“I think a person who is thus terrified with the imagination of ghosts and spectres much more reasonable, than one who contrary to the reports of all historians sacred and profane, ancient and modern, and to the traditions of all nations, thinks the appearance of spirits fabulous and groundless” – Joseph Addison
Since the 19th Century, the argument has been made that in order to believe in gods, one must first believe in ghosts, rather than the more conventional attitude that one’s predilection for revenants stems from whether a theology makes room for them. Theologies are slumlords. They’ll evict you on the drop of a hat if they think they can get a higher rent. And if ghosts have to go, well then they become the homeless inhabitants of the netherworld of the paranormal, a ghetto in the true sense, both imbued with a nefarious reputation and held up as a liminal place where one is wise not to walk at night as the rules of civilized society just might not apply. But ghost lives…or rather, deaths, matter as our fundamental belief in the potentiality of disembodied spirits (not ghosts per se, but the conception that there was a link between “spirit” and the peculiarity of human consciousness) was likely the precursor to our idea of divinity. Consequently, ghosts are probably haunting us because they feel they deserve an apology. Or maybe they’re doing penance for having created this whole theological mess in the first place. I may have just invented the scholarly discipline of “ghost apologetics”. I would trademark it if I wasn’t convinced there was nothing new under the sun, a conceit I may one day regret. Particularly when my 401K runs out. I can always haunt you.
So how did we get from ghosts to gods? Well, we evolved, I suppose. Scholars of religion like to talk about human religious proclivities proceeding from a “sense of the infinite”, from Epicurus to Max Müller, basically transferring our sense of our own existence and rationality to the rest of nature be it animal, mineral, or vegetable. We do so love abstraction. The first hominid who the idea occurred to was probably wearing a beret. To extrapolate from our having a personality to the notion that everything else has a personality too doesn’t seem like a reach. It’s not a long slide down a slippery slope from that concept, given that we can observe nature is a lot bulkier than us, to ascribe that personality to something bigger and better. This is certainly the fundamental basis for animism, which is an anthropological construct coined by Sir Edward Tylor in the 19th Century to describe the situation. Most surviving indigenous religions that are recognized to “practice” a kind of animism, commonly have no word for it, and often none for religion in general. They just do it.
Animism fits very nicely into an evolutionary framework for the development of religion, because from our lofty place among the remaining monotheisms, it looks like it just took us a while to get organized. Plus, we then get to talk about the necessary precursors we propose for religion, which are undoubtedly all things most of us possess, such as increased neocortex size (the area for higher cognitive functions), tool use that required us to come up with abstract mental images, symbolic communication, and the development of social sentiments which come from living in a group. Add to that the unpredictability of the world, and presto, we start anthropomorphizing everything, leading willy-nilly to a race towards monotheism, since if we see ourselves as rational beings and notice certain kinds of order to existence, it’s not hard to conceive of an ordering principle. Then, quick as you can go from animism to pantheism to monotheism, Bob’s your “God the Father”.
Now, this is all conveniently arranged to put us humans at the top of the Great Chain of Being, answerable only to the Celestial CEO, but what if it is not the nebulous “sense of the infinite” harnessed to evolution that is the source of our religious tendencies? What’s the alternative? I’m glad you asked.
Traditionally, most scholars (when not steadfastly maintaining revelation as the basis for all religion) hold to the idea that religious evolution has been a gradual process where we finally stumbled on the concepts of the human spirit and related it to something larger than ourselves, progressively subsuming everything under a Big Kahuna. “Man half consciously transferred his implicit sense that he was a living and rational being to nature in general, and recognized that earth, sky, wind, clouds, trees, the lower animals, and so on, were persons like himself, persons perhaps more powerful and awful than himself. This transference of personality can scarcely be called the result of a conscious process of reasoning. Man might recognize personality everywhere, without much more thought or argument than a kitten exerts when it takes a cork or a ball for a living playmate. But consciousness must have reached a more explicit stage, when man began to ask himself what a person is, and what life is, and when he arrived at the conclusion that life is a spirit. To advance from that conclusion; to explain all life as the manifestation of indwelling spirits; then to withdraw the conception of life and personality from inanimate things, to select from among spirits One more powerful than the rest, to recognize that One as disembodied, as superior, then as supreme, then as unique, and so to attain the monotheistic conception, has been, according to the evolutionary hypothesis, the tendency of human thought” (Lang, 1894, p334).
This line of thinking makes the obvious and convenient assumption that ghosts/spirits do not exist, thus assuming nascent animistic beliefs, and by extension, all religious beliefs, are based on a logical fallacy. If you make an ontological assumption, you wind up in an epistemological pigeonhole. The cooing can be soothing, but in the end you’re knee deep in pigeon crap. What if, we assume for one brief moment in time, primitive man was not a complete moron, or at least no more asinine than we are these days. How do we go from hanging from tree branches, scratching ourselves, and running from tigers to a world populated by spirits, large and small? And how do we do so without assuming that our ancestors founded everything on an error? In short, what if ghosts exist? How does that change our view on the origins of religion?
Inevitably, we are back at animism. Imbuing all matter with mind requires nothing more than recognizing our own individuality. I am a person. I am matter. Matter has mind. Case closed. But both ghosts and other partially or wholly disincarnate deities require a little something more, and in fact what they need is the exact opposite of animism. One needs to separate mind from matter, giving primacy to mind as something that can independently exist. There is nothing such as this required to attribute mindfulness to rocks, plants, or storms.
Early man was faced with an enormous numbers of natural facts, but egocentric little species that we are, we were particularly interested in those natural and familiar facts that spanned the endpoints of human life and death: sleep (death every night), waking (birth every morning), dreams (you might see dead people, travel outside your body), breath (without it you’re dead), and shadows (you, but an extension from you). Is this enough to get us from animism to a robust concept of spirit as a unique and enduring essence that can persist when the flesh is no longer willing? The anthropological perspective would be that the only way you can get to the idea that consciousness can be exerted at a distance from the physical organism is from a misinterpretation of the normal facts of life and death, sleep and waking, dreams and nightmares, and our animating breath, by which our “savage” might incorrectly deduce that mind is equivalent to soul, and soul (especially in terms of will and judgement) is separable from mere physical matter.
Have you ever noticed that the scientific perspective, with its empirical requirements, in all its glory, always assumes that everybody but the scientist is a complete ignoramus, subject to every form of illogic, hallucination, and wish fulfillment they can apply a fancy label to (the scientists who happens to be speaking that is, since he considers all scientists who disagree with him to be equally misguided)? Well, they don’t use terms like “the savage mind” anymore, but probably would if it didn’t sound too much like a pending hate crime. At any rate, what if the strange idea that will and volition were not necessarily entombed in mere matter did not result from fallacious interpretation of natural facts, rather from the all too accurate perception of abnormal facts. There is no culture that does not have its ghosts. Household spirits are nearly universal, and they are incessantly moving things about. Saints and sinners meet untimely ends across time. Perhaps, religion is the result of the persistence of abnormal facts across history and culture, and as anthropologist Andrew Lang said, “consequently we do not know that the normal facts, alone, suggested the existence of spirits to early thinkers, we can only make the statement on a priori grounds”. Of course, once you have one kind of discarnate being floating about in the ether, the sky’s the limit. The point is that one can posit the origins of religion as rooted in fallacy, or as the result of accurate observation, regardless of whether one believes in a higher power, but adhering to closely to the evolutionary model of religion amounts to saying that it is likelier that all religion is utterly bogus and rooted in the illogical antics and tortured mental gymnastics of our ancestors than perhaps almost every person (and apparently the Neanderthals) in every civilization that has ever existed up until the past few centuries might have had a cogent point.
Don’t get me wrong. I have no horse in this race. I just like the idea that it is equally plausible that religion exists because ghosts may exist, as opposed to the idea that religion exists because almost everyone who has ever lived came to the same fallacious conclusion, a position that strikes me as needlessly arrogant. Maybe I’ll go Norse, just in case. I like the hats.
Iverach, James, 1839-1921. Christianity and Evolution. 2d ed. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1894.
Lang, Andrew, 1844-1912. Cock Lane and Common-sense. New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1894.
M. Thomas Aquinas, Sister, O.P., b. 1884. The Pre-Socratic Use of Psyche as a Term for the Principle of Motion. Washington, D.C: National capital press, 1915.