Pagan Christs (PART H)

…you take the blue pill–the story ends…you take the red pill…and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. –

Morpheus in The Matrix


§ 13.

Tribal ethic, then, would progressively mould tribal religion and be moulded by it—that is to say, a moral step enforced by political circumstances would be reflected more or less clearly in religion, as in the case of the blood covenant with the God, or in the reduction of the pantheon to monarchic or familial order; while on the other hand the established ethical view of the God would prime the ethical view of the political system. It was not that man was primarily, as it were, incapable of moral ideas as such, or that his notion of mutual duty could arise only, as Dr. Jevons seems to suppose, in the sheath of the idea of taboo. Thus to credit men’s ethic wholly to their religion, while claiming for their religion a separate root in a separate order of consciousness, is merely to beg the question in the interests of occultism. What happened was a habitual interaction of the norms of conduct. Theism would help the king; and monarchy would help theism. The outcome was that the entire ethic of the community had as it were a religious shape, 1 from which rational criticism could only gradually deliver it. When, then, religious reformers arose whose end and aim was the moral life, they would carry into their ethic the psychology of their religion, were it only because that had been the matrix, so to speak, of the most serious reflection—this even if they did not state their moral doctrine in terms of a recasting of the current religious belief. For Dr. Jevons, such a recasting would be irreligious unless the reformer professed to have direct intercourse with deity; 2 but we have seen that line of distinction to be untenable, and we cannot consistently deny either religious spirit or religious form to the argument: “God must be good: how then could he have ordained a cruelty or an injustice?”

Inasmuch, however, as all such reforms of morals took effect in modifying the current code for action, the very conception of such a code is historically a religious growth; 3 and while the concept of public law would quite early differentiate from that of morality as

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standing for What-is compared with What-ought-to-be, the idea of a code which had a superior moral authority as coming from a God through a Good Teacher remains so nearly homogeneous with that of a code framed by a new Teaching-God ora Good Teacher that they have far more in common than of incompatible. The essential structural continuity rests on the conception of spiritual authority, of “religious” obedience. Where that is present, the religious temper is substantially conserved even if the cosmological premisses of religion are disregarded or dismissed. Thus it is that such a system as that of Buddhism is not merely à posteriori but à priori to be regarded as a religion. To refuse so to regard it is once more to embrace the anomaly of the decision that what serves for religion to half the human race is non-religion.

Where ethics decisively diverges from the religious norm is the point at which it is freed from the concept of external authority. This point, indeed, is slow to become clear; and Kant, who is definitely anti-religious in his repudiation of all forms of ritual of propitiation, but finds his moral authority in a transcendental imperative, is still partly on the religious plane. Fichte, who brushed aside Kant’s identification of religion with ethic, and insisted that religion is knowledge in the sense of philosophy—Fichte will be pronounced by others than Dr. Jevons to be nonreligious as regards his ethic, though he is still religious in respect of his pantheism. It is only when both are divested of apriorism that religion is done with. Then, though some may still claim to apply to their independent philosophy of life the name of religion, on the score that it is at least as seriously framed and held as ever a religion was, the anthropologist may reasonably grant that a real force of differentiation has emerged. When every man consciously shapes his own “religion” out of his conceptions of social utility, the term is of no descriptive value; and when many do so and many more still cleave to religious cosmology and to the ethic of specified authority, the description as applied to the former is misleading. In any case, it is a historical fact that only slowly do ethical schools lose the religious cast.Jurare in verba magistri is their note in all save vigorously progressive periods; and the philosophical schools of the Middle Ages all strike it. That those of to-day have wholly abandoned it, perhaps few would considerately assert; but it is at least obvious that it belongs as essentially to Buddhism as to Christianity, whether or not the individual Buddhist accepts, as most do, a mass of religious beliefs alien to the alleged doctrine of the Master.

§ 14.

We may now circumspectly sum up the constructive argument, and in so doing we arrive at an inductive definition of religion.

1. Religion consists primarily in a surmise or conception, reached by way of simple animism, of the causation and control of Nature (including human life) in terms of inferred quasi-human personalities, whether or not defined as extra-Natural. On the belief proceed certain practices. Beginning on the side of fear, it necessarily expands in time, with the rise of culture, to the side of gratitude; and it expresses itself accordingly. But its magical or strategical and its simply precatory or propitiatory forms proceed on the same premisses, and are in origin contemporary and correlative, being respectively the expression of the more and the less self-confident sides of men’s nature 1 in the state of ignorance.

2. The primary surmise or conception involves itself in a multitude of beliefs, of which one of the most significant is that of kinship between animal and man (making possible a religious development of totemism), and the animal descent of the latter. From animism in general and this belief in particular comes an endless diversity of mythic narratives, all of which must be regarded as part of religion.

3. On the basis of animism, and of primitive inference of causation in all coincidence, arise a multitude of special practices, as taboo, which are first and last religious, being invariably bound up with the religious ideas aforesaid.

4. In virtue of the inevitable correlation of moral with cosmological thought in early man through animism, religion thus becomes secondarily a rule for the human control of human life; and it remains structurally recognisable on this side when the primary aspect has partly faded away.

5. Alike when such a rule for life is ascribed to a mythical founder—whether God or demigod or supernormal man—or to a historical personage credited only with moral genius, the special sanctity or authority ascribed to his code partakes of the nature of religion. Thus the religious element in Positivism consists as much in the reverence given to the founder as in the elements of his teaching. [There is a varying measure of a common religious element in the kind of honour paid to Zoroaster, Buddha, Moses, Jesus, the Hebrew prophets, Apollonius of Tyana, Paul, Saint Augustine, Saint Francis, Luther, Calvin, Arminius, Jansen, Glas,

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[paragraph continues]Sandeman, Muggleton, Auguste Comte, Mrs. Eddy, and Madame Blavatsky.]

6. Philosophic, scientific, and ethical thought may be defined as specifically non-religious when, but not before, they have abandoned or repudiated the cosmological premisses of religion, found their guiding principle in tested induction, and, in the case of ethics, ceased to found the rule of life on either alleged supernatural revelation or the authority of an alleged supernormal or specially gifted teacher.

7. Even after conceptual thought has thus repudiated religion, however, what is termed “cosmic emotion” remains in the psychic line of religion.

In fine, religion is the sum (a) of men’s ideas of their relation to the imagined forces of the cosmos; (b) of their relation to each other as determined by their views of that, or by teachers who authoritatively recast those views; and (c) of the practices set up by those ideas.

Under this definition there is room for every religion ever historically so-called, 1 from fetishism to pantheism, and from Buddhism to Cnostism, without implicit negation of any claim made for any one religion to any moral attribute, save of course that of objective truth or credibility.

§ 1. Early Forces of Reform.

The main obstacle to a “science of religion,” naturally, is the survival either of simple belief in a given religion or of sociological predilections set up by such a belief; and we have seen how a scholarly treatise may still be affected by one or the other. That a learned and thoughtful “Introduction to the History of Religion” should treat the whole vast drama of religious development up till the period of the Roman Empire as “the propaideutic of the world to Christ” 1 is perhaps not to be wondered at in view of English culture-conditions in general; but it is none the less unfortunate. A view of the history of religion which merely ignores or discredits on the one hand the entire religious life of the non-Christian world, and on the other the entire monotheistic or unitarian evolution in the Christian world, cannot meet the needs of scientific thought. The perorational statement that “of all the great religions of the world it is the Christian Church alone which is so far heir of all the ages as to fulfil the dumb, dim expectation of mankind,” is but a sectarian shibboleth; and the claim, “In it alone the sacramental meal commemorates by ordinance of its founder the divine sacrifice which is a propitiation for the sins of all mankind,” is an all-too-simple solution of the historic problem. We are being treated merely to a new adjustment of “Christian Evidence.”

On the side of science, again, there is certainly a danger that the necessary effort to eliminate partisanship and predilection may somewhat sway the balances. Dr. Jevons justly argues 2 that religion is no more to be conceived or classified in terms of primeval superstition than science is to be classified in terms of primeval animism and magic. But the very tactic of his own treatise, aiming as it does at certificating one set of developments on behalf of the special apparatus of the Christian Church, is a hindrance to the recognition of religion as an aspect of the process of civilisation. In terms of the analogy with science, religion ought to be to-day at a far higher level than it was in ancient Syria, or in the Græco-Roman

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decadence. But here the special-pleader reverts to the Newmanian thesis of “special genius,” arbitrarily placing the highest genius for religion in antiquity, and implying (apparently) that whatever genius there has been since is joyfully subservient to that.

Now, genius is certainly a factor in every line of mental evolution, in the sense that all marked mental capacity is a “variation”; and insofar as religions have been moralised or rationalised, genius for righteousness or for reason has clearly been at work. But just as certain as the fact of genius is the fact that it is in large part wasted; and we shall utterly misread the history of mankind if we conceive the “religious consciousness” as readily susceptible of impulses from the moral or rational genius of the gifted few. 1 On the contrary, nothing is harder than even the partial imposition of the higher view on the religious multitude; and this precisely because the crowd supposes (with the countenance of Dr. Jevons) that it has “inner consciousness” of the veracity of its congenital beliefs. King Akhunaton of Egypt, presumably, had such consciousness of the truth of his monotheism; but even his autocratic power failed to annul the inner consciousness of the polytheists around him, or, for that matter, the “direct consciousness” of the priests that their bread was buttered on the polytheistic side. 2

There is, I think, no known case in history of a “going” priesthood reforming its own cult, in the sense of willingly making an important change on moral lines. There is indeed abundant reason to credit priesthoods with the alteration of the rule under which the priest himself was the primary subject for sacrifice; 3 but the change consisted solely in laying the burden upon others. Apart from the presumptive changes of view set up in Israel during the exile, it seems to have been always by kings (or queens or heroes 4) that human sacrifices were suppressed in antiquity, never by the choice of priesthoods. 5 Thus King Eurypylus is associated with the abolition of the human sacrifice to Artemis Triclaria; 6 Cecrops with the substitution of cakes for living victims to Zeus Lycæus; 7

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[paragraph continues]Iphicrates 1 and Gelon 2 with the attempted stoppage of human sacrifices at Carthage; King Diphilus with its cessation at Cyprus; Amosis with its abrogation at Heliopolis in Egypt. 3 In the ancient history of Japan, it is an Emperor who, about the beginning of the Christian era, recoils from the practice of burying servitors alive at the funeral of a prince; and it is on his appeal that one of his ministers hits on the device of substituting clay images. 4 Among the Samoans one legend ran that the human sacrifices to the Sun, which were destroying the race, were put an end to by the lady Ui giving herself up and being accepted by the pacified Sun as his bride; while another version makes Ui the daughter of the King of Manu’a, who gave up his daughter as a final sacrifice, and then abolished the practice.  In another case a Tongan queen, named Manu, saved alive a number of those destined for her husband’s cannibal feasts; and in yet another a cannibal God—presumably the priest or incarnation of a higher deity—is destroyed by the action of a daring youth. 6 The powerful King Finow of Tonga, again, showed a disposition to check some forms of human sacrifice; 7 and King Gezo of Dahome is credited with “materially reducing the number of human sacrifices throughout his kingdom” 8 during his lifetime. King Gelele, again, promising that “by and by, little by little, much may be done” in the way of curtailing the sacrifices, declared: “If I were to give up this custom at once, my head would be taken off to-morrow.” 9 Such was the power of the priests. Similarly the abolition of human sacrifices in ancient China was effected only by the action of humane princes; and the attempt in earlier times seems to have involved insurrection and desperate war. 10

Elsewhere such attempts are known to have failed, and the work of King Gezo of Dahome was undone after him. “The

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fetisheer is all-powerful in Dahome. The last monarch was notably desirous of modifying the horrors and the expenses of the national worship: his son has been compelled to walk in the old path of blood.” 1 The strongest characteristic of priesthoods is their conservatism; and though moral and religious innovators have arisen among them, practical moral reforms have always to be forced on them from the outside. 2 Where a powerful king resists them from humane motives, even if he put them down by force for the time, he is not unlikely to be the victim in the end. 3 Where substitutes have been made for human sacrifices among “nature-folk” without governmental pressure, as apparently among the Malays and some tribes in India, there is no priesthood to speak of; and these simple people have silently attained what passes for a great “reform” where “religious history” is concerned. 4

For every man of moral genius, probably, who has been able to modify for the better the form or course of an organised religion, there have been ten who were slain or silenced by its organisation. Indeed, if we reckon solely the ostensible historical cases of fortunate innovation on the direct appeal of genius, the balance is immeasurably the other way. What is more, the economic and social conditions in antiquity were such that the man who succeeded even indirectly in modifying a cult or creed for the better did so by some measure of fraud. Dr. Jevons, as we have seen, lightly decides that such reformers “have usually considered themselves……to be speaking, not their own words or thoughts, but those of their God.” If they did, be it said once more, they would only be feeling as did the common run of early priests in their normal procedure. The full significance of the case will come out much better if we say that reformers found they stood the best chance of a hearing when they professed to be speaking the words of the God. What this meant in the way of demoralisation it is depressing to surmise.

It is indeed customary of late to substitute for the exaggerated notion of “pagan” priestcraft that used to be held by most Christians and by some freethinkers the much more arbitrary notion of an absolute rectitude in the pristine “religious consciousness”; but critical science can accept no such fantasy. There are

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evidences of conscious fraud on the surface of the most primitive-looking cults known to us; 1 the majority of travellers unhesitatingly impute fraud to the magicians and priests of savage tribes; and while there is reason to believe that early man and savage man have a less clear sense than we of the difference between truth and falsehood (in this respect partly approximating to the child-mind), there is really no reason for supposing them less capable of resort to willful deception. On the contrary, they seem in religious matters to have been more prompt at fabrication, in the ratio of the greater credulity they met with. Unless, then, we proceed with Dr. Jevons to make gratuitous exceptions in favour of all cases on the line of evolution of our own creed, we must conclude that the ancient conditions often, if not always, drove reformers to make-believe.


by John M. Robertson


55:1 Cp. Exodus xv, 16-23; Deut. i, 17.

55:2 Cp. p. 24.

55:3 Cp. Exod. and Deut. as above cited; Ex. xxi, 6; xxii, 8, Heb.; Kuenen, The Hexateuch, Eng. tr. p, 272. Tiele, Egypt. Relig. Eng. tr. pp. 73, 93; Hist. comparée, p. 247; Letourneau, Sociology: Eng. tr. iv, c. viii, p. 345.; Maine, Ancient Law, pp. 4-5; Pulszky, Theory of Law and Civil Society, § 38; Sayce, Hibbert Lectures, p. 368; Oettli, Das Gesetz Hammurabis und die Thora Israels, 1903, p. 84. And see below, Part II, ch. ii, § 1.

57:1 The point is not one to be settled by authority, but for a competent affirmation of this view see G. Roskoff, Das Religionswesen der rohesten Naturvölker, 1880, p. 144.

58:1 None of the current definitions, I think, is thus inclusive. Cp. the many cited by Chantepie de la Saussaye, Manual of the Science of Religion, Eng. tr. pp. 56-58, and those discussed in Christianity and Mythology, 2nd ed. pp. 42 sq., 70 sq., 74sq. That proposed by M. Salomon Reinach: “A body (ensemble) of scruples which put obstacles to the free exercise of our faculties” (Orpheus, 6e. édit. p. 4), is obviously defective. As M. Reinach goes on to avow, he has in view only a particular kind of scruples—to wit, taboos. But this delimitation of religion, like that of Dr. Frazer, excludes the main body of credences and myths. One of the most symmetrical is that of Professor A. Réville:—”La religion est la determination de la vie humaine par le sentiment d’un lien unissant l’esprit humain à l’esprit mystérieux dont il reconnaît la domination sur le monde et sur lui-même, et auquel il aime à se sentir uni” (Prolégomènes, p. 34). But this is finally marked by theological particularism, and is thus not truly inductive. Constant’s was more objective:—”Nous avons défini le sentiment religieux, le besoin que l’homme éprouve de se mettre en communication avec la nature qui l’entoure, et les forces inconnues qui lui semblent animer cette nature” (La Religion, 1824, i, pt. ii, p. 1). But Constant extends his definition in practice to simple cosmic emotion. Citing from Byron’s Island the passage beginning

“How often we forget all time, when lone,”

he writes: “On nous assure que certains hommes accusent Lord Byron d’athéisme et d’impiété. Il y a plus de religion dans ces douze vers que dans les écrits passés, présents et futurs de tous ces dénonciateurs mis ensemble” (pt. i, pp. 106-7).

59:1 Work cited, Index, s.v. Sacrifice, end. Cp. p. 415.

59:2 Work cited, p. 9.

60:1 Dr. Jevons, to be sure, has denied that the religious process is either moral or rational; but here we must try to save his thesis from himself. Otherwise it becomes a mere disguised assertion that all religious truth is revealed, that genius consists in getting the revelation, and that beliefs otherwise got are either not true or not religious. Of such a doctrine there can be no historical discussion.

60:2 Cp. Tiele, Egyptian Religion, pp. 23, 179-185; Maspero, Hist. ancienne des peuples de l’orient, 4e édit. pp. 53-54, 285-6; Diodorus Siculus, i, 73.

60:3 Cp. Adolf Bastian, Der Mensch in der Geschichte, 1860, iii, 114; Frazer, Golden Bough, ch. i, § 1; ch. iii, § 1;Lectures on the Early History of the Kingship, p. 291; Jevons. Introd. to Hist. of Relig., pp. 281-296.

60:4 Dr. Frazer gives a list of hero-stories in his note on Pausanias in his edition, ix, 26, 7.

60:5 Cp. Bastian, as cited, iii, 109.

60:6 Pausanias, vii, 19.

60:7 Id. viii, 2.

61:1 Porphyry, De Abstinentia, ii, 56.

61:2 Plutarch, Regum et imper. apophtheg., Gelon, i.

61:3 Porphyry, last cit. ii, 55.

61:4 J. Murdoch, A History of Japan, 1910, i, 69.

61:5 Turner, Samoa a Hundred Years Ago, 1884, pp. 201-2.

61:6 Id. pp. 236-8.

61:7 Mariner, Tonga Islands, 1827, ii, 178.

61:8 Sir A. B. Ellis, The Ewe-speaking Peoples of the Slave Coast, 1890, pp. 128, 136.

61:9 Burton, A Mission to Gelele, 1864, ii, 359.

61:10 Cp. Kurz, Mémoire sur l’état politique et religieux de la Chine 2300 ans avant notre ére, from Nouveau Journal Asiatique, 1830 (7), pp. 74-82; and Miss Simcox, Primitive Civilisations, ii, 36-37. Terrien de la Couperie pronounces all human sacrifices in ancient China to have been introduced under alien influence (Western Origin of the Early Chinese Civilisation, 1894, pp, 134,.362-3, citing in support Edkins, Church Review, xvi., 339; xix, 55-6). The practice of siün—the voluntary submission of servants to be buried alive in grave of their masters—he represents to have begun 678 B.C. in the west State of Ts’in, “undoubtedly under Tartar influence,” and to have been common in the fourth century, but to have ceased after 210 B.C., when it had been made compulsory at the funeral of She Hwang Ti. Thereafter wooden figures were buried in the graves as surrogates, as in Japan. M. La Couperie, however, appears to accept simple suttee as indigenous; and it is hard to see how the purely alien character of either siün or human sacrifice proper can be established for all China (pp. 133-8). He notes that the drowning of girls, as brides for the River God, was suppressed in Wei after 424 by a new Governor, but survived elsewhere. (Pp. 90, 359.)

62:1 Burton, A Mission to Gelele, 1864, ii, 149. “To abolish human sacrifice here,” says Burton in another passage, “is to abolish Dahome. The practice originates from filial piety; it is sanctioned by long use and custom; and it is strenuously upheld by a powerful and interested priesthood.” (Id. ii, 26.)

62:2 See below, Part IV, § 5, as to the similar rule in the lower civilisations of Polynesia, and in ancient Mexico.

62:3 See the case of King Mesi of Porto Novo, narrated by Sir A. B. Ellis, The Ewe-Speaking Peoples of the Slave Coast, 1890, p. 145; and cp. B. Thomson, The Fijians, 1909, introd. p. xi.

62:4 The legend of the saving of Sunahsepa, offered for a sacrifice on behalf of King Harischandra (R. W. Frazer, Lit. Hist. of India, pp. 87-89), is obscure.

63:1 Cp. the author’s Short History of Freethought, 2nd ed. i, 27.


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