable them to acquire a perfect command of the language and to feel themselves into the native conceptions of life and the world, we shall be able to correct many current misconceptions. Perhaps natives of these tribes can, before too long, be given a university education and, returning to the field, find what we seek. Already there are many graduates of Oxford and Cambridge in the Gold Coast and elsewhere, so that it may hap-pen earlier than we think.

Meanwhile, we must exercise our critical faculty as best we can. Marco Polo found an emperor and a pope in nearly every land he visited. We do not go so far, but our students sometimes try to discover creeds and doctrines where it is doubtful whether these exist. Paul Radin. secured from a Winnebago the origin myth, but later reproached his informant with giving a mere fraction of the story. The reply was that Radin had paid only enough money for the short one and that he could have had the long one, had he bargained for it. The two differed, but that was a matter of no consequence. Professor Goode is puzzled at some of the inconsistencies in the accounts of the pantheon, but this does not concern the people who tell the story. The myth may be sacred; it is rarely, if ever, fixed.

A sort of linguistic or semantic ethnocentrism is very natural. We have fairly well-defined concepts of religion and of magic. The pre-literates lack both concepts. When the student wishes to find which is magic and which is religion, he is trying to make a distinction foreign to the life he is studying. Goode rightly concludes that these two shade off into each other.

The genius of the English language makes it easy to appear to reify an abstract noun without so intending. Religion is not a thing, religion is not a force, religion does not do anything either to the worker, the ruler, or the head of the family. But some actions and some utterances have a quality which we recognize as religious, having to do with sacred things and actions. It is not easy to avoid saying what is not intended, and much care is needed if one is to be wholly accurate. Did our idiom permit, it would be well to make the noun into an adverb and describe how and when men act religiously.

The concluding chapter reveals a moral earnestness rare in a scientific discussion. The author feels that we are last, that the "poignant, damaging, grim, dogged consciousness of aloneness will persist into the future." He therefore feels that he is unable to tell us which religion is better or whether religion in general is goad. Nor can he tell us whether there is an ultimate reality to which these ideas refer. Similarly, the origin of religion is felt to be beyond the realm of ascertainable fact. A hope is expressed that the scientist may some day provide the facts to help to teach the prophet whose guidance we await.

Much could be said and whole libraries have been written on the relation of religion and science, and this is not the place to review the arguments. Very few scientific books raise the question, at least books on sociology; but one does not feel unsympathetic with an author who can remain so admirably objective at the same time that his emotions are so deeply involved.

Lake Forest, Illinois


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