Words and Wonders: Notes on Religious Origins
Ellwood, Robert S., National Forum
When did a human being first utter the name of a god, whether in fear or awe or love? When did a tribe or clan of humans first gather together in doing something - a dance, a chant, a sacrifice - which met no earthly need for food or shelter, but presupposed the existence of forces and beings invisible to the ordinary eye?
We do not know for sure, but we can say that such practices are now as universal as the human race, and by all evidence go back deep into the prehistory of humanity.
In this article I will look at religion historically, not theologically. Many religions have their own stories of the first humans, the first contacts between humans and transcendent powers, and the ways in which acts of worship were prescribed by the gods or God. Here my intention is to look at the common human experience behind all the stories.
Theories of the Origins of Religion
The nineteenth century was a golden age of the quest for origins. Alongside the Darwinian search for the "origin of species" were probes after the origins of human social institutions, including religion. On the evolutionary model of simpler forms before greater, it was at first universally supposed that religion would have begun with something very crude and elementary, only over long aeons of time to develop into the complex diversities of faith of later societies, including our own. Thus the pioneer anthropologist Edward B. Tylor proposed that religion started in "animism," a belief in souls separable from the body first suggested by the experience of dreams, in which one apparently left one's body during sleep to travel to far places and even meet persons deceased on the plane of waking life. From this it was easy to extrapolate the existence of souls in other entities such as the moving wind and sun and to elaborate doctrines of ancestrism and the afterlife.
The English anthropologist R.R. Marett traced religion even further back to the "pre-animist" stage of "animatism," the veneration and generation of sheer impersonal, supernatural power, the energy known by such names as mana or wakan. Sir James Frazer, in his much-cited work The Golden Bough, put magic in first place, contending that primal peoples worked sorcery before they conceived of gods, turning to the propitiation of personal deities only when they found that magic did not consistently succeed.
Against theories of this type, however, went the evidence of the distinguished Scottish folklorist Andrew Lang, who pointed out that, contrary to animist, preanimist, and magical theory, field reports showed that many of the technologically most "primitive" of peoples affirmed belief in a single "high god" who had created the world.
To further complicate matters, in the early twentieth century Sigmund Freud and his followers developed psychoanalytic theories of religious origins, such as that religion was a relic of an unspeakable primal crime of parricide. Jungians like Erich Neumann placed at the beginning an undifferentiated consciousness, the "ouroboros," which gradually divided itself up into various archetypes that are the stuff of gods and goddesses. One of the fathers of modern sociology, Emile Durkheim, suggested that the origin of religion was social, in the "social effervescence" of a tribal community creating itself through communal dance and ritual. Other thinkers, more strictly in the history or "phenomenology" of religion, seemed to put the onset of religion in a single psychic capacity: for G. van der Leeuw it was the quest for "power," for Rudolf Otto a sense of the "numinous," that which is "Wholly Other" and a mysterium tremendens et fascinans.
However, it was becoming increasingly clear that explanations of this order, which seek to reduce religion to some single easily definable point of origin, could never really deal with the complexity that is religion as we know it. Many scholars quietly gave up on the quest for origins and simply sought to describe religion as it is. …