An Introduction to Social Psychology
Chapter 13: The Instincts Through Which Religious Conceptions Affect Social Life
MANY authors have written of the religious instinct or instincts, though few have made any serious attempt to make clear the meaning they attach to these phrases. Those who use these phrases usually seem to imply that this assumed religious instinct of man is one that is his peculiar endowment and has no relation to the instincts of the animals. But I do not know that this is now seriously maintained by any psychologist. The emotions that play a principal part in religious life are admiration, awe, and reverence. In Chapter V. we have analysed these emotions and found that admiration is a fusion of wonder and negative self-feeling; that awe is a fusion of admiration with fear; and that reverence is awe blended with tender emotion.
Religion has powerfully influenced social development in so many ways, and the primary emotions and impulses through which the religious conceptions have exerted this influence have co-operated so intimately, that
( 310) they must be considered together when we attempt to illustrate their role in social life.
Something has already been said of the role of fear in the chapter treating of pugnacity. Whether or no the hypothesis of the "primal law" be well founded, fear must have played in primitive societies some such part as was assigned to it in discussing that doctrine. That is to say, fear of physical punishment inflicted by the anger of his fellows must have been the great agent of discipline of primitive man; through such fear he must first have learnt to control and regulate his impulses in conformity with the needs of social life.
But, at an early stage of social development, awe must have supplemented and in part supplanted simple fear in this role. For, as with the development of language man became capable of a fuller life of ideas, the instinct of curiosity, which in the animals merely serves to rivet their attention upon unfamiliar objects, must have been frequently excited by the display of forces that in creatures of a lower level of development excite fear only. This instinct must then have kept his thoughts at work upon these objects of his wonder, and especially upon those which excited not only wonder but fear. These must have become the objects of man's awful contemplation, and he began to evolve theories to account for them, theories of which, no doubt, he felt the need as guides to action in the presence of these forces.
We may assume that primitive man lacked almost completely the conception of mechanical causation. For the modern savage mechanical causation is the explanation of but a small part of the natural processes which interest him through affecting his welfare for good or ill. For those of us who have grown up familiar with the modern
( 311) doctrine of the prevalence of mechanical causation throughout the material world, it is difficult to realise how enormous is the distortion of the facts of immediate experience wrought by that doctrine, by how great an effort of abstraction it has been reached. The savage is familiar with the sequence of movement upon impact, but such sequences are far from invariable in his experience, and constitute but a very small proportion of the events which interest him. The fall of bodies to the ground, the flowing of water, the blowing of the wind, the motions of the heavenly bodies, the growth and movements of animals and plants, thunder, lightning, rain, fire, and the emission and reflection of light and heat—these are prominent among the things that interest him, and in none of them is there any obvious indication of mechanical operation. The one kind of causation with which the uncultured man is thoroughly familiar is his own volitional action, issuing from feeling, emotion, and desire; and this naturally and inevitably becomes for him the type on which he models his theories of the causation of terrible events. Here we touch the fringe of an immense subject, the evolution of religious conceptions, which we cannot pursue. It must suffice to say that Professor Tylor's doctrine of animism, as set forth in his great work on "Primitive Culture," is probably the best account we yet have of the early steps of this evolution. Let us note merely that in all probability primitive man, like ourselves, was apt to accept without wonder, with-out pondering and reasoning upon them the beneficent processes of nature, the gentle rain, the light and warmth of the sun, the flowing of the river, the healthy growth of animal and vegetable life; but that his wonder was especially aroused by those things and events which excited also his fear, by disease and death, pestilence
(312) and famine, storm and flood, lightning and thunder, and the powerful beasts of prey. For, while the beneficent processes are regular, gentle, and familiar, these others are apt to come suddenly, irregularly, and apparently capriciously, and are therefore unfamiliar and startling, as well as hurtful and irresistible. On such objects and events, then, man's wondering thoughts were concentrated, about them his imagination chiefly played. Hence it followed that the powers which his imagination created for the explanation of these events were conceived by him more or less vaguely as terrible powers ready at every moment to bring disaster upon him and his community. Therefore he walked in fear and trembling, and was deeply concerned to learn how to avoid giving offence to these mysterious and fearful powers. And, as soon as these powers began to be conceived by man as personal powers, they must have evoked in him the attitude and impulse of subjection and the emotion of negative self-feeling, which are rooted in the instinct of subjection. Or perhaps it would be truer to say that, as man began to form conceptions of these forces of nature, they evoked in him the impulse and emotion of this instinct, threw him into the submissive attitude characteristic of this instinct, which is essentially a personal attitude, one implying a personal relation ; and that primitive man, finding him-self in this attitude before these powers, was thus led to personify them, to attribute to them the personal at-tributes of strength and anger, which are the normal and primitive excitants of this instinct. Hence his emotion took the complex form of awe (a tertiary compound of fear, wonder, and negative self-feeling ) ; that is, he not only feared, and wondered at, these powers, but
( 313) humbled himself before them, and sought to gain and to obey the slightest indications of their wills.
It is obvious that conceptions of this sort, once achieved and accepted by all members of a community with unquestioning belief, must have been very powerful agencies of social discipline. The cause of every calamity, befalling either the individual or the community, would be sought in some offence given to the beings thus vaguely conceived ; and primitive man would be apt to regard as the source of offence any action at all unusual, at all out of the ordinary, whether of individuals or of the
( 314) community. Hence the conceptions of these awe-inspiring beings would lead to increased severity of social discipline in two ways : firstly, by causing society to en-force its customary laws more rigidly than was the rule so long as breaches of the law were regarded as merely natural offences against members of the community; for the breaking of custom by any individual was now believed to bring grave risks to the whole community, which therefore was collectively concerned to prevent and to punish any such breach: secondly, by producing a very great increase in the number and kinds of customary prohibitions and enforced observances; for post hoc ergo propter hoc is the logic of uncultured man, and every unusual act followed by success or disaster must have tended to become a customary observance or the subject of a social prohibition.
Thus these conceptions of supernal powers, the products of man's creative imagination working through, and under the driving power of, the instincts of fear, curiosity, and subjection, became the great generators and supporters of custom. The importance of the social operation of these instincts was, then, very great ; for the first requisite of society, the prime condition of the social life of man, was, in the words of Bagehot, a hard crust or cake of custom. In the struggle for existence only those societies survived which were able to evolve such a hard crust of custom, binding men together, assimilating their actions to the accepted standards, compelling control of the purely egoistic impulses, and ex-terminating the individuals incapable of such control.
We see the same result among all savage communities still existing on the earth, and among all the peoples of whom we have any record at the dawn of civilisation. Their actions, whether individual or collective, are ham-
( 315) -pered, controlled, or enforced at every step by custom. In Borneo, for example, an expedition prepared by months of labour will turn homeward and give up its objects if bad omens are observed—if a particular bird calls on one side or the other, or flies across the river in some particular fashion; or a newly-married and de-voted couple will separate if on the wedding day the cry of a deer is heard near the house.
There is no end to the curious and absurd customs, generally supported by supernatural sanctions, by which the actions of savages and barbarians are commonly surrounded and hemmed in. We have to remember that, in the case of existing savage communities, the growth and multiplication of customs may have been proceeding through all the ages during which the few progressive peoples have been evolving their civilisation. But enough is now known of the primitive age of ancient Greece and Rome to show that the great civilisations of these states took their rise among peoples bound hand and foot by religious custom and law as rigidly as any savages, and to show also that the dominant religious emotion was fear.
We may assume with confidence that the formation of a mass of customary observance and prohibition was a principal feature of the evolution of all human societies that have risen above the lowest level and have survived through any considerable period of time; not only be-cause the existence of such a crust of custom is observable in all savage and barbarous communities, but also because in its earlier stage the process must have so strengthened the societies in which it took place that rival societies in which it failed could not have stood up
( 317) against them in the struggle for existence. And this essential step of social evolution was, as we have seen, in the main produced by the co-operation of the instincts of fear, curiosity, and subjection.
The difficult thing to understand is how any societies ever managed to break their cake of custom, to become progressive and yet to survive. As a matter of fact, very few have become progressive, and fewer still have long survived the taking of this step. The great majority have remained in the bonds of custom. And these customs have grown ever more rigid and more remote in form from primitive customs, and often more unreason-able and absurd; in many cases they have assumed forms so grotesque that it is difficult to suggest their psychological origin and history; and in many cases their multiplicity and rigidity have increased, until they have far exceeded the socially advantageous limits.
In many regions the fearful element in religion pre-dominated more and more, the gods increasingly assumed a cruel and bloodthirsty character, until, as in the case of the Aztecs of ancient Mexico, the religious ritual by which they were appeased involved the sacrifice of herds of victims, and their altars were constantly wet with human blood.
These elements and forces of primitive religion have lived on, continuing to play their parts, while religion rose to a higher plane on which tender emotion, in the form of gratitude, mingled more and more with awe, blended with it, and converted it to reverence.
This change in the nature of religious emotion among those peoples that have survived and progressed was a natural consequence of their success in the struggle of groups for survival. For the surviving communities are those whose gods have in the main, not only spared them,
( 318) not only abstained from bringing plague and famine and military disaster upon them in too severe measure, but have actively supported them and enabled them to overcome their enemies. Communities that are continuously successful in battle naturally tend to conceive the divine power as a god of battles who smites the enemy hip and thigh and delivers them into the hands of his chosen people to be their slaves and to add to their wealth and power. Thus the early Romans, as they emerged triumphant from successive wars with the neighbouring cities and grew in power and wealth, naturally and inevitably acquired some confidence in the beneficence of their gods; they began to fear them less and to feel some gratitude towards them.
The utterly cruel gods could continue to survive only among communities not subjected to any severe struggle with other groups, as, for example, among the comparatively isolated Aztecs of Mexico.
Nevertheless, in almost all religions, fear of divine punishment has continued to play its all-important part in securing observance of social custom and law, and in leading communities to enforce their customs with severe penalties. The divine power remains for long ages a very jealous god (or gods), whose anger against a whole people may be stirred by the offences of individuals. This feature, namely, communal responsibility before the gods, to which in primitive societies the supernatural sanctions owe their tremendous power as agents of social discipline, was clearly present even in the religion of Athens at the time of its highest culture; and even in our own age and country the belief still survives and finds occasional expression (or did so very recently) in the observance of days of national humiliation.
But, as societies became larger and more complex, this
( 319) principle necessarily weakened. Man's sense of justice rebelled against the ascription of so much injustice to the gods, whom he was learning to regard with gratitude and reverence as well as awe. Man is never long content to worship gods of moral character greatly inferior to his own. Hence the onus of responsibility for breaches of law and custom tends to be shifted back to the offending individual. And then, since it was obvious in every age that the wicked man often flourishes during this life, it became necessary to assume that the vengeance of the supernatural powers falls upon him in the life beyond the grave. Hence we find that, while societies are small and compact, communal responsibility for individual wrong-doing is the rule, and the idea of punishment after death is hardly entertained; but that, with the growth in size and complexity of a society and with the improvement of its moral ideas, belief in communal responsibility declines, and belief in punishment of wrong-doing after death arises to take its place as the effective sanction of custom and law. The most notable example of this process is, of course, afforded by the hell-fire which has played so great a part in the sterner forms of Christianity. And the long persistence of fear and awe in religion is well illustrated by the phrase widely current among the generation recently passed away, "an upright, god-fearing man," a phrase which ex-presses the tendency to identify uprightness with god-fearingness, or, rather, to recognise fear as the source and regulator of social conduct. It is a nice question: To what extent is the lapse from orthodox observances, so remarkable and widespread among the more highly civilised peoples at the present time, due to the general softening of religious teaching, to the lapse of the doctrine of divine retribution to a very secondary position,
(320) and to the discredit into which the flames of hell have fallen ?
It has been contended by some authors that religion and morality were primitively distinct, and that the intimate connection commonly obtaining between them in civilised societies arose comparatively late in the course of social development. This contention, which is opposed to the view of religious development sketched in the fore-going pages, is true only if we attach an unduly narrow meaning to the words "religion" and "morality." Although many of the modes of conduct prescribed by primitive and savage custom and enforced by super-natural sanctions are not such as we regard as moral, and are in many cases even detrimental to the simple societies in which such customs obtain, and so cannot be justified by any utilitarian principle, yet we must class the observance of such custom as moral conduct. For the essence of moral conduct is the performance of social duty, the duty prescribed by society, as opposed to the mere following of the promptings of egoistic impulses. If we define moral conduct in this broad sense, and this is the only satisfactory definition of it  —then, no matter how grotesque and, from our point of view, how immoral the prescribed codes of conduct of other societies may appear to be, we must admit conformity to the code to be moral conduct; and we must admit that religion from its
(321) first crude beginnings was bound up with morality in some such way as we have briefly sketched ; that the two things, religion and morality, were not at first separate and later fused together; but that they were always intimately related, and have reciprocally acted and reacted upon one another throughout the course of their evolution. We must recognise also that a firm and harmonious relation between them has been in every age a main condition of the stability of societies.
The hypothetical sketch of the early development of morality, the most essential condition of all development of social life, contained in the foregoing pages may be summarised as follows: Moral conduct consists in the regulation and control of the immediate promptings of impulse in conformity with some prescribed code of conduct. The first stage was the control of impulse through fear of individual retribution. Advance from this level took place through three principal changes : (I ) the general recognition and customary observance of individual rights which before had been claimed only by individuals and enforced only by their superior strength; (2) an increase in the number of kinds of action regulated by customary law; (3) an increase of the effectiveness of the sanctions of these laws ; the principal change in this connection being the introduction of supernatural powers (i.e., powers which we regard as supernatural) as the guardians of patrons of custom, resulting (a) in the stern enforcement of customs by the whole community, which feels itself collectively responsible to these powers, and (b) in the supplementing of the fear of human retribution by the fear of divine retribution; (4) a change in the innate dispositions of men, consisting in a development of those features of the mind which render possible a prudent and more complete control of
( 322) the primary impulses, a change effected in the earlier stages chiefly by individual selection, in later stages chiefly by military group-selection.
In the production of this evolution of morality the instincts of pugnacity (probably largely under the form of male jealousy) and of fear were the all-important factors as regards the first stages; while in later stages these great socialising forces were supplemented by the impulses of curiosity or wonder, or subjection, and, at a still later stage, by the tender protective impulse evoked principally in the form of gratitude towards the protecting deities.
A few more words must be said about the role of curiosity as a force in the life of societies. For, although it has no doubt played, largely under the forms of wonder and admiration, a leading part in the evolution of religion, and in so far has been one of the conservative forces of society, it has played also a no less important part of a very different tendency. The instinct of curiosity is at the base of many of man's most splendid achievements, for rooted in it are his speculative and scientific tendencies. It has been justly maintained by J. S. Mill, by T. H. Buckle, and others, that the free and effective operation of these tendencies in any society is not only the gauge of that society's position in the scale of civilisation, but also the principal condition of the progress of a people in all that constitutes civilisation. No attempt can be made here to support this view. But it may be pointed out that its truth is brought home to the mind by cursorily reviewing the periods of the greatest achievements of speculative reason. Such a review will show that these periods coincide approximately with the periods of the most rapid
( 323) progress of social evolution; each such period of the life of a people being commonly followed by one of social stagnation, during which the leading minds remain con-tent to brood over the wisdom of the ancient sages, Confucius, Aristotle, or Galen, regarding their achievements as unapproachable, authoritative, and supreme.
It is the insatiable curiosity of the modern European and American mind that, more than anything else, distinguishes it from all others and is the source of the immensely increased power over nature and over man that we now possess. Contrast our sceptical, insatiable, North-Pole-hunting disposition with that of most Eastern peoples.
If we attempt briefly to characterise the achievements that we owe to the speculative tendencies rooted in the
( 324) instinct of curiosity, we find that they may for the most part be summed up under the head of improvements in our conception of causation. Mr. Stuart Glennie has formulated, as the fundamental law of intellectual development, the law of the advance from a quantitatively undetermined to a quantitatively determined conception of the reciprocal action or interaction of all things; that is to say, he maintains that the main cause of human progress is the advance from very imperfect and misleading views of causation to more accurate views ; and in place of Comte's three stages of thought—the theological, the metaphysical, and the positive—he would distinguish the magical, the supernatural, and the scientific stages of this advance in man's notion of causation.
There is truth in this formulation; but we must recognise that the stages do not succeed one another in clearly distinguishable periods of time, but rather that the three modes of thought coexist among every people that has progressed beyond savagery, and will probably always coexist: we must recognise that progress consists in, and results from, the increasing dominance of the second, and especially of the third, over the first, rather than in any complete substitution of one for an-other.
The magical mode of thought and practice is the immediate expression of man's need and desire to control the forces of his environment, while yet he knows nothing of their nature. At this stage man conceives all things to be capable of reciprocal action, but as to the modes of their interaction he has but the vaguest and most inaccurate notions. Hence, in attempting to control these forces, he adopts whatever procedure suggests itself in virtue of the natural associative conjunctions of his ideas; as when he attempts to cause rain by sprink-
( 325) -ling water on the ground with certain traditional formalities, to raise wind by whistling or by imitating the sound of it with the bull-roarer, to bring disease or death by maltreating an effigy of his enemy, to cure pain and disease by drawing it out of the body in the form of a material object or imaginary entity.
Though belief in the efficacy of such practices has maintained itself with wonderful persistency through long ages, yet the lack of success that so often attends them forbids man to remain for ever satisfied with them, or to feel that he has a power of control over nature adequate to his needs. Hence his imaginative faculty, operating under the impulse of curiosity or wonder, evolves great supernatural powers which he regards with awe and submission. Society recognises these powers, and a traditional cult of them grows up, and the system of supernatural explanation of natural events enters upon its long period of dominance. All the unprogressive societies of the earth remain (as so well depicted in the passage quoted in the footnote of p. 323) in this stage in which theories of causation are predominantly supernatural and personal.
But in most societies there have been, throughout the period of dominance of supernatural explanations, a certain number of men whose curiosity was not satisfied by the current systems. They have maintained the magical attitude, and, impelled by curiosity, have sought to in-crease their direct influence upon natural forces by achieving a better understanding of them. These are the wizards, the medicine-men, the alchemists and astrologers, the independent thinkers, who at almost all times and places have been reprobated and persecuted by the official representatives of the supernatural cults. In most of the societies that have survived in the struggle
( 326) for existence, the impulse of curiosity has not been strong enough to make head against these repressive measures. For the strength of the social sanctions, de-rived from the belief in the supernatural powers and from the awe and reverence excited by the ideas of these powers, was a main condition of the strength and stability of society; and no society has been able to survive in any severe and prolonged conflict of societies, without some effective system of such sanctions. Hence we find a survival of the primitive predominance of the magical conception of causation only among peoples such as the natives of Australia, which, owing to their peculiar geographical conditions, have never been subjected to any severe process of group-selection. While all societies that have made any considerable progress in civilisation have been enabled to do so only in virtue of the stability they derived from their system of super-natural sanctions.
Hence the age-long, inevitable, and radical antagonism between the conservative spirit of religion and the progressive spirit of inquiry. The progress of mankind has only been rendered possible by their coexistence and conjoint operation. In the main, those societies which, in virtue of the strength and social efficiency of their system of supernatural beliefs and sanctions, have been most stable and capable of enduring have been least tolerant of the spirit of inquiry, and therefore least progressive; on the other hand, the flourishing of scepticism has been too often the forerunner of social decay, as in ancient Greece and Rome. Continued progress has been rendered possible only by the fact that the gains achieved by the spirit of inquiry have survived the dissolution of the societies in which they have been achieved (and to which that spirit has proved fatal) through becoming
( 327) imitatively taken up into the culture of societies in which the conservative spirit continued to predominate.
At the present time it may seem that in one small quarter of the world, namely, Western Europe, society has achieved an organisation so intrinsically stable that it may with impunity tolerate the flourishing of the spirit of inquiry and give free rein to the impulse of curiosity. But to assume that this is the case would be rash. The issue remains doubtful. The spirit of inquiry has broken all its bonds and soared gloriously, until now the conception of natural causation predominates in every field; and, if the notion of supernatural powers still persists in the minds of men, it is in the form of the conception of a Divine Creator who maintains the laws that He has made, but does not constantly interfere with their operation. This change of belief, this withdrawal of super-natural power from immediate intervention in the life of mankind, inevitably and greatly diminishes the social efficiency of the supernatural sanctions. Whether our societies will prove capable of long surviving this process is the most momentous of the problems confronting Western Civilisation. The answer to it is a secret hid-den in the bosom of the future. If they shall survive the change, it can only be because the impulse of curiosity, carrying forward the work that it has so splendidly begun, will rapidly increase man's understanding of, and control over, his own nature and the conditions of healthy and vigorous social life.
Of the instinct of self-display little need be said in this section. Not because it is not of the first importance for social life, but because what was said of it in Section I. suffices to show the view I take of its importance
( 328) and how it becomes incorporated in the self-regarding sentiment and plays a part in all true volition. Here I would only add that in my view it plays a similarly essential part in all true collective volition, being incorporated in the sentiment for the family, tribe, or nation, or other social aggregate that exerts such volition. But the discussion and illustration of the nature of collective mental processes falls outside the plan of this volume.
Of the social functions of the instinct of submission something has been said in Section I. and in the fore-going pages of this Section. But one of its most important social operations is the determination of the imitative, suggestible attitude of men and of societies towards one another; and of this something will be said in the last chapter.