Debate Magazine

Paul Radin’s “Primitive Religion”

By Cris

Note: This is another post in a continuing series on evolutionary theories of religion. The previous post in this series is “Lowie’s Primitive Religion.”

Paul Radin’s Primitive Religion: Its Nature and Origin was published in 1937 – a full 13 years after Lowie’s Primitive Religion. While this certainly counts as a long delay, it was not exceptionally long when one considers that Radin was also responding to Tylor, Frazer, Marett, Levy-Bruhl, and Durkheim. Radin, in other words, was participating in a scholarly conversation or debate about religion that had commenced 65 years earlier with the publication, in 1872, of Tylor’s Primitive Culture. Radin joined this conversation as if all these scholars were contemporaries and the debates still fresh. In fact, Radin assumes that his readers are familiar with the full range of preceding scholarship and will understand his many references to the work of the scholars involved. He does not assume, or chooses not to name, two additional scholars whose ideas figure prominently in his analysis of “primitive” religion: Marx and Freud.

As Radin’s title suggests, he saw aboriginal or indigenous peoples as exemplars of the evolutionary or epochal past. This is not to suggest, and Radin asserted otherwise, that aboriginal or indigenous ideas were simple, undeveloped, or “child-like.” Radin had spent many years among Native Americans (so many, in fact, that his colleagues worried that he had become a Winnebago) and had come to enormously respect the logic, richness, and complexity of Native worldviews.

While this respect set Radin apart from earlier cultural evolutionists, few of whom had ever seen indigenes and none of whom had ever lived with them, he shared their assumption that indigenous peoples represented an earlier stage of social development. This assumption congenially meshed with Radin’s obvious but unstated appreciation for Marx. In fact, it may have been this appreciation, and his desire to marry dialectical-materialist ideas to cultural evolutionary concepts, that prompted Radin to write Primitive Religion. This could also explain why Primitive Religion suffered the same fate as Lowie’s Primitive Religion: both were ignored.

Like most cultural evolutionists, Radin began with a vision (or fantasy) of the ancestral past. It was of course bleak. Lacking in technology, shelter, and food, early humans would have lived precariously, always on the edge of existence. Their “economic insecurity,” Radin claims (6-7), would have generated feelings of fear and a sense of powerlessness. In an attempt to assuage and control these fears, humans would have generated the ideas that undergird religion:

Why did man originally postulate the supernatural? The correlate of economic insecurity, we have seen, is psychical insecurity and disorientation with all its attendant fears, with all its full feeling of helplessness, of powerlessness, and of insignificance. It is but natural for the psyche, under such circumstances, to take refuge in compensation fantasies. (8)

In this and similar passages, Radin “explains” religion in Marxist and Freudian terms. While bringing Marx and Freud to bear on evolutionary theories of religion was a sensible thing to do (given that Marx and Freud were both evolutionists and their theories were fully compatible with evolutionary schemes), by the time Radin wrote overtly evolutionary debates were passé. In just a few years, following World War II, they would be distinctly frowned upon. Evolutionary theory was equated with the Nazis and Marxist theory with the Soviets. As a consequence, Radin’s book was relegated to the dustbin of ideological history. It also meant that few noticed, or dared not comment on, several innovative aspects of Radin’s book.

Perhaps the most interesting is Radin’s focus on shamans. Like most Marxists, Radin assumed that class-conflict is present in all societies. Applying this assumption to “primitive” cultures caused him to focus on shamans. While many thought that indigenes were communal egalitarians, Radin thought otherwise. In shamans, Radin found a class separate and distinct from the rest of “primitive” society. Radin argued that shamans were unstable and obsessive neurotics. In their unbalanced but often ingeniously creative moods or states, they imagined all manner of fantastic or “supernatural” things that came to be known as shamanism or “religion.”

Ordinary people, Radin argued (presumably on the basis of his fieldwork), did not have these kinds of experiences and were generally uninterested in them. They adopted or believed these ideas because shamans, acting out of self-interest, claimed they could be ignored only at great peril to individuals (who might be sick) or the group (which might be in danger). Over long periods of time, shamans were responsible for developing complex “cycles” of myth and ritual. In the process, they benefited. Shamans were of course always compensated for their services.

In making this argument, Radin repeatedly insisted on the primacy of economic factors and historical forces over psychological proclivities. While it was individual shamans or neurotics who initiated everything with their idiosyncratic experiences and ideas, these became fixed and perpetuated only when shamans as a class managed to persuade (or dupe) others into believing them.

This is a classic, albeit veiled, expression of “false consciousness” and Marx’s contention that the economic-material base always determines the psychological-ideological superstructure. If this were all Radin had argued, it would be an interesting entry in the annals of evolutionary debates about religion. In the ethnographic literature, there are many examples of shamans acting in ways that accord with this model. They were often feared and suspect. When things went wrong, as they invariably did, shamans would be ostracized or killed.

Radin, however, did more than proffer a class-based analysis of shamans. He was well-versed in the evolutionary debates about religion and understood the nuances of those debates. Unlike other theorists, he had substantial field experience with so-called “primitives.” Radin therefore was able to critique previous theories in particularly informative ways. One such critique was of Durkheim, who had so smitten the British social anthropologists:

The fundamental objections to the point of view of the members of the Durkheim school are the well-known ones. It is aprioristic; it is arbitrary in its choice of information; it is not always critical of what it does select; and it eliminates the individual. These are formidable criticisms to advance against a synthesis that is avowedly concerned with the history of mankind and of religion. All this does not signify that that the viewpoint of these writers has no merit. It does, however, mean that most of what they say is strangely unreal and largely beside the point, in any examination of the evolution of human society which is not of so general a type that it loses all concrete intelligibility. (77).

[Durkheim] assumes that in primitive religion there is a sharp distinction between the workaday world [i.e., the “profane”] and the supernatural world [i.e., the “sacred”]. I cannot follow him at all in his definition of the sacred and the profane….Yet the view that the life of an individual in primitive society fluctuates between the profane and the sacred and that it is largely concerned with the attempt to attain a holy state, even if only temporarily, is widely accepted by all students of primitive culture. With that interpretation we are in complete disagreement….(84)

With insight that was rare at the time, Radin then criticizes Durkheim and others for treating Australian Aborigines as simple and static exemplars of the evolutionary past:

The Australian [Aboriginal] economy is based on food-gathering, fishing, and hunting. Because of the apparent simplicity of the whole mode of life, the Australian civilization became, very early in the history of ethnology, the classical example of an archaic primitive culture. As such it has been utilized repeatedly by all theorists, particularly by J.G. Frazer and E. Durkheim. During the last few years, however, it has become increasingly more obvious that a fairly complicated evolution lies behind the present native culture. (85)

Aborigines, in other words, are neither “simple” nor “primitive.” While the Aboriginal mode of production is in fact relatively simple, this does not mean that Aboriginal worldviews are correspondingly simple. These have been evolving for just as long as any other worldview and are just as complex.

Radin’s appreciation for the richness of Aboriginal culture was, in all likelihood, linked to his field work among Native Americans. Because he had lived with Native Americans for many years and devoted a considerable portion of his life to recording their myths, rituals, and worldviews, Radin was well-positioned to evaluate Tylor’s theory of animism:

But it may be asked: Does not what I here contend, conflict with the fact that all aboriginal peoples share belief in an animated world. Is not animism their basic religion? To this we must reply that animism is not a religion at all; it is a philosophy. The belief in the general animation of nature has nothing to do with the supernatural. (198) (emphasis added). 

Here we have, for the first time in the history of anthropology or sociology, recognition that narrowly focusing on “spirits” (Tylor) or the “sacred” (Durkheim) and treating these as “religion” misses the point entirely. These are but parts of something much larger and more comprehensive: a complete philosophy that has come to be known as the “animist worldview.”


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