“The Origin and Function of Religion”

A. E. Crawley

G. Archdall Reid, W. McDougall, J.L. Tayler, J. Arthur Thomson, Patrick Geddes, A.E. Crawley, R.M. Wenley, W.H. Beveridge, G. de Wesselitsky, Mrs. Sidney Webb, and H.G. Wells, Sociological Papers, Vol. III (London: Macmillan & Co., Limited, 1907): 243 – 249 (Discussion, 250 – 278).

Published for the Sociological Society


       [244] Of the prevalent theories as to the nature of religion two only are of importance.  The first of these explains religion as being a belief in the spiritual or supernatural.  This may be reckoned the popular view.  Dr. Tylor has put it in the scientific form—that religion develops from animism. The second is that religion is the belief in, and the propitiation of, a conscious agent or agents, superior to and controlling nature and man.  This is Dr. Frazer’s definition.  It involves the fact which condemns the other definition, that gods and spirits are frequently, we may say normally, not envisaged as spiritual at all, but as material magnified persons.

       As to both definitions, we note that many essentials of religion, such as sacramentalism, and even entire religious systems, can and do exist without any such beliefs.

[245] … religion is not a department, not a body of distinctive facts or dogmas or practices, but a certain quality of the nervous organism, a psychic tone, temper, or diathesis, which may be applied to any subject, but in fact ends, owing to its character and origin, to confine its action to one or two. …

      What then is this “religious” diathesis? … In brief, these are the bio-[246]logical crises of birth, puberty, marriage, sickness, death and burial. …

       The religion of the civilized man is, no less than that of the savage, concerned most intimately with elemental facts and interests such as life and death.  It consecrates birth, adolescence, and marriage, it assists the sick, and surrounds the dead with its halo.  Whenever, again, a man is confronted with what we call a matter of life and death, his psychic state is identical with the religious; while in the systematized operation of definite creeds the main object of devotion, meditation and prayer is—life, in another world indeed, but still it is life.



[Mr. Alexander Faulkner Shand (1858 – 1936):]

[250] That Mr. Crawley should have found the common element of religion to lie in the instinct of self-preservation or “the principle of life” or egoism …  Mr. Crawley had rightly defined religion as a psychical state, and he had told them that it was a function of the principle of life, this instinct of self-preservation “in expansion” to consecrate the elemental facts of life. … Now, religion being on a higher plane than mere instinct, which was defined as complex reflex action, or a system of reflexes,—religion must involve something more than mere instinct, though this something more might be an outgrowth from instinct.  What it involved was emotion growing out of the instinct of self-preservation.


[Mr. Shapland Hugh Swinny (1857 – 1923):]

[252] He should also be willing to accept his view that religion was rather a state than a doctrine.


[Written Communication from Comte Goblet d’Alviella (1846 – 1925):]

[262] … we should content ourselves with the second definition, which implies: (1) The conception of superior agents or agent, whether spiritual or not; (2) The conviction that this agent or  agency controls nature, man included; (3) The belief in the possibility of propitiating this power by certain appliances.

       To this explanation of religion it can be objected:  Firstly, that primitive men do not try to propitiate so much as to control the superior powers.  Accordingly, magic ought to be included in a definition of religion.  Secondly, the admission of superior forces which control nature and man lies at the basis of science as well as of religion. How then can we distinguish the case in which these forces are an object of religious belief?  I should answer:  Only when they act in a way that somewhat escapes man’s comprehension, and yet are supposed to be manageable by him. … [263] Therefore, I cannot see what objections could be raised to a general definition of religion as “a belief in, and a propitiation or a control of a conscious and mysterious agent or agents superior to man and controlling nature.”  I myself, long ago, proposed the following definition, which covers the same ground:  The way man realizes his relations with the superior and mysterious power upon which he believes himself to depend.


[From Professor Edward Anwyl (1866 – 1914):]

       [264] Religion is the resultant general attitude, not always fully present to consciousness, which man, singly or collectively, adopts towards the aspects of being which condition his experience, the ideas in which he more or less definitely interprets this mental attitude to himself and to others, and the language (whether by means of movements, gesticulations, acts, rites, customs or articulate speech, in which he expresses or seeks to express, either alone or in conjunction with others, by means of inherited or personally invented forms, the attitude which he thus maintains, or the ideas connected therewith. … [265] Like language, religion may express itself not merely in statements or questions in the indicative mood, but also in such moods as the optative, the precative, the subjunctive and even the imperative.


[From James Henry Leuba (1868 – 1946):]

       [266] The most important general progress made by contemporary psychology is the change from the intellectualistic to the voluntaristic standpoint.  Modern psychology has at last clearly understood and acknowledged that Will is the primary fact of life and that Intellect is derived, that it is the servant of the will, the tool used for the realization of desires.

The psychologists who, during the past few years, have devoted their attention to religious life have, I believe, all come more or less clearly to that opinion.  They would, therefore, rejoice to have Mr. Crawley point to the Will-to-live as the source of religion.  Several years ago, I wrote in the “Bibliotheca Sacra”—“The fundamental spring of religion is the love of life, at any and every level of development, in the same sense as it is the spring of every other manifestation of life.  Therefore, there are no exclusively religious impulses, and religion derives the right it may have to sacredness from whatever sacredness belongs to the Primordial Instinct.” [Also developed in his “Introduction to a Psychological Study of Religion,” and in the “Outline of a Psychology of Religious Life” in the American Journal of  Religious Psychology, Vol. I, page 160 and ff.]


[From Ronald Ranulph Marett (1886 – 1943):]

       [267] I think that [Crawley] has gone the right way to work in seeking for the essence of religion in something much wider than Dr. Tylor’s animism or Dr. Frazer’s propitiatory worship.  His “psychic tone or quality” I do not object to, vague as it is.  I hold that religion is, psychologically regarded, a form of experience in which feeling-tone is relatively predominant.

       The reference to “the will to live” is, to me at least, not very illuminating. …

       One seems to get at something more solid in “a heightening or deepening of the nervous organism” (sic), such as we feel when confronted by “maters of life and death.”… On the other hand, awe (as felt, for example, towards a corpse, or an eclipse appears to me to be another characteristic kind of religious feeling, and one which [268] Mr. Crawley’s hypothesis fails to cover; for awe is, in psychological parlance, an asthenic emotion, that is, involves depression rather than exaltation, or as Mr. Crawley puts it, “the vital instinct in expansion.”  Though open to conviction, therefore, I still incline to regard awe as the bottom fact in religion, and to suppose wonder-working to have become distinctively religious just in so far as it came to be regarded in short, is this, that the essence of religion is miracle, and that the “miracle of grace” is but one form of miracle and therefore of religion.


[From H. Osman Newland:]

       [268] I cannot say that Mr. Crawley’s theory of the origin and function of religion is satisfactory to me.  In the first place his introduction is confusing.  He tells us that “Religion after being the guide of humanity throughout history and for long prehistoric ages” “is not yet fully understood, and that its place in the psychology of individuals and society is not yet fixed.”  To me it is incomprehensible that anybody or anything which we do not understand can be our guide. 

       Secondly, Mr. Crawley, after admitting the complexity of the nature of religion and the divergence of views upon it, proceeds to deal with it as a simple matter based upon the elemental facts of life throughout all ages….

       Thirdly, Mr. Crawley makes no distinction between Religion per se, and Religious Systems, i.e., Sacerdotalism superimposed upon Natural [269] Religion. …

       Religion is primarily, I admit, individualistic in so far as it is an emotional state or tone; it may and does, however, become social, when by indirect means the individual recognizes or becomes conscious of similarity of emotion in another.  It is not individualistic in the sense that it is, primarily, the result of egoism or self-contemplation, for religion primarily is not merely an emotion awakened by dreams or distorted pictures of ancestors, but also of emotions called up by fear and wonder of the world outside man, and particularly of those phenomena which puzzle and perplex primitive peoples.

       Religion is connected primarily, then, with the worship of something external to themselves which they neither know nor understand, although they may perceive and feel.  Sacerdotalism materializes and anthropomorphizes religion, moulding it in an individualistic or nationalistic form according to the whether sacerdotalism be in antagonism to or allied with the existing political powers.  Religion itself, when it breaks away now and again from sacerdotalism, is always altruistic, social, cosmopolitan.

       It must, however, be admitted that without sacerdotalism religion could never have played its great part in the history of the race, any more than the world could dispense with the egoist or the altruist.

       The essence of the one is self-sacrifice and Death.  The essence of the other self-assertion and Life. 


[From Giuseppe Sergi (1841 – 1936):]

       [269] In my book “L'Origine dei Fenomeni Psichici, e il loro Significato Biologico,” [Milano: Dumolard, 1885; 2nd ed. Torino: Fratelli Bocca, 1904] I have stated that psychic phenomena are of a biological nature, and have the same characteristics as the vital functions; or in other words they are phenomena of conservation of animal life, and specifically are functions of protection. …

       [270] Now we find another group of psychic facts which present aspects similar to those of the protective characters [nutrition, individual defence, sexual relations, parental relations, and social relations (p. 269)]; these are the religious ones.  I have also demonstrated that religious manifestations have the fundamental character of the protection of life in human species, in whatever religion, low or high, they may be found.  For this reason religion is in continuity with all the facts of human life, individual and social, instead of being the psychic tone or quality with Mr. Crawley seem to consider it.


[From (?Edwin Diller) Starbuck (1866 – 1947)]

       [270] The first point that impresses me in Mr. Crawley’s paper is that he clearly distances the imperfect notion that religion is primarily a belief in something.  Until recently this conception, especially among the historians of religion, has stood in the way of any real advance. … Beliefs are important in that they are certain discriminate or determinate points in a set of processes whose fundamental quality is that they are dynamic, are concerned with getting on, are a function of life in its fullest adjustment.  The beliefs are pegs by which the spiritual life has tried to steady itself as it is threatened with being driven from its course by the various winds that blow.

       [271] He [Crawley] calls religion one of the primary instincts, a growth from human nature, a vital feeling, a will to live. … What are its differential marks?  In specifying that its function is to consecrate the living of life, to produce sacredness in its objects, and the brightening and deepening of life when confronting its crises, I have the feeling that we have here a theory that furnishes a setting for innumerable facts that have escaped Tylor, Spencer and Frazer.


[From Sebald Rudolf Steinmetz (1862 – 1940)]

       [272] Of the definitions of religion, I think the first given by Mr. Crawley the best; his objection, that the god frequently is not spiritual, can be removed by putting the definition in this form: religion is the belief [273] in supernatural agents, whether spiritual or not, together with a certain emotional attitude towards them.


[From Ferdinand Tönnies (1855 – 1936)

       [275] It would be a gratuitous undertaking to comprehend in a single conception everything that is called  a religion or a religious system. … There is nothing so uncertain and vague, so unscientific, as the employment of abstract words in common language. …

In the first instance, then, I should propose to keep the two asunder, and it may seem appropriate to denote by the name of religion the subjective and private aspect of the same phenomena, which under the name of a religious system may be looked upon from their objective side.

       Religion may be understood as a belief, of rather a mass of beliefs, of opinions and feelings, which are as a rule common to may people, [276] mostly belonging to the same stock or race, and which regard the existence and power of dead or of fictitious persons.

       A religious system is a body of rules, imposed by custom or by law or both, and sanctioned by religion itself, the general object of these rules being a cult, that is to say, certain actions, which are supposed to please those unseen beings, of whom the existence and power it believed.

       But a term is wanted to denote and distinguish religion as a form of the collective will, which prescribes and sanctions these rules. And seeing religion in the former sense may easily be replaced by a word like faith, or religious faith, I am inclined to think that the very term “religion” ought to be reserved for this powerful social force, which in a modern shape is universally understood by the name of Public Opinion, although this social force is still in a very low state of development – while religion has undergone a long and complex evolution – concerned, as public opinion mostly is, with the affairs and doings of the upper strata of society only. …

       Religion, then, is not primarily individualistic, but primarily “communistic,” if this term be justly interpreted; for it belongs to the vital principle of a community, to be governed and led by persons who possess authority, as well as to help those who are unable sufficiently to help themselves. Religion is the most powerful of social ties, exactly by the twofold aspect of its function, which pervades its whole development, from the most primitive ancestor-worship to the most elaborate “ethical” religious systems.

       What Mr. Crawley calls by the name of religion, would in my opinion better be distinguished as superstition, or as a superstitious disposition in the individual and in the social mind, which indeed is very closely related to the religious dispositions of both.


[Submitted by James A. Santucci]