December 11, 2016

Religion—the control mechanism of a stable society

A talk given by Edward Goldsmith before the Farmington Trust, 1974.


My original intention was to stick as closely as possible to the subject. However, having heard the last two remarkable addresses, I shall follow the line of reasoning that has already been traced.

Modern society is not representative of human experience

First of all, I feel that the only approach likely to enable us to understand these problems is the cross-cultural one. I do not believe that we can understand our problems exclusively in terms of the experience of our industrial society. Let us not forget that it is a very short one. It has only been in existence for about 150 years, whereas man, depending on how we define him, has been around for as much as one million, possibly two million, years. In fact, our whole experience of industry when compared with man’s total experience is no more than two days in the life of a man of seventy.

If the industrial experience has been short, so has the agricultural one. Systematic agriculture probably only came into its own 10 or 12 thousand years ago. Before that, man was a hunter and a gatherer, and to a lesser extent a slash and burn or a shifting agriculturalist. Possibly 95% of all the people who have ever lived fell into this category.

It is a defect of practically all the disciplines into which academic knowledge is at present divided, that they are based on the experience of industrial society to the exclusion of all others, i.e. on a quite inadequate sample of the total human experience. This defect is not a minor one. It is sufficient to invalidate most of the work done by our scientists today. It prevents science from providing adaptive guidelines for public policy. The reason is clearly that what our scientists have taken to be general laws governing human behaviour at all times, are in fact but a set of principles which appear to have applied to a very limited sample of human behaviour.

This is true of today’s sociology, which attempts to study modern societies without any reference to the traditional or primitive societies from which they have emerged, and of which they are, to a large extent, aberrant or pathological forms. It is true of economics, which assumes a whole set of conditions such as a market economy, which, as Polanyi1 points out, have only been present in a fraction of known societies and for a very short period to boot. It is true of psychoanalysis—Malinowski pointed out that the Oedipus complex made no sense at all in a matrilineal society such as that of the Trobriand Islanders, in which a child is brought up by the mother’s elder brother and not by her husband. It is true of government. Traditional societies being perfectly governed without the aid of any of the institutions which we associate with government and regard as indispensable to the maintenance of social order, public opinion reflecting traditional norms while the influence of the elders being sufficient to maintain the strictest adherence to the social norm, and it is true of religion, as I shall point out later.

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Societies are subject to natural laws or constraints

Not only must we look at social questions cross-culturally, but we must look at them ‘cross behaviourally’, that is to say, in the light of all other forms of behaviour. In the same way that one must reject the notion that pre-industrial societies are not relevant to understanding the behaviour of industrial man, on the principle that he has now achieved so elated a status that he is above the laws that have so far governed the behaviour of human societies, so one must reject the notion that man, primitive or industrial, is above the laws governing behaviour in general.

Man is an animal, and any analysis based on the illusion of his uniqueness can only lead to the most foolish conclusions. It may be argued that we are not in possession of the methodology for examining our social behaviour in this light. This only appears to be so, because we are so preoccupied with the empirical approach—more precisely the experimental method which consists in examining the components of the biosphere in isolation in the totally artificial conditions of a laboratory.

It is not in this way, however, that we can understand the biosphere. It is a complex system made up of closely inter-related sub-systems and the separate examination of the latter in isolation cannot reveal the nature of these inter-relationships. A system is in fact not simply the sum of its parts. That is why the experimental or reductionist method is proving to be such a disastrous failure. A more suitable method for understanding the behaviour of complex systems is provided by the new disciplines of General Systems or Cybernetics, the two being for all practical purposes indistinguishable. Both deal with the behaviour of ‘systems’ or units of behaviour, and what is surprising is the extraordinary similarity of systems, however different they may appear to the naked eye.

Consider a lobster and a man. What is in fact of interest is not so much their dissimilarity, but their extreme similarity in functional terms. They both eat, excrete, move, reproduce, etc, and in a similar way.

Cybernetics is basically the study of control. It reveals that there is basically only one way of controlling the behaviour of a natural system, whether it be a man, a lobster, a society, or an ecosystem. Even artificial systems can only be controlled in the same way.

Information is organised in a computer designed to control a machine tool very much as it is in a man, save, of course, that by comparison the process involved is pathetically rudimentary. General systems and cybernetics thereby provide a means of organising data into information that can be made use of. This is precisely what is lacking in the data rich, information poor, academic world of today.

Professor Howard, in his address, dwelt at great length on the increasing incidence of crime, delinquency, drug addiction, alcoholism in the U.S. These, I think, one must regard as but the symptoms of social disintegration. Another such symptom, as Durkheim pointed out more than 50 years ago, is suicide.

We can regard such behaviour as ‘random’ in the sense that it is no longer under control. As randomness increases so does order decrease, until eventually there is no longer a society, but simply a heterogeneous group of individuals who no longer constitute an autonomous unit of behaviour—or a system—but rather a mass society. Such as ours is today.

As this process of disintegration occurs, so the bonds holding people together are relaxed, as are the essential constraints which previously enabled individuals to act as the differentiated parts of a social system. This notion of constraints is extremely important. It is at the basis of organisation. Today it is not fashionable to discuss constraints. We live in a permissive world and have developed all sorts of very childish arguments for justifying this permissiveness. In reality it is but another word for chaos. To identify it with liberty is simply ludicrous.

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Free or self-governing societies are characterised by self-discipline rather than permissiveness

To the Greeks, liberty meant the freedom to run themselves. They were free because their society was self-governing. The Persians were slaves because they were run by an autocrat. This did not mean that there was greater permissiveness in Greece than in Persia. The opposite in fact was true. The Greeks were highly disciplined.

Fustel de Coulanges in his famous study of the ancient city is shocked by the extent of their discipline, by the all pervading tyranny exerted by public opinion on the citizens of the city state, which was greater in his eyes than that imposed by any dictator.

A cross-cultural study of stable societies reveals that this discipline of self-discipline, characterises them all. It is a sine qua non of self-government. It is for this reason that self-government, which we regard as synonymous with democracy, cannot occur in a mass-society.

This must be so if we consider the nature of systems. A group of individuals learn to constitute a system by accepting constraints, i.e. by limiting their range of choice. It is in this way that order is built up, order involves by definition a limitation of choice. Consider the system that is the family unit. It can only exist if its members behave in a particular way towards each other. This means that they must limit their range of behavioural choices, in other words accept the imposition of constraints—that particular set of constraints that makes possible the survival of the family unit.

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The laws of a stable society are hierarchically organised

Another important principle which few people are willing to face is that a society, like any other system, must be organised hierarchically. This must be so because the pattern of instructions ensuring the control of a system is so arranged that the instructions based on information reflecting the experience of the species over a long period are hierarchically superior to those representing its experience over a short period. Genetic information is not easily changed. It would be unadaptive for it to be so, otherwise it would cease reflecting the experience of a species over a long period, and simply that of a single generation. In such circumstances the species would cease to be stable. There would no longer be any continuity. Each generation would have to improvise its own biological form, which is clearly impossible.

The same is true of cultural information, though less so. This type of information is more malleable, more adjustable to immediate environmental requirements. The reason is that it only controls the particularities of behaviour, the generalities being determined genetically. Nevertheless, the generalities of a cultural pattern must also be relatively immutable, except over a long period, if a society is to be stable. This is an essential point which few people have realised, and which serves to explain the essential nature of religion and the fact that there can be no stable society whose behaviour is not determined by its religious beliefs.

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Religion embodies the most general laws of a stable society

The religious part of our culture, needless to say, is that part which we regard as indubitable or self evident—on which we are not willing to compromise—in which we must include the generalities of our behaviour pattern if a society is to be stable.

As you see, I am regarding a religion as an integral part of a culture, and a culture as the control mechanism that ensures the stability of a social system. That this principle is not obvious to everybody is due to the fact that we are accustomed to viewing aberrant or disintegrated societies, which require for their control elaborate institutions of all sorts. The basic principle of government in a traditional society is that it requires no institutions, save perhaps an informal Council of Elders. Australian aboriginal societies have been referred to as gerontocracies, or government by the old men. In my opinion it would be more appropriate to refer to them as necrocracies, or government by the dead. Such societies are governed by traditional information which we would regard as constituting their religion, though the word is unlikely to be used by them.

Indeed, interestingly enough, no traditional societies appear to have a word for ‘religion’. It is only when religion breaks away from the rest of a society’s cultural pattern and ceases to be the effective force governing it, that the word ‘religion’ appears necessary. In the classical world there was no word for it. ‘Religion’, as you may remember, simply meant ‘matters of state’. It is often debated whether traditional societies do have a religion. Fustel de Coulanges, in his study of the ancient city, concluded that every aspect of life was religious. The various missionaries whose articles on the subject appear in ‘African Ideas of God’, feel, on the contrary, that traditional society in Africa at least, is not religious. The debate is a sterile one, unless we provide a precise definition of the term ‘religion’. If one regards it purely in terms of our particular form of religion, then clearly one cannot expect to find it in traditional societies. If, on the other hand, you regard it as I do as constituting the generalities of a behaviour pattern, that on which we are not willing to compromise, then all stable societies must have it, i.e. must be religious, or they could not survive.

But let us look a little more closely at this notion of culture as a control mechanism. First of all it provides a model of a society’s relationship with its environment. It provides a goal, whose achievement must ensure the society’s stable relationship with its environment, and a means of achieving this goal, i.e. a ‘hierarchical organisation of instructions or guidelines.’

It must be clear to all of us that these things are precisely what our youth is lacking today. They lack a comprehensive worldview, a means of interpreting the world around them (Science has failed disastrously to provide this), a goal, (goalessness, is quite evidently one of the principal diseases our youth is suffering from), as for guidelines, without them they must drift aimlessly, like a leaf in the wind, and life must be sad, empty, frustrating.

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The symptoms of social breakdown

A lot is to be learnt from an examination of the history of the breakdown of societies, Norman Cohn traced the disintegration of societies in Europe in the Middle Ages in his famous book ‘The Pursuit of the Millenium’. Vittorio Lanternari has done the same for traditional societies in the Third World destroyed by Western influences, in his ‘The Religion of the Oppressed’. In each case as a culture breaks down there is a period of alienation and demoralisation in which people appear principally concerned with the satisfaction of short-term needs. Such a period is characterised by permissiveness, the cult of individualism, the breakdown of hierarchy, the violation of the moribund society’s most cherished taboos.

The period we are going through in Western society could not be more typical. Contrary to what we are taught today, people are never more miserable than in such conditions. That is why they have to resort to so many different forms of escapism: drug addiction, alcholism, crime and why, too, they fall increasingly victims to schizophrenia and resort in ever greater numbers to the final form of escapism, suicide.

The next stage is a frantic search for new systems of belief in an effort to recreate an orderly society held together by a clearly formulated religio-culture. Movements attempting to achieve this have already begun to proliferate. In Africa today there are several thousand such movements, usually referred to as millenarist, or messianic. In Lagos there is actually now the world’s first trade union of messiahs. Christianity started off very much in this way, as a messianic cult adopted by the alienated proletariat of the large cities during the disintegration of the Roman Empire. Since then it has gone through many forms.

One can expect an increasing number of such movements in our disintegrating Western society. I am fully convinced that it is only such a movement that can lead us out of the present morass. It is interesting to consider what should be its main features if it is to provide the basis of a new stable and satisfying post-industrial civilisation.

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The basis of social stability is sacredness

I think perhaps the first feature of such a new religio-culture is that it should be all encompassing. We habitually distinguish between the sacred and the profane, if our religion were all encompassing, there would be no such distinction. Everything would be sacred, as is the case in traditional societies. If something is sacred it means that one cannot change it let alone destroy it simply to satisfy a passing whim, or even to provide us with an apparent material advantage.

The world of which we are part, which has taken 3,000 million years to create, must be treated with respect, and humility. This in fact is the only scientific attitude. The notion that one can modify it at will so as to bring it totally under our control, which is entertained by our scientists today, only reflects their shattering ignorance of basic scientific principles. There are two aspects to science: trying to understand the world we live in, and trying to modify it. If our scientists spent more time trying to understand things, they would soon realise how unjustified are the changes they are at present so intent on bringing about.

Primitive man regarded everything around him as sacred, which meant that he had to treat his environment with respect. We, on the other hand, have desanctified nature, worse still, we have sanctified man. Still worse, modern man has sanctified the human brain. Man, with the aid of science, technology and industry is regarded as omnipotent, omniscient and ubiquitous. He has taken over from God, and has decided to wage a methodical and systematic battle against his works. Indeed, the very principle that man can control his environment, which underlies the effective religion of modern man, is anti-evolutionary.

The belief which we cherish that it is possible by means of science and technology to create a paradise from which all human problems such as poverty, unemployment, diseases, malnutrition, ignorance, war will be eliminated is the ultimate heresy. It justifies the design and development of a totally new organisation of matter, the technosphere or world of human artefacts which is everywhere being purposefully substituted for the biosphere, or world of living things.

It is possibly the most naive belief ever entertained, since to achieve this dream must mean violating the basic laws of science: principally those of thermodynamics, biology and ecology. Its effect is to make the world ever less suitable for human habitation, since we are part of the biosphere, not the technosphere, We are made of protoplasm not wire and aluminium. The expansion of the technosphere must mean the corresponding contraction of the biosphere, these processes are the two sides of the same medal, essential parts of the same wider process. You can’t have a tropical forest and a cement factory on the same spot; you have to choose. The technosphere derives its resources from the biosphere and must consign to it its waste products. The idea that resource management and pollution-control can prevent the destruction of the biosphere is indeed a very dangerous illusion.

This destruction of the biosphere occurs at all levels of organisation and gives rise to biological, social and ecological maladjustments. In my forthcoming book ‘The Culturalist Manifesto’ [see The Way], I try to demonstrate how the major problems facing man today, such as poverty, unemployment, disease, homelessness, and war, are symptoms of these maladjustments. That is why technological solutions to these problems cannot work. In terms of our world view, we regard them as due to a lack of industrial development, whereas in reality it is industrial development that has caused them. We are convinced that by allocating funds for scientific research, technological development and industrial growth, these problems will be solved, whereas in reality by expanding the technosphere in this manner, we can only further disrupt biological, social and ecological systems, thereby further exacerbating these problems. We are thus caught up in a vicious circle, or positive feedback reaction from which we can only extract ourselves by completely changing our world view, by realising that these problems are not material or economic, but biological, social and ecological, and that they can only be solved by biological, social and ecological solutions.

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Real poverty is biological and social, not material, deprivation

Poverty is not material deprivation. It cannot be eliminated by providing people with more electric toothbrushes and gold-plated Cadillacs. The Americans, by creating the most affluent society in the world, have not eliminated poverty. In Illich’s words, they have simply modernised it. They have simply created a society in which a staggering amount of material goods is required to lead something approaching a ‘normal’ life, whereas in traditional societies a much more satisfying life is possible with a fraction of the material goods required by the Americans. Industrialisation in fact creates needs much faster than it can satisfy them. Also, as I have pointed out, these material goods are acquired at a cost: biological, social and ecological disruption. As electric toothbrushes become easier to acquire, so by the same token is it more difficult to obtain clean air, uncontaminated food and a satisfactory social environment. Industrialisation, if one looks at it carefully and objectively, is in reality a device for providing us with the superfluous at the cost of the indispensable. Poverty is, in fact, best regarded as biological and social deprivation. This is what the inhabitants of the ghettoes of the large American Cities are suffering from and no amount of material goods can compensate for it.

The process is occurring much faster than anyone is willing to admit. Four or five years ago we were predicting that nuclear waste would eventually leak from the containers in which it must be stored for several hundred years. It has already happened. Over a hundred thousand gallons of high-level radio-active waste has seeped out into the Columbia River at Hanford. We were all concerned about the possibility that SST’s would disturb the ozone layer which shields us from the sun’s radiation, and without which life on earth is not possible. It is happening. The Australian Academy of Sciences has just revealed that the ozone layer is shrinking and has been for the last eight years. We were concerned that industrial activities on the present scale would upset world weather. It has probably already happened. The present drought in West Africa and elsewhere may well be the result of climatic changes brought about in West Europe.

For the earth to be incapable of supporting human life would not take very long at the present rate of industrialisation. My guess is about 30-40 years. This may sound very little, but one forgets that growth is exponential, and during the next 30 years the world population, at the current rate will have doubled, and the impact of each man will have multiplied by something like six times. The impact of human activities by this time would be far greater than the earth’s fragile life support systems could withstand.

Fortunately, all this will never occur. The biosphere will be saved by what I regard to be the inevitable collapse of the technosphere. I think that a massive economic crash is inevitable in the next four or five years. This must be accompanied by very serious social perturbations. Famine and epidemics are likely to seriously reduce population pressure, and out of all this there is likely to emerge new modes of thought and new societies based on very different premises.

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The basic features of a stabilising religio-culture

As I have already mentioned, stable societies must be governed by their religions, which must englobe all aspects of their worldview.

They must regard themselves as being part of nature, not above it, nor in any way exempt from its laws; and nature, the work of evolution or God, must be regarded as holy. The terrible heresy, according to which it is supposed we can control nature for our own ends, must be totally abandoned. It is this illusion which will have caused the terrible global catastrophes we are about to witness.

In addition, the religion of such a society must lead its members towards maintaining social continuity, or stability. The notion of material progress as we conceive it must be totally abandoned.

Politics must be entirely governed by the society’s religio-culture, as is the case in traditional societies. Institutionalised government has never worked. Look at our history, it is but a story of intrigues, massacres, wars, assassinations. Politicians have all been hopeless. All have failed to identify the real problems facing man. Consider that the greatest problem we have faced since the agricultural revolution has been soil-erosion. The lands bordering the Mediterranean which were once very fertile, have been turned into wildernesses as the top soil has disappeared into the sea: Yet can anyone recall a political speech exhorting people to conserve the soil? How many votes would a politician in Britain obtain were soil conservation to be the principal plank of his party platform? Look at our politicians today. With the world collapsing about their ears, what do they discuss at Westminster? Equal pay for women, the interest rate on mortgages, whether we should build a third airport or channel tunnel. Let us face it, it is not in this way that a society can be controlled. When politics is governed by a society’s traditions it is very different. The role of the Elders is simply to interpret the traditional law. Government has no institutions, democracy is not representative but participatory—all take an active role in governing the society in accordance with the principles handed down from generation to generation.

If politics has failed to replace tradition, so has science. Our scientists have swallowed the worldview of industrial man hook, line and sinker. The idea that it is as objective as it is made out to be is an illusion. The truth is that man was not designed phylogenetically to solve the sort of problems he is faced with today. For two million years, while he was a hunter-gatherer he undoubtedly developed a considerable talent for chasing small mammals and digging for roots. On the other hand he has been unsuccessful in most of his enterprises since he abandoned this way of life.

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The maladjustment of modern society

As technology takes over from the biosphere, so does the world resemble less and less that to which we have been adapted, which makes it very difficult for us to understand it. In fact, one of the maladjustments caused by this process is ‘cognitive maladjustment’. If you put an East African warthog into a shoe factory, you would not expect it to interpret correctly the components of this new and strange environment. It can only interpret it in terms of its previous experience. Similarly, when Captain Cook first arrived at Tahiti, the natives he encountered had never seen a horse, the only mammal of which they had had any experience was the pig, and they quite logically referred to the horse as a man-carrying-pig.

We are increasingly in this situation ourselves. Our natural instincts provide us with no guidelines for dealing with the strange new components of our environment. Horrible things like radio-isotopes, x-ray machines, food-additives, nuclear-power plants, pollution, resource-depletion, massive social mobility, of all these things we have had no cultural, let alone phylogenetic experience, and neither our politicians nor our scientists, nor anybody else, can respond to them adaptively.

It may be argued that we have accumulated an immense amount of data over the last fifty years, but data by itself cannot serve to guide public policy. It must first be organised into information. Unfortunately, our scientists carry out endless experiments whose results are described in detail in thousands of separate specialised journals. These are written for the specialist, and specialists defend their academic territory more ferociously than any territorially-based bird or mammal described by Robert Ardrey. The data is thereby locked up in a host of little pockets to which only the initiated have access. Efforts to organise data into information are looked upon as “unscientific” as it is often not the sort of work that can be carried out in laboratories. There is a perfectly good tool for organising this data, General Systems or Cybernetics, but, as we have seen, it is rarely used. The idea in fact that science can hope to provide a means of controlling our society is a terrible illusion.

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Traditional cultures are adapted to biological and social needs

On the other hand, in a traditional society, science is kept under cultural control, as has always been the case in India, and as was the case in Europe until very recently. It was probably Descartes who laid the foundations for the separation of science from religion by positing the ‘res extensa’ as opposed to the ‘res cogitans’, the former being for various reasons, outside the jurisdiction of traditional religion.

It is interesting to note how in a traditional society, technology, which with us has gone completely berserk, is also kept under control. It is only in this way that good technology is possible. Consider a fishing society living on a lake. Let us suppose that every year there is a net production of 1500 fish. A good technology would enable them to catch precisely this number, and this is the one which a traditional society would undoubtedly exploit, the one consistent with its religion and ritual life. A modern technology introduced by an unthinking external power would undoubtedly enable them to catch many more than 1500 fish but with the inevitable depletion of fish stocks.

Technology, in a traditional society is an integral part of its behaviour and cannot be looked at separately. There is a famous story of a tribe in Australia among whose members the possession of a stone axe was of particular significance. Only the elders possessed the right to do so, and there were elaborate rituals for lending axes to other people, all of which were very important for the maintenance of the tribe’s social structure. Missionaries, seeking to ingratiate themselves with the Aborigines, dished out axes to everybody, steel ones at that, and the result was the break down of the society and the transformation of its members into depressed slum-dwellers living on the periphery of the modern world.

One of the most important aspects of our behaviour which must be culturally controlled is education. We have totally lost sight of its very purpose and consider that it consists in cramming ever increasing quantities of largely irrelevant information into the heads of our unfortunate children. We forget that education is basically but another word for socialisation. This is certainly true in traditional societies, where it consists of transmitting the traditional information from one generation to the next, so as to ensure the society’s continuity or stability.

This information is that which is required to enable the child to fulfil its functions as a member of its family and community. If this is so, then the information will differ from one society to the next. That required to enable a young child to fulfil its functions as a member of a bushman band will be very different from that which he would require were he a member of a centralised African kingdom, such as Benin. In fact, a bushman with a first class honours at Oxford University is, as far as I am concerned, uneducated.

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Restabilising society

The sooner we understand this principle, the sooner will this terrible social disruption we are causing throughout the Third World start coming to an end. Meanwhile, we in Britain should start considering now what is the information that must be communicated to future generations which would enable them to develop a stable, continuous and satisfying society.

I do not think that this work will be in vain. As industrial society grinds to a halt, people will lose confidence in conventional wisdom and current solutions. In fact, this has already begun. They will be looking for different answers, very different ones. One can predict a religious reaction to this eminently irreligious age; a new interest in traditional forms after a period in which people have only been concerned with the novel, the original, and the outrageous; a longing for a communal living to replace the cult of individualism; a frantic search for spiritual values by those who have only experienced the squalor and misery which our materialist philosophy has inevitably brought about.

My question to you, Gentlemen, is what is to be the role of the Farmington Trust in an exciting and essential enterprise of this sort?

·Ω·


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(Some quotes from the discussion following this address)

“We are fast approaching the time when it will be Christian missionaries from Africa and Asia who will come and evangelise in Europe.”

“The African in my view was religious in that if there was complete disaster he said ‘Shauri Ya Mungu’. In other words, God’s doing. If everything was marvellous it was still God’s doing. All his problems in fact were put upon the shoulders of God. I think your deepest believing Christian is doing the same thing. Is it not possible for the modern generation to find something on which to put their problems?”

“Science cannot deal with the real essence of religion any more than it can with the nature of art or the political nature of man, but we can systematically study the religion in man—our civilisation has been built on a religious foundation—there is some reality in this.”

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