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Primitive Cultures and the Role of Religion

By many people social and religious practices of primitive peoples are considered to be a bunch of disorderly superstitious habits. However this is largely incorrect, as these religious practices in most cases comprise a coherent system of institutions which successfully perform their function primary function – they bring comfort and confidence to the lives of their followers.

Primitive people have long ago put into practical religious forms many things that civilized people are trying to find for themselves in lectures and books on the good society, or on how to find happiness, or on what is wrong with them.

Certainly it is not hard to see the significance of religion in the study of mankind generally. There is probably nothing that touches man's interest more acutely, and so his religious acts make up a most revealing part of his whole behavior. Therefore a study of religion tells not only about religion itself but also about man and his special psychological and social nature, seen in his most earnest moments.

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Working with relatively simple societies has certain important advantages. One is that of standing outside such a society, end being able to see all around it because of its small size, and so to see all parts of it at once, the first requisite for finding out how these parts fit together. Equally valuable is the advantage of being able to see the gaps between different societies, comparing several of them by observing the different ways in which they fulfill their religious needs.

For this purposes, Christianity or any other major world religion, is not a good object for the anthropological study of religion, because of their size, complexity, age of evolution and inclusion of wide peoples and cultures. Therefore it is rather the tribal cults, from Shinto down to the simplest deferences of the Hottentots, which provide us with what we need, because they are geared to the life of a single people. They have not been deliberately broadened out. In them it is easier to see the direct springs of religious behavior inside a society, without the interposition of great teachers and high ideals or ethics. For they grow up naturally, to satisfy religious necessities; they need no sophisticated philosophy, and ethics are entirely secondary.

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There is no special name for primitive religions and churches, but I should be inclined to call them "native cults," meaning that they are indigenous and have in most instances grown up among the very tribes they serve. They differ from the higher religions in several ways.

The world religions are messianic, being founded on historical figures of great personal force, like Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha. Secondly, they are strongly ethical. Thirdly, they have a missionary character, they see no boundaries, and often imperialistic, going out to bring into the fold others than those people among whom they grew up, which made them world religions. Another trait, explains world’s religion success – a great exclusiveness in belief; a jealousy of their own doctrines and an intolerance of others, which they relentlessly seek to blot out. Each is basically a sufficient philosophy, propounded by the messiah and worked upon by his followers in the endeavor to make the whole thing into a single logical and ethical structure.

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Not so ambitious native cults are open to any suggestion and will accept any idea that seems appealing or useful, sometimes even if it opposes a prevailing one. And although they may look on the gods of other people as enemies, they are quite willing to recognize their existence and do not try to grind them out by denying them belief.

Doubtless the practice of religion is very old. We are certain that Neanderthal man had it, because he put weapons in the graves of his dead, obviously so that the latter should not find themselves surrounded by ghostly game and have nothing to hunt it with; and in a cave in Switzerland he also made a shrine containing bears' skulls (Pathou-Mathis: 379–395).

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Studies of living primitive cultures shows show two things: that there is hardly a limit to what the human mind can fancy, however still there are certain typical forms in religion, certain particular notions, which the mind seems to find especially interesting and important, grabbing human attention, with different cultures arriving independently to this concepts in their beliefs. There is probably no better example of how a basic religious feeling – a sense of the special, the supernatural – takes forms as a religious belief than in the ideas of mana.

The word “mana” itself is from the Pacific, but it has other names in other places. Mana means a kind of force or power which can be in anything, and which makes that thing better in its own special qualities, such as they are, perhaps to the point of being marvelous. A man who has mana is stronger, or smarter, or more graceful, though mana is not strength or brains or agility. That man's spear or has mana if it does what is expected of it with particular sureness. At the same time, if the pro who made the spear or the racket consistently turns out first-class spears and rackets, then he obviously has mana of his own, or else he has ways of inducing mana into whatever (spears or rackets) he makes. Mana, therefore, is an explanation for whatever is powerful, or excellent, or just right (Keesing:137-156). Typically, mana is a sort of essence of nature; it is not a spirit, and it has no will or purpose of its own and the one important matter is whether it “actually works” for a tribal man.

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While this concept is largely common for many primitive religions it has a bit different application for different tribes, depending on the are hunters, fishers, farmers, cattle breeders of craftsmen, for example. Another differences lay in rituals aimed to draw mana, use and safeguard possessed mana or recover lost mana. These may vary tremendously from culture to culture, but the main idea remains the same – obtaining supernatural force that gives comfort to a person regarding his life and future in conditions where nature and supernatural is perceived to be dominating over human being.

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