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Copyright F.B. Welbourn 1968


Is there 'truth' in religion?

There is an essential difference between the outlook of traditional African and contemporary Britain, which is well illustrated by the educated Nigerian who sacrificed a hen to his father's ghost (Chapter One, Story B). It is possible to interpret his experience in terms of two frames of reference.

In the traditional frame, the ghost was angry at the son's neglect of the gifts expected from him and drew attention to its needs by making the son ill. Once they were satisfied, it no longer caused trouble.

In the western, psychological frame, the son had been impatient with his rather tiresome old father and secretly glad when he died. He felt guilty about this attitude, but repressed his guilt feelings; and these showed themselves first in headaches and finally in a dream. Despite his western education, his traditional background still had enough hold on him to make him take the dream at its face value. The dramatic action of sacrificing a hen had a purifying effect on his emotions. (Aristotle said that the function of drama was the catharsis of the emotions). In psycho-analytic terms, he 'projected' his guilt feelings onto the hen. He eliminated the emotional cause of his headaches and returned to his old health and efficiency. (See contemporary examples of 'projection' at the end of Chapter Three).

The western frame of reference lays emphasis on what goes on in the unconscious minds of individuals (Chapter Five). This is 'real'. Ghosts and witches - or, often enough, the evil intentions of other people - are just the product of our fancies. But for older societies ghosts and witches are very much the reality. To suggest to them that these forces do not exist would be just as ridiculous as to suggest to us that atoms are imaginary.

It is not possible to distinguish between these two attitudes by saying that one set of concepts is 'mythical', the other 'empirically proved'. Nobody can put his finger on an object and say, 'this is an atom': still less, 'that is the unconscious'. The best that can be said is that, by using these concepts, it is possible to make predictions and exercise control. That is what is meant by saying that they are 'empirical'. But, in so far as the concepts of ghosts and witches can be used, in older societies, to cure illness (Chapter Four), they must also be regarded as being, in some sense, empirical; and there is no doubt that fear of reprisals through psychic means controls men's conduct towards their neighbours and kin.

It is nearer the truth to say that traditional societies use one kind of myth, contemporary western society another. Theirs assumes that the universe is peopled by personal wills acting at every point of human experience: ours that the universe is impersonal and that the only centres of personal will are individual men and women.

In the west, the changeover from one set of myths to the other was closely associated with the growth of capitalism, nationalism, Puritanism and experimental science. It took many centuries; and it is by no means complete. But, for England, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were crucial. Before this time, individuals thought of themselves as links in the body of society, wholly dependent on that body for their existence. They looked upwards, on the one hand through priests and the Pope, on the other hand through feudal lords and the king, to God. Around them were the saints in heaven, playing much the same part as ancestral ghosts in Buganda. Around them also was an innumerable host of demons and witches to account for all the arbitrary experiences of life. The meaning of life was to be found in response to God, who expressed himself in all the events of nature and history.

The change is registered by Shakespeare, when he makes Cassius say,

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,

But in ourselves, that we are hirelings

He was expressing a recognition, then becoming general among educated men, that men must take responsibility on themselves rather than blame outside forces. Not long before, Luther had expressed the same sense of individual responsibility: 'Here I stand. I can no other'. A little later, Descartes declared, 'I think. Therefore I am'. The whole interpretation of the universe was to be based on the thinking consciousness of individuals. Political philosophers began to say no longer that individuals were parts of the social organism, but the society existed simply because it was created by the will of individuals. Nature ceased, by degrees, to be the expression of God's glory and became inert matter to be investigated, controlled and manipulated for the supposed benefit of individual men.

The universe was depersonalised; and the logical conclusion was reached when, at the end of the seventeenth century, the French astronomer Laplace said that, in his scientific writing, he had no need of the hypothesis of God. If God was needed at all - the conclusion was drawn - it was simply as the Great Mechanic, who had made the Clock of the universe and then left it to run by its own inherent power. He was very much a 'God out there'. Individuals were left face to face with the iron laws of nature; and some of them began to wonder whether the game was worth the candle. If everything - including human love and choice - could be predicted from a knowledge of the position and velocity of atoms, was there anything left to live for?

The contribution to this question of more recent advances in physics is outside the scope of this book. But another development was taking place. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Sigmund Freud in Vienna 'discovered' the 'unconscious'. This was to say - in effect - that all the most rational conscious activities of men were suspect because, below them, lay a vast ocean of unconscious activity over which there was no conscious control. Psychoanalysis might bring to light some of its activities, help individuals to understand themselves more fully, cure some diseases which were emotional rather than physical in origin, bring under conscious control more of the total psychic processes. But - however hard Freud might try to present his system as scientific: whatever empirical success he and his followers might have incuring disease - it was impossible, for long, to avoid the recognition that, out of the death of God as a psychic force in the universe outside man, there had arisen belief in an equally strong, far less reliable, psychic force inside each man.

It is as if the outward-stretching bonds, illustrated in Diagrams 1 and 3, have been destroyed. There is no longer any overriding obligation to others - whether workmates, or neighbours, or kin. If I choose to accept such obligation, that is my own affair; but the main object in life is to look after my own interests. There is no longer any overriding obligation to God or the spirits, whose will is shown in the events of nature and of history. If I choose to be 'religious', that, again, is my own affair. It may give me some private satisfaction; but it has precious little to do with politics - with the welfare of society - or with sickness, which were the main concerns of African traditional religions. It has even less to do with the idea that nature is God's creation and that man is God's steward to develop nature according to God's will. Nature is neutral matter - a complex organisation of atoms - to be manipulated for man's enjoyment. Instead of looking outwards to other men, instead of responding to psychic forces in nature, I look inwards to my own wants.

I may perhaps begin to worry about my own 'identity', to ask, 'Who am I?' Indeed one of the signs of the change which has taken place is that individuals in traditional societies did not have to ask that question. Identity was given to them by God in serious question, ancestors an affair of out-on-the-wing 'spiritualists', and society in a state of constant change, there can be no such certainty. If I am to find an 'identity', I have to choose it for myself. I may do so by finding in myself what I have put into nature. I also am no more than a complex organisation of atoms. Thirty years ago, this was a popular view among thinking people. It is much more likely, today, that I shall think in terms of psychoanalysis. The external psychic forces of God and the ancestors have been replaced by the internal psychic force of the unconscious. It is as though, in diagram 2, the y-axis had been extended in the negative direction. Every event on the x-axis still has a psychic dimension; but it is psychic with a different sign.

There are here a number of different possibilities of intrpreting man in his relation to the universe; and they are not exhaustive.

1. Individuals are part of a social order which consists not only of living men and women but of a large number of external psychic forces of varying power (Diagrams 1 and 3).

2. Individuals are part of a social order which recognises one God as the source and sustainer of everything and the guarantor of ultimate happiness for all (the Christian view).

3. The universe, including men and women, is a complex organisation of atoms. Humans can manipulate the rest of the universe to suit their wants. But, in the end, the whole thing is without meaning or purpose.

4. Men and women are 'psychic', rather than merely 'atomic', in nature. There is nothing beyond this life. But meaning is to be found in the full exploitation of natural resources for the present happiness of individuals and the ultimate creation of a society in which all individuals can fulfil themselves.


None of these attitudes is based on logical argument. They are, rather, positions from which argument begins. As Saint Augustine said, 'I believe in order that I man understand'. All argument must start from a point (e.g. belief in God, belief in the all-sufficiency of reason, belief in the scientific method) which cannot itself be proved by argument. The probability is that the point from which any particular person starts is the 'commonsense' of his day - the wealth of social experience into which he is born and bred. For early Baganda, born into a wealth of human relationships, it was natural to assume the existence of ghosts and to interpret the universe in personal terms. For men of today, born into a world which is more and more manipulated by technology: into a society which is increasingly manipulated, for their own ends, by politicians, commercial advertisers and even charitable bodies, it is perhaps natural to think of the world, including other people, as things to be manipulated simply to our own advantage. This is certainly to treat other people as less than persons. It is almost certainly to make it impossible to see the universe as the expression of the will of a personal God.

But, if our religious belief or lack of belief is thus modified (if not actually determined) by our social experience, is there any way in which we can decide for ourselves what is true? The answer to this question is bound to be unsatisfactory. The early Baganda had no doubt about the existence of ancestral ghosts because they were committed to them at every point of life. Later Baganda had similarly no doubt about their king, because they were wholly committed to him. Muslims and Christians, who died for their religion, could do so because they were committed to God. The first Europeans in Africa were confident of the 'truth' of the white man's burden. Modern Africans are convicned by the 'truth' of nationalism. They arrived there not by argument but by commitment. It is in becoming committed that we learn what is, for us, the truth.

So far, in this book on comparative religion, it is legitimate to go. It appears to be in accord with the facts. But to find such commitment readers must go to those who offer it. Perhaps one hint is possible. Men are more often right in what they assert than in what they deny. The ancestor cult asserts the solidarity of human society - the interdependence of all its members. Traditional religion (and Christianity in its original form) sees that solidarity as three-dimensional, involved with external psychic forces as well as with physical relationships. It insists on the psychic factor in all human crises and sickness. Christianity asserts the oneness and ultimate meaning of all things under the control of God. It tends to neglect the working of the internal psychic forces of the unconscious. Modern humanism asserts the importance of individual men and women but can see no ultimate meaning in the whole universe. Is it possible that we are so bothered by the unconscious of individuals because society has broken down? that, if we were to rediscover our social responsibilities, we should rediscover God? Do we need a world view in which the height and simpliticy of the external psychic forces (the positive y-axis) match the depth and complexity of the unconscious (the negative y-axis)?

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