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Pagan Christs, by John M. Robertson, [1911], at

§ 2.

In the midst of much dispute, moral science approaches agreement on the proposition that all primitive beliefs and usages, however strange or absurd, are to be understood as primarily products of judgment, representing theories of causation or guesses at the order of things. To such agreement, however, hindrance is set up by the reversion of some inquirers to the old view that certain savage notions are "irrational" in the strict sense. Thus Dr. F. B. Jevons decides that "there is no rational principle of action in taboo: it is mechanical; arbitrary, because its sole basis is the arbitrary association of ideas; irrational, because its principle is [in the words of Mr. Lang] 'that causal connection in thought is equivalent to causative connection in fact.'" 2 Again, Dr. Jevons lays it down 3

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that " the conviction that there are certain things which must—absolutely must, and not on grounds of experience of 'unconscious utility'—be avoided."

It is significant that in both of these passages the proposition runs into verbal insignificance or counter-sense. In the first cited we are told (1) that a certain association of ideas is arbitrary because its basis is an arbitrary association of ideas, and (2) that it is all the while a "causal" (i.e., a non-arbitrary) connection in thought. In the last we are in effect told that the tabooer is conscious that he is not proceeding on an ancestral experience when he is merely not conscious of doing so. When instructed men thus repeatedly lapse into mere nullities of formula, there is presumably something wrong with their theory. Now, the whole subject of taboo is put outside science by the assumption that the practice is in origin "irrational" and "absolute" and "arbitrary" and independent of all experience of utility. As Dr. Jevons himself declares in another connection, the savage's thought is subject to mental laws as much as is civilised man's. How, then, is this dictum to be reconciled with that? What is the "law" of the savage's "arbitrariness"?

Conceivably part of it lies before us in Dr. Jevons’s page of denial. The very illustration first given by him for the proposition last cited from him is that "the mourner is as dangerous as the corpse he has touched," "the mourner is as dangerous to those he loves as to those he hates." Here, one would suppose, was a pretty obvious clue to an intelligible causation. Is it to be "arbitrarily" decided that primitive men never observed the phenomena of contagion from corpse to mourners, and from mourners to their families; or, observing it, never sought to act on the experience? Is it not notorious that among contemporary primitives there is often an intense and vigilant fear of contagious disease? 1

The only fair objection to accepting such a basis for one species of taboo is that for other species no such explanation is available. But what science looks for in such a matter is not a direct explanation for every instance: it suffices that we find an explanation or explanations for such a principle or conception as taboo, and then recognise that, once set up, it may be turned to really "arbitrary" account by chiefs, priests, and adventurers.

"Arbitrary" has two significations, in two references: it means "illogical" in reference to reason, or "representative of one will as against the general will." In the first sense, it is here irrelevant, for

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no one pretends that taboo is right; but it may apply in the other in a way not intended by Dr. Jevons. For nothing can be more obvious than the adaptability of the idea of taboo, once crystallised or conventionalised in a code, to purposes of individual malice, and to all such procedure as men indicate by the term "priestcraft." Dr. Jevons, in his concern to prove, what no one ever seriously disputed, that priests did not and could not create the religious or superstitious instinct, leaves entirely out of his exposition, and even by implication denies, the vitally relevant truth that they exploit it. And in overlooking this he sadly burdens, if he does not wreck, his own unduly biassed theory of the religious instinct as something relatively "deep," and as proceeding in terms of an abnormal consciousness of contact with "the divine." For if those relatively "arbitrary" and "irrational" forms of taboo do not come from the priest—that is, from the religion-maker or -monger, whether official or not—they must, on Dr. Jevons’s own showing, come from "religion."

It may be that he would not at once reject such a conclusion; for the apparent motive of much of his treatment of taboo is the sanctification of it as an element in the ancestry of the Christian religion. For this purpose he is ready to go to notable lengths, as when 1 he allows cannibalism to be sometimes "religious in intention." But while insisting at one point on the absolute unreasonedness and immediate certitude of the notion of taboo, apparently in order to place it on all fours with the "direct consciousness" which for him is the mark of a religious belief, he admits in so many words, as we have seen, that it is "arbitrary" and "irrational," which is scarcely a way of accrediting it as a religious phenomenon. Rather the purpose of that aspersion seems to be to open the way for another aggrandisement of religion as having suppressed irrational taboo. On the one hand we are told 2 that the savage's fallacious belief in the transmissibility of taboo was "the sheath which enclosed and protected a conception that was to blossom and bear a priceless fruit—the conception of Social Obligation." This is an arguable thesis, not framed by Dr. Jevons for the purposes of his theorem, but spontaneously set forth by several missionaries. 3 Here we need but note the implication of the old fallacy that when any good is seen to follow upon an evil we must assume the evil to have been a conditio sine quâ non of the good. The missionaries and

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[paragraph continues] Dr. Jevons have assumed that but for the device of taboo there could have been no social code—a thesis not to be substantiated either deductively or inductively. But with this problem we need not now concern ourselves, since Dr. Jevons himself turns the tables on it. After the claim has been made for the salvatory action of taboo, we read 1 that "it was only among the minority of mankind, and there only under exceptional circumstances, that the institution bore its best fruit......Indeed, in many respects the evolution of taboo has been fatal to the progress of humanity." And again:—

In religion the institution also had a baneful effect: the irrational restrictions, touch not, taste not, handle not, which constitute formalism, are essentially taboos—essential to the education of man at one period of his development, but a bar to his progress later.

But now is introduced 2 the theorem of the process by which taboo has been converted into an element of civilisation: it is this:—

From the fallacy of magic man was delivered by religion; and there are reasons.....for believing that it was by the same aid he escaped from the irrational restrictions of taboo. 3

In the higher forms of religion.....the trivial and absurd restrictions are cast off, and those alone retained which are essential to morality and religion4

We shall have to deal later with the direct propositions here put; but for the moment it specially concerns us to note that the dénoûment does not hold scientifically or logically good. The fact remains that irrational taboo as such was, in the terms of the argument, strictly religious; that religion in this aspect had "no sense in it," inasmuch as taboo had passed from a primitive precaution to a priest-made convention; 5 and that what religion is alleged to deliver man from is just religion. Thus alternately does religion figure for the apologist as a rational tendency correcting an irrational, and as an irrational tendency doing good which a rational one cannot. And the further we follow his teaching the more frequently does such a contradiction emerge.


4:2 Jevons, Introduction cited, p. 91; Lang, Myth, Ritual, and Religion, 1st ed. i, 95.

4:3 As cited, pp. 11-12. Cp. p. 68, where the question is begged with much simplicity.

5:1 E.g., Turner, Samoa a Hundred Years Ago, 1884, pp. 306, 322.

6:1 P. 201.

6:2 P. 87.

6:3 E.g., Rev. Richard Taylor, Te Ika a Maui: or, New Zealand and its Inhabitants, 1870, pp. 8, 163 sq.; Rev. J. Buller, Forty Years in New Zealand, 1878, p. 203.

7:1 P. 88.

7:2 P. 89.

7:3 P. 91.

7:4 P. 93.

7:5 Cp. Rev. R. Taylor, as cited, ch. viii.

Next: § 3. Dr. Jevons’ Theories of Religious Evolution