I’ve been in many conversations about ‘primitive religion’ with people. By ‘primitive religion’ I mean the religion practiced by people who live in small groups in the middle of nature. Typically, they do not have a large social/economic structure and seem very simple. They tend to speak of a multiple number of gods, spirits, etc. They also entail many odd customs and beliefs. The people who practice this form of religion are generally described as ‘primitive’.
Generally, people talk of ‘primitive religion’ in a degrading way, as if its silly, stupid, and nonsensical. But I have always maintained that how can a people who live in the middle of nature, and have nothing, live in a silly, stupid, and nonsensical way? These people are living in natural conditions in the middle of nature. How can what they do and believe be wrong? If anything, their belief system must reflect the most ‘naturally human’ way to look at the world.
I believe this is true too. If a person does not sit and degrade their beliefs, a person cannot help but see the genius in their beliefs. There is genius there. There has to be! They live in the middle of nature with nothing. What do you think they are, a bunch of dumb brute wild animals?
Over the years I’ve found that ‘primitive religion’ has some of the best perspectives on life and nature I’ve seen. This, really, is not that surprising considering they are living in the midst of nature. As a result, it reveals a lot in the nature of human thought and belief in its more ‘natural’ setting. Because of this I have always felt it was good to take their example for as much as we can as, it seems to me, that we in the modern world seem like we’ve gotten lost in everything. Here are a few points:
– One of the first things I’ve noticed is that they, typically, are not trying to dominate or control it in any way. Usually, they feel that nature is above them and is bigger than them. Because of this they usually have a humility in the face of nature. This humility gives a certain stance toward nature and, in a way, colors their whole relationship with existence. I’ve always thought this humility is the beginning of their genius.
– This humility makes them have more of a great respect for nature. This respect, unlike modern peoples respect, is a respect based on living and experiencing. Most modern peoples respect is based on thought, reflection, and logic. They have respect because it “makes sense”. Much of the respect found in ‘primitive religion’ is based on the ‘fact’ of their situation in life.
– And this get onto another aspect of the genius of this form of religion. ‘Primitive religion’ tends to have a quality of truth only if its lived. That is to say, it must be practiced. Oftentimes, ‘primitive religion’ becomes ingrained into almost every aspect of life. In some sense, it makes up all perceptions of the world and life. It influences art, customs, ceremonies, etc. This means that ‘primitive religion’ is the framework of living, at least in many places. It shows that belief is something to be lived.
– Not only that, it requires a specific way of life. A person must live a certain way for it to become relevent. In other words, it’s not something you can “decide” to believe. A person doesn’t become “converted”. It is very life style specific. In a way, the life style determines the belief. It appears that belief is a reaction to life style. Belief, in a sense, is nothing but a mirror of our life style. Unlike organized religion, which is belief centered, it is centered on a way of life. This way of life is determined by the conditions of their life which is, in large part, determined by nature: weather, animals, terrain, etc. It is a form of belief that has developed in direct response to living in natural conditions. In other words, it has not come about as a result of thought, logic, the acts of profits or other people, historical events and happenings, etc. It has developed in response to living in the midst of nature. In the modern world that’s a rare point of view. Most of what we think, do, believe, etc. in the modern world is a result of history, thought, the behaviour of people, the effects of a massive society and social system, etc. The element of ‘reacting to nature’ seems absent in the modern mentality. We’ve spent so much time reacting to nothing but civilization and the problems its caused, that it has dominated everything we do. The modern world has created a whole new set of circumstances that has altered how we believe in things. In a way, civilization has usurped nature in the modern world mentality. As such, we’ve become alienated from it. What this shows us is that how we live our life – our life style – greatly determines our beliefs. Because of this, its important for us to develop a good life style. By changing our life style we can often change our beliefs (if their not too rigid).
– ‘Primitive religion’ also shows that belief is very dynamic and changing. Belief is not a concrete specific ‘thing’ consisting of principles, definitions, and such, which is set in stone (as we’re normally taught in organized religion). It is, rather, a condition, an attitude, a stance a person takes in life. Because of this it has been very malleable and versatile. This conflicts with much of the point of view of belief in these past some odd centuries which emphasized what a person believes is what matters. This creates a condition of an absence of malleability. It became an endless war over which belief was right. With that point of view the question of the substance of belief was more important than anything else. It seems to me that, in reality, its the attitude of belief that matters in the end. In many ways, what god I believe in or how I believe it doesn’t really matter. It’s that I believe, that I need to believe, that matters. But its more than that. As ‘primitive religion’ has shown, for a belief to truly be true it needs to be rooted in the condition in which we live. I can’t just believe because it “makes sense”. But what “makes sense” in the modern world? Who knows? This is part of the dilemma we now face.
– Another thing ‘primitive religion’ shows is that belief is an active relationship with existence. That is to say, existence is something we associate with. Often, primitive people treat existence as a relationship much like relating to a person. No doubt, this has led to the need to view gods and spirits in existence, to make it more easier to associate with. A rock is not just a rock but a living thing. A storm is not just an atmospheric activity but a god, a living thing. From my own personal experience I’ve found that treating existence, and the things in it, as alive makes the world seems to ‘come alive’. There is great wisdom in that, I think.
– I don’t know of any ‘primitive religion’ that does not believe in an unknown unseen “spirit” (such as gods) that inhabits the world. This shows that this is a basic trait of human thinking and perceiving of the world. It predates any logic or science or organized thinking. This fact shows that this point of view is not to be looked at lightly. This point of view is greatly rooted in human thinking, whether we understand it or not.
I’ve found that there are many qualities of ‘primitive religion’ that are good, I think, to all humanity. There are great lessons and examples to be found here. Many of these qualities, interestingly, can be found in basic human belief and many of us can relate to them. Often, though, what we’ve received in the modern world is a watered down version.