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Early Evolution of Religion

2. The Personification of Chance


Anxiety was a natural state of the savage mind. When men and women fall victims to excessive anxiety, they are simply reverting to the natural estate of their far-distant ancestors; and when anxiety becomes actually painful, it inhibits activity and unfailingly institutes evolutionary changes and biologic adaptations. Pain and suffering are essential to progressive evolution.


The struggle for life is so painful that certain backward tribes even yet howl and lament over each new sunrise. Primitive man constantly asked, “Who is tormenting me?” Not finding a material source for his miseries, he settled upon a spirit explanation. And so was religion born of the fear of the mysterious, the awe of the unseen, and the dread of the unknown. Nature fear thus became a factor in the struggle for existence first because of chance and then because of mystery.


The primitive mind was logical but contained few ideas for intelligent association; the savage mind was uneducated, wholly unsophisticated. If one event followed another, the savage considered them to be cause and effect. What civilized man regards as superstition was just plain ignorance in the savage. Mankind has been slow to learn that there is not necessarily any relationship between purposes and results. Human beings are only just beginning to realize that the reactions of existence appear between acts and their consequences. The savage strives to personalize everything intangible and abstract, and thus both nature and chance become personalized as ghosts—spirits—and later on as gods.


Man naturally tends to believe that which he deems best for him, that which is in his immediate or remote interest; self-interest largely obscures logic. The difference between the minds of savage and civilized men is more one of content than of nature, of degree rather than of quality.


But to continue to ascribe things difficult of comprehension to supernatural causes is nothing less than a lazy and convenient way of avoiding all forms of intellectual hard work. Luck is merely a term coined to cover the inexplicable in any age of human existence; it designates those phenomena which men are unable or unwilling to penetrate. Chance is a word which signifies that man is too ignorant or too indolent to determine causes. Men regard a natural occurrence as an accident or as bad luck only when they are destitute of curiosity and imagination, when the races lack initiative and adventure. Exploration of the phenomena of life sooner or later destroys man’s belief in chance, luck, and so-called accidents, substituting therefor a universe of law and order wherein all effects are preceded by definite causes. Thus is the fear of existence replaced by the joy of living.


The savage looked upon all nature as alive, as possessed by something. Civilized man still kicks and curses those inanimate objects which get in his way and bump him. Primitive man never regarded anything as accidental; always was everything intentional. To primitive man the domain of fate, the function of luck, the spirit world, was just as unorganized and haphazard as was primitive society. Luck was looked upon as the whimsical and temperamental reaction of the spirit world; later on, as the humor of the gods.


But all religions did not develop from animism. Other concepts of the supernatural were contemporaneous with animism, and these beliefs also led to worship. Naturalism is not a religion—it is the offspring of religion.

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