November 19, 2017

The religion of a stable society

Chapter 3 of The Stable Society: its structure and control: Towards a Social Cybernetics, Wadebridge Ecological Centre, UK, 1978

We all think that we know what is meant by religion, yet if we were asked to define it, we would probably all do so differently. In the irreligious age in which we live, many would agree with Salomon Reinach that it is but “a body of scruples which impede the fullest exercise of our faculties”,48 or even with Marx, who, as is well known, described it as “the opium of the people”.

To both these critics, religion is some sort of aberration, one which may characterise backward, barbarous and ignorant people, but which, it is intimated, has no place in an advanced, civilised and enlightened society. In this paper I shall show that the opposite is in fact the case.

First of all, however, let us consider a few more definitions of religion.

Thouless considers it as “a felt, practical relationship with what is believed in as a superhuman being or beings”,49 while Frazer regards it as “a propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man which are believed to direct and control the course of nature and human life.”50

They thus see religion as something which is intimately concerned with the supernatural.

Huxley describes it as “a reaction of a personality as a whole to its universe as a whole.”51 This is clearly a much wider definition, which includes, among other things, the notion of culture.

I regard the last three definitions as containing some of the essential elements of religion, although they do not provide a functional definition that is of use in developing a cross-cultural model of human social behaviour.52

I shall try to provide such a definition. Religion I shall take as the control-mechanism of a stable society.

What is Control?

Let us begin by examining the nature of control. If we control a motor car or a guided missile, we keep it on its right course. Similarly, to control the behaviour pattern of a natural system (by which I mean a unit of behaviour within the biosphere such as a cell, a biological organism, an ecosystem, a society, etc.) means simply to keep it on its right course. This assumes that it has a right course, i.e., that it is goal-directed. The only alternative is to assume that it is purely random, which is clearly not the case (if it were purely random, we would be unable to study it).10

What is this goal? The answer is: the maintenance of stability. A system is regarded as stable if it is capable of maintaining its basic structure in the face of change. This means, among other things, taking those measures necessary to reduce the extent of possible changes. A system can only function in an environment approximately the same as that to which it has been adapted by its evolution and if changes get out of hand, the system is no longer able to function; it is no longer, in fact, under control.

This notion clearly conflicts with the dogma of man’s infinite adaptability. By means of this dogma, industrial society seeks to justify its systematic efforts to modify its environment so that it diverges ever further from that in which it has evolved.15 The dogma is based upon a failure to distinguish between stability, which implies long-term equilibrium, and a position (or a series of positions) of short-term equilibrium achieved at the cost of creating circumstances favouring more serious and more frequent discontinuities in the future. The supposedly adaptive behaviour of industrial man can only achieve short-term equilibrium.

We have said that stable systems tend towards the avoidance of change. Anthropological studies have confirmed that stable societies are organised (by their cultural evolution) with this end in view. However, the mechanism by which societies achieve this end remains largely unexamined.

For the elucidation of this mechanism, we must turn to the relatively new discipline of cybernetics, the study of control. Cybernetics has probably contributed more to the understanding of the behaviour of systems than any other discipline, by demonstrating that there is only one way to control the behaviour of a system, regardless of its level of organisation. The essential requirement is the presence of a control mechanism which operates by detecting data essential to the maintenance of the system’s stable relationship with its environment, transducing them into the appropriate medium, and interpreting them in terms of the model which the system has built up of its relationship with its specific environment.53

Let us see how this principle operates at different levels of organisation. Consider the process of protein-synthesis. It is highly controlled, since it is a complicated and orderly process in which little is left to chance. What are the conditions required for its occurrence? Horowitz writes:

“It seems evident that the synthesis of an enzyme—a giant protein molecule consisting of hundreds of amino-acid units arranged end to end in a specific and unique order—requires a model or set of instructions of some kind. These instructions must be characteristic of the species; they must be automatically transmitted from generation to generation; and they must be constant yet capable of evolutionary change. The only known entity that could perform such a function is the gene. There are many reasons for believing that it transmits information by acting as a model or template.”12

The mechanism ensuring the normal day-to-day behaviour of a biological organism, such as a dog or a man, must function in very much the same way. Kenneth Craik was probably the first person to point this out. He considered that the brain contained a model of the real world, in terms of which behaviour was mediated.13

We have seen that such a mechanism is required also to explain the behaviour of a human society. The model or template in this case is the society’s worldview. It is in terms of this worldview that the society’s behaviour pattern can be understood, and the two together are referred to as its culture. This view of culture implicitly underlies the approach to the study of traditional societies adopted by cultural ecology—a relatively new approach associated mainly with the names of Andrew Vayda and Roy Rappoport.

It may be objected that there are other means of controlling human societies. We, for instance, tend to suppose that a society is controlled by its institutional government on the basis of scientific and technological information. However, these are both relatively new principles, which have played but a negligible part in the total human experience of social control. What is more, they have failed, which was inevitable, since they do not satisfy any of the basic cybernetic requirements. By their very nature, they must lead society on a course—that upon which we are embarked today—which is diametrically opposed to the one which would ensure social stability and hence survival.

Indeed, the human experience during the historical period in which institutionalised government and objective knowledge were first utilised for social control has been one of wars, massacres, intrigues, famines—in other words, of precisely those discontinuities which social and ecological control should eliminate.

This era is in stark contrast to that which preceded it: during the Paleolithic, man’s life appears to have been as stable and satisfying as that which is enjoyed by other forms of life on this planet until they are disturbed by man’s disruptive activities.

Back to top

Requirements for the Control of a Human Society

What requirements must a religio-culture satisfy if it is to control the behaviour of a society? Firstly, it must be able to ensure that a society’s basic structure is maintained. The environment must be prevented from undergoing changes so great that the society cannot adapt to them without compromising its basic structure; and there must be continuity in the attitude of the society to its environment.

As is clear from the briefest of inspections, our religion today does not in any way satisfy these requirements. Religion plays little part in shaping our personal behaviour or that of our society. We tend simply to pay lip-service to the code of ethics which it teaches, while observing instead the very different code implicit in the culture of industrial society.

Although religious matters have now largely broken away from social ones, this has been true only for a very short time. To understand the phenomenon of religion, we must examine it in the light of the total human experience and not simply that of a small unrepresentative portion.

What few people today realise is that the religion of traditional societies, that is, the religion of man in his normal surroundings, admirably satisfies cybernetic requirements. If we take religion as the basic social control mechanism, then the behaviour of traditional society can be described in terms of the basic cybernetic model which ensures the control of all other natural systems.

Back to top

The Relationship between Religion and Society

One indication of the close relationship between religion and society is that, when a social group has come to adopt a particular religion, the motive has usually been social rather than religious. The object has been to re-establish the identity of the group in the face of foreign influences or those of a different and dominant socio-economic group, and to distinguish it from these and other groups.

Thus, in the kingdom of Ruanda, Catholicism was adopted for the purpose of providing a doctrine to hold together the Hutu revolutionaries against abusive Tutsi rule. In Burma, the Karen and Shan minorities were converted to Protestantism to affirm their national existence against the Burman Buddhist majority.

Messianic or Millenarist movements, of which there are about 7,000 in Africa alone today (in Lagos there is actually said to be a Trade Union of Messiahs), are created by an oppressed, socially and culturally deprived proletariat in an effort to establish a new system of values and an orderly society that will provide them with the social satisfactions they require and with an identity distinct from that of the mainstream society in which they have no place.

In many small American towns, the members of the different denominations are distinguished from each other not so much by the different set of theological beliefs that they might entertain, but rather by their social class. Thus the Episcopalians often make up the upper class, the Methodists the middle class, and the Baptists the lower class, while Pentecostalists, Holy Rollers and others are likely to belong to a sub-culture that is psychologically at least, antagonistic to the society as a whole. In this way each class will seek to constitute, albeit imperfectly, a separate cultural group, while living with the others in some sort of symbiotic relationship.

In traditional societies the social aspect of religion is very much more pronounced. Religion permeates all social life to the extent that it merges almost completely with the society’s cultural pattern.

Fustel de Coulanges wrote of the ancient city:

“This State and its religion were so totally fused that it was impossible not only to imagine the conflict between them, but even to distinguish one from the other.”6

The same can be said of traditional societies in Africa and Asia even today. In such a society it is possible to serve both gods and men, because there is no real distinction between the two. As between the natural and the supernatural or the sacred and the profane, the difference is one of degree rather than of kind.

I shall quote in full Robertson Smith’s description45 of the relationship between religion and traditional society:

“The circle into which a man was born was not simply a group of kinsfolk and fellow-citizens, but embraced also certain divine beings, the gods of the state, which to the ancient mind were as much a part of the particular community with which they stood connected as the human members of the social circle. The relationship between the gods of antiquity and their worshippers was expressed in the language of human relationship, and this language was not taken in a figurative sense but with strict literality. If a god was spoken of as father and his worshippers as his offspring, the meaning was that the worshippers were literally of his stock, that he and they made up one natural family with reciprocal family duties to one another. Or, again, if the god was addressed as king, and the worshippers called themselves his servants, they meant that the supreme guidance of the state was actually in his hands, and accordingly the organisation of the state included provision for consulting his will and obtaining his direction for all weighty matters, and also provision for approaching him as king with due homage and tribute.

“Thus a man was born into a fixed relation to certain gods as surely as he was born into relation to his fellow-men; and his religion, that is, the part of conduct which was determined by his relation to the gods, was simply one side of the general scheme of conduct prescribed for him by his position as a member of society. There was no separation between the spheres of religion and of ordinary life. Every social act had a reference to the gods as well as to men, for the social body was not made up of men only, but of gods and men.”

What is more, Robertson Smith goes on to say:

“This account of the position of religion in the social system holds good, I believe, for all parts and races of the ancient world in the earlier stages of their history. The causes of so remarkable a uniformity lie hidden in the mists of prehistoric time, but must plainly have been of a general kind, operating on all parts of mankind without distinction of race and local environment; for in every region of the world, as soon as we find a nation or tribe emerging from prehistoric darkness into the light of authentic history, we find also that its religion conforms to the general type which has just been indicated.”45

It is not surprising that, in such conditions, there was no word for religion. The Latin religio, for instance, meant ‘matters of state’, while in Japan the closest approximation, Matsori Goro, also meant government.

Let us examine more closely the model or world view in terms of which traditional man sees himself as related to the men and gods who form his social environment.

Back to top

Religio-Culture as a Means of Classifying the Members of the Social Environment

We live in a mass society in which the bonds that hold together traditional societies have been largely eroded. A mass society is an unstructured, undifferentiated aggregation of people. A traditional society, on the other hand, is a highly differentiated system: its members stand in clearly defined, asymmetrical relationships with one another and have distinct duties towards one another. Differentiation implies acknowledged social roles, and hence cooperation; in the absence of differentiation, a society will be characterised by competition and aggression.

Each member of a traditional society has at his disposal an elaborate kinship terminology, by means of which he classifies the members of his social environment; in some societies, there are as many as 150 different terms.

What is more, as Radcliffe Brown points out, there is a close correspondence between the designation of a relative by a specific term and the type of behaviour that must be displayed towards him.29

A religio-culture also allows the members of social groups other than one’s own to be classified.

To understand this, we can take as an example the caste system in India, as described by Furnivall.54 The religio-culture of a man’s caste provides him with a complete model of the environment and a corresponding strictly prescribed behaviour pattern, determining every detail of his relationship with other members of his caste and with those outside it. The caste system supplies a religious basis for inequality: a man has no desire to advance himself other than by strict adherence to the behaviour appropriate to his caste. As a result, Furnivall argues, India “has maintained a stable plural society, in the face of overwhelming odds.”54

This example gives a clue to one of the basic functions of a religio-culture. Religion ensures the stability of a traditional society by consecrating or sanctifying the generalities of its behaviour pattern. As we have explained in detail elsewhere,* the generalities of a society’s behaviour pattern embody those responses to its environment which have proved to be adaptive in the long term. If these generalities were to be disrupted, the consequences would be far-reaching and potentially catastrophic. (See Chapter 4: ‘Science and Social Control’.)

Back to top

The Classification of the Gods

Traditional man makes no distinction between his society and its pantheon. Both are organised in exactly the same way. What is more, the classificatory system is four-dimensional, so that both are regarded as forming part of a continuous series extending through time. As a result, a society is capable of sanctifying its past and, hence, the social structure that it has inherited. This ensures that the principles that have previously governed the society are strictly adhered to, a superb strategy for ensuring social continuity.

In traditional societies, the cultural information that is transmitted from one generation to the next represents not merely the experience of a single generation, but the total experience of a society stretching back into the mists of time. In consequence, the principles governing the transmission of cultural information are precisely those governing the transmission of genetic information, which ensures the stability of natural systems at a biological level of organisation.

As we have mentioned elsewhere, a traditional society, although it is often called a ‘gerontocracy’, or government by the old, is more properly described as a ‘necrocracy’, or government by the dead. On this subject, Lafcadio Hearn writes:

“. . . not only government, but almost everything in Japanese society, derives directly or indirectly from this ancestor cult; and in all matters, the dead, rather than the living have been the rulers of the nation and the shapers of its destiny . . .”55

What is normally called ancestor worship or manes worship appears to be common to all traditional societies (though the term ‘worship’ is not strictly correct, the relationship being more informal than this would suggest). It is not a cult by itself, but forms an important part of the total relationship between man and the supernatural, whose nature we have already examined. If the cult of man’s direct ancestors play a greater part in his life than any other cult, it is because of the singular importance of the family unit, around which centres the vast proportion of his daily concerns.

Tyler writes:

“The dead ancestor, now passed into a deity, simply goes on protecting his own family and receiving suit and service from them as of old; the dead chief still watches over his own tribe, still holds his authority by helping friends and harming enemies, still rewards the right and sharply punishes the wrong.”56

Lafcadio Hearn considers that the following beliefs “. . . underlie all forms of persistent ancestor worship in all climes and countries:

“I—The dead remain in this world—haunting their tombs, and also their former homes, and sharing invisibly in the life of their living descendants.

“II—All the dead become gods, in the sense of acquiring supernatural power; but they retain the characters which distinguished them during life.

“III—The happiness of the dead depends upon the respectful service rendered them by the living; and the happiness of the living depends upon the fulfilment of pious duty to the dead.”55

Back to top

Fear of Death

In a traditional society, a man views his own life as but a link in an infinite chain of being. When he dies, he will live on as an ancestral spirit—which means no more than graduating to a superior and more prestigious age-grade—and in this form he will continue as a member of his family and his community. Even when dead, he will remain in touch with his loved ones, whom he will continue to serve and who will continue to serve him. Hence, he does not entertain our pathological fear of death, and he would find it difficult to understand the logic of heart transplants, for instance, or of subjecting the moribund to appalling torture in our factory-like hospitals, so as to prolong their lives for a few more agonising weeks.

At the same time, the notion of paradise is totally foreign to him. To be consigned to such a place would mean breaking away from his family and his community, a thought which, rather than provide him with succour, would fill him with the deepest despair.

It is for this reason that there is little mention of a future life in the Old Testament. The notion only appears in later Judaism, after the triumph of the priests of Jahweh over the practitioners of the old tribal religion with its ancestral cult and associated beliefs and practices. Thus Lods writes:

“It was not till about the second century B.C. that Jahwism, having destroyed the old animistic belief in survival as a false and dangerous superstition, actually replaced the consolations, gloomy at best, which it offered, by a new hope, namely that of a resurrection or immortality accompanied by judgment after death. Hence Jahwism presents the phenomenon, somewhat disconcerting to our modern ideas, of a religion in which the belief in a future life for the individual was long an alien and unwelcome element.”40

Back to top

The Social Structure of the Gods

As already mentioned, the cult of the ancestors is not merely a family affair, but will be practised at all the other levels of social organisation. Thus Lafcadio Hearn writes of Japan:

“The three forms of the Shinto worship of ancestors are the Domestic Cult, the Communal Cult and the State Cult; or, in other words, the worship of family ancestors, the worship of clan or tribal ancestors and the worship of imperial ancestors. The first is the religion of the home; the second is the religion of the local divinity, or titular god; the third is the national religion.”55

This appears to be the case in all traditional societies. Driver shows how the differences in the organisation of the gods among North American Indian societies could be explained in terms of their differing social structures:

“There was a strong tendency to arrange gods in a ranked hierarchy in areas where people were ranked in a similar manner, and to ignore such ranking where egalitarianism dominated human societies. Thus the people of Meso-America carefully ranked their gods, while those in the Sub-Arctic Plateau and Great Basin believed in large numbers of spirits of about equal rank. Other areas tended to be intermediate in this respect. Among the Pueblos where many spiritual personalities were widely recognised to be designated as gods, there was little tendency towards ranking, just as there was more equality among human beings.”57

The people of Alor, as described by Cora Dubois, have a very loosely organised society. Few constraints are applied at a level higher than that of the family, and the family itself is very weak. The average Alorese is undisciplined and self-indulgent, and has little regard for authority of any kind. Their pantheon appears to reflect this social organisation very closely:

“They have a culture hero and a supreme deity, but these play a very small part in their thought. Ancestral spirits are more important, but behaviour to them is loose and undisciplined, just as it is towards their parents . . . The dead are merely pressing and insistent predators who can enforce their demands through supernatural powers. This is precisely the experience of the child with his parents. Hence, he obeys reluctantly and grudgingly.”58

The Manus, a small nation of traders and fishermen, serve as another example of a loosely organised people who likewise regard their gods as loosely organised. According to Goode, their religious system “. . . is highly individualistic, in that the sacred entity worshipped is the spirit of one person, usually the father . . .”59

The Swazi have developed a cohesive and hierarchically organised society, and, according to Hilda Kuper, their gods are organised in exactly the same way:

“In the ancestral cult, the world of the living is projected onto a world of spirit (emadloti). Men and women, old and young, aristocrats and commoners, continue the patterns of superiority and inferiority established by earthly experiences. Paternal and maternal spirits exercise complementary roles, similar to those operating in daily life on earth; the paternal role reinforces legal and economic obligations; the maternal exercises a less formalised protective influence. Although the cult is set in a kinship framework, it is extended to the nation through the king, who is regarded as the father of all Swazi. His ancestors are the most powerful of all the spirits.”60

In Dahomey, a centralised kingdom was developed at an early stage. According to Herskovits:

“. . . the organisation of the Dahomean gods is a reflection of the organisation of the society, though in a somewhat rough fashion. They include the idea of reigning over a kingdom, and of a hierarchy of organisation influencing all aspects of the social and economic life.”61

Back to top

The Changing Structure of the Gods

It is interesting to trace changes in the organisation of the gods following important social changes.

Robertson Smith45 shows how, with the breakdown of tribal society during the beginning of the historical period, social structures underwent considerable change. The course of change in Greece and Rome, however, was very different from that in the East. In the West, the aristocracy managed to gain power at the expense of the kings, whereas in Asia the kings held their own until their states were eventually destroyed by larger and more powerful neighbours.

Robertson Smith points out that:

“This diversity of political fortune is reflected in the diversity of religious development. For as the national god did not at first supersede tribal and family deities any more than the king superseded tribal and family institutions, the tendency of the West, where the kingship succumbed, was towards a divine aristocracy of many gods, only modified by a weak reminiscence of the old kingship in the not very effective sovereignty of Zeus, while in the East the national god tended to acquire a really monarchic sway.”45

What is particularly significant is that our concept of monotheism has come to us from the East. Although the idea of a universal god is an old one, in tribal society it played only a very small part in people’s preoccupations. No cult was associated with the universal god, and he was addressed only on very rare occasions, not by the individual but by the tribe as a whole.

Cullen Young,62 who was a missionary in Africa for 27 years, observes that tribal Africans scarcely ever refer to god. The reason, of course, is that tribal man has no need of a universal god: he looks for guidance in his day-to-day problems to the ancestral spirits, who are less remote, and he has no conception of a universal society such as might require a universal god for its protection and sanctification.

Cullen Young writes that:

“The non-African intruder within this strange thought-world is not culpably guilty, however, of error when he concludes that the idea of God seems absent. He is, for the time being, moving within a sphere where reference to God is simply not required. He will find it not easy to discover any point or moment in African communal living at which the belief in the continuing presence and active power of those whom we describe as ‘dead’ is not sufficient in itself for confidence and trust.”62

However, it is easy to see how a national god can slowly evolve into a universal one. This is undoubtedly what happened in the case of Jahweh. He probably started off as the Thunder God of the Kennites, a Bedouin tribe of the Sinai peninsula, with whom the Jews came into contact during their sojourn in the desert. He then became the national god of the southern Jews, and only briefly the national god of the precarious Jewish kingdom resulting from the temporary fusion of Judah and Israel under David and Solomon. It is only with St. Paul that he became a universal god.

As Robertson Smith writes:

“What is often described as the natural tendency of Semitic religion towards ethical monotheism, is in the main nothing more than a consequence of the alliance of religion with monarchy.”45

Back to top

The Classification of the Natural Environment

Tribal man is able to establish his relationship with his natural environment in such a way that it is not treated simply as a resource for the satisfaction of his short-term needs. The natural environment is classified in terms of the same classificatory system that accommodates his society, his ancestors, and his gods.

Different animals are associated with each different clan, and are invested with some sort of mana, or vital force, which renders them sacred to it. Other animals are sacred to the tribe as a whole, the degree of sacredness varying from one animal to another.

In this way, the natural environment is sanctified, and a complete set of ritualised relationships is established between a traditional society and the forms of life with which it is in contact. As a result of these relationships, Radcliffe Brown points out:

“Each group is responsible for the ritual care of a certain number of species as a result of which the maintenance of that group is believed to be assured. For the tribe all these species are of importance, and the ceremonies are thus a sort of cooperative effort, involving a division of labour, by which the normal processes of nature and the supply of food are provided for.”29

It is by desanctifying his environment that modern man has been able so systematically to destroy it and by sanctifying himself that he has rationalised this destruction.

Back to top

The Dynamic Principle

We have seen that the religio-culture of traditional man constitutes a complete, four-dimensional model of his relationship to his family, his society, and his environment, in which he sees the whole thing as one vast continuum.

This model enables a traditional society to mediate a single, integrated pattern of responses. A modern industrial state, on the other hand, must rely on the information provided by science, and as a result its pattern of behaviour is nothing more than a patchwork of expedients, for science, committed to the reductionist method and divided into a host of watertight disciplines each with a distinct methodology and terminology, is unable to provide an integrated pattern of information.( See Chapter 4 ‘Science and Social Control’.)

It is not enough for a religio-culture to supply a model of the society’s relationship with its environment; to ensure that the society can maintain this relationship it must provide a dynamic principle—a goal structure and a set of rules for achieving those goals.

At the level of the family unit, this presents no problem. As Malinowski has pointed out, man is, genetically at least, a family animal.21 Unless the family is seriously interfered with (as is the case in industrial societies), the various members of a family unit will fulfil their appropriate functions in it without reluctance.

A man obtains the greatest satisfaction by behaving in a husbandly manner towards his wife and in a fatherly manner towards his children, while a woman obtains the greatest satisfaction by fulfilling her functions as a wife and mother, and later as a grandmother. It happens that, by behaving in the way that ensures the maximum personal satisfaction for themselves, a man and a woman at the same time contribute to the stability of the family unit.63 This is precisely the relationship obtaining in any natural system between the parts and the whole, and provides the dynamic principle required to ensure stability at the level of the family. (This is an illustration of the Hierarchical Cooperation Principle—See Chapter 1 ‘Society as a Natural System’)

A society, however, is a more precarious system. The bonds that hold it together are culturally determined, and, as Malinowski has shown,21 are basically extensions of those which hold together the family—hence the elaborate kinship terminology used to classify members of the social group, most of whom are outside the basic family unit.

In this case, the motivation that is exploited is the quest for prestige, which was probably originally associated with man’s desire to shine in the eyes of the woman of his choice and to compete with other men for her favours.

Back to top


It is one of the tenets of our industrial society that man’s overriding goal is to maximise his material benefits. This, like so many of the governing assumptions of industrial society, is based on a superficial examination of the behaviour of man during only a minute fraction of his total experience. A study of the behaviour of traditional societies reveals that man, in normal conditions, is culturally a social rather than an economic animal.

As Polanyi writes:

“The outstanding discovery of recent historical research is that man’s economy, as a rule, is submerged in his social relationships. He does not act so as to safeguard his individual interest in the possession of material goods; he acts so as to safeguard his social standing, his social claims, his social assets. He values material goods only in so far as they serve this end. Neither the process of production nor that of distribution is linked to specific economic interests attached to the possession of goods; but every single step in that process is geared to a number of special interests which eventually ensure that the required step be taken. These interests will be very different in a small hunting or fishing community from those in a vast despotic society, but in either case the economic system will be run on non-economic motives.”64

As Tarde puts it:

“Primitive man is not a miser, nor a sage, nor a beast of prey . . . but a peacock.”65

Linton pointed out how this desire for prestige is used in traditional societies as an instrument of control:

“The human desire for prestige is probably the most useful of all the innate qualities of man. The hope of gaining prestige, or the fear of losing it, does more than anything else to hold the average individual to the proper performance of his role.”32

How is this desire for prestige exploited by society? The answer is that, in the worldview of a society, prestige is achieved by the fulfilment of precisely those functions that will enable a society to survive. Thus, in a fishing society, prestige will be associated with proficiency in catching fish; among hunter gatherers, prestige is associated with success in the hunt; in a society geared to warlike pursuits it is the successful warrior who will be the most admired.

To become a successful fisherman, hunter or warrior, however, the acquisition of the necessary skills is not sufficient. It is necessary to accumulate vital force, or mana as it is known amongst the Polynesians. We have already mentioned this vital force, possession of which by individuals, animals, or even objects confers upon them an aura of sacred-ness. This notion is closely associated with that of god, and, according to Lods, it may well be that,

“. . . the very ancient term which is found in all Semitic languages to express the idea of ‘god’ under the various forms of el (Hebrew), ilu (Babylonian), ilah (Arab) originally denoted the vague force which is the source of all strength and life, the divine rather than a god or divine personality: it would have had a meaning similar to that of the term mana among the Polynesians, the Indian brahman, and the Latin numen.”40

In Africa this vital force is referred to as muntu among the Baluba, nyama among the Dogom, and megbe by the Congo pygmies.

The notion that power can be acquired or lost, increased or decreased in accordance with a carefully formulated set of rules appears to be common to most traditional societies. The principle is referred to as ‘dynamism’.

Driberg regards this notion as underlying the religious beliefs and philosophy of traditional societies throughout Africa. He writes:

“This spiritual force consists of an abstract power or natural potency, all-pervasive and definitely never regarded anthropomorphically.”66

Father Placide Tempels in his study of Bantu philosophy writes:

“Vital force is the central theme of Bantu philosophy. The goal of all efforts among the Bantu can only be to intensify this vital force. One can only understand their customs if one interprets them as a means of preserving or increasing one’s stock of vital force. It is the only ideal he is willing to suffer or sacrifice himself for.”67

All illnesses, depressions, failures in any field of activity are taken as a reduction in this vital force and can be avoided only by maintaining one’s stock of it. When a Baluba prays, it is to obtain from the ancestral spirits or other deities an increase in muntu. The rituals he performs are designed to increase this vital force. Those performed at birth, circumcision, marriage, etc., involve such important increases that, on each occasion, new names are acquired, corresponding to the type of muntu thereby obtained. Each time, the old name must no longer be pronounced, for fear of reducing his muntu.

Taboos are observed for the same reason. Transgression always involves a reduction of muntu, to an extent which depends on the importance of the taboo. Everyday interpersonal relations also provide an opportunity for increasing or decreasing muntu. A powerful man is described as a muntu mukulumpe, a man with a great deal of muntu, whereas a man of no social significance is referred to as a muntu mutupu, or one who has but a small amount of muntu. A complex vocabulary is used to describe all the changes that can affect one’s stock of muntu. The verbs kufwa and kufwididila indicate degrees of loss of vital force. A man with none left at all is known as a mufu. He is as good as dead.

Schebesta describes the idea of megbe as it is understood by the pygmies of the Ituri forests.

Megbe is spread out everywhere, but its power does not manifest itself everywhere with the same force nor in the same way. Certain animals are richly endowed with it. Humans possess a lot more of some types of megbe but less of other types. Able men are precisely those who have accumulated a lot of megbe, this is true of witchdoctors”68 [author’s translation].

Kardiner explains the behaviour pattern of the Comanche Indians in the same way. They appear to have:

“. . . the most ingenious concept of ‘power’ which can be borrowed, lent, pooled and freely dispersed among the entire group.”69

Their behaviour provides an idea of how vital force is used to achieve the stable relationship of a society with its environment. According to Kardiner, they regard all the constituents of the environment as possessing some sort of power.69 The greatest is personified by the eagle, the earth, the sky and the sun. The highest force is God. After him come the first fathers who founded various clans, and next comes the head of the tribe; the living also form a hierarchy in accordance with their vital power. Animals, plants and minerals are organised in the same way. However, since their role is to satisfy the need of the humans, they have less vital power. Sorcerers and witches are considered to be capable of manipulating vital power in people and objects, to the detriment and death of their fellows.

In accordance with tribal custom:

“. . . certain things can be done, certain words spoken, certain thoughts harboured . . . and to break these taboos involves releasing hidden forces, with the consequent destruction of vital force for the transgressor.”

It was through the mediation of this power that the breaking of taboos was punished. A complicated set of rules governed the transfer of vital power from one person or object to another.

The sky power could not be transferred to men. Earth power could only be transferred to those who had miraculously recovered from wounds. Next came the power of the eagle, and the various lesser powers, each of which provided its possessor with certain specific benefits. Thus bear power conferred invulnerability; the burrowing owl gave the power of being hard to hit; beavers and buffaloes gave the power of the rapid healing of wounds; the mountain lion gave tremendous strength; the snake the ability to recover from the bite of snakes; the meadow lark the power to ‘go directly home’. Minnow power acted as a love charm. The horse, dog and coyote were associated with no specific powers. Success in hunting was attributed to the power conferred by ‘tiny black men with invisible arrows’.

The possession of power was double-edged, in the sense that its possession subjected one to corresponding taboos, whose violation automatically reduced the power involved. It appears that all Comanche ritual could be explained in terms of obtaining, getting rid of, increasing, or reducing all those different powers. Thus a specific ritual permitted middle-aged men to get rid of warrior powers in order to free themselves from the corresponding taboos, which were growing increasingly irksome. Other rituals, such as the sun ceremony, had the object of obtaining specific powers from the medicine-man in charge.69

Back to top

Centralisation of Vital Force

As one would expect, the amount of vital force residing at the different levels of social organisation reflects the society’s social structure. In a very loose society such as that of the people of Alor, one would expect individuals and families to be endowed with a considerable proportion of the society’s vital force. On the other hand, in a highly centralised society, a traditional kingdom such as ancient Egypt, Dahomey, or Benin in West Africa, the vital force becomes concentrated in the person of the divine king, who is in fact divine precisely for this reason. In such a society, the welfare of all the inhabitants is regarded as totally dependent on the fulfilment of certain rituals designed to preserve and increase the king’s stock of vital force, and on the observance of the many taboos surrounding his person.

That this was true of the ancient Hellenic kingdom is apparent from Homer, who writes:

“When a blameless and god-fearing king maintains impartial justice, the brown earth is rich in corn and in barley, and the trees are laden with fruit; the ewes constantly bring forth young, the seas abound in fishes, there is nothing that does not prosper when there is good government and the people are happy.”70

The practice of killing the king at regular intervals, described by Frazer in The Golden Bough,50 makes much sense—it implies that he had ceased to be a fit repository for the vital force of the society. In terms of the worldview of the society concerned, the society’s stock of vital force could only be renewed by transferring it to someone else, who must thereby be crowned in his stead. As is generally known, in some kingdoms the king was ritually murdered at the end of each year, a custom incomprehensible to those not aware of the specific law governing the transfer of vital force in such societies.

Equally incomprehensible would be the custom of putting to death commoners who have trodden in the king’s shadow or committed some other ritual offence, if it were not realised that in terms of the society’s worldview this misdemeanour could lead to terrible social calamities.

Back to top


As a society disintegrates, its citizens lose interest in its affairs and there is little left to differentiate them from the rest of humanity.

Hammond relates the development of universalism in the Greek City State as reflected in the teachings of its philosophers to the increasing withdrawal from social affairs.71 Plato withdrew with his pupils to the Grove of the hero Academus in the Attic countryside; and thereafter his Academy became cut off from real life and devoted to the study of pure mathematics and other intellectual pursuits. Similarly, Epicurus established his school in a garden outside Athens. The garden became a symbol of retirement from the world into a pleasant existence, such as the gods led in their remote heaven.

The Stoics made a gallant attempt to resist this trend. The City State had disintegrated, however, and the Stoics chose to adopt a broader concept of citizenship. They considered that the true social reality was the inhabited world, oecumene, and preached that man owed a duty to this illusory entity. Rather than retreat from society, Zeno and his disciples stood in the painted Stoa, a public colonnade in the centre of Athens, and addressed all who would listen. Their message was world citizenship and the universal brotherhood of man, the same fiction that we are taught today. Needless to say, it failed.

Hammond writes:

“Stoicism offered a solution at once practical and noble to the problem of the relation of the individual to the State in the new monarchies . . . Yet, this solution was not wholly satisfactory because it was one-sided. It placed on the individual a duty toward his fellow men but it offered him no corresponding privilege, such as citizenship had constituted in the City State.”71

The same forces which made man entertain the notion of the universal brotherhood of man made him direct his thought towards a universal god.

The development of universalism is traced by Robertson Smith.45 Among the pre-Islamic Arabs, as the tribes disintegrated and the old tribal gods lost their function, no permanent kingdom established itself. This meant that there was no powerful local god to whom allegiance could be transferred and so, to secure the satisfaction and the succour previously provided by the tribal gods, it became the practice to worship gods in some distant holy place, and to go on pilgrimage to their shrine. As Robertson Smith writes, the pilgrims,

“. . . were the guests of the god, and were received as such by the inhabitants of the holy places. They approached the god as strangers, not with the old joyous confidence of national worship, but with atoning ceremonies and rites of self-mortification, and their acts of worship were carefully prescribed for them by qualified instructors, the prototypes of the modern Meccan motan wif. The progress of heathenism towards universalism, as it is displayed in these usages, seemed only to widen the gulf between deity and man, to destroy the naive trustfulness of the old religion without substituting a better way for man to be at one with his god, to weaken the moral ideas of nationality without bringing in a higher morality of universal obligation.”45

It is also interesting to trace changes in the organisation of the gods of Ancient Egypt in terms of the changes in their social organisation. According to Wallace Budge, the original religion of the Ancient Egyptians was ancestor worship.72 They had a vague belief in a universal god who was regarded as the creator or moulder, as is the case among surviving tribal societies today, but this god, Pautti, was regarded as too far removed from the world of men to concern himself with their affairs. Significantly, it was not he who was destined to become the god of the later Egyptian empires.

The original tribal societies of Ancient Egypt disappeared during the historical period and we find emerging the two kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt, which always remained distinct and tended to preserve their independence in times of trouble. These were divided up into Nomes, which were linked together in a sort of federal system. In the course of time, the federal system became progressively more centralised and the power of the Nomes was correspondingly reduced. Social structures were further eroded during the long period of foreign domination by the Assyrians, Persians, and Greeks, until eventually the Egyptian people were transformed into something which approximates to our contemporary concept of a nation: a structureless mass society.

These changes were accompanied by a corresponding change in the structure of the gods. During the Middle Empire, the fusion of the two national gods Amon and Ra occurred. The tendency towards the fusion of the gods became even greater during the time of troubles preceding the Saite renaissance, and the process continued until the Ptolemaic period, by which time all the male gods had fused into the person of Osiris, and all the female gods into that of Isis.72

Since there was no longer any social structure, there was no longer any basis for structuring the pantheon, which disintegrated. This left only the supreme god at the top of a defunct hierarchy, but now he acquired a wife and child, which the supreme god of a tribal society does not possess.

We recall that in a tribal society the supreme god is not part of the social scheme of things, whereas all the other gods are, as members of an extended family, clan, tribe, or ethnic group. Under the changed conditions, however, these social structures are defunct. The only social unit to survive is the nuclear family, and, accordingly, a nuclear family is attributed to the supreme god.

Erich Fromm has argued that the worship of father and mother gods (and indeed child and grandmother gods) satisfies different needs.28 Worship of a mother figure is associated with the need for a mother’s love. This, in sharp contrast to a father’s love, is relatively unconditional. The child can behave in the most atrocious manner without seriously affecting the love its mother displays towards it. A father’s love, on the contrary, must be earned: it is conferred for behaviour conforming to the father’s ethical code, which, in a stable society, will coincide with that of his society. As a grandmother has no responsibility for disciplining the child, her love is even more unconditional than the mother’s.

Societies which have worshipped a mother figure have tended to be self-indulgent. Puritanical societies, in which virtue is associated with rigorous observance of a code of ethics, will worship a father figure.

This tendency could not be better illustrated than by the social circumstances that in ancient Egypt governed the rise of the cult of Isis and the corresponding decline of the cult of Osiris, and in Christendom the development of the cult of the Virgin Mary beginning in the anomie of the 7th century and its abandonment by the ‘revitalisation’ movements that culminated in the Reformation.

In these conditions, a society’s structure ceases to be sanctified by its pantheon. It is thereby deprived of the very basis of its stability.

Back to top

Vital Force in a Disintegrating Society

With the disintegration of a society and the destruction of its cultural pattern, the functioning of the dynamic principle is equally affected. However, in our aberrant industrial society, the notion of vital force has not been entirely lost. Although we no longer believe in God or gods, we do believe that science, technology, and industry will create for us a material paradise here on Earth, and undoubtedly we attribute a kind of supernatural power to the scientific knowledge that can bring this about. The possession of scientific knowledge is regarded as the key to success, a passport to status and riches. Money likewise is imbued with vital force, since it sustains the technological development and the industrial enterprises which exploit this scientific knowledge.

This notion of vital force, however, no longer provides our society with a goal structure enabling it to achieve a stable relationship with its environment. Instead it drives society towards ever greater discontinuities.

Back to top


As a society disintegrates, it constitutes an ever less satisfactory environment. A man is no longer surrounded by a set of his fellows, each of whom is in a different relationship with him, from each of whom he can expect different services, and to whom he has different customary obligations. Instead he is embedded in an anonymous mass of undifferentiated humanity, from which he feels increasingly alienated. At the same time his gods are becoming correspondingly more human, and he transfers to them the duties that previously he owed to his fellow men. Whenever this process occurs, there gradually grows up a body of specialists to exploit man’s growing preoccupation with the gods. Religion is institutionalised; the priesthood grows in size and influence; and the means of serving the gods become divorced from the means of serving man.

There are accompanying changes both in ethical values and in the determinants of prestige. In order to be admired, it becomes necessary to achieve goals very different from those which would evoke the admiration of a traditional society. These changes proceed by positive feedback, in that they lead to the further disintegration of society, and hence to further changes in the determinants of prestige, and so on. Lecky writes:

“the first idea which the phrase ‘a very good man’ would have suggested to an early Roman would probably have been that of great and distinguished patriotism, and the passion and interest of such a man in his country’s cause were in direct proportion to his moral elevation. Ascetic Christianity decisively diverted moral enthusiasm into another channel, and the civic virtues, in consequence, necessarily declined.”74

‘Otherworldliness’ became even more pronounced in the religio-culture of many of the medieval heresies, such as those of the Bogomiles and Cathars, who tended to regard the world as being so evil that it could only have been the creation of the devil. In such conditions, the only behaviour that could conceivably meet with God’s approval was to divorce oneself entirely from the concerns of this world and preoccupy oneself exclusively with those of the next.

Clearly, no psychological terrain could have been less propitious for the emergence of our modern technological society. Not so, however, for that furnished by later non-conformist heresies. The Puritans reacted against ‘otherworldliness’ and sought to reintroduce duties towards men, not as a substitute for duties towards God but as the only true means of serving him. To achieve the Christian Paradise it was no longer sufficient to fulfil empty rituals; people must submit to a rigid set of behavioural constraints which banished frivolities and put a premium on hard work. Work was thereby equated with virtue and the materially successful with the righteous.

It is the well-known thesis of Weber that it was only among men who had developed so singular a worldview, who in fact, went so far as to regard technology not only as a tool for ensuring one’s own personal comfort but also for achieving one’s peace with God, that the Industrial Revolution could conceivably have occurred.

Possibly, the process had a positive feedback component in that the new industrial classes had a strong psychological stake in a philosophy which provided a perfect justification for their activities, which enabled them by the same efforts, in fact, to serve both God and Mammon.

As industrial activities began to spread throughout what are now the industrialised societies, so did the ethic underlying and justifying them itself undergo a corresponding change. Preoccupation with the material products of industry began to obscure their ethical justification, and the materialist paradise which science, technology and industry appeared to be creating came to replace its conventional Christian equivalent, which to practical men, appeared ever more remote and speculative.

In this way, perhaps, can be traced the genesis of the goal structure of technological man: the achievement of a materialist paradise in which drudgery, poverty, social inequality, ignorance, unemployment, famine, disease, and even death (i.e. what are assumed to be the ills with which man has always been afflicted) will have been eliminated once and for all.

Needless to say, such a paradise can never be achieved, for to do so would mean violating most of the basic laws which our scientists have themselves formulated. To move in this direction, however, must mean systematically increasing the impact of human activities on biological, ecological and social systems and thereby correspondingly increasing overall instability. Unless the aberrant religio-culture which provides the rationale for this fatal process is shattered, it must eventually lead to the destruction of our environment and the extinction of the human species.

Back to top

The Redevelopment of Social Religion

Christianity has not always been a force causing men to be detached from their duties towards their society. In rural areas of Europe, veneration of local saints has provided communities with a sense of identity and purpose.

In the case of the Medieval cities of Southern Europe at least, the cult of patron saints such as St. Mark in Venice, St. Catharine in Siena, and St. Spiros in Corfu was often more developed than that of God himself or of the Virgin Mary. This coincided with the development of a powerful sense of patriotism and social obligations often reminiscent of the City States of antiquity. This tendency is likely to recur today.

As industrial society disintegrates, we may expect that out of the accompanying chaos there will arise a growing number of Messianic movements which will attempt to establish a new social order based upon a new view of man’s relationship with his environment. Many of these will adopt at least a facade of Christianity, re-interpreting the Gospels to provide the religio-cultural rationale for the stable societies of the future.

Back to top


6. Fustel de Coulanges, La Cite Antique Hachette, Paris, 1927.

10. C.H. Waddington, The Strategy of the Genes Allen and Unwin, London, 1957.

12. Norman H. Horowitz, ‘The gene’ Scientific American October, 1956.

13. Kenneth Craik, The Nature of Explanation Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1952.

15. Stephen Boyden ‘Evolution and Health’ The Ecologist Vol. 3, No. 8, August, 1973.

21. Bronislaw Malinowski, Sex and Repression in Savage Society Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1961.

28. Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving Unwin, London, 1957.

29. A.R. Radcliffe Brown, Structure and Function in Primitive Society Cohen and West, London, 1965.

32. Ralph Linton, The Study of Man Peter Owen, London, 1965.

40. Adolphe Lods, Israel: From Its Beginnings to the Middle of the Eighth Century Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1932.

45. W. Robertson Smith, Essays on the Religion of the Semites Adams and Charles Black, London, 1914.

48. Salomon Reinach, Orpheus. A History of Religions Horace Liveright, New York, 1930.

49. Robert Thouless, An Introduction to the Psychology of Religion Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1971.

50. Sir James Frazer, The Golden Bough Macmillan, London, 1923.

51. Julian Huxley, Religion without Revelation C.A. Watts & Co., London, 1967.

52. Edward Goldsmith, ‘Religion in the light of a general behavioural model’ Systematics Vol. 8, No. 2, 1970, pp. 91-100.

53. Edward Goldsmith, ‘Towards a unified science’, a seris of articles in The Ecologist Vols. 1-3, 1970-1972.

54. J.S. Furnivall, Netherlands’ India, a Study in Plural Economy Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1939.

55. Lafcadio Hearn, Japan, an Interpretation Macmillan, New York, 1904.

56. Edward Tyler, Primitive Culture John Murray, London, 1903.

57. E. Driver, Indians of North America University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1961.

58. Cora Dubois, The People of Alor Harpers, New York, 1960.

59. W.J. Goode, Religion among the Primitives The Free Press, New York, 1964.

60. Hilda Kuper, The Swazi. A South African Kingdom Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, New York, 1963.

61. M.J. Herskovits, Dahomey Augustin, New York, 1938.

62. Cullen Young, ‘The idea of God in Northern Nyasaland’ in African Ideas of God (Edwin W. Smith, ed.) Edinburgh House Press, London, 1950.

63. Edward Goldsmith, ‘The stable society’ The Ecologist Vol. 1, No. 6, December, 1970.

64. Karl Polanyi, Primitive, Archaic and Modern Economics Doubleday, New York, 1968.

65. Quoted by Robert Lowie in Primitive Society Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1963.

66. J.H. Driberg, ‘The secular aspect of ancestor worship in Africa’ in African Ideas of God (Edwin W. Smith, ed.) Edinburgh House Press, London, 1950.

67. Father Placide Tempels, Bantu Philosophy Presence Africaine, Paris, 1948.

68. Paul Schebesta, Les Pygmées Gallimard, Paris, 1940.

69. Abraham Kardiner, The Psychological Frontiers of Society Columbia University Press, New York, 1945.

70. Homer, The Odyssey.

71. Mason Hammond, City State and World State in Greek and Roman Political Theory until Augustus Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1951.

72. E.A. Wallace Budge, A History of Egypt. From the End of the Neolithic Period to the Death of Cleopatra, 3 B.C. (4 vols) London, 1901.

73. Jomo Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya Secker and Warburg, London, 1953.

74. Edward Hartpole Lecky, A History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne Longmans, Green & Co., London, 1905.

  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • Diaspora
  • email
  • Add to favorites
Back to top