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Andrew Lang

Evolution of the Idea of God

The Making of Religion: Chapter IX (1900)

Published on: Saturday 25 November 2006

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Andrew Lang, ’Evolution of the Idea of God’, The Making of Religion, (Chapter IX), Longmans, Green, and C°, London, New York and Bombay, 1900, pp. 160-172.


To the anthropological philosopher ’a plain man’ would naturally put the question: ’Having got your idea of spirit or soul—your theory of Animism—out of the idea of ghosts, and having got your idea of ghosts out of dreams and visions, how do you get at the Idea of God?’ Now by ’God’ the proverbial ’plain man’ of controversy means a primal eternal Being, author of all things, the father and friend of man, the invisible, omniscient guardian of morality.

The usual though not invariable reply of the anthropologist might be given in the words of Mr. Im Thurn, author of a most interesting work on the Indians of British Guiana:

’From the notion of ghosts,’ says Mr. Im Thurn, ’a belief has arisen, but very gradually, in higher spirits, and eventually in a Highest Spirit, and, keeping pace with the growth of these beliefs, a habit of reverence for, and worship of spirits… The Indians of Guiana know no God.’ [1]

As another example of Mr. Im Thurn’s hypothesis that God is a late development from the idea of spirit may be cited Mr. Payne’s learned ’History of the New World,’ a work of much research: [2]

’The lowest savages not only have no gods, but do not even recognise those lower beings usually called spirits, the conception of which has invariably preceded that of gods in the human mind.’

Mr. Payne here differs, toto caelo, from Mr. Tylor, who finds no sufficient proof for wholly non-religious savages, and from Roskoff, who has disposed of the arguments of Sir John Lubbock. Mr. Payne, then, for ethnological purposes, defines a god as ’a benevolent spirit, permanently embodied in some tangible object, usually an image, and to whom food, drink,’ and so on, ’are regularly offered for the purpose of securing assistance in the affairs of life.’

On this theory ’the lowest savages’ are devoid of the idea of god or of spirit. Later they develop the idea of spirit, and when they have secured the spirit, as it were, in a tangible object, and kept it on board wages, then the spirit has attained to the dignity and the savage to the conception of a god. But while a god of this kind is, in Mr. Payne’s opinion, relatively a late flower of culture, for the hunting races generally (with some exceptions) have no gods, yet ’the conception of a creator or maker of all things… obviously a great spirit’ is ’one of the earliest efforts of primitive logic.’ [3]

Mr. Payne’s own logic is not very clear. The ’primitive logic’ of the savage leads him to seek for a cause or maker of things, which he finds in a great creative spirit. Yet the lowest savages have no idea even of spirit, and the hunting races, as a rule, have no god. Does Mr. Payne mean that a great creative spirit is not a god, while a spirit kept on board wages in a tangible object is a god? We are unable, by reason of evidence later to be given, to agree with Mr. Payne’s view of the facts, while his reasoning appears somewhat inconsistent, the lowest savages having, in his opinion, no idea of spirit, though the idea of a creative spirit is, for all that, one of the earliest efforts of primitive logic.

On any such theories as these the belief in a moral Supreme Being is a very late (or a very early?) result of evolution, due to the action of advancing thought upon the original conception of ghosts. This opinion of Mr. Im Thurn’s is, roughly stated, the usual theory of anthropologists. We wish, on the other hand, to show that the idea of God, as he is conceived of by our inquiring plain man, is shadowed forth (among contradictory fables) in the lowest-known grades of savagery, and therefore cannot arise from the later speculation of men, comparatively civilised and advanced, on the original datum of ghosts. We shall demonstrate, contrary to the opinion of Mr. Spencer, Mr. Huxley, and even Mr. Tylor, that the Supreme Being, and, in one case at least, the casual sprites of savage faith, are active moral influences. What is even more important, we shall make it undeniable that Anthropology has simplified her problem by neglecting or ignoring her facts. While the real problem is to account for the evolution out of ghosts of the eternal, creative moral god of the ’plain man,’ the germ of such a god or being in the creeds of the lowest savages is by anthropologists denied, or left out of sight, or accounted for by theories contradicted by facts, or, at best, is explained away as a result of European or Islamite influences. Now, as the problem is to account for the evolution of the highest conception of God, as far as that conception exists among the most backward races, the problem can never be solved while that highest conception of God is practically ignored.

Thus, anthropologists, as a rule, in place of facing and solving their problem, have merely evaded it—doubtless unwittingly. This, of course, is not the practice of Mr. Tylor, though even his great work is professedly much more concerned with the development of the idea of spirit and with the lower forms of animism than with the real crux—the evolution of the idea (always obscured by mythology) of a moral, uncreated, undying God among the lowest savages. This negligence of anthropologists has arisen from a single circumstance. They take it for granted that God is always (except where the word for God is applied to a living human being) regarded as Spirit. Thus, having accounted for the development of the idea of spirit, they regard God as that idea carried to its highest power, and as the final step in its evolution. But, if we can show that the early idea of an undying, moral, creative being does not necessarily or logically imply the doctrine of spirit (or ghost), then this idea of an eternal, moral, creative being may have existed even before the doctrine of spirit was evolved.

We may admit that Mr. Tylor’s account of the process by which Gods were evolved out of ghosts is a little touffu—rather buried in facts. We ’can scarcely see the wood for the trees.’ We want to know how Gods, makers of things (or of most things), fathers in heaven, and friends, guardians of morality, seeing what is good or bad in the hearts of men, were evolved, as is supposed, out of ghosts or surviving souls of the dead. That such moral, practically omniscient Gods are known to the very lowest savages—Bushmen, Fuegians, Australians—we shall demonstrate.

Here the inquirer must be careful not to adopt the common opinion that Gods improve, morally and otherwise, in direct ratio to the rising grades in the evolution of culture and civilisation. That is not necessarily the case; usually the reverse occurs. Still less must we take it for granted, following Mr. Tylor and Mr. Huxley, that the ’alliance [of religion and morality] belongs almost, or wholly, to religions above the savage level—not to the earlier and lower creeds;’ or that ’among the Australian savages,’ and ’in its simplest condition,’ ’theology is wholly independent of ethics.’ [4] These statements can be proved (by such evidence as anthropology is obliged to rely upon) to be erroneous. And, just because these statements are put forward, Anthropology has an easier task in explaining the origin of religion; while, just because these statements are incorrect, her conclusion, being deduced from premises so far false, is invalidated.

Given souls, acquired by thinking on the lines already described, Mr. Tylor develops Gods out of them. But he is not one of the writers who is certain about every detail. He ’scarcely attempts to clear away the haze that covers great parts of the subject.’ [5]

The human soul, he says, has been the model on which man ’framed his ideas of spiritual beings in general, from the tiniest elf that sports in the grass up to the heavenly creator and ruler of the world, the Great Spirit.’ Here it is taken for granted that the Heavenly Ruler was from the first envisaged as a ’spiritual being’—which is just the difficulty. Was He? [6]

The process of framing these ideas is rather obscure. The savage ’lives in terror of the souls of the dead as harmful spirits.’ This might yield a Devil; it would not yield a God who ’makes for righteousness.’ Happily, ’deified ancestors are regarded, on the whole, as kindly spirits.’ The dead ancestor is ’now passed into a deity.’ [7] Examples of ancestor-worship follow. But we are no nearer home. For among the Zulus many Amatongo (ancestral spirits) are sacred. ’Yet their father [i.e. the father of each actual family] is far before all others when they worship the Amatongo… They do not know the ancients who are dead, nor their laud-giving names, nor their names.’ [8] Thus, each new generation of Zulus must have a new first worshipful object—its own father’s Itongo. This father, and his very name, are, in a generation or two, forgotten. The name of such a man, therefore, cannot survive as that of the God or Supreme Being from age to age; and, obviously, such a real dead man, while known at all, is much too well known to be taken for the creator and ruler of the world, despite some African flattering titles and superstitions about kings who control the weather. The Zulus, about as ’godless’ a people as possible, have a mythical first ancestor, Unkulunkulu, but he is ’beyond the reach of rites,’ and is a centre of myths rather than of worship or of moral ideas. [9]

After other examples of ancestor-worship, Mr. Tylor branches off into a long discussion of the theory of ’possession’ or inspiration, [10] which does not assist the argument at the present point. Thence he passes to fetishism (already discussed by us), and the transitions from the fetish—(1) to the idol; (2) to the guardian angel (’subliminal self’); (3) to tree and river spirits, and local spirits which cause volcanoes; and (4) to polytheism. A fetish may inhabit a tree; trees being generalised, the fetish of one oak becomes the god of the forest. Or, again, fetishes rise into ’species gods;’ the gods of all bees, owls, or rabbits are thus evolved.

Next, [11]

’As chiefs and kings are among men, so are the great gods among the lesser spirits… With little exception, wherever a savage or barbaric system of religion is thoroughly described, great gods make their appearance in the spiritual world as distinctly as chiefs in the human tribe.’

Very good; but whence comes the great God among tribes which have neither chief nor king and probably never had, as among the Fuegians, Bushmen, and Australians? The maker and ruler of the world known to these races cannot be the shadow of king or chief, reflected and magnified on the mist of thought; for chief or king these peoples have none. This theory (Hume’s) will not work where people have a great God but no king or chief; nor where they have a king but no Zeus or other supreme King-god, as (I conceive) among the Aztecs.

We now reach, in Mr. Tylor’s theory, great fetish deities, such as Heaven and Earth, Sun and Moon, and ’departmental deities,’ gods of Agriculture, War, and so forth, unknown to low savages.

Next Mr. Tylor introduces an important personage. ’The theory of family Manes, carried back to tribal Gods, leads to the recognition of superior deities of the nature of Divine Ancestor, or First Man,’ who sometimes ranks as Lord of the Dead. As an instance, Mr. Tylor gives the Maori Maui, who, like the Indian Yama, trod first of men the path of death. But whether Maui and Yama are the Sun, or not, both Maori and Sanskrit religion regard these heroes as much later than the Original Gods. In Kamschatka the First Man is the ’son’ of the Creator, and it is about the origin of the idea of the Creator, not of the First Man, that we are inquiring. Adam is called ’the son of God’ in a Biblical genealogy, but, of course, Adam was made, not begotten. The case of the Zulu belief will be analysed later. On the whole, we cannot explain away the conception of the Creator as a form of the conception of an idealised divine First Ancestor, because the conception of a Creator occurs where ancestor-worship does not occur; and again, because, supposing that the idea of a Creator came first, and that ancestor-worship later grew more popular, the popular idea of Ancestor might be transferred to the waning idea of Creator. The Creator might be recognised as the First Ancestor, après coup.

Mr. Tylor next approaches Dualism, the idea of hostile Good and Bad Beings. We must, as he says, be careful to discount European teaching, still, he admits, the savage has this dualistic belief in a ’primitive’ form. But the savage conception is not merely that of ’good = friendly to me,’ ’bad = hostile to me.’ Ethics, as we shall show, already come into play in his theology.

Mr. Tylor arrives, at last, at the Supreme Being of savage creeds. His words, well weighed, must be cited textually—

’To mark off the doctrines of monotheism, closer definition is required [than the bare idea of a Supreme Creator], assigning the distinctive attributes of Deity to none save the Almighty Creator. It may be declared that, in this strict sense, no savage tribe of monotheists has been ever known. [12] Nor are any fair representatives of the lower culture in a strict sense pantheists. The doctrine which they do widely hold, and which opens to them a course tending in one or other of these directions, is polytheism culminating in the rule of one supreme divinity. High above the doctrine of souls, of divine Manes, of local nature gods, of the great gods of class and element, there are to be discerned in barbaric theology, shadowings, quaint or majestic, of the conception of a Supreme Deity, henceforth to be traced onward in expanding power and brightening glory along the history of Religion. It is no unimportant task, partial as it is, to select and group the typical data which show the nature and position of the doctrine of supremacy, as it comes into view within the lower culture. [13]

We shall show that certain low savages are as monotheistic as some Christians. They have a Supreme Being, and the ’distinctive attributes of Deity’ are not by them assigned to other beings, further than as Christianity assigns them to Angels, Saints, the Devil, and, strange as it appears, among savages, to mediating ’Sons.’

It is not known that, among the Andamanese and other tribes, this last notion is due to missionary influence. But, in regard to the whole chapter of savage Supreme Beings, we must, as Mr. Tylor advises, keep watching for Christian and Islamite contamination. The savage notions, as Mr. Tylor says, even when thus contaminated, may have ’to some extent, a native substratum.’ We shall select such savage examples of the idea of a Supreme Being as are attested by ancient native hymns, or are inculcated in the most sacred and secret savage institutions, the religious Mysteries (manifestly the last things to be touched by missionary influence), or are found among low insular races defended from European contact by the jealous ferocity and poisonous jungles of people and soil. We also note cases in which missionaries found such native names as ’Father,’ ’Ancient of Heaven,’ ’Maker of All,’ ready-made to their hands.

It is to be remarked that, while this branch of the inquiry is practically omitted by Mr. Spencer, Mr. Tylor can spare for it but some twenty pages out of his large work. He arranges the probable germs of the savage idea of a Supreme Being thus: A god of the polytheistic crowd is simply raised to the primacy, which, of course, cannot occur where there is no polytheism. Or the principle of Manes worship may make a Supreme Deity out of ’a primeval ancestor’ say Unkulunkulu, who is so far from being supreme, that he is abject. Or, again, a great phenomenon or force in Nature-worship, say Sun, or Heaven, is raised to supremacy. Or speculative philosophy ascends from the Many to the One by trying to discern through and beyond the universe a First Cause. Animistic conceptions thus reach their utmost limit in the notion of the Anima Mundi. He may accumulate all powers of all polytheistic gods, or he may ’loom vast, shadowy, and calm… too benevolent to need human worship… too merely existent to concern himself with the petty race of men.’ [14] But he is always animistic.

Now, in addition to the objections already noted in passing, how can we tell that the Supreme Being of low savages was, in original conception, animistic at all? How can we know that he was envisaged, originally, as Spirit? We shall show that he probably was not, that the question ’spirit or not spirit’ was not raised at all, that the Maker and Father in Heaven, prior to Death, was merely regarded as a deathless Being, no question of ’spirit’ being raised. If so, Animism was not needed for the earliest idea of a moral Eternal. This hypothesis will be found to lead to some very singular conclusions.

It will be more fully stated and illustrated, presently, but I find that it had already occurred to Dr. Brinton. [15] He is talking specially of a heaven-god; he says ’it came to pass that the idea of God was linked to the heavens long ere man asked himself, Are the heavens material and God spiritual?’ Dr. Brinton, however, does not develop his idea, nor am I aware that it has been developed previously.

The notion of a God about whose spirituality nobody has inquired is new to us. To ourselves, and doubtless or probably to barbarians on a certain level of culture, such a Divine Being must be animistic, must be a ’spirit.’ To take only one case, to which we shall return, the Banks Islanders (Melanesia) believe in ghosts, ’and in the existence of Beings who were not, and never had been, human. All alike might be called spirits,’ says Dr. Codrington, but, ex hypothesi, the Beings ’who never were human’ are only called ’spirits,’ by us, because our habits of thought do not enable us to envisage them except as ’spirits.’ They never were men, ’the natives will always maintain that he (the Vui) was something different, and deny to him the fleshly body of a man,’ while resolute that he was not a ghost. [16]

This point will be amply illustrated later, as we study that strangely neglected chapter, that essential chapter, the Higher beliefs of the Lowest savages. Of the existence of a belief in a Supreme Being, not as merely ’alleged,’ there is as good evidence as we possess for any fact in the ethnographic region.

It is certain that savages, when first approached by curious travellers, and missionaries, have again and again recognised our God in theirs.

The mythical details and fables about the savage God are, indeed, different; the ethical, benevolent, admonishing, rewarding, and creative aspects of the Gods are apt to be the same. [17]

’There is no necessity for beginning to tell even the most degraded of these people of the existence of God, or of a future state, ’the facts being universally admitted.’ [18]

’Intelligent men among the Bakwains have scouted the idea of any of them ever having been without a tolerably clear conception of good and evil, God and the future state; Nothing we indicate as sin ever appeared to them as otherwise,’ except polygamy, says Livingstone.

Now we may agree with Mr. Tylor that modern theologians, familiar with savage creeds, will scarcely argue that ’they are direct or nearly direct products of revelation’ (vol. ii. p. 356). But we may argue that, considering their nascent ethics (denied or minimised by many anthropologists) and the distance which separates the high gods of savagery from the ghosts out of which they are said to have sprung; considering too, that the relatively pure and lofty element which, ex hypothesi, is most recent in evolution, is also, not the most honoured, but often just the reverse; remembering, above all, that we know nothing historically of the mental condition of the founders of religion, we may hesitate to accept the anthropological hypothesis en masse. At best it is conjectural, and the facts are such that opponents have more justification than is commonly admitted for regarding the bulk of savage religion as degenerate, or corrupted, from its own highest elements. I am by no means, as yet, arguing positively in favour of that hypothesis, but I see what its advocates mean, or ought to mean, and the strength of their position. Mr. Tylor, with his unique fairness, says ’the degeneration theory, no doubt in some instances with justice, may claim such beliefs as mutilated and perverted remains of higher religion’ (vol. ii. p. 336).

I do not pretend to know how the lowest savages evolved the theory of a God who reads the heart and ’makes for righteousness,’ It is as easy, almost, for me to believe that they ’were not left without a witness,’ as to believe that this God of theirs was evolved out of the maleficent ghost of a dirty mischievous medicine-man.

Here one may repeat that while the ’quaint or majestic foreshadowings’ of a Supreme Being, among very low savages, are only sketched lightly by Mr. Tylor; in Mr. Herbert Spencer’s system they seem to be almost omitted. In his ’Principles of Sociology’ and ’Ecclesiastical Institutions’ one looks in vain for an adequate notice; in vain for almost any notice, of this part of his topic. The watcher of conduct, the friendly, creative being of low savage faith, whence was he evolved? The circumstance of his existence, as far as I can see; the chastity, the unselfishness, the pitifulness, the loyalty to plighted word, the prohibition of even extra-tribal homicide, enjoined in various places on his worshippers, are problems that appear somehow to have escaped Mr. Spencer’s notice. We are puzzled by endless difficulties in his system: for example as to how savages can forget their great-grandfathers’ very names, and yet remember ’traditional persons from generation to generation,’ so that ’in time any amount of expansion and idealisation can be reached,’ [19]

Again, Mr. Spencer will argue that it is a strange thing if ’primitive men had, as some think, the consciousness of a Universal Power whence they and all other things proceeded,’ and yet ’spontaneously performed to that Power an act like that performed by them to the dead body of a fellow savage’—by offerings of food. [20]

Now, first, there would be nothing strange in the matter if the crude idea of ’Universal Power’ came earliest, and was superseded, in part, by a later propitiation of the dead and ghosts. The new religious idea would soon refract back on, and influence by its ritual, the older conception. And, secondly, it is precisely this ’Universal Power’ that is not propitiated by offerings of food, in Tonga, (despite Mr. Huxley) Australia, and Africa, for example. We cannot escape the difficulty by saying that there the old ghost of Universal Power is regarded as dead, decrepit, or as a roi-fainéant not worth propitiating, for that is not true of the punisher of sin, the teacher of generosity, and the solitary sanction of faith between men and peoples.

It would appear then, on the whole, that the question of the plain man to the anthropologist, ’Having got your idea of spirit into the savage’s mind, how does he develop out of it what I call God?’ has not been answered. God cannot be a reflection from human kings where there have been no kings; nor a president elected out of a polytheistic society of gods where there is as yet no polytheism; nor an ideal first ancestor where men do not worship their ancestors; while, again, the spirit of a man who died, real or ideal, does not answer to a common savage conception of the Creator. All this will become much more obvious as we study in detail the highest gods of the lowest races.

Our study, of course, does not pretend to embrace the religion of all the savages in the world. We are content with typical, and, as a rule, well-observed examples. We range from the creeds of the most backward and worst-equipped nomad races, to those of peoples with an aristocracy, hereditary kings, houses and agriculture, ending with the Supreme Being of the highly civilised Incas, and with the Jehovah of the Hebrews.

View online : High Gods of Low Races (The Making of Religion: Chapter X)


[1Journal Anthrop. Inst. xi. 874. We shall return to this passage.

[2Vol. i. p. 389, 1892.

[3Payne, i. 458.

[4Prim. Cult. vol. ii. p. 381; Science and Hebrew Tradition, pp. 346, 372.

[5Prim. Cult. vol. ii. p. 109.

[6Ibid. vol. ii. p. 110.

[7Ibid. vol. ii. p. 113.

[8Prim. Cult. vol. ii. pp. 115, 116, citing Callaway and others.

[9The Zulu religion will be analysed later.

[10Prim. Cult. vol. ii. pp. 130-144.

[11Ibid. vol. ii. p. 248.

[12And very few civilised populations, if any, are monotheistic in this sense.

[13Prim. Cult. vol. ii. pp. 332, 333.

[14Prim. Cult. vol. ii. pp. 335, 336.

[15Myths of the New World, 1868, p. 47.

[16I observed this point in Myth, Ritual, and Religion, while I did not see the implication, that the idea of ’spirit’ was not necessarily present in the savage conception of the primal Beings, Creators, or Makers.

[17See one or two cases in Prim. Cult. vol. ii. p. 340.

[18Livingstone, speaking of the Bakwain, Missionary Travels, p. 168.

[19Principles of Sociology, vol. i. p. 450.

[20Op. cit. vol. i. p. 302.

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