The Spiritual Delusion/1.1.1

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The Spiritual Delusion/1.1.1/00 The Spiritual Delusion/1.1.1/1.1.2





1. In its recurrence to savage modes of thought.

Living in a barbarous and unlettered condition, the sport of conflicting forces alternately fostering and destroying the fruit of his labors, and exciting fear and trembling by the apparent waywardness of their action, the savage would naturally seek for some explanation of these confusing phenomena, and the means to avert impending calamities in future.

Trees sheltered him from the burning rays of the sun, and afforded fuel for his fire; fire warmed him when chilled by exposure, and prepared his food in a more palatable manner; beasts clothed him, and could be made useful in many ways; water not only slaked his thirst, but also cleansed his body; rains refreshed him, and gave renewed life to vegetation. These facts would call forth no thought from a savage mind. But his rude and selfish consciousness could not but observe that these facts were not always calculated for his benefit, but were apparently controlled by motives as uncertain and contrary as human passions. These unknown forces excited his fears and terrors.

Fire could consume him, water drown him, trees crush him. What the sun had nurtured, storms would destroy. The long and patient labor of multitudes would in a few hours be swept away. Whence came this strange contrariety of actions, so like in its effects to human passions and impulses? Evidently from superior beings, invisible it. is true, bat whose existence and power were daily seen in the devastating effects they produced.

The explanation thus naturally adopted would be resorted to whenever any event transcended his limited range of experience. “Animism,” says E. B. Tylor, “is the doctrine of all men who believe in active spiritual beings; it is essentially the antagonist of materialism, and in some form or other it is the religion of mankind, from the rude savage of the Australian bush or the Brazilian forest, up to the most enlightened Christian. Now, animism in the lower civilization is not only a religion, but also a philosophy; it has to furnish rational explanations of one phenomenon after another, which we treat as belonging to biology or physics. If a man is alive and moving, the animistic explanation is, that the soul, a thin, ethereal, not immaterial being, in the man’s likeness, is within him, animating him, just as one gets inside a coat and moves it. If the man sleeps and dreams, then either the soul has gone out of him to see sights which he will remember when he wakes, or it is lying quiet in his body, receiving visits from the spirits of other people, dead or alive,—visits which we call dreams. If a man, when fasting or sick, sees a vision, this is a ghost or some other spirit; if he faints or falls into a fit, his soul has gone out from him for a time, and must be recalled with mystic ceremonies; if it returns, he recovers, but if it stays away permanently, then the man is dead. If the man takes a fever or goes mad, then it is a spirit which is hovering- about the person, shaking or maltreating him, or it has got inside him, and is driving him, tearing him, speaking and crying by his voice.”

This description of savage thought is not without its parallel in our own land of boasted civilized thought. Instead of any reference to physical cause and effect, the spiritist hastily assumes the presence and agency of a “spirit,” to account for phenomena which transcend the powers of his mind. Assuming a learned look, the spiritist seeks to confute “groveling, mole-eyed science” by an elaborate collection of the superstitious rites and observances of uncivilized tribes of men, to demonstrate the universality of commerce with spiritual beings, seemingly unconscious that by thus allying himself with rope-tying Greenland angekoks, Ojibway conjurers, and Siberian shamans, he is virtually confessing antagonism to the spirit of science, and seeking to restore the philosophy of ruder and more barbarous times.

Professor Tylor says, “Set a Chinese and an English medium to obtain written missives from the respective spirits they believe in, and let a wild Ojibway Indian look on at the performance. So far as the presence of disembodied spirits goes, possessing the performers, and guiding the pencils, or manifesting themselves by nips, or voices, or other actions, the savage would understand and admit it at once, for such things are part of his recognized system of nature: the only part of the affair out of his line would be the art of writing, which does belong to a higher grade of civilization than his. In a word, a modern medium is a red Indian or a Tartar shaman in a dress-coat.”

“If communion be indeed a fact,” the spiritist retorts, “why should not the fact be alike intelligible to all three?” We reply, it is more than a question of fact: it is a question involving the true method of interpreting facts; whether “facts” shall be explained by the savage philosophy or the scientific method. “But if it be a fact?” Oh, most wise and sapient reasoner! If it be indeed a fact that this mode of thought is the true torch to unravel the mysteries of nature, by throwing an instantaneous light on all marvelous phenomena, then the savage was a wise man, and the year 1813 is far down on the scale of decadence, and the sooner we break our crucibles and retorts, the better.

To briefly state the radical difference between these two forms of thought will be sufficient to show that our charge is true and unanswerable. The savage attributes spiritual life as an adequate cause for all uncomprehended events. The belief in fairies, banshees, ghosts, witches, sorcery, etc., is a survival of savage thought, and to science alone are we indebted for emancipation from it. Belief in dreams and visions, as originating in an objective spiritual world, is savage thought; as being subjective phenomena of mind, is scientific. To regard the cataleptic as a medium, is savage philosophy; as a patient, is scientific. To the savage, apparitions are real; science classifies them under well-understood laws, as mental hallucinations. To the savage, every medicine-man, conjurer, or shaman attests his commerce with “spirits” by phenomena consisting in strange. noises, rope-tying, and beating of drums by “invisibles.” Communion with the unseen thus becomes possible by knocks and the movement of objects. To the student in science, explanation of phenomena based on ignorance of natural causes is emphatically unscientific.