In a recent post I mentioned the fact that the study of anthropology began with nineteenth century atheists who struggled to understand why our hunter-gatherer ancestors all over the world made the same crazy mistake of imagining the existence of gods, for whom – according to those anthropologists – there was no evidence.
Some of the literature of that period was very patronising, with views that today would be considered racist.
Few were as extreme as De Brosses, who in 1760 wrote that ‘savages’ are like children, living in an uninterrupted state of childhood and never passing the level of the four-year-old; but even Carl Jung in the twentieth century thought ‘primitives’ are in a lower phase of evolution with less developed consciousness. Evans-Pritchard later suggested that such claims gave their writings ‘a flavour of smugness which one may find either irritating or risible’.
Of course atheist anthropologists still take the view that believing in gods was a big mistake, and therefore still puzzle over the apparent fact that the same mistake has been made all over the world; but today they do so more sympathetically, in cooperation with believing colleagues.
The puzzlement comes from presumptions which are deeply embedded in modern western culture but would have been unknown to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. To understand how early faith worked we need to set them aside. One is the assumption that we can, or ought to be able to, control the forces of nature. Floods, droughts and typhoons should remind us that we cannot; but the agenda of establishing control informs some of the dominant attitudes of modern society.
For our hunter-gatherer ancestors it was a different matter.
1. They knew they were surrounded by natural forces.
Those of us who live in big cities can easily forget. Even the countryside is often so controlled by modern farming methods that it is easy to imagine that humans are in control. They could not forget.
2. They knew they were dependent on these natural forces.
Today our lifestyles depend heavily on the work of other people. Many of us now live in places which are too hot or cold, too wet or dry, or too high up or low down, to be habitable without constant human intervention. For them, human dependence on nature was an unforgettable everyday fact.
3. They knew the forces were beyond their control
We have inherited a tradition of assuming that modern science and technology can, or should be able to, control the forces of nature. This modern tradition treats humanity like a little boy in a playpen, free to do whatever he likes with his toys. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors knew the forces of nature were beyond their control.
4. They perceived the forces as the product of thought.
From their point of view it would have been absurd to think of the whole world system as the product of chance or unthinking processes. It was too complex, too productive. Sometimes they thought of a supreme mind behind the whole system, sometimes they thought of different minds behind the different forces of nature.
5. They perceived the forces as value-laden.
These forces made life possible, but sometimes they took it away. They made good health possible, but sometimes they gave illness. They provided sunshine and rain to make the crops grow, but sometimes they provided too much or not enough. They provided babies, but sometimes dead ones. In other words the forces of nature were mainly good but sometimes hostile. To be thanked, but feared.
They would therefore have related to the forces of nature as from an inferior position, not as we do today. To take an analogy, it is a bit like being under occupation in a time of war. The victorious invaders face the task of finding out how things work in the land they now occupy, in order to control it. The agenda is one of control. They are in charge and need to find out how to run things most effectively. The losers on the other hand face a different task. As they lose their freedom they need to work out how to cope. Learning to cope with powerlessness is more a matter of how to evaluate, how to feel about the different aspects of the situation, what kinds of relationships to establish with the invaders. In the same way we today expect to relate to the forces of nature as its masters. We expect to control it. We do not ask whether those forces have an agenda of their own; the agenda will be set by us. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors, on the other hand, knew they had no control. In their powerlessness they had to work out how to cope. From their point of view the last thing they wanted to believe was that those forces were just impersonal, unintending accidents. Hope lay in the prospect of relating to them, thanking them and pleading with them as appropriate on each occasion.
How it worked out in practice naturally varied from one society to another. What they had in common was that they were not like us. They knew they were dependent on natural forces beyond their control. They saw these forces as meaningful and purposeful. Rather than trying to control them, they tried to work out how to live within their limits, and relate to them.