Animism And The Origin Of Religion

Two animistic theories of the origin of religion have been put forward, the one, often termed the "ghost theory," mainly associated with the name of Herbert Spencer, but also maintained by Grant Allen, refers the beginning of religion to the cult of dead human beings; the other, put forward by Dr. E. B. Tylor, makes the foundation of all religion animistic, but recognizes the non-human character of polytheistic gods. Although ancestor-worship, or, more broadly, the cult of the dead, has in many cases overshadowed other cults or even extinguished them, we have no warrant, even in these cases, for asserting its priority, but rather the reverse; not only so, but in the majority of cases the pantheon is made up by a multitude of spirits in human, sometimes in animal form, which bear no signs of ever having been incarnate; sun gods and moon goddesses, gods of fire, wind and water, gods of the sea, and above all gods of the sky, show no signs of having been ghost gods at any period in their history.

They may, it is true, be associated with ghost gods, but in Australia it cannot even be asserted that the gods are spirits at all, much less that they are the spirits of dead men; they are simply magnified magicians, super-men who have never died; we have no ground, therefore, for regarding the cult of the dead as the origin of religion in this area; this conclusion is the more probable, as ancestor-worship and the cult of the dead generally cannot be said to exist in Australia.

The more general view that polytheistic and other gods are the elemental and other spirits of the later stages of animistic creeds, is equally inapplicable to Australia, where the belief seems to be neither animistic nor even animatistic in character. But we are hardly justified in arguing from the case of Australia to a general conclusion as to the origin of religious ideas in all other parts of the world. It is perhaps safest to say that the science of religions has no data on which to go, in formulating conclusions as to the original form of the objects of religious emotion; in this connexion it must be remembered that not only is it very difficult to get precise information of the subject of the religious ideas of people of low culture, perhaps for the simple reason that the ideas themselves are far from precise, but also that, as has been pointed out above, the conception of spiritual often approximates very closely to that of material. Where the soul is regarded as no more than a finer sort of matter, it will obviously be far from easy to decide whether the gods are spiritual or material.

Even, therefore, if we can say that at the present day the gods are entirely spiritual, it is clearly possible to maintain that they have been spiritualized pari passu with the increasing importance of the animistic view of nature and of the greater prominence of eschatological beliefs. The animistic origin of religion is therefore not proven.