Thursday, March 24, 2016

Herbert Spencer on the Evolution of Religion by William Henry Hudson 1908

Herbert Spencer on the Evolution of Religion by William Henry Hudson 1908

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We have seen that, while asserting an Absolute Reality behind appearance as the ultimate fact of facts, Spencer held that this Reality 'transcends not only human knowledge but human conception.' The Power manifested in the phenomenal universe being itself inscrutable, philosophy must rest content with the study of its manifestations. All questions of the theologico-metaphysical class are thus relegated to the category of the Unknowable. But religion is practically universal. It has at all times filled an immense place in human life. It has everywhere played an enormous part in the development of civilisation. It has, therefore, to be investigated as a social phenomenon. We are thus committed to an inquiry into its origin and evolution. This will lead in turn to some consideration of its probable changes in the future.

The religious consciousness is concerned with that which lies beyond the sphere of sense. What suggests the thought of agencies transcending human perception? How does the supernatural evolve out of the natural?

Spencer regards ancestor-worship as the ultimate root of all religious ideas and ceremonies. Such ancestor-worship is explained by the Ghost-theory. The savage dreams. What he dreams is to him as real as his waking experience. Thus arises the conception of another world—the spirit world. If he dreams of his dead father, he accepts the dream image as his father's double or ghost. The other self which wanders away in dreams and returns to the body, and which becomes visible in shadow and reflection, is conceived as leaving the body permanently in death, yet surviving in a fainter, though still material, form. Hence arises the conception of an after-life. But such after-life is, of course, the counterpart of this life. The double carries with it into the shadow-world its earthly appetites, desires, passions. The relations of the son to the living father are maintained, after the father's death, with his ghost. The dead man will need food and companionship. Flesh, bread, and wine are laid upon his grave, and there his horse and dog, sometimes his slaves, occasionally his wife, are slain, that their spirits may accompany his own. Sacrifices thus originate which are continued with the further object of pleasing and propitiating the dead man, and of making him friendly to the living. The grave, as the spot which the double is most likely to haunt, becomes a place of special resort and veneration. It assumes a sacred character. For purposes of identification it is at first marked by stakes or stones. As wealth and skill increase, it is walled in and covered for better protection. The grave grows into a shrine; the shrine into a temple. Hither the living repair to minister by oblations to the dead man's needs or desires, to gratify him by reciting or chanting his praises, to petition him for help. Here we have the beginnings of religious worship and ritual. As a natural result of the influence of memory and lengthening tradition, the ghost undergoes continual expansion, and little by little becomes endowed with distinctly superhuman characteristics. Differences in rank and power presently arise as the inevitable consequence of such differences among living men. The ghost of the strong man, or head of the tribe, becomes the chief of the tribal ghosts and the object of general tribal worship, With the compounding and recompounding of social groups effected by war—changes in the ghost-world following changes in society—the gradations become more numerous and more regular. In course of time, while the ghosts of ordinary ancestors remain gods, the ghosts of mighty conquerors and rulers grow into gods-in-chief. Mythologies and pantheons are thus consolidated. Finally, with the further progress of moral and intellectual evolution, the national god-in-chief becomes the one universal God. The cult of apotheosised ancestors gives birth to polytheism. Then when the scattered supernatural powers are merged in one supreme power, monotheism arises. Yet this monotheism bears traces of its origin in its substantially anthropomorphic character.

The theory is ingenious, and it has an attractive simplicity. But it is extremely doubtful whether, despite the imposing array of facts which Spencer marshals in its support, it is really borne out by such evidence as is available of the first stages of religious thought among primitive peoples. Our present business, however, is not to discuss, but merely to outline it. Starting with this interpretation of the genesis of religious ideas, Spencer proceeds to show that the whole tendency of thought during the higher stages of culture and civilisation is towards what Fiske called deanthropomorphisation. This is due in part to moral and in part to intellectual development. When monotheism has been reached, the conception of the one supreme God is gradually purged of manlike attributes. The grosser attributes—the more glaring moral imperfections—are, of course, the first to disappear. In the moral progress of the race men cannot continue to ascribe to Deity qualities which have become odious in humanity. This moralisation of the idea of God is largely dependent upon the gradual transition of society from a condition of chronic warfare to one of well-established peace. 'Ascribed characters of deities are continually adapted and readapted to the needs of the social state. During the militant phase of activity the chief god is conceived as holding insubordination as the greatest crime, as implacable in anger, as merciless in punishment; and any alleged attributes of milder kinds occupy but small space in the social consciousness. But when militancy declines and the harsh despotic form of government appropriate to it is gradually qualified by the form appropriate to industrialism, the foreground of the religious consciousness is increasingly filled with those ascribed traits of the divine nature which are congruous with the ethics of peace; divine love, divine mercy, divine forgiveness are now the characteristics enlarged upon.' Yet intellectual progress entails the elimination of even these higher attributes, since it necessarily forces upon men a more and more distinct realisation of the impossibility of thinking of the Power everywhere revealed in the universe in any terms derived from human thought and feeling. Hereafter, then, men will gradually drop 'the higher anthropomorphic characters from the First Cause, as they have long since dropped the lower.' What will be the result? 'The conception which has been enlarging from the beginning must go on enlarging, until, by disappearance of its limits, it becomes a consciousness which transcends the forms of thought, though it for ever remains a consciousness.'

Spencer thus traces the growth of religious ideas from that crudest anthropomorphism, in which they are alleged to have originated, to that final stage where all definite conceptions vanish and nothing is left beyond an indefinite though inexpugnable sense of Creative Power —'an Infinite and Eternal Energy, from which all things proceed.' But here we are confronted by a difficulty. If this account of the transformation of religious ideas be accepted, have we not also to accept the conclusion which seems to be involved in it — that philosophical agnosticism, which expresses our right attitude towards the mystery of the universe, is only the last term in the development of thought out of a conception which was utterly untrue? We begin with the savage's baseless belief in the material double of his dead ancestor. Out of this, by the process of gradual expansion and dematerialisation, arises the general idea of supernatural agencies. By the continuation of the same process, some of the original human attributes being dropped while others are transfigured, the conception of Deity is attained. Then, deanthropomorphisation being carried to its utmost limits, the ultimate form of religious consciousness is reached. The objection, then, may clearly be urged that if this ultimate form of religious consciousness is to be interpreted as emerging out of primitive superstition, it, too, must be condemned as merely a refinement of superstition. 'Surely if the primitive belief was absolutely false, all derived beliefs must be absolutely false.'

Admitting that the objection looks fatal, Spencer replies that it is not really so because its premise is not valid. The primitive belief was not absolutely false. It contained an element of truth—'the truth, namely, that the Power which manifests itself in consciousness is but a differently-conditioned form of the Power which manifests itself beyond consciousness.' In every voluntary act the primitive man recognises 'a source of energy within him.' He inevitably ascribes all changes in the world about him to the same kind of energy. At first he conceives this energy as exercised in precisely the same way as his own—'as put forth by beings like himself.' With the development of thought the purely human connotations and associations gradually fall away, and the idea of objective force is more and more differentiated from the idea of force as known in consciousness. Yet even the man of science, in whom this differentiation is most complete, 'is compelled to symbolise objective force in terms of subjective force from lack of any other symbol.' The implications are important. 'That internal energy which in the experiences of the primitive man was always the immediate antecedent of the changes wrought by him—that energy which, when interpreting external changes, he thought of along with those attributes of a human personality connected with it in himself; is the same energy which, freed from anthropomorphic accompaniments, is now figured as the cause of all external phenomena. The last stage reached is recognition of the truth that force as it exists beyond consciousness, cannot be like what we know as force within consciousness; and that yet, as either is capable of generating the other, they must be different modes of the same. Consequently, the final outcome of that speculation commenced by the primitive man, is that the Power manifested throughout the universe distinguished as material, is the same Power which in ourselves wells up under the form of consciousness.' Thus 'the final form of religious consciousness' is the ultimate product, not of a belief which was wholly false, but 'of a consciousness which at the outset contained a germ of truth obscured by multitudinous errors.' In the continued development of thought the errors have been slowly eliminated and the underlying truth disengaged.

From this point we advance naturally to Spencer's heroic attempt to reconcile religion and science. We have already seen that the ultimate truth of science is the persistence of force, and that by persistence of force we really mean 'the persistence of some Cause which transcends our knowledge and conception.' We now learn that the ultimate truth of religion is the existence of such an inscrutable Power. Science finds incomprehensible energy behind all the phenomena which it investigates. This consciousness of an incomprehensible energy, 'called Omnipresent from inability to assign its limits,' is 'just that consciousness in which religion dwells.' Science everywhere leads to the mystery in which religion begins. The Persistent Force of the one is the Eternal God of the other. 'Here, then, is a truth in which religions in general agree with one another, and with a philosophy antagonistic to their special dogmas. If Religion and Science are to be reconciled, the basis of reconciliation must be this deepest, widest, and most certain of all facts—that the Power which the universe manifests to us is inscrutable.'

To the vast majority of men it will certainly appear that this reconciliation is effected only by the sacrifice of everything they are accustomed to consider as specifically and positively religious. They will, moreover, regret that Spencer did not push his argument, as he might naturally have done, beyond the purely negative position in which he rests. As it is, religious thought and sentiment are reduced by him, as Sidgwick put it, to a perfectly indefinite consciousness of the Unknowable, and the emotion that accompanies this peculiar intellectual exercise. That he was himself fully satisfied with this conclusion, and was rarely troubled by any sense of our common human need for religious hope and consolation, is probably to be explained by reference less to his philosophy than to his temperament. He was well aware that in the genesis of a system of thought the emotional nature is a large factor; perhaps as large a factor as the intellectual nature. Because his own nature was deficient on the emotional side, he was able to accept the agnosticism to which, as it seemed to him, his reasoning committed him, without any recoil of feeling against the unbroken darkness in which it left the universe enshrouded. He realised indeed that an immense majority will resent, with more or less of indignation, his proposed substitution of an unthinkable abstraction for a Being towards whom we may entertain definite feelings. He further admitted, not only that current religious conceptions are indispensable as transitional modes of thought, but also that in all probability under their most abstract forms, ideas of this order will always continue to occupy the background of consciousness. Very likely there will ever remain a need to give shape to that indefinite sense of an Ultimate Existence, which forms the basis of our intelligence. We shall always be under the necessity of contemplating it as some mode of being; that is—of representing it to ourselves in some form of thought, however vague. And we shall not err in doing this so long as we treat every notion we thus frame as merely a symbol. Science rolls back the problem of the universe, but it does not solve it. A sphere of consciousness will thus always remain which rational interpretation will never serve to occupy; and as this sphere can never become an unfilled sphere—as men will never outgrow their sense of the final mystery of things and their desire to penetrate it—religion can never be destroyed. Yet the religious progress of the race hereafter, as Spencer forecasts it, can be scarcely more than a series of futile endeavours after transcendental truth, in which the mind of man, repeatedly baffled, will again and again be driven to take refuge in agnosticism. By continually seeking to know and being continually thrown back into a deepened conviction of the impossibility of knowing, we may keep alive our consciousness that it is alike our highest wisdom and our highest duty to regard that through which all things exist as Unknowable.

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