According to the back cover, Primitive Religion by Paul Radin is “a now-classic treatment by a noted anthropologist of the nature and origin of primitive religion and the influences that have shaped its expression.” No argument here, but what really stuck with me after I read it was not the fact that Radin advanced a hypothesis about the deification of deceased shamans that contradicted the “amazing psychologizing” (?) of his contemporaries, Durkheim, Marett and Lowie, but the way of thinking about religion and peoples’ reactions to it that Radin sets up in the first chapter. What follows is my paraphrasing of Radin’s ideas and a bit of free association.
Religion is not logical. Religion is about the experience of life, the feeling of being alive. The myths are coded stories about the relationship of the individual to the world around her/him and the other people, animals, plants and spirits that share that world. Myths are designed and refined to evoke feelings. If some myths also have some logical point to make that’s great, but that is not the primary purpose of myth. Rituals are equally free from logic. There have certainly been people who genuinely believed that killing a boar in the shadow of a standing stone would ensure a military victory, just as there are people who believe that a priest’s invocation changes bread and wine into flesh and blood, but those people are concretizing the metaphor. The idea that a ritual can have an effect on the physical world is properly called “magic”. Religion changes people on the inside. Religion does not make it rain.
Some people feel more religious than others. On this, Radin proposes a bell curve of religiosity. On one side, the people who never feel religious. They see a tree, a river or a dove and what they see is a tree, a river or a dove. They may have a sense of curiosity or appreciation of beauty, but they do not experience the tree as a sort of kindred spirit; they do not understand the river as the life-sustaining energy of a God or Goddess poured out so that the people may live; they do not sense that the dove is somehow symbolic of their own psyche. They don’t get it. These people may participate in the religion of their community for other reasons, indeed, at points in the past they were compelled to so do, and they may grow to appreciate what religion offers, but for the moment, they’re atheists. Gods bless ‘em.
On the other side of the bell curve are the people who experience religion constantly. These people are walking around in a world of wonder. Every cloud, beetle and rabbit seems like a miracle, pulsing with the incomprehensible radiance of God. Everywhere they look, they see the fingerprint of the Creator and never stop being amazed. The most commonplace happening impresses them as a divine act. I’m one of these.
As anyone who knows about bell curves knows, the ends are where the weirdoes are. The vast majority of people – 90% or so – are in the middle. Most people have some religious feelings some of the time. Actually, most people have some religious feelings at particular times: times of transition. The phrase “crisis points” has been used, but I prefer “times of transition”. Transition or change needn’t be equated with crisis. Times of transition fall into two categories: the life cycle and the annual cycle. Within each category, there are four specific points: in the life cycle, birth, puberty, marriage and death; in the annual cycle, the solstices and equinoxes. At those times, people tend to want some kind of something or other to commemorate the change or celebrate or make them feel more secure or something or other. Actually, people tend to really suck at knowing what they want. People tend to have some vague idea that something isn’t actually exactly the way they think it’s sort of supposed to be or something, but that’s about as detailed as they’re able to get.
Imagine some hunter/gatherer type, sitting down by the creek staring off into space having some vague, unspecifiable thoughts about something that he can’t quite figure out and he notices that downstream a ways is that weird old guy from the village who’s always wandering around staring at clouds and muttering a bunch of shit that nobody understands, so he goes to talk to the guy about whatever he’s got on his mind which happens to be “Ya know, I came down to the creek to get a drink and I saw some tadpoles and I thought about frogs and then I started thinking about my kids and then I started thinking about my grandpa and then I just kinda zoned out for a while.”
And the old coot says “Was it like you saw that the generations in your own family were like the generations of frogs and tadpoles and then you felt connected to the entire universe in a way that you don’t understand and can’t articulate?”
At that point, the guy’s mind is totally blown because that’s pretty much what he was thinking, yes, but he didn’t have it in those words and probably never would have. That doesn’t have to happen very many times before the weird old coot becomes the local visionary. As people turn to him more and more, he develops his own insights further because he has to present his thoughts to other people and he’s encouraged to come up with more insights and some activities and that’s pretty much the beginning of a local cult. Local cults grow, become more elaborate, merge with each other and eventually become religions. The visionaries – shamans, medicine men/women, whatever –develop rituals and myths that the people accept if they satisfy the people’s needs. The italics are important. The majority of people are busy putting food on the table, raising the kids, fulfilling their social obligations and all the other business of living. They are not going to devote precious resources to activities that don’t satisfy them in some way. Weirdoes like me are happy to barely get by and don’t care if everybody thinks we’re weirdoes, but most folks enjoy a certain amount of security and status. If a shaman decides to cut off his own nose, he might impress everyone with his aestheticism, but he’s going to have a hard time convincing everybody else to follow his lead. If he keeps on insisting that the people do ridiculous shit that doesn’t benefit them in any way, he’s gonna find himself noseless and alone soon enough, if not sacrificed. The people tend to have needs to be satisfied at certain points – the transitions times mentioned above. Everybody experiences the cardinal points of the year together, so those become the major rituals. The life cycle transitions are just as important, but needn’t include the entire community, though they could. (Puberty initiations tend to be community affairs because it’s possible to gather up all the boys or girls who are between twelve and sixteen and initiate them together. There are other benefits to group initiations of adolescents: teenagers are at a point when they want to be part of groups; group initiation fosters bonding among age cohorts, who will be peers for the rest of their lives; teenagers are a troublesome bunch of surly little hellions who need to have their energies directed toward the general good or they’ll run around causing problems, scalping each other, getting each other pregnant, starting gangsta rap groups and other undesirable shit.) People seem to want some kind of ritual to occur on a regular schedule. There’s a huge difference between a quiet, boring forty-five minute church service once a week and the physically and emotionally intense n/um tchai of the !Kung in the Kalahari Desert which happens almost every night, but they are both regularly scheduled rituals which more or less satisfy the people who use them. These regular rituals keep people connected to each other and provide them with a way of smoothing through the daily conflicts and random vagaries. And then, you know, sometimes people just wanna talk about stuff. Religion is all about what’s going on in the unconscious mind most of the time so it shouldn’t be surprising if shamans sometimes act like therapists.
The visionaries invent the rituals and myths. The people accept them. The myths and rituals then become the property of the group, passed along down the generations, refined, reinterpreted when necessary, shaped by the common need. (In some very few and very recent cases, this beautiful and beneficial process was derailed and hierarchal organizations developed which exploited the peoples’ need for myth and ritual for their own gain – I’m referring to Judaism, Christianity and Islam – but these are anomalies. Tragically, the blatant falseness of the three big monotheisms has caused many to reject religion altogether and so deprive themselves of the many good things that religion can offer.)
We, the visionaries, would, of course, continue to wander around gazing at stars whether the rest of you paid attention or not, but we do appreciate your attention, kindness and occasional gifts of food and animal skins. We will do the best we can to satisfy your spiritual needs, answer your silly questions and circumcise your teenage boys with sharpened bones. Yes, we are all connected to the entire universe in some way which cannot be understood or articulated. Yes, we are all one. And if I don’t receive my regular offering of sacred tobacco and coffee very soon, I am going to call up my Spirit Helpers and send them to your huts to rip your guts out of your assholes.
Brown Hat the Espresso Shaman
The pun is always intended.