Skip to main content
RELIGION AS AN OBJECTIVE PROBLEM
ELIGION, like any other subject, can be treated as an objective
. problem, and studied by the method of science. The first step is
to make a list of the ideas and practices associated with different
religions—gods and demons, sacrifice, prayer, belief in a future* life,
tabus and moral rules in this life. This, however, is but a first step.
It is like making a collection of animals and plants, or a catalogue of
minerals or other substances, with their properties and uses. Science
always begins in this way, but it cannot stop at this level: it inevitably
seeks to penetrate deeper and to make an analysis.
This analysis may take two directions. It may seek for a further
understanding of religion as it now exists, or it may adopt the historical
method and search for an explanation of the present in the past.
With regard to the historical approach, it is clear that religion, like
other social activities, evolves. Further, its evolution is determined by
two main kinds of factors. One is its own emotional and intellectual
momentum, its inner logic: the other is the influence of the material
and social conditions of the period. As an example of the first, take
the tendency from polytheism towards monotheism: granted the
theistic premise, this tendency seems almost inevitably to declare
itself in the course of time. As examples of the second, we have the
fact of propitiatory sacrifice related to helplessness in face of external
The comparative evolutionary study of religion brings out two or
three main points. For instance, we have the original prevalence of
magical ideas, and their application first to the practical activities of
communal existence such as food-getting and war, and only later to
the problems of personal salvation: and these in their turn come
gradually to be dominated more by moral ideas and less by magic.
In the sphere of theology we have the early prevalence of rambling
myth, and its gradual crystallization into a fully rationalized system.
In this domain too we see an interesting evolution from mi early stage
in which certain objects, acts, and persons arc supposed to be imbued
with an impersonal sacred influence or mana^ and a later stage at
which this sacred influence is pushed back a stage and attributed to
supernatural beings behind objects.
Finally, there is the important fact that religious beliefs and prac-
tices have a very strong time-lag—a high degree of hysteresis, if you
prefer a physical metaphor*